- Centering Pleasure and Anti-Respectability in Black Studies
Sex is messy, and pleasure, in black studies, is even messier. Sexuality has long been considered a divisive topic within the field of black studies. While scholars have long engaged categories such as gender and class in conversation around the historical development of respectability politics, sexuality and pleasure has not been as central.1 "This Is Not Your Grandfather's Black Studies" conference, a convening I curated that was held October 13–14, 2017, at the University of Missouri (Columbia), attempted to address these tensions and advance new conversations about the interplay of race, sexuality, and pleasure. This conversation fits into a larger genealogy—one that includes scholarship on black feminisms, black studies, and sexuality studies—that highlights the co-constitutive nature of respectability and heteropatriarchy.
When I read Stacey Patton's 2012 essay "Who's Afraid of Black Sexuality?," published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it began the percolation of ideas for thinking through how silence about sex and pleasure has "left a gap in the classroom and in black studies scholarship."2 Patton's article, which included interviews with gender and sexuality scholars in academe, discussed the consequences of not engaging sexuality within the field of Black studies. This gap has indeed been taken on in black (queer) studies by the likes of E. Patrick Johnson, Robert Reid Pharr, Cathy Cohen; the queer of color critique of scholars such as Roderick Ferguson; and in grassroots organizations such as ACT UP. Additionally, black feminism, and women of color feminisms more generally, have highlighted how racial groups have been used to normalize respectability.3 New scholarship in black sexuality studies suggests, however, that "although the dynamics of respectability have evolved they are not any less insidious."4
Since antiblackness is always requiring respectable negroes, the intersection of ideas about blackness, sexuality, and pleasure can refuse this demand and add complexity to understandings about black freedom more broadly. New comparative models of intraracial gender and sexual identities is necessary in historical moments where certain populations are valued and others are [End Page 135] vulnerable to death.5 In other words, some gendered and sexualized members within the black community become more dispensable at different historical moments. Black feminists have mobilized intersectional analyses to decenter black men and to instead illustrate how black women are equally targeted by a white supremacist US police state. During the "Black Queer Studies in the Millennium" conference April 7–9, 2000, at the University of North Carolina, Cathy Cohen highlighted the "intersectionality of oppressions" in light of the black community's response to the acquittal of New York City police officers for the murder of Amadou Diallo.6 Cohen critiqued the ways in which black men's plight was placed at the top of a hierarchy of violence. Instead, Cohen argued how the US welfare state is a "contemporary police state" that actually targets the bodies of black women in particular ways as well.7 This example was not meant to pit black women and black men against each other, but to instead pinpoint the gendered complexity of state violence. Since sexuality has been used to justify the brutalization of black people in America, it would behoove the field of black studies to contend with the intersection of sexuality into its important analyses about the complexity of state violence.
The work of Mireille Miller-Young, L. H. Stallings, Jillian Hernandez, Ariane Cruz, and Jennifer Nash offers nuanced methodologies and frameworks for considering the dynamics of gender, sex, and pleasure, in particular, in black communities, and their thinking through disrespectability, the politics of perversion, illicit eroticism, the project of uncensoring, ecstasy, and raunch aesthetics—to name just a few—has provided useful vocabularies and case studies for scholars in the fields of black and sexuality studies.8 My own manuscript on black queer women in San Diego and the larger US Southwest took a radical turn after reading Stallings's call to celebrate "black women who laugh out loud, curse, sit with their legs open, and selfishly act on their desires."9 Specifically, my analysis of Maya Angelou's stints as both a sex...