- Erotic Labor and the Black Ecstatic “Beyond”
When American pop culture uberstar Beyoncé released her visual album, Lemonade, in April 2016, the black feminist digisphere lit up with response. Critics discussed the album’s historical, diasporic, and transcultural resonances, its interventions into black cultural discourse, and its cross-genre scope. Some of the most astute think pieces examined the album’s use of erotic experience as political metaphor and its riffing on black diasporic spiritual cosmologies to center black women’s love and sexuality.1 Even bell hooks weighed in.2 Yet one of the most important—if surprising—responses came from Karrine Steffans-Short, the video-dancer-turned-author whose 2005 erotic memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen, chronicled her sexual encounters with various rappers and pop celebrities in explicit, detailed prose.
“Over 15 years ago, I had Beyoncé’s husband,” Steffans-Short declares in her essay “I Am Becky with the Good Hair (and I Am Also Beyoncé),” published on the popular feminist blog xoJane. The essay’s title plays on a line from Lemonade in which Beyoncé’s speaker laments her husband’s sexual affair with another woman, whom she calls “Becky with the good hair.” The essay’s title, coupled with a byline nearly synonymous with hypervisible black female sexual irreverence and eroticism, suggests the piece will be another titillating [End Page 131] exposé, inviting readers to take pleasure in the sexual excesses of the lascivious mistress’s exploits while honoring the pain of the respectable wife, reinforcing the comfortable binary opposition of the two. Quickly, however, Steffans-Short upsets this narrative: “I am Becky. I am Beyoncé . . . We are all Becky.” In the essay, which has been shared over fourteen thousand times on social media, Steffans-Short describes in evocative detail a sexual encounter with Beyoncé’s soon-to-be husband, the rapper Jay-Z, before the couple was married: “Jay and I feasted on our attraction to one another—rabidly and quickly. After just a few minutes, I lifted my head from his lap, wiped my lips, and knew we’d made a mistake.” She then turns immediately to describe her experiences as the wife of a cheating husband and the shame she has felt in both roles: “There is a stigma attached to the other woman, the side piece . . . but, honestly, I don’t see the difference. . . . A woman is all things.”
In mobilizing simultaneously the identities of the wronged wife, the libidinous mistress, the “video vixen” (a euphemism for “video ho”), and the popular memoirist and author, Steffans-Short highlights the need for reading strategies that move beyond the stubborn hold that classist respectability politics tend to have on discussions of black women’s bodies and sexualities. In her refusal to accept unsanctioned eroticism as a site of sexual shame, and her casual insistence on narrating her sexual transgression in detail while claiming the position of the faithful wife, she insists on a complex black female sexuality in which respectability and ratchetness, sexual pleasure and sexual shame, can coexist in both public and private spaces. She exposes the porous skin between black sexual cultures, black popular cultures, and black literary cultures, and demands that black sexuality studies expand its archive of viable texts to include those produced by the “video hoes,” porn stars, nonmonogamists, “side pieces,” and freaks who often shape the contours of both public performance and sexual life.
Together, The Black Body in Ecstasy, L. H. Stalling’s Funk the Erotic, and Mireille Miller-Young’s Taste for Brown Sugar demonstrate the urgency and the political possibility of this emergent archive, marking a welcome turn toward the development of what Jennifer Christine Nash calls “a black feminist theoretical archive...