- Whose Body Is This?On the Cultural Possibilities of a Radical Black Sexual Praxis
"Whose body is this?" draws from a legacy of Black feminist and queer scholars posing this rhetorical question; I am thinking of bell hook's 1996 essay (on Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It), "'Whose Pussy Is This? A Feminist Comment."1 In 2007 Herukhuti wrote "Whose Booty Is This? Barebacking, Advocacy, and the Right to Fuck,"2 an essay in response to the targeted policing of bodies and the sex of Black gay men as we confront the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States. These rhetorical questions have for a long time been, and continue to be, critical questions confronting the Black studies intellectual and political project and the communities we study. These questions bring into focus the ways in which the US anti-Black state has always been invested in, as the feminist scholar Andrea Smith argues, the perpetual "slaveability" of Black people,3 and how gender and sexual oppression within our communities is not separate from but constitutive of anti-Black racism / white supremacy. For, as Alice Walker argues, one who is not free to express same-gender love in public is a slave, and anyone who requires that one should not express same-gender love has a slaveholder's mentality.4 This slaveholder's mentality exists both within Black communities and outside them.
I take seriously the centrality of these rhetorical questions about Black sexuality raised by Black feminist and queer scholars. Therefore, this essay contemplates the role that respectability politics (intracultural policing of gender and sexuality) has played in Black studies. And, although there has been an influx of scholars producing cutting-edge scholarship in Black gender and sexuality studies, the field has yet to forge a cogent, intersectional analysis of the relationship between Black sexuality and HIV. Furthermore, Black studies needs to study and highlight the quotidian practices and knowledges of Black gender and sexually marginalized people and how these efforts contribute to fortifying a Black sexual praxis. [End Page 161]
I make this argument in three points. First, I briefly review some of the challenges and debates around gender and sexuality within Black studies. I query how the politics of respectability limits and refracts the analytic relevance/potency and the socio/political currency of Black studies. Second, I move to the status of the struggle over gender and sexual knowledge in Black studies today. I highlight what some might call a watershed moment in 2012 at a Black studies conference at Northwestern University during which the training in gender and sexuality studies in Black studies, or the lack there of, was brought into focus and vociferously debated. This moment helped birth a very important article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by Stacy Patton, titled "Whose Afraid of Black Sexuality?"5 Finally, I discuss where Black studies is/needs to go from here with regard to gender and sexuality studies, particularly as it relates to the HIV epidemic in the US. With this point, I am in conversation with several scholars who are producing scholarship that advances a Black radical gender and sexual praxis, one that fearlessly confronts respectability. I enter this conversation by sharing some of my current work on Black gay sex and sexual subjectivity. My notion of a radical Black sexual praxis is indebted to the transformative scholarship of the Black lesbian feminist Cathy Cohen and her concept of deviance as resistance and M. Jacqui Alexander's erotic autonomy,6 which I reframe as sexual autonomy. I suggest that the critical sites of critique and resistance for Black studies in the academy and African American public discourse are the Black feminist and queer scholarship and on-the-ground practices that inform our work.
I first entered Black studies through Black theatre studies at West Virginia University (WVU) in 1991. Throughout the 1990s, I was a board member of the National Council for Black Studies (those were my angry Black Nationalist days). Before I entered the PhD program in African Diaspora studies at UC Berkeley in 1999, I taught in Africana studies at the University of Michigan–Flint. I...