- 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...