Erotic Illegibility and Desire in Representations of Black Sexuality
This essay engages our shared interest in the capriciousness of sexual expression and desire.1 By analyzing the discontinued WGN television series Underground (2016–17) as an ephemeral site for imagining black women's erotic interiority and theorizing black sexual desire as a scattered effect of the archive in Cheryl Dunye's film The Watermelon Woman (1996), we assert that rather than stifle desire, black sexuality enacts an elasticity as it negotiates white male power and respectability politics. Although black gendered and sexual difference appears illegible, it nonetheless reveals the sociosexual power relations of slavery, and even as it surfaces as erased, it articulates history making as a practice of desire.
Erotic Representation in Underground
Whether or not the captive female and/or her sexual oppressor derived "pleasure" from their seductions and couplings is not a question we can politely ask. Whether or not "pleasure" is possible at all under the conditions that I would aver as non-freedom for both or either of the parties has not been settled.—Hortense J. Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book"
There had to be orgasms during slavery. If there weren't, we simply would not have been able to survive … Why is talking about that seen to be threatening or destabilizing?—Joan Morgan, "The Sweetest Taboo: Theorizing Black Female Pleasure, Agency, and Desire within Black Feminism"
With nearly three decades of black feminist intellectual labor separating them, these statements frame the impolite, unresolved, and disruptive nature of theorizing black women's sexuality, eroticism, and pleasure. Freda and I share an investment in representation: in the ways that fiction and critical speculation can accomplish what seems comparably inaccessible, unattainable, or insurmountable to stark empiricism's naked eye. To consider the question of [End Page 151] ephemeral intimacy and erotic encounters among enslaved subjects, speculation rather ironically emerges as the most practical means of analysis.
For a two-season run, Misha Green and Joe Polaski's series Underground (2016–17) courageously waded into uncharted territory, destabilizing conventions that have come to characterize depictions and dramatizations of enslavement in film and television with multidimensional enslaved characters, allusions to the psychological toll of enslavement on enslaved people, slave owners, and abolitionists through depictions of substance abuse and, most significantly, representations of enslaved women's erotic interiority. When conducting research for the series, Green, a black woman in her thirties, said she found that "the truth was stronger than fiction."2 Green's belief that the knowable past—what glimpses incomplete archives and short paragraphs throughout history can offer—is stronger than fiction signals to me that she saw and perhaps still sees Underground as something more than pure fiction. She gestures toward the series occupying an "imaginative space," one created for typically overlooked spectators: black women.3
The series is set in 1857 in Macon, Georgia. Described as "shocking, uncomfortable, and … sexy," a scene in the second episode between the plantation master Tom Macon and the enslaved Ernestine blurs the lines of consent, exchange, and pleasure.4 Ernestine meets Tom in the wine cellar of the plantation, and he drizzles alcohol onto her naked body. Tom grunts in appreciation as rivulets of wine cascade down the small of her back and the crack of her behind. When he tries to kiss her, Ernestine snatches her head back, refuses his kiss, and slaps him hard across the face. Pointing a finger at his mild confusion, Ernestine taunts him, exclaiming, "I didn't say you could touch me yet!"5
Although Tom is forbidden from touching Ernestine, as the frame focuses on her facial expressions, it becomes clear that she is touching him. Her tongue dances across her lips as she stares Tom into submission. Mouth agape, Tom's head lolls back on his shoulders as he moans in ecstasy. Ernestine caresses the nape of Tom's neck and, pulling him close, plainly demands that their son, James, not work in the plantation fields. She feeds Tom lines to repeat to his wife and plantation mistress, Suzanna, whose children he has also fathered: "You tell her he been showin' some skills with woodwork. He can go work with Sam." Although Tom drowsily concedes, mumbling, "He'll be wherever you want him," this is not the sort of reassurance that will satisfy Ernestine—not when the fate of her child is at stake. Her tender caress of Tom's profile hastily becomes a stiff and twisted grip on his bottom lip. She says again, with heavy [End Page 152] delivery punctuating each word, "He ain't … going … out … in the fields," and then commands Tom to "say it" and repeat after her. Slightly taken aback at her seriousness, Tom repeats that their son will not work out in the fields, his delivery muffled by Ernestine's still-tight grasp on his bottom lip. Without another word, Ernestine smiles for the first time during the scene, pulls Tom's face close to hers, and finally graces him with a deep and passionate kiss, allowing him to touch her. The scene ends with various shots of Ernestine and Tom's exhales, gropes, and contortions of pleasure. Ernestine's eyebrows raise in a final tent—whether knitted in orgasmic surprise, concern over her son's fate, or both, the audience is left to decide.
This brief scene of release is juxtaposed in Underground with enduring pain and the brutality of enslavement. Just before entering the wine cellar, Ernestine had created a diversion by offering to bring Tom's guests more alcohol. This allowed another one of her and Tom's children, Rosalee, to narrowly escape the predation of a fellow plantation owner that Tom had invited over for dinner. Ernestine's character calls us to "visualize black female sex as flesh and sensation in bodies betrayed and violated, participating and initiating," and, thinking back to Green's assertion that "the truth is stronger than fiction," the presentation of familiar violence with less familiar scenes of unsettling (and transactional) intimacy challenges viewers to broaden their conceptualization of enslaved black women's interior lives and consider their potentially contradictory motivations.6
While the character is groundbreaking in her embrace of conflicting desires and often contradictory decisions, Ernestine is portrayed by Amirah Vann, a light-skinned and conventionally attractive Puerto Rican actress. Imagine the impact of substituting the wine cellar scene with a darker-skinned black actress sporting kinky coiled hair and a body not molded into the typically palatable form of an hourglass. It would refuse to cede eroticism as available for consideration only under conditions of structural freedom, just as the original scene does, while continuing to challenge who and what bodies are represented as desiring and desirable. This is the serious work of speculative theory and representation that challenges limited conceptualizations of black women's sexuality, and instead embraces taboo, messiness, and contradiction.
If we regard black female sexuality with deserved gravity as a realm of theoretical inquiry and imaginative practice, Treva Lindsey and Jessica Johnson contend that "we end up at two substantive conclusions": that "present-day constructions of black female sexuality are inextricably tied to slavery"; and that "black women had sex, and not just with the heads of their households, [End Page 153] whether white or black men—not just, even, with men."7 When read with the opening pair of quotes from Spillers and Morgan, these conclusions re-energize black feminism's incumbent investment in imagination, and they situate Ernestine's erotic representation in the short-lived series Underground as simultaneously farfetched and feasible, defiant and obedient: as occupying a space between fact and fiction.
Scattered Desire in The Watermelon Woman
Similar to how Ernestine's sexual interiority directs us to the expansive possibility of illegible desire, Dunye's independent film The Watermelon Woman attests to black sexual desire as indistinct. Rather than focus on a sexually oriented desire, the film articulates desire as a yearning for a foreclosed history. The Watermelon Woman documents the life and labor of the fictional black actress "Fae Richards," who is also known by her stage name "Faith Richardson" and credited as "The Watermelon Woman" in the films in which she plays mammy roles.8 I argue that Dunye's film mobilizes the Watermelon Woman as an effect of the occlusion of black women's labor from classic Hollywood cinema, thereby suturing desirability to the figure of the mammy.
As the film desires mammy, it deploys scattering to make possible black queer history-making. To scatter, according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, is to "throw in various random directions." Stuart Hall has asserted that black diaspora is the "result of a long and discontinuous series of transformations."9 Insofar as scattering invites discontinuity, keeping present Hall's assessment of Blackness, I (Freda) assert that it also serves as a tool for examining The Watermelon Woman's portrayal of black women's devalued labor vis-à-vis mammy roles.10 The labor of the black actresses that Richards is modeled after exceeds exclusion. Dunye, playing the lead character Cheryl, reminds us that the labor of black actresses was often not "even listed in the credits" of Hollywood films.
In the first minutes of The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl pushes the play button on a VCR, starting a scene from a fictional film called Plantation Memories, which evokes American antebellum sentimentality epitomized by the novel and later the film Gone with the Wind (1939).11 In the scene, the Watermelon Woman, playing the mammy role of Elsie, runs with a look of concern toward the white woman of the house, Missy Barbara, who stands under a large tree. Elsie places one hand on Missy Barbara's back and with the other takes Missy Barbara's handkerchief and comfortingly pats dry her tears. Elsie, strategically ingratiating in her optimism, reassures Missy Barbara: "Oh, don't cry missy, [End Page 154] Master Charles is coming back for sure, I know he is … Oh, yes, Missy Barbara, I know he is. I pray to God all night long. This morning, this little angel told me that he was coming back, back to you." This scene presents the mammy as stereotypically faithful and excessively concerned with the happiness of the white employers who exercise power over her.
Cheryl describes the Watermelon Woman as "the most beautiful black mammy" and connects her to a tradition of black actresses who played mammy roles, such as Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers. Cheryl yearns for a history in film of black sexual difference that Fae Richards as the Watermelon Woman signifies. Cheryl's work to piece together a scattered history comes to bear on her identity as a black lesbian when later in the film it is confirmed that Fae also had relationships with women. Cheryl declares: "Can you believe it? Fae was a Sapphic sister, a bulldagger, a lesbian … I knew something was up when I saw Plantation Memories." Cheryl sits, faces the camera, and shares her interest and enthusiasm:
Her Name. The Watermelon Woman. That's right, Watermelon Woman. Is Watermelon Woman her first name, her last name, or is it her whole name? I don't know, but girlfriend has it going on … there's something in her face, something in the way she looks and moves that is serious, and interesting, and I'm just going to tell you all about it.
From the outset, the Watermelon Woman is delineated as obtuse yet visible: "Is Watermelon Woman her first name, her last name, or is it her whole name?" The Watermelon Woman is scattered—she is not a singular construction that in turn suggests the unlikelihood of finding her story in one self-evident place. The potential presented by and through the indistinct multiple possibilities of "Is Watermelon Woman her first name, her last name, or is it her whole name?" compels Cheryl to exclaim "girlfriend has it going on," thereby affirming the scattered constitution of the Watermelon Woman as desirable—so much so that Cheryl wants to tell "all about it."
The Watermelon Woman's scattered discontinuity is rooted in a longer history of the mammy as a representational figure generated out of black women's domestic labor. Domestic work was seen as respectable work within the black community, and black middle-class women in particular displayed a formative cross-class affiliation with black working-class domestic workers.12 Evelyn Higginbotham asserts that black middle-class respectability unseated American cultural norms that constructed black women as the "embodiment of deviance."13 [End Page 155]
The mammy is constituted as labor and representation intersect, further manifesting the relationship between the devalued domestic work of black women and the politics of respectability. Respectability regulated individual behaviors and manners even as it endeavored to generate "alternate images of black women" in order to unseat "the plethora of negative stereotypes."14 The mammy and the Watermelon Woman together serve as a depoliticized representation of black women's domestic labor as well as one of the "negative images" that respectability politics sought to combat.
Even as respectability operates largely as a conservative black middle-class discourse, it nonetheless maintains a "shifting and fluid position along a continuum of African American resistance."15 Fluidity, like scattering, guides oppositional formations toward change, and respectability's potential to be both resistant and conforming serves as one example. The fluidity of respectability politics, following Higginbotham, de-essentializes race relations by presenting them instead as social constructions. The Watermelon Woman, accounted for through scattering, serves as a conjunctural site for the varied operations of discontinuity, multiplicity, and fluidity in black queer history-making. In a scene in which Cheryl, joined by her friend Tamera, visits the public library to research the Watermelon Woman, Cheryl finds no information, only evidence of her multi-sited absence. As Cheryl asks for research assistance at the circulation desk, the camera alternates between the disaffected face of the white librarian to those of exasperated Cheryl and Tamera to visually convey discontinuity. In response to Cheryl's inquiry, "I'm looking for information on the Watermelon Woman. She was a black actress in the 1930s," the librarian checks the database, and he responds:
Nothing comes up … Ah, check the black section in the reference library … All this information is referenced in the reference section, have you checked the reference section of the library, Miss? … Well, have you tried the film section, PN 1993 to 1995? … The names again … Watermelon Woman … No, no Watermelon Woman … Check the reserve desk on the third floor.16
The librarian directs Cheryl to inquire further about information she already knows as she is told to check sections of the library that she has already checked and where no information was found. The library scene serves as an example of scattering as a process of dispersal as much as erasure in the archive of the Watermelon Woman, the uncredited labor of the mammy, and of black sexual difference and desire more extensively. Cheryl's scattered route to the story of the Watermelon Woman materializes in and through personal and [End Page 156] community-based archives and interviews as well as through absences from institutionalized sites such as the public library or Hollywood cinema. It is by emerging across a scattering of difference that the Watermelon Woman emerges as desired and desirable.
Illegibility and scattering as analytics delineate black sexuality and desire as versatile with reference to Ernestine and Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman. Ernestine's eroticism becomes a space through which she enacts autonomy amid immense white patriarchal power, and The Watermelon Woman desires a scattered archive that demonstrates the unruly potential of black sexual difference. In her now-foundational text in black feminist cultural analysis, "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators," bell hooks theorizes black female spectators' refusal to garner pleasure in the context of negation.17 While "pleasure from negation" is situated as external to the black female spectator, hooks unlocks the dialectic of spectatorship by pointing out that "the oppositional gaze" does not merely "resist" nor does it only "react"; rather, the oppositional gaze is guided by the production of "alternative texts."18 These alternative texts generate modes of identification and identity that transform rather than transfer dominant ideology.19 To be guided by critical black oppositionality is to acknowledge it as unresolved. It is from the place of the unresolved that illegibility and scattering portend possibility. Underground has been discontinued, and Dunye's Watermelon Woman refuses to ever be truly found. In place of foreclosing pleasure altogether from within oppositionality, hooks accounts for "pleasure from interrogation."20 The representations we consider above explore some of the possibilities of black interrogative pleasure—namely, the potential of the disruptive, ephemeral, illegible, and the scattered.
Freda Fair is assistant professor of gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Their research, writing, and teaching center on topics related to black feminisms and women of color feminist thought, gender and sexual difference, labor, regionality, and queer cultural production. Freda's work in the academy is informed by community-based archival, library, and museum collaborations. Contact Freda at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mahaliah Ayana Little is a PhD candidate in the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. She is interested in Black women's sexual narratives, both internally developed and externally imposed, and her dissertation research focuses on Black women who have experienced sexual violence, and how victimhood and survivorship are experienced as ontologies of Blackness.
From Mahalidah: Special thanks to my adviser, Treva B. Lindsey, for her guidance in preparing the presentation paper that this short essay was adapted from. Thanks also to my MA thesis advisers: Marisa Fuentes, Nikol G. Alexander Floyd, and Brittney C. Cooper, for offering comments on earlier iterations of my analysis of Ernestine's sexual representation on the television show Underground. Lastly, special thanks to my coauthor and collaborator, Freda Fair, for their kindness, input, and camaraderie throughout this publishing process and to our October 2017 conference co-panelists and moderator James Harris, Clayton T. Finn, and Keona Ervin. We both would like to thank Christina Carney for organizing such a generative conference.
1. At the 2017 Black Studies Fall Conference convened by Christina Carney at the University of Missouri, Columbia, we presented papers for the panel "Revisiting the Past and Reimagining a Future: Slavery, Its Aftermath, and Political Activism." This essay is a co-written adaption of our paper presentations. Our co-panelists Clayton Finn and James Harris examined the sexual politics of twentieth-century NAACP movement organizing and the visual construction of privilege and manhood in the film 12 Years a Slave (2013) and in the STARZ series Power.
2. Kandia Johnson, "Co-Creator of 'Underground' TV Series Talks Redefining the Slave Narrative," Black Enterprise, February 27, 2016, www.blackenterprise.com/co-creator-of-underground-tv-series-talks-redefining-the-slave-narrative/.
3. bell hooks, "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators," in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. A. Jones (New York: Routledge, 2010), 96. While hooks is describing the "imaginative space of phallocentric power" that black men were/are able to access when they gaze at white women in film and media as object of desire, I am describing the series Underground as an imaginative, interstitial space between fact and fiction, produced by a black woman co-creator and with a large black-woman viewership.
4. Spillers writes that in the context of enslavement the "customary lexis of sexuality" (including but not limited to "pleasure" and "desire") is "thrown into unrelieved crisis" ("Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," Diacritics 17.2 : 76). I situate the unresolved impact of Ernestine's erotic representation in Underground and of the discontinued series itself within this pending theoretical space. My analysis of Underground advocates the value of imagining erotic interiority that refuses overdetermination as either solely victimized or entirely agential, and that forces us to grapple with the minutiae of antebellum black subjecthood.
5. "War Chest," Underground, season 1, episode 2, dir. Anthony Hemingway, WGN America, March 16, 2016.
6. Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson, "Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom," Meridians 12.2 (2014): 179.
7. Lindsey and Johnson, 181.
8. The Watermelon Woman is played by Lisa Marie Bronson.
9. Refer to Hall's theory of diasporic Blackness, which signals the cultural relations generated from the ravages of Western imperial conquest, sexualized racial brutality and labor extraction, forced migration, and compulsory gender regimes that together produce what Hall refers to as discontinuity as simultaneously disorderly and politically useful ("Culture Identity and Cinematic Representation," Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 36 : 68–81).
10. The mammy has been narrativized as a black domestic worker in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and who, during slavery, worked as a house slave. Donald Bogle has argued that the mammy is characterized as "fiercely independent" and "cantankerous" (Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films [New York: Bloomsbury, 1973], 9). The mammy, Bogle demonstrates, was distinguished from "the mulatto" and "the aunt jemima" with regard to sexualization and disposition (9). She was nonetheless subject to the system of gendered and sexual violation of white heterosexist patriarchy and capitalism. At the same time that the mammy is despised, Michele Wallace argues she is also revered for the possibility that she might potentially use her position in the house to "intercede in behalf of a slave and prevent his being punished, and she often provided much of the information from the big house" (Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman [New York: Dial, 1979]).
11. My reference to sentimentality as genre and affect is drawn from Lauren Berlant's idea of the "unfinished business of sentimentality" (The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008], 2, 10). Considering Plantation Memories alongside its reference to Gone with the Wind illuminates the historical and cultural production of sentimentality, the use of black women domestic workers, and the construction of the mammy in particular to advance the centrality of the white femininity and social position of characters like Missy Barbara and Scarlett O'Hara.
12. Referring to black middle-class Baptist women, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham asserts their "adherence to temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity served to refute the logic behind their social subordination" (Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993], 193). As Higginbotham explains, although connected to middle-class women, working-class women's adoption of respectability was an assertion of their agency as they challenged racist constructions of black sexuality (192).
13. Higginbotham, 190.
14. Higginbotham, 191.
15. Higginbotham, 187.
16. The Watermelon Woman, dir. Cheryl Dunye (New York: First Run Features, 1996).
17. bell hooks, "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators," in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. A. Jones (New York: Routledge, 2010), 101.
18. hooks, 103.
19. hooks, 101.