- A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography by Mireille Miller-Young
by Mireille Miller-Young. Duke University Press. 2014. $100.95 hardcover; $28.95 paperback; also available in e-book. 368 pages.
In her recent field assessment of pornography studies, Linda Williams argues that "pornography on film, video, or the internet is always two contradictory things at once: documents of sexual acts, and fantasies spun around knowing the pleasure or pain of those acts."1 This contradiction resides at the center of Mireille Miller-Young's A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, which questions hegemonic assumptions about black women's place in adult film history. Deftly and systematically dismantling stereotypes in her nuanced parsing of industrial structures, Miller-Young ultimately examines the topic as part of a much bigger trajectory of cultural racism and sexism. Mostly (and refreshingly) sidestepping tired sex-positive or antipornography "debates," which have, as Whitney Strub argues, often been "tacitly white conflicts," A Taste for Brown Sugar instead foregrounds sex workers' voices and experiences. The capture and amplification of performers' voices in A Taste for Brown Sugar—Miller-Young interviewed dozens—is unprecedented and itself an invaluable archive. The result is a sorely needed contribution to the field that should also be of interest to scholars of cinema and media studies and many other fields.2 [End Page 180]
In keeping with Williams's conceptualization of the contradiction embedded in pornography, Miller-Young "traces the black female body in pornography as a material object" but also analyzes how pornography "function[s] as a cultural discourse about racialized sexuality."3 This pairing grounds the book's primary premise, that the particular challenge faced by black women in pornography is due to a burden of representation that is itself an oppressive structure. "Not only are black women performers burdened with representing every other black woman," argues Miller-Young, "they are seen to depict only simplistic and denigrating types. Black porn actresses understand that they are seen as archetypical whores and bad women by both the black community and the broader, categorically white culture."4 Miller-Young rethinks performers' agency under such conditions through a lens of subjectivity that highlights and centers what she calls "illicit eroticism," or the deliberate embrace of the "prohibited terrain of labor and performance" to create and seize erotic capital—but also simply to construct a discourse of self for these women that celebrates sexual pleasure along with the economic benefits from performing it.5
Miller-Young's restoration of agency to these women begins before the moving image, as her history starts with the still images of black women produced at the advent of photography, not long after the end of slavery in the United States. The echoes of that literal commodification of black women can be witnessed in the images, in part through the denigration of black women's sexualities as extremely taboo and dangerous even as they are desired. But as Miller-Young argues, "the spectacle of racial and sexual fetishism in early pornography can be reread to include moments of subjectivity, consensual expression, and sometimes, resistance alongside histories of sexual subordination."6 Such nuanced argumentation, along with vast supporting historical evidence, defines the book, as do the careful ways in which Miller-Young continually foregrounds the women themselves, and especially their self-determination and erotic agency.
Identifying the gaps in conventional archives, Miller-Young deploys "black feminist pornographics," a strategic reading practice allowing for informed speculation that offers much as a historiographical method.7 Among the book's highlights are the places where this approach is utilized, including the detailed textual analyses of challenging and difficult films. The primary example of that is KKK Night Riders (director unknown, 1939), which features racist and violent rape imagery alongside ugly stereotypes. However, by restoring erotic agency to the unknown black woman in this and other early images and films, Miller-Young suggests a way out of endless good/ bad dichotomies and into territory that accounts for subjectivity, erotic personhood, and even resistance on the part of the women in these roles. Miller-Young...