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Nobody Is Supposed to Know

Black Sexuality on the Down Low

C. Riley Snorton

Publication Year: 2014

Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of the “down low”—black men who have sex with men as well as women and do not identify as gay, queer, or bisexual—has exploded in news media and popular culture, from the Oprah Winfrey Show to R & B singer R. Kelly’s hip hopera Trapped in the Closet. Most down-low stories are morality tales in which black men are either predators who risk infecting their unsuspecting female partners with HIV or victims of a pathological black culture that repudiates openly gay identities. In both cases, down-low narratives depict black men as sexually dangerous, duplicitous, promiscuous, and contaminated.

In Nobody Is Supposed to Know, C. Riley Snorton traces the emergence and circulation of the down low in contemporary media and popular culture to show how these portrayals reinforce troubling perceptions of black sexuality. Reworking Eve Sedgwick’s notion of the “glass closet,” Snorton advances a new theory of such representations in which black sexuality is marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation. Through close readings of news, music, movies, television, and gossip blogs, Nobody Is Supposed to Know explores the contemporary genealogy, meaning, and functions of the down low.

Snorton examines how the down low links blackness and queerness in the popular imagination and how the down low is just one example of how media and popular culture surveil and police black sexuality. Looking at figures such as Ma Rainey, Bishop Eddie L. Long, J. L. King, and Will Smith, he ultimately contends that down-low narratives reveal the limits of current understandings of black sexuality.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This project would not have happened without the generosity of a number of people, both within and outside the academy. I am especially thankful to my family, given and chosen, who have encouraged me and perhaps most importantly kept me grounded throughout this process. ...

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Introduction: Transpositions

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pp. 1-36

On April 16, 2004, Oprah Winfrey began her episode “A Secret Sex World: Living on the ‘Down Low’ ” with an unusual announcement: “I’m an African American woman.” Her studio audience responded with laughter. Realizing, perhaps, that her show opener had not elicited the intended reaction, ...

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1. Down-Low Genealogies

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pp. 37-66

Commissioned and then later dropped by the cable channel, LOGO, one of three stations catering to queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender audiences, Abigail Child’s documentary, On the Downlow (2007), conforms to the genre of exposé: “There’s a secret within the African American community,” the tagline begins. ...

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2. Trapped in the Epistemological Closet

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pp. 67-93

Robert Sylvester Kelly, known to his listeners simply as R. Kelly, is a recurrent figure in popular representations of the down low as of 1996 with the release of his R&B hit “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” which detailed the consequences of heterosexual indiscretion, ...

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3. Black Sexual Syncretism

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pp. 94-120

The frequent pairing of the down low and the black church in popular culture is not simply another titillating, if seemingly banal, coupling of the secular and the sacred. Nor would it be analytically sufficient to think of the down low and the black church as two opposing poles of black sexual morality. ...

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4. Rumor Has It

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pp. 121-146

In a 2007 interview for Vibe magazine, then 24-year-old R&B singer and songwriter Shaffer Chimere Smith, better known to his fans as Ne-Yo, replied to the various rumors circulating about his sexuality. “This is the way I look at it now,” Smith explained. “For one, you’re nobody ’til they think you’re gay—that’s the truth of the business. ...

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Epilogue: Down-Low Diasporas

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pp. 147-154

In an editorial published in the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy recommended the following: “I propose a TV public service announcement that goes something like this: You see a man holding a gun to a woman’s head and pulling the trigger while professing his love for her. ...


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pp. 155-184


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pp. 185-200

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About the Author

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C. Riley Snorton is assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

E-ISBN-13: 9781452940908
E-ISBN-10: 1452940908
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816677979

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2014