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In Black Sexual Politics, one of America's most influential writers on race and gender explores how images of Black sexuality have been used to maintain the color line and how they threaten to spread a new brand of racism around the world today.
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New York & London

Published in 2004 by
29 West 35th Street
New York, New York 10001
Published in Great Britain by
11 New Fetter Lane
London EC4P 4EE
Copyright © 2004 by Routledge
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2004.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized
in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage
or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Collins, Patricia Hill.
Black sexual politics : African Americans, gender, and the new racism / Patricia
Hill Collins.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-415-93099-5 (cloth : alk. paper)
1. African Americans—Social conditions—1975- 2. African American men. 3.
African American women. 4. Sex role—United States. 5. African American—Sexual
behavior. 6. African American—Race identity. 7. Racism—United States. 8. United
States—Race relations. 9. Sexism—United States. I. Title.
E185.86.C58167 2004
ISBN 0-203-30950-2 Master e-book ISBN







African Americans
and the New R acism










Rethinking Black Gender







PA R T I I;  I

Toward a Prog ressive
Black Sexual Politics


















I begin by thanking students from the University of Cincinnati
for their support of this project. Special thanks go to the
students who enrolled in “Seminar in Black Sexual Politics”
and in “Introduction to Black Gender Studies,” two new
courses in which I explored many of the ideas in this book. The
issues in their lives convinced me of the need for this book.
Undergraduate students also greatly helped my thinking about
contemporary hip-hop culture. Several University of
Cincinnati undergraduate student majors and minors in
African American Studies assisted me as student researchers on
various parts of this project. Adetra “Quay” Martin and Tanya
Walker helped me to complete research on films and popular
culture. Special thanks also go to Eric Styles, Kyle Riddle, Terri
Holland, Erin Ledingham, Keith Melson, Khalila Sanders, and
Torrie Wiggins for their insights.
Graduate students in Women’s Studies and Sociology also
provided important help. Valerie Ruffin made invaluable contributions to this project, both as my research assistant when
she was a student at the University of Cincinnati and as a keen
editorial eye concerning early drafts of this project. Special
thanks also go to Stephen Whittaker for his thorough research
in the literature of masculinities and for reading early drafts of
some of the chapters. Jennifer Gossett, Sarah Byrne, and Jamie
McCauley also shared ideas that improved the final quality of
this manuscript. Vallarie Henderson and Tamika Odum
assisted me with final manuscript preparation.
My University of Cincinnati colleagues also provided
much-needed support for this project. I want to thank Patrice
L. Dickerson for assistance with demographic material and



William Jackson for his suggestions and critical eye concerning Black film.
I also enjoyed co-teaching “Introduction to Black Gender Studies” with
Marla Frederick and benefited from the insights of Regina Langley. Both
helped me think through ideas concerning race, gender, and religion.
Sharing the ideas in this project with colleagues greatly strengthened
this book. I especially appreciate being invited to participate in two exciting conferences on Progressive Black Masculinities held in 2001 and 2002 at
the Baldy Center at the University of Buffalo Law School. Organized by
Professor Athena Matua, these conferences helped me think through
issues of Black masculinity. Teresa Miller and John Calmore greatly stimulated my thinking on the prison industry and the treatment of African
American men within it. Special thanks to Devon Carbado, Kendall
Thomas, Thomas Glave, Mark Anthony Neal, Beverly Guy-Sheftall,
Bahati Kuumba, and many other conference participants whose thinking
greatly enriched my own. I also want to thank colleagues at other institutions who invited me to present chapters from this manuscript. A partial
list includes Rebecca Walter at George Mason University, Tom Greaves at
Bucknell University, Jeff Schulz at Arcadia University, Diane Vaughn at
Boston College, Gerald Early at Washington University at St. Louis,
Tukufu Zuberi at the University of Pennsylvania, and Tariq Modood at
the University of Bristol, U.K., where I spent a total of four weeks as a visiting professor in January and June of 2002.
In 2002–2003, I spent a year as a visiting professor at the University of
Kentucky, Lexington. The intellectual stimulation that I encountered
there enabled me to finish the manuscript. The support that I received
from everyone was wonderful. My deep thanks go to Mike Nietzel from
the Provost’s Office, Joan Callahan and Debra Harley in Women’s Studies,
and Gerald Smith in African American Studies. University of Kentucky
graduate students read parts of this manuscript and gave me helpful comments. In this regard, special thanks go out to Yaphet Bryant for her editorial comments on chapters dealing with Black popular culture and to
John Youngblood for his insights concerning the Black Church as well as
issues that face gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Black people. I
also want to thank Rachel Clark, my phenomenal graduate research assistant for the year who gave new meaning to the term “stealth feminist.”
The University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati both
helped defray costs associated with this book. The Provost’s Office at the



University of Kentucky provided support that helped with the costs of
manuscript preparation. At the University of Cincinnati, the support provided by the Taft Fund for costs of travel and manuscript preparation has
been invaluable over the years. I also wish to thank Provost Anthony
Perzigian for his tireless support of my scholarship during lean financial
times. The three deans of the College of Arts and Sciences who held
tenure while I completed this project—Joseph Caruso, Chuck Groetsch,
and Karen Gould—also provided encouragement and support.
Administrative and secretarial support also made my life much easier. I
wish to thank Josephine Wynne for her professionalism and her ability to
manage the Department of African American Studies during my tenure as
chair of the department.
This project would not have come to fruition without the support of
the terrific team at Routledge. Ilene Kalish, my tireless editor at Routledge,
has been with me through this entire project and her enthusiasm (and
energy!) has not waned throughout. I would also like to thank the entire
editorial team who worked on the manuscript, with special thanks to
Kimberly Guinta, Mark Lerner, and Danielle Savin for their invaluable
contributions during the production process. I would also like to thank
Tricia Rose, who read and gave helpful suggestions on the final manuscript, as well as the anonymous reviewers provided by Routledge.
I also wish to thank my family for their continued backing. My spouse,
Roger and my father, Albert Hill, have been among my strongest and most
consistent supporters. I also want to acknowledge the unconditional love
offered by my two senior cats who kept me company as I wrote.
Finally, I dedicate this book to Valerie, my beautiful and talented
daughter. May the world come to see her and others of her generation as
the hope of our future.



The spring of 1964 held great promise for African Americans.
On August 28, 1963, a crowd estimated at between 200,000 and
500,000 Americans of all races had marched on Washington,
D.C., petitioning the federal government to make good on its
commitment to equal and fair treatment under the law. As the
largest mass demonstration at that time ever organized by
African Americans, the march made it clear that Black people
were not turning back. Despite the bombing of Birmingham’s
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls just
two weeks after the march, and the assassination of President
Kennedy the following November, the tide of history was turning. The passage of momentous civil rights legislation that, for
African Americans, was designed to redress the devastating
effects of slavery and racial segregation was on the horizon.
That spring, I was a sixteen-year-old high school student in
a college preparatory public high school in Philadelphia. Because,
along with other Black people, my parents had been denied educational opportunities, they recognized the importance of education for African American empowerment. I was one of the many
Black kids who benefited from our parents’ personal sacrifices as
well as broader civil rights struggles. Schooled in this philosophy,
I tried to do everything that I could to be personally excellent.
Almost every day I carried home a pile of heavy textbooks and
almost every night I worked my way through hours of homework. School was tough, but I believed that it would be worth the



effort. Just like the White girls who attended school with me, I was promised
a bright future, and I wanted to be prepared.
One day that spring, I took a break from an endless round of studying
and went to the movies. As I sat in the theater waiting for the film to begin,
I could see two twelve- or thirteen-year-old African American boys seated
about three rows ahead of me. Like me, they too had paid their money and
were anxious for the film to begin. But unlike me, they just could not sit still.
One opened the side door of the theater, beckoned to his friend, and both
laughed as they ran back and forth through the theater door. Finally, they
closed the door and sat down. All seemed to be well until a White male usher
who was barely older than me seemed to appear from nowhere. Barreling
down on the two boys, he grabbed each by their shirts, pushed open the side
door of the theater, and threw both of them into the alley. From where I was
seated, I could see into the alley and I watched in amazement as he threw one
boy to the ground and kicked him while shouting, “That’ll teach you not to
sneak in!”
I was shocked by this brutality. How could I sit still and pretend that
nothing had happened? I headed to the back of the movie theater to find
the manager. When I arrived, I found that at least six African American
adults, some older than my parents, had gotten there before me.
Buttonholing the middle-aged White male manager, they began to complain. They too had been watching the boys and vehemently testified that
the boys had done nothing wrong, and certainly nothing that merited that
level of physical and verbal assault. Ignoring them, the manager turned to
his teenaged employee and asked him what had happened. Red-faced and
stammering, the usher denied hurting the boys and, if that were not
enough, claimed that he had seen the boys sneak into the theater. After
hearing his employee’s testimony, the manager turned back to the adults.
“You must have been mistaken,” he flatly stated. He turned his back on all
of us and simply walked away.
I was shocked yet again. If these Black adults were disbelieved, clearly
I would be too, no matter what my credentials. On that day I learned that,
in some situations, gender, age, social class, and education do not matter if
you are Black. The usher and the movie theater manager could see only
race and their perceptions of race clouded their judgment. I also began to
see how differences among African Americans caused by these very same
factors could lead to differential treatment. The boys were harmed because



they were young, Black, and male—the usher would not have dared to grab
in the same fashion the irate middle-aged Black woman complaining about
the assault. I saw how, in that situation, being young, Black, and female also
meant that my testimony would be routinely ignored, no matter how
impressive my elite high school credentials. Each Black person in that theater had a common struggle, but the form it took differed greatly as well as
our responses to it. As disheartened as I was by the outcome, I’m glad that
I joined the group in the back that complained. Most of the African
Americans in the theater sat quietly by, trying to ignore the confrontation
in the rear of the theater, diligently munching on their popcorn instead.
That event was one of many that taught me that while good ideas and
solid evidence certainly matter (the kind that I was studying in school), power
relations that elevate some groups over others can matter even more in determining whose view of truth will prevail. In short, knowledge and power are
deeply linked, and achieving social justice requires attending to both.
Over the years, in my work as a scholar I have tried to place my work
in service to social justice. For me, this has meant mapping differences in
penalty and privilege that accompany race, class, and similar systems of
social injustice and trying not to elevate one group’s suffering over that of
another. In my first book, Black Feminist Thought, I aimed to foster Black
women’s empowerment by identifying and legitimating Black women’s
intellectual production.1 I believed then as I do now that people become
empowered when they think and speak for themselves (even if, as was the
case in the theater, they are ignored or disbelieved). Ideas matter greatly in
this struggle for empowerment, and Black women’s intellectual production
(Black feminist thought) has been essential to the progress and sanity of
African American women. Because ideas do matter, they remain targets of
criticism, cooptation, and silencing. In Fighting Words, I cast a critical eye
on Black feminist thought itself and revisited this question of how knowledge and power are interrelated.2 I wanted to know what standards we
might apply to seemingly progressive social theories to see whether they
maintained their oppositional purpose. In both works, I argued that it is
not enough to imagine empowerment for Black women in isolation from
deep-seated changes in the social structure overall. Black women can never
become fully empowered in a context of social injustice.
But what about Black men? Little did I know that what I observed in
that movie theater in 1964 was an example of a much-larger pattern that is



carried out every day in schools, streets, workplaces, and the mass media.
Ushers, assistant principals, security guards, and the police subject Black
men to varying levels of verbal and physical violence that leave them fearful, angry, and far too often, dangerous to others and to themselves. Black
women often take up the slack, enduring low-paying jobs, endless hours of
childcare, lonely nights without love, and a sense of powerlessness that
things will never change. In the movie theater, we could see how American
race relations that conceptualized race in terms of family bound the manager and usher together. They were part of the White family and we were
disadvantaged because we did not belong. The manager believed the son
within his racial family and disbelieved the Black people who he felt were
no kin to him. We could see how America’s racial family drama generated
benefits for its White sons (in this case, being believed) and fostered physical punishment for its Black ones. Race certainly mattered, but the theater
episode was also about masculinity, social class, age, and the power that
they conferred. The invisible authority that took tangible form in the manager’s and usher’s actions also worked to silence us. We were in the
metaphorical theater of race together, and we could see then how young
Black boys (and girls) were harmed by racial discrimination. We had few
illusions that we owned the theater or that we might be allowed to manage
it. In 1964, Black people knew that, despite our differences, we shared a
common problem.
Much has changed since then. In the post–civil rights era, the power
relations that administer the theater of race in America are now far more
hidden. Ironically, the protests of Black boys are circulated in mass media
within a celebrated global hip-hop culture, yet the substance of that protest
continues to be ignored. Middle-class Black people may manage the theaters of academia, city hall, and the military, yet many seem far less willing
than the folks in the movie theater to defend the interests of the one out of
every three Black youth who live below the poverty level. Ironically, movie
theaters themselves have disappeared from Black inner-city areas, leaving
Black boys and girls marooned in neighborhoods where basketball seems to
provide the best way out. Wondering whether they are “black enough,”
assimilated upper- and middle-class Black youth growing up in White
neighborhoods and attending private schools play video games and socialize in suburban multiplex theater complexes, often paying top dollar to see
the latest film that features authentic “ghetto” Black hip-hop artists.



As a result of these changes, it is increasingly difficult to see how relations of race, class, gender, and sexuality that framed my 1964 study break
drama are remarkably intact today. Recognizing that racism even exists
remains a challenge for most White Americans and, increasingly, for many
African Americans as well. They believe that the passage of civil rights legislation eliminated racially discriminatory practices and that any problems
that Blacks may experience now are of their own doing. Violations against
Black men and women continue to occur, but one-third of African
Americans have moved into the middle class and Black people are more
visible in positions of authority in schools, companies, hospitals, and government. Many Black people have difficulty seeing their connections to
other Black people, let alone rushing to the back of the theater in defense
of Black boys whom they do not even know.
In the post–civil rights era, gender has emerged as a prominent feature
of what some call a “new” racism. Ironically, many African Americans
deny the existence of sexism, or see it as a secondary concern that is best
addressed when the more pressing problem of racism has been solved. But
if racism and sexism are deeply intertwined, racism can never be solved
without seeing and challenging sexism. African American men and women
both are affected by racism, but in gender-specific ways. Those African
American boys were attacked by the usher because they were Black and
male, not simply because they were Black.
The gender-specific contours of racism are even more pronounced
today. This was painfully clear to me one week when I taught my book Black
Feminist Thought to two very different classes. The first consisted of college
undergraduates and was disproportionately filled with young Black women
who, because they were single parents, routinely asked whether they could
bring their children to class. They were the lucky ones. Unlike their friends
relegated to dead-end jobs and a punitive social welfare bureaucracy, they
had made it to college. For the other class, I visited a college program in a
local prison to talk about the exact same subject matter. This time, the class
was disproportionately filled with young Black men who rarely got to see
their children. Students in both classes were denied sexual partners. Both
were harmed by experiences such as these that alienated Black women and
Black men from one another and from themselves. Education, housing,
jobs, and health care—African American men and women have gender disparate experiences in all of these areas. What sense does it make to talk



about “Black people” as if all Black people are male when gender differences are so pronounced?
Talking about gender does not mean focusing solely on women’s
issues. Men’s experiences are also deeply gendered. Thus, gender ideology
not only creates ideas about femininity but it also shapes conceptions of
masculinity. Regardless of race, ethnicity, social class, citizenship status,
and sexual orientation, all men and women encounter social norms about
gender. These norms influence people’s sense of themselves as men and
women as well as perceptions of masculinity and femininity. For African
Americans, the relationship between gender and race is intensified, producing a Black gender ideology that shapes ideas about Black masculinity
and Black femininity. This Black gender ideology is not simply a benign set
of ideas affecting individual African American women and men. Instead, it
is used to justify patterns of opportunity and discrimination that African
American women and men encounter in schools, jobs, government agencies, and other American social institutions.
This Black gender ideology also draws upon widespread cultural beliefs
concerning the sexual practices of people of African descent. Sexuality is not
simply a biological function; rather, it is a system of ideas and social practices
that is deeply implicated in shaping American social inequalities. Because
ideas about sexuality are so integral to understandings of Black gender ideology as well as broader gender ideology in the United States, neither Black
masculinity nor Black femininity can be adequately understood let alone
transformed without attending to the politics of sexuality.3
Black sexual politics occur at the particular intersection of gender,
race, and sexuality that African Americans face. But African Americans are
not the only ones who grapple with issues of sexual politics. A wide constellation of social groups, for example, White women, Latino men, gay
and lesbian Asian immigrants, wealthy Americans, older indigenous people, and young married Asian mothers, encounter distinctive sexual politics based on their placement in systems of gender, race, and sexuality.
Sexual politics can be defined as a set of ideas and social practices shaped
by gender, race, and sexuality that frame all men and women’s treatment of
one another, as well as how individual men and women are perceived and
treated by others. Because African Americans have been so profoundly
affected by racism, grappling with racism occupies a prominent place
within Black sexual politics.



Black sexual politics consists of a set of ideas and social practices
shaped by gender, race, and sexuality that frame Black men and women’s
treatment of one another, as well as how African Americans are perceived
and treated by others. Such politics lie at the heart of beliefs about Black
masculinity and Black femininity, of gender-specific experiences of
African Americans, and of forms that the new racism takes in the post–civil
rights era. To confront social inequality, African Americans need an analysis of Black masculinity and Black femininity that questions the links
between prevailing Black sexual politics, their connection to Black gender
ideology, and struggles for African American empowerment in response to
the new racism. Taking into account the new challenges of the post–civil
rights era, such an analysis would strive to point the way toward a more
progressive Black sexual politics within African American communities.
This politics in turn might both catalyze a more effective antiracist politics
and contribute to a broader social justice agenda.
Toward these ends, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender,
and the New Racism analyses how relations of gender and sexuality within
contemporary African American communities reproduce and/or resist
new forms of racism. Poverty, unemployment, rape, HIV/AIDS, incarceration, substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, high rates of Black children
in foster care, intraracial violence (especially by young Black males as both
victims and perpetrators), and similar issues have a disproportionate
impact on African Americans. All of these social problems take genderspecific forms, and none will be solved without serious attention to the politics of gender and sexuality. Black women can never become fully
empowered in a context that harms Black men, and Black men can never
become fully empowered in a society in which Black women cannot fully
flourish as human beings. Racism is a gender-specific phenomenon, and
Black antiracist politics that do not make gender central are doomed to fail
because someone will always be left behind. If either women or men
remain subordinated, then social injustice persists.
The need for a progressive Black sexual politics has always existed, yet
the gender-specific social problems of today make this need even more
pressing. Not only has developing a progressive Black sexual politics
become more needed, contemporary intellectual and/or political trends
have created new possibilities for success. Over thirty years of Black feminist advocacy has produced a corpus of work that continues to challenge



prevailing gender relations.4 During this same period, the majority of
African American men have been highly resistant to any discussions that
they perceived as being critical of them, and some have loudly criticized
Black feminism.5 Recently, however, many African American men have
demonstrated an increased willingness to analyze Black masculinity. In
part, this new receptivity reflects the willingness of many Black men to see
that African American women and others who advocate on behalf of Black
women are not necessarily against Black men. If gender and sexuality have
been such important features in explaining African American women’s
realities, then gender and sexuality are equally important in explaining the
realities of African American men. The success of social movements in
challenging historical ideas and practices concerning sexuality also creates
new intellectual and political space to revisit questions of race and sexuality. Moving from an exclusive focus on Black women to a broader one that
encompasses how the politics of gender and sexuality frame the experiences of women and men alike creates new questions for investigation and,
perhaps, a new antiracist politics that might follow.6

Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism has
several distinguishing features. First, this is a volume of critical social theory.7 Critical social theory consists of bodies of knowledge and sets of institutional practices that actively grapple with the central questions facing
groups of people differently placed in specific political, social, and historical contexts characterized by injustice. For example, because African
Americans face social injustices within American society, critical social theory for this group would engage questions of racism and economic
inequalities. In the specific political, social, and historical context of the
post–civil rights era, rethinking the meaning of gender and sexuality for
antiracist political action constitutes a central question facing this group.
As a work of critical social theory, Black Sexual Politics uses a conceptual
framework concerning the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality to
raise questions that might help African American women and men and
their supporters craft a more progressive Black sexual politics. This book
is neither an empirical social science study of current conditions within
African American communities nor a manifesto for government officials or



community organizations to follow. Because this book does not put forth
rules that, when followed, promise to produce the ideal romantic partners,
it is not a how-to book on how to fix Black love relationships.8 Black Sexual
Politics does not tell readers what to think. Rather, it examines what we
might think about.
To some, Black Sexual Politics may appear to be heavy on problems and
short on solutions. This is because this book is a diagnostic project. It does
not aim to be prescriptive but instead is analytical. In fact, being overly prescriptive and giving African American women and men new rules to follow
is a large part of the problem itself. Take, for example, the cottage industry
of Black self-help books that sprang up in the 1990s, all designed to help
African Americans cope with strained love relationships. These books populate local bookstores, crowding out more thoughtful, scholarly treatments,
and yet come as close as many African Americans get to serious discussions
of gender and sexuality. Long on advice and short on analysis, many of
these books can be dangerous, some even going so far as to counsel Black
men to handle an unruly Black woman by “soundly slapping her in the
mouth.”9 Black Sexual Politics rejects this prescriptive approach, arguing
instead that becoming empowered means learning how to think for ourselves and making decisions that are in our own best interests.
I think that failing to address questions of gender and sexuality will
compromise antiracist African American politics in the post–civil rights
era. What good is the empowerment of African American women if it
comes at the expense of Black men? Black college women who look around
their classrooms and see the shrinking numbers of Black men can either
gloat that they have less competition or they can become outraged by this
situation and begin strategizing about what to do about it. What good is the
empowerment of African American men if it comes on the backs of Black
women? Black male ministers whose congregations are usually 70 percent
Black female can either enjoy the Sunday dinners, presents, and other benefits that can accrue to men in such situations or they can minister to the
daily struggles of Black women who put money in the collection plate by
becoming champions for Black women’s rights.
What makes a progressive Black sexual politics “critical” is its commitment to social justice, not exclusively for African American men and women,
but for all human beings. In this sense, a more progressive Black sexual politics is one specific site of a broader, global struggle for human rights. It is



important to stress that although this particular book is about African
Americans, this specific project of developing a more progressive Black sexual politics resembles other social justice projects that grapple with similar
issues. For example, women and men of African descent in South Africa,
Brazil, Nigeria, and Great Britain face similar challenges in obtaining habitable housing, good nutrition, literacy, high-quality jobs, effective health care,
and stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. African Americans’ struggles in
these areas resemble those of people of African descent globally. Yet because
these important social issues also transcend the particular forms they take
among Black populations, they also constitute the foundation of social justice projects in a global context. Intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality touch everyone’s lives and social justice projects
occur across societies and among very different types of people. Because
Black Sexual Politics examines one local manifestation of a more general,
global phenomenon, I invite non–African American readers to consider how
the questions raised here might inform their own social justice projects.
Second, this book treats race, class, gender, and sexuality as intersecting versus competing frameworks for developing a progressive Black sexual politics. Deeming race to be more important than gender or class as
more valid than sexuality can compromise the social justice core of a progressive Black sexual politics. Take, for example, how models that rank
oppressions can harm a Black political agenda regarding cancer. Under
models that view race as primary and gender as secondary, higher rates of
some cancers among African Americans than Whites would be seen as an
important issue for African Americans because Black people as a group are
harmed by these racial differentials. But cancers do not affect men and
women in the same way. For example, differential incidence and mortality
rates for prostate cancer in African American men and breast cancer in
African American women constitute gender-specific differences within
this racial consensus.10 Because the vast majority of men will never get
breast cancer and it is impossible for African American women to get
prostate cancer, these two cancers present a potentially divisive crosscutting issue in setting an African American agenda for challenging cancer.
What sense would it make to identify either prostate cancer or breast cancer as the typical Black experience around which to organize antiracist politics? A Black political agenda on cancer that did not take gender into
account would effectively ignore the issues of half of the Black population,



distort our understanding of the racial effects of cancer on African
Americans, and hamper the effectiveness of antiracist politics.
To avoid this type of ranking, Black Sexual Politics uses a theoretical
framework of intersectionality. Intersectional paradigms view race, class,
gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among others, as mutually constructing systems of power. Because these systems permeate all social relations,
untangling their effects in any given situation or for any given population
remains difficult. I have consistently tried to theorize intersectionality in
the overall corpus of my work and Black Sexual Politics constitutes yet
another piece of this larger theoretical project. In this volume I emphasize
intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Doing so does not mean that I
think that class, nation, age, and/or ethnicity are less important for
antiracist initiatives. I have done my best to analyze these other systems of
oppression, especially social class. However, moving race, gender, and sexuality into the center of analysis should highlight their interaction within
African American communities as well as reveal new angles of vision on
how these systems interconnect.
Although Black Sexual Politics draws upon the intersectional paradigms developed in my earlier work, gender and sexuality are also more
visible here because developing an intersectional analysis of Black sexual
politics has tangible political ramifications for antiracist scholarship and
activism. This project breaks with earlier gender scholarship (including my
own) that equates sex with male and female biology and gender with
socially constructed ideas of masculinity and femininity. Rather, as presented here, biological sex, the social construction of gender, and sexual
orientation constitute distinct yet interconnected phenomena that, in turn,
interconnect with race. Because discussions of sexuality always attract definitional difficulties, I do not offer a definition here because I feel that standard dictionary definitions are far more conservative than the meanings
suggested here.11 At the same time, it is important to clarify the three interrelated meanings of sexuality that I use in Black Sexual Politics.12 Sexuality
can be viewed as an entity that is manipulated within each distinctive system of race, class, and gender oppression, for example, the importance of
rape to patriarchy, child prostitution to contemporary global sex work, or
lynching to racial subordination. Sexuality also can be seen as a site of
intersectionality, a specific constellation of social practices that demonstrate how oppressions converge. For example, not only did the institu-



tionalized rape of enslaved Black women support racial domination, it
potentially produced children who would profit slaveowners, and it reinforced a gender regime. Sexuality also can be analyzed as heterosexism, a
freestanding system of oppression similar to racism, sexism, and class
oppression, which shares similar goals and social practices.
Third, I focus on African American communities because I fear that
the rush to abandon the black/white paradigm of race in the United States
in favor of other seemingly more universal paradigms potentially distorts
the uniqueness of African American struggles and can also support new
forms of racism. Some would suggest that in the context of the changing
racial/ethnic composition of the United States, studying African
Americans is passé. They suggest that rejecting the historical specificity of
studying African Americans and replacing the black/white race relations
paradigm with more abstract theories of race and racism can fix this seeming provincialism within African American intellectual production.
Everyone must be represented for racial theory to have merit. Studying
race and racism on this level of abstraction enables racial theory to move
away from the kinds of social issues that have long been important to
African Americans and that have catalyzed Black freedom struggles. For
example, while accurate, eloquent arguments about how “race” is a social
construction have virtually no merit in addressing issues such as the denial
of voting rights to African American citizens in Florida during the 2000
presidential election or the continued high rates of Black infant mortality
in inner-city neighborhoods. This move also redefines Black intellectual
production that focuses on social issues that are of concern to Black people as being myopic and reflecting special interests. One important dimension of the new racism is to cover over the harm done to victims and to
mute their protest. Telling African Americans to take a number and wait
their turn in a long line of special interest groups vying for recognition in
an oppression contest rewrites the specificity of American race relations in
an especially pernicious way.13
I recognize how much African Americans share with many other
groups, both in the United States and globally. For example, I think that
many of my arguments also apply to Puerto Ricans, indigenous peoples,
Chicanos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Haitian immigrant populations, and
poor and working-class White Americans, albeit through the historical
specificity of their distinctive group histories. Issues of poverty, poor



health, homelessness, poor education, joblessness, and family disruption
that face African American women and men also affect these groups,
groups throughout the African Diaspora, and formerly colonized peoples
in general. Moreover, there is no clear line roping off African Americans
from these and other groups—there are Africans Americans who are Black
and Puerto Rican, who have relatives among indigenous peoples, who are
immigrants, and who are biracial and/or live in multiracial families. At the
same time, examining the particularities of African American experience in
its own right is inherently valuable, especially in analyzing Black sexual
politics, the topic under consideration here. In fact, because the specificity
of African American issues can be lost in categories such as “people of
color,” “race relations,” “minority groups,” or “people of African
descent,” placing the experiences of African Americans within other paradigms may actually harm the project of developing a progressive Black
sexual politics that might work in the United States.
African American experience simultaneously reflects the problems
faced by other groups of oppressed people; yet, it is also a unique history
that must be explained in its own right. Black Sexual Politics recognizes
that African Americans constitute a distinctive group that, according to the
2000 census, numbered approximately 36.4 million people.14 Within the
race relations framework of the United States, African Americans remain
a “minority group.” But 36.4 million people constitute a large population.
For example, Black Americans outnumber the population of Ghana (20
million), Kenya (32 million), and Senegal (10 million) and most other
African nations. There are more African Americans than the population of
Belgium (10 million), Switzerland (7 million), Iraq (24 million), and Israel
(6 million). In fact, African Americans constitute one of the largest
national populations of people of African decent, following Nigeria (134
million), Congo-Kinshasa (56 million), and Brazil.15 Beyond sheer size,
there is the matter of history. Unlike Hispanics and Asian Americans,
terms used since 1965 by the federal government to classify new immigrant
populations from widely heterogeneous backgrounds, African Americans
constitute a distinctive ethnic group or “people” whose history in the
United States is prolonged and unique. African Americans now have close
to a 400-year history in America, and North American slavery and racial
segregation (apartheid) constitute a specific history that has affected no
other group in the United States in the same way. The social institutions



and belief structures of African Americans reflect African and European
influences, and they have evolved continually over time in response to
migrations of people of African descent from continental Africa, the
Caribbean, and Latin America into the group itself as well as cultural borrowing and sharing with indigenous peoples, Latinos, Asians, and
European immigrant groups. Moreover, because African Americans live
within the borders of the remaining world superpower and are citizens of
the United States, this group is strategically placed to see the workings of
contemporary global politics. For example, African Americans have experienced multiple migrations—from the forced migration of the Atlantic
slave trade, to the great migration from the rural South to the cities of the
North in the early twentieth century, to the current reverse migration back
to the South in search of opportunities. African Americans demonstrate
the possibilities and limitations of migration as a strategy for addressing
poverty and powerlessness. The global spread of hip-hop from the streets
of the South Bronx through global mass media reflects the continued significance of African Americans to both American and global culture.
African American experiences are indicative of economic processes of
global capitalism, the larger political patterns of transnationalism, and the
growing importance of global mass media.
For African Americans, claiming the theoretical space to raise issues
that concern Black people in ways that deviate from the paradigms
advanced by more powerful groups remains difficult. Given the demographic, historical, social, and political significance of African Americans
in both American and global contexts, I ask why it remains so unfashionable in the United States for Black people to talk about issues that concern
us on our own terms? Why is this choice routinely criticized as reflecting
special interests as opposed to being yet another lens that can be used to
examine universal issues that join us all? Why can I not use the specificity
of African American experience to investigate important, universal themes
without running the risk of having this book marginalized as representing
Black “special interests”?
A fourth distinguishing feature of Black Sexual Politics concerns how
heterogeneity within African American populations fosters a distinctive
political history concerning class, gender, sexuality, age, color, and ethnicity. I am fully aware of how different 36.4 million Black people are from
one another and am frequently surprised when others so forcefully argue



that not all Black people are alike. Any person who has grown up in the
United Stated with even rudimentary access to African American organizations and communities knows that Black Americans come in all shapes,
colors, sizes, and political persuasions. Racial segregation, however, has
created large numbers of White Americans who lack sustained, personal
experience with African Americans. This group routinely must be convinced of Black humanity, a task that requires that they jettison racial
stereotypes and learn to see and value Blacks as individuals. For me, evidence for the humanity of Black people lies in the beauty of Black individualism. In all of my work, this has been my starting point, not my
My concern lies less with recognizing differences among Black people
than in the recent rush to study differences to the point of virtually ignoring unemployment, infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, racial
profiling, and other important social issues that disproportionately affect
African Americans as a group. In this volume, I remain focused on the collective struggles for social justice that have long lay at the heart of African
American culture and communities. I argue that these struggles must be
reframed through a prism of difference, in this case, gender and sexuality,
in ways that do not become overly preoccupied with the question of difference itself. Unfortunately, so much attention within American scholarship is lavished on differences among Americans, or on a race relations
paradigm that compares African Americans and other groups (often a
requirement for publication), or in excising out a segment of African
Americans and reinserting them within some other category (sexual
minorities, or women’s organizations) that it is difficult to find forums to
address the very real social issues that confront all African Americans as a
group, regardless of age, region, gender, sexual orientation, or social class.
Sexual politics is one such issue, yet the various threads needed for
analyses of gender and sexuality, for example, marriage and family relations, violence, unemployment, reproductive rights, prison reform, and
school performance are scattered in many places. Because some themes
primarily affect men, they are not even seen as being part of an overarching Black sexual politics agenda. Addressing the myriad issues discussed
here requires hard-hitting dialogues and new behaviors among African
Americans that take into account differences of class, gender, age, sexuality, nationality, ability, and appearance among African Americans. In this



volume, I emphasize these internal issues. But I also recognize that bringing about social change needs serious conversations and action strategies
between African Americans and all individuals, organizations, and social
groups engaged in a variety of social justice initiatives. Ideally, we need
projects that examine the interactions among Black and Latino sexual politics, or those of Blacks and new immigrant groups, especially how different forms of sexual politics influence one another. Clearly dialogues need
to occur between conservative Black Christian churches that advance one
stance on homosexuality and movements for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and
transgendered (LGBT) rights that advance another. African Americans
will learn much about charting a new course when armed with information
about how Jewish men and women confront similar yet different issues, or
how urbanization shapes the sexual politics of many groups in cities
around the world. Developing a progressive Black sexual politics that fosters social justice requires engaging people who are positioned inside and
outside of African American communities.
A fifth dimension of Black Sexual Politics concerns my choices concerning language. This volume synthesizes the main ideas of fields as
diverse as critical race theory, feminism, sociology, political economy, queer
theory, and cultural studies. These fields can produce multiple languages,
many of which talk past one another. Despite the richness of the ideas
expressed, arcane jargon can impoverish these very same areas of inquiry.
As of this writing, the major works in many academic fields are virtually
unreadable to academics outside those fields, let alone undergraduate students and the educated lay public. Because this book is interdisciplinary, I
have included a glossary of terms used in this volume in order to help readers understand ideas from many fields. The definitions are cast in simple
language, and they are designed to help readers navigate through more difficult sections of the text. I also include a glossary because some academic
conventions do more to turn off readers than turn them on to the ideas
expressed. For example, despite good intentions, the current fashion of
putting quotation marks around the term “race” can be seen as yet another
example of exclusionary language available to the privileged (and morally
superior) few. My students routinely ask me why the term race has quotes
around it because they honestly do not know. However well intentioned,
this usage typically signals that the author realizes that “race” is socially
constructed and that the author does not wish to reify “race” by treating it



as real. I reject this position on two grounds. First, why select “race” for
quotation marks and not “gender” or “sexuality”? What is it about “race”
that makes it more constructed than other systems of power? Second,
despite its constructed nature, the effects of “race” remain real for millions
of people. As the experiences of the two boys in the movie theater illustrate, one can experience the effects of racism, no matter how it is justified.
No matter that by 1964, biological theories of “race” had been largely discredited. The usher who threw them out of the theater simply did not care.
The use of language in Black Sexual Politics also reflects the ongoing
capitalization problem that has dogged the terms Negro and Black.
Following conventions in the 2000 U.S. census, I capitalize the term Black
when it serves to name a racial population group with an identifiable history in the United States. For African Americans, the term Black is simultaneously a racial identity assigned to people of African descent by the
state, a political identity for petitioning that same state, and a self-defined
ethnic identity. Because some African Americans use some variant of the
terms Black people, African Americans, Black Americans, and people of
African descent as self-definitions, I capitalize all of these terms.16
My reliance on Black popular culture and mass media as important
sources of evidence for the arguments presented here constitutes a final distinguishing feature of Black Sexual Politics. I rely heavily on discourse analysis. As used here, a discourse is a set of ideas and practices that when taken
together organize both the way a society defines certain truths about itself
and the way it puts together social power. This means that race, gender, and
sexuality have ideological dimensions that work to organize social institutions. In the post–civil rights era, Black popular culture and mass media have
both grown in importance in creating ideologies of inequality. Black popular
culture consists of the ideas and cultural representations created by Black
people in everyday life that are widely known and accepted. In contrast, mass
media describes the appropriation and repackaging of these ideas for larger
audience consumption. Black popular culture as examined here is indicative
of larger political and economic forces on the macro level that in turn influence the micro level of everyday behavior among African Americans.
Conversely, everyday behavior becomes the cultural stuff that is mined by
Black popular culture and a mass media with an insatiable appetite for new
material. In the spirit of doing interdisciplinary scholarship, I felt it necessary to incorporate as many examples as possible from Black popular culture



and mass media because I see their significance for global youth cultures and
African American youth in particular. Given this book’s subject matter of
Black masculinity and Black femininity in the context of the new racism, and
the significance of African American youth within hip-hop culture, including Black popular culture seemed especially important.
This decision to incorporate Black popular culture and mass media
also speaks to the question of audience. I have found that the undergraduates I teach, especially African American students, gain much of their
sense of the world not solely from books but also from films, music, videos,
and the Internet. Despite the significance of a range of forms of Black
popular culture to Black sexual politics, this project relies heavily on film,
especially popular films that are readily available on video. These films
enter into this project in two ways. For one, I have found that Black popular culture generally and videos in particular catalyze critical thinking and
lively classroom discussions among students from diverse backgrounds.
Film lends itself to rich discussions of gender and sexuality because students can use these films as jumping off points to analyze difficult topics.
Despite its value, because the mega-star of today can be forgotten tomorrow, one drawback of relying too heavily on Black popular culture concerns its fleeting nature. Given this caveat, I tried to identify selected
well-known examples within Black popular culture that illustrate the theoretical arguments concerning race, class, gender, and sexuality. I encourage those grounded in media studies who agree with me and/or who take
issue with my arguments to generate better examples. Hopefully, more
complex analyses of gender and sexuality will follow.
In Black Sexual Politics, I also use selected films as exemplars of trends
in Black popular culture. Films and videos provide social scripts that show
people appropriate gender ideology as well as how to behave toward one
another. Despite the protests by defenders of the media who claim that
sounds and images have little effect on consumers, the billions spent on
advertising dollars suggests otherwise. Certainly images and representations do not determine behavior, but they do provide an important part of
the interpretive context for explaining it. Social scripts suggest how to
behave. Despite the power of mass media, I remind readers that being
given a script of how to behave as a Black man or woman in no ways means
that one must follow it. For African Americans, rejecting what is expected
is often the first step in resistance.




Each of the three parts of Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender,
and the New Racism stresses different dimensions of Black sexual politics.
The three chapters in Part I, “African Americans and the New Racism,”
provide a conceptual and historical foundation for understanding contemporary Black sexual politics. The challenges of the new racism require several progressive agendas, not just the one examined here. For example, a
more progressive analysis of social class that takes new forms of global capitalism into account might enable African Americans to see the strengths
and limitations of affirmative action, reparations, Black entrepreneurship,
and other current economic development strategies. Similarly, a more
nuanced analysis of how other immigrants from areas of the Caribbean,
Latin America, and continental Africa are influencing the contours of
African American ethnicity and of Black organizations, cultures, and communities might catalyze a more dynamic antiracist African American politics. Developing a more progressive Black sexual politics concerning issues
of gender and sexuality constitutes one important piece of a broader
antiracist, social justice project.
Chapter 1, “Why Black Sexual Politics?” builds on this Introduction
by examining why African Americans need to develop a political agenda
that takes gender and sexuality seriously. Chapter 2, “The Past Is Ever
Present: Recognizing the New Racism” examines issues of Black political
economy that underpin contemporary African American gender relations.
Rejecting a view of history in which one type of racial formation gives way
to another, the chapter argues instead that remnants of several past racial
formations affect patterns of class and gender within contemporary
African American communities. Chapter 3, “Prisons for Our Bodies,
Closets for Our Minds: Racism, Heterosexism, and Black Sexuality” uses
the prison and the closet as complementary and competing metaphors for
understanding oppressions of race and sexuality in order to examine how
racism and heterosexism draw strength from one another. Of race, class,
gender, and sexuality as systems of oppression, for many people, heterosexism remains the most difficult to understand and, in many cases, to even
see as being a system of oppression. The approach taken here conceptualizes heterosexism as a system of power that suppresses heterosexual and
homosexual African American men and women in ways that foster Black



The three chapters in Part II, “Rethinking Black Gender Ideology”
examine how the interconnections of race, class, gender, and sexuality take
ideological forms, especially within contemporary Black popular culture
and/or global mass media, and how this ideology increasingly influences
public life. Under the new racism, representations of Black masculinity
and Black femininity become important in explaining class relations within
African American communities, within U.S. society, and, because these
images now travel, within a global context. These ideologies take genderspecific forms and become deployed in defending the treatment of African
Americans within contemporary social institutions.
Chapter 4, “Get Your Freak On: Sex, Babies, and Images of Black
Femininity,” and chapter 5, “Booty Call: Sex, Violence, and Images of
Black Masculinity,” examine how past-in-present ideas about sexuality and
violence influence contemporary Black popular culture that in turn is commodified, displayed, and sold by a powerful mass media. Both chapters
examine how class-specific representations of African American women
and African American men that now circulate throughout global mass culture help structure the new racism in the United States. Not only are sexuality and violence part of representations of Blackness, these mass media
images circulate in a climate where social institutions are increasingly saturated with relations of sexualized violence. Chapter 6, “Very Necessary:
Redefining Black Gender Ideology,” analyzes how prevailing gender ideology uses a framework of “weak men, strong women” to advance troublesome notions of Black masculinity and Black femininity. Unpacking this
ideology should enable African American men and women to see the range
of choices that they actually have in becoming the kinds of Black men and
women they want to be.
The three chapters in Part III, “Toward a Progressive Black Sexual
Politics,” examine three important sites where change needs to occur in
moving toward a more progressive Black sexual politics. Chapter 7,
“Assume the Position: The Changing Contours of Sexual Violence,” takes
a closer look at the changing contours of violence as an important form of
political control that has emerged within the new racism. Lynching and
rape as forms of sexual violence historically visited upon African American
men and women have been linked within U.S. sexual politics. However, the
chapter questions whether these constructs remain adequate for explaining
the violence visited upon African Americans in the post–civil rights era.



Rather, institutionalized rape and institutionalized lynching constitute different expressions of the same type of social control that is especially suited
to the new racism. Chapter 8, “No Storybook Romance: How Race and
Gender Matter,” examines the dissonance between ideologies of love relationships within mass media and the rules that govern such relationships
within the context of everyday life. How people treat one another in everyday life, especially within intimate love relationships, is ground zero for a
progressive Black sexual politics. Chapter 9, “Why We Can’t Wait: Black
Sexual Politics and the Challenge of HIV/AIDS,” examines how the
global spread of HIV/AIDS might serve as a catalyst for developing a
more progressive Black sexual politics. How does developing a more progressive Black sexual politics move antiracism forward?
I end Black Sexual Politics with a short afterword titled “The Power of
a Free Mind.” As comforting as it may be to try to turn back the hands of
time and retreat into an imagined Black past where men and women knew
their place, this simply is not an option. African Americans cannot relive
the events of 1964, pining for the civil rights days when, despite their differences, the cluster of vocal Black people in the back of the theater saw
social injustice through a common lens and complained en masse. The new
racism is far more slippery and grappling with its contradictions requires
new tools. What will it take for African Americans to develop a progressive
Black sexual politics? How can all people who work for social justice imagine a future that is different? There are no easy answers to these questions,
only the conviction that the power of a free mind might forge new paths
that we might all follow. When it comes to struggles for social justice,
there’s no turning back.

PA R T I



2001: The career of Jennifer Lopez skyrockets. A Puerto
Rican woman, Lopez’s rise to fame came after her feature film appearance as Selena, the first Chicana superstar. News of J-Lo is everywhere; especially her much
discussed love relationship and subsequent break-up
with hip-hop artist Puff Daddy (aka P Diddy). One special feature of Lopez’s routinely makes the news—her
seemingly large bottom. From late night American talk
shows to South African radio programs to Internet
websites, J-Lo’s butt is all the rage. Recognizing its
value, it is rumored that Lopez insures her buttocks for
1 billion dollars, as one website mischievously described
it, 500 million dollars per cheek.
2000: The photo insert for Survivor, Destiny’s Child
third CD, shows the three African American women
standing legs akimbo, holding hands, and dressed in
animal skin bikinis. Selling over 15 million albums and
singles worldwide, Survivor’s success reflects a savvy
marketing strategy that promoted the song
“Independent Woman” as part of the soundtrack for the
hit movie Charlie’s Angels and foreshadowed the success
of group member Beyoncé Knowles. Survivor’s message
of female power also fuels its popularity. Counseling
women to be resilient and financially independent,



Destiny’s Child proclaim, “I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it.”
Survivor suggests sexual independence as well. In their highly popular song “Bootylicious,” written by Beyoncé, they refer to their
butts as “jelly” and ask, “Can you handle it?” The term bootylicious
proves to be so popular that, along with hottie and roadrage, it is
added to the 2002 edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate
1925: Born in a poor community in East St. Louis, Missouri, African
American entertainer Josephine Baker moves to Paris. She becomes
a sensation in the American production of La Revue Nègre.
Performing bare-breasted in a jungle setting and clad only in a short
skirt of banana leaves, Ms. Baker’s rump-shaking banana dance
becomes an instant hit with Parisian audiences. When asked whether
she will return to the United States, Ms. Baker replies, “they would
make me sing mammy songs and I cannot feel mammy songs, so I
cannot sing them.” Instead, in 1937 Ms. Baker becomes a French citizen and garners lifelong accolades as the “Black Venus” of France.
Upon her death in 1975, she receives a twenty-one-gun salute, the
only such honor given by France to an American-born woman.1
1816: After several years of being exhibited in Paris and London as
the “Hottentot Venus,” Sarah Bartmann, a Khoi woman from what
is now South Africa, dies. In the London exhibit, she is displayed
caged, rocking back and forth to emphasize her supposedly wild and
dangerous nature. She wears a tight-fitting dress whose brown color
matches her skin tones. When ordered to do so, she leaves her cage
and parades before the audience who seems fascinated with what
they see as her most intriguing feature—her buttocks. Some in the
audience are not content to merely look. One eyewitness recounts
with horror how Bartmann endures poking and prodding, as people
try to ascertain for themselves whether her buttocks are real. In the
context of popular London shows that display as forms of entertainment talking pigs, animal monsters and human oddities such as the
Fattest Man on Earth, midgets, giants, and similar “freaks of
nature,” these reactions to Bartmann’s exhibition are not unusual.
Upon Sarah Bartmann’s death, George Cuvier, one of the fathers of



modern biology, claims her body in the interests of science. Her
subsequent dissection becomes one of at least seven others completed on the bodies of women of color from 1814 to 1870. Their
goal—to advance the field of classical comparative anatomy.2

Contemporary sexual politics in the United States present African
American women and men with a complicated problem. From the display
of Sarah Bartmann as a sexual “freak” of nature in the early nineteenth century to Josephine Baker dancing bare-breasted for Parisian society to the
animal-skin bikinis worn by “bootylicious” Destiny’s Child to the fascination with Jennifer Lopez’s buttocks, women of African descent have been
associated with an animalistic, “wild” sexuality. Expressed via an everchanging yet distinctive constellation of sexual stereotypes in which Sarah
Bartmann’s past frames J-Lo’s present, this association of sexuality with
Black women helps create ideas about racial difference. Black men have
their own variety of racial difference, also constructed from ideas about violence and dangerous sexuality. African American heavyweight boxer Jack
Johnson certainly sparked controversy when, in 1910, he fought the formerly unbeaten White champion Jim Jeffries. During the fight itself, over
30,000 men stood outside the New York Times’ offices, waiting to hear the
outcome. Johnson’s bloody victory sparked race riots in every Southern
state. Johnson’s predilection for White women only fueled the fires of
White reaction. When authorities discovered that Johnson was having an
affair with an eighteen-year-old blonde from Minnesota, they charged him
under the Mann Act with engaging in white slavery. Johnson’s ability to
wield violence and his seeming attractiveness to White women made him
threatening to White middle-class men.3 For both women and men,
Western social thought associates Blackness with an imagined uncivilized,
wild sexuality and uses this association as one lynchpin of racial difference.
Whether depicted as “freaks” of nature or as being the essence of nature
itself, savage, untamed sexuality characterizes Western representations of
women and men of African descent.4
For their respective audiences, the distinctive sexualized spectacles performed by Bartmann, Baker, Destiny’s Child, and Lopez invoke sexual
meanings that give shape to racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism. Each spectacle marks the contradictions of Western perceptions of
African bodies and of Black women’s agency concerning the use of their



bodies. Together they frame an invented discourse of Black sexuality.5 For
French and British audiences, Sarah Bartmann served as a sign of racial
difference used to justify the growing belief in the superiority of White
civilization and the inferiority of so-called primitive peoples necessary for
colonialism. Her treatment helped create modern Black sexual stereotypes of
the jezebel, the mammy, and the welfare queen that, in the United States,
helped uphold slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racial ghettoization.6
Illustrating through stark historical example how common sense understandings of race and gender flow smoothly into those of biology, medicine,
and Western science itself, her body marked the intersection of entertainment, science, and commerce. Sarah Bartmann could be enjoyed while alive
and, upon her death, studied under the microscope for the burgeoning field
of comparative anatomy. As South African writer Yvette Abrahams and filmmaker Zola Maseko’s video recording on the life of Bartmann point out, we
know little about Bartmann’s agency in this arrangement.7 What Bartmann
lost by being displayed as a “freak” is far clearer to us through our modern
sensibilities than what she might have gained for herself and her family.
Bartmann may not have been aware of the power of the sexual stereotypes that were created in her image, but women of African descent who
followed most certainly were.8 Black women struggled to exercise agency
and self-definition concerning these images and the social practices that
they defended. Evidently aware of the sexual stereotypes applied to women
of African descent, Josephine Baker played the part of the “primitive,” but
for her own reasons.9 Baker entertained the French with her openness
about her body, an important example of how an imagined, uncivilized,
wild sexuality remained associated with Blackness within Western social
thought and continued as a sign of racial difference. But was Baker really
sexually liberated, or was her performance a carefully planned illusion that,
in the African American trickster tradition, was designed to titillate and
manipulate the tastes of her European audiences? Baker’s biography suggests a level of sophistication that enabled her to move far beyond her initial depiction as a bare-breasted “primitive.” Baker may have initially done
banana dances, but from her point of view, she escaped performing the
ubiquitous “mammy songs” assigned to Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters,
and other talented African American women then performing in the
United States. In France, Baker ensured that she was well compensated for
her performances.



The work of contemporary artists such as Destiny’s Child also invokes
the contradictions of sexualized spectacle and Black women’s agency or
self-determination. Transported from the immediacy of live stage performances, Destiny’s Child perform in the intimate yet anonymous terrain
of CDs, music videos, movies, Internet websites, and other forms of contemporary mass media. Here each consumer of “Independent Woman” or
“Bootylicious” can imagine a one-on-one relationship with one, two, or all
three members of Destiny’s Child, whose images and artistry are purchased, rented, or downloaded under the control of the consumer. Under
conditions of racial segregation, mass media provides a way that racial difference can safely enter racially segregated private spaces of living rooms
and bedrooms. Destiny’s Child may not be like the girls next door, but they
can be seen on home theater and heard via headphones within the privacy
of individual consciousness. In this new mass media context, Black sexual
stereotypes are rendered virtually invisible by their ubiquity; yet, they persist through a disconnected mélange of animal skins, sexually explicit
lyrics, breast worship, and focus on the booty. Destiny’s Child may entertain and titillate; yet, their self-definitions as “survivors” and “independent women” express female power and celebration of the body and booty.
The women in Destiny’s Child are also wealthy. Just who is being “controlled” in these new arenas? For what purpose? Their message contains a
defiance denied to Bartmann and Baker—“It’s my body, it’s my booty, and
I’ll do what I want with it—can you handle it?”
What are we to make of Jennifer Lopez? As a Latina,10 where does she
fit in this story of Western constructions of “wild” Black sexuality, the
social construction of racial difference, and Black people’s reactions to
them? Like Josephine Baker before her, Jennifer Lopez is celebrated and
makes a considerable amount of money. Elevating Jennifer Lopez’s buttocks to icon status invokes historical meanings of Black female sexuality
and takes the politics of race and sexuality to an entirely new plane. In this
case, a Latina brushed with the hint of Blackness and not clearly of African
descent carries the visible sign of Black sexuality. In order to be marketed,
Black sexuality need not be associated solely with bodies that have been
racially classified as “Negro,” “mulatto,” or “Black.” Western imaginations have long filled in the color, moving women from Black to White and
back again depending on the needs of the situation. In antebellum
Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, White men



desired quadroons and octoroons as prostitutes because such women
looked like White women, but they were actually Black women, with all
that that implied about women’s sexuality.11 J-Lo’s fluid ethnicity in her
films, from the Chicana in Selena to the racial/ethnic ambiguity in subsequent roles, illustrates the shifting contours of racial/ethnic classification.
When it comes to “hot-blooded” Latinas, one might ask which part of
their “blood” carries the spice of sexual looseness? 12 This all seems to be a
far cry from the commodification of Sarah Bartmann’s buttocks—or is it?
The fact that these examples involve women of actual or imputed
African descent is no accident because the racial difference assigned to
Black people has often come in gender specific forms. In the nineteenth
century, women stood as symbols of race and women from different races
became associated with differentially valued expressions of sexuality.
During this period marked by the rise of European nationalism, England,
France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy all jockeyed
with varying degrees of success to define themselves as nation-states. Each
followed its own distinctive path in constructing its own national identity
and that of its colonies. Yet they shared one overriding feature—the treatment of women within each respective nation-state as well as within the
colonies were important to national identity.13 Ideas of pure White womanhood that were created to defend women of the homeland required a
corresponding set of ideas about hot-blooded Latinas, exotic Suzy Wongs,
wanton jezebels, and stoic native squaws. Civilized nation-states required
uncivilized and backward colonies for their national identity to have meaning, and the status of women in both places was central to this entire
endeavor. In this context, Black women became icons of hypersexuality.14
Men of African descent were also seen as hypersexual beings that have
generated similar icons.15 During the era of live entertainment, and until
the onset of the technologies that made mass media possible, men were
objectified differently from women. The West African slave trade and
Southern auction blocks treated both Black women’s and men’s bodies as
objects for sale, yet women participated in sexual spectacles to a greater
degree than did men, because Western ideas about women and femininity
itself have long been more tightly wedded to ideas about women’s physical
beauty and sexual attractiveness. Even today, men are far more likely to stare
at and comment upon women’s breasts, buttocks, legs, face, and other body
parts than are women to subject men’s bodies to this type of scrutiny. Like



all women, Black women were objects to be seen, enjoyed, purchased, and
used, primarily by White men with money. African women’s sexuality may
have piqued the prurient interest of Western audiences, but African men’s
sexuality was seen as dangerous and in need of control. Live expressions of
Black male sexuality needed to be hidden from White spectators, especially
audiences that might contain White women. Until recently, the very tenets
of female respectability made it impossible for a female audience to cheer on
a live male sex show, especially a White female audience viewing Black men
as sexual beings. Assumptions of heterosexuality also inhibit males viewing
other males as sexual objects. A situation in which White men view Black
male bodies as sexual objects potentially creates a homoerotic space that is
incompatible with ideas of straight White masculinity.
Mass media technologies profoundly altered this reliance on face-toface spectatorship and live entertainment. Television, video, DVD, and the
Internet enabled images of Black women and men to enter living rooms,
bedrooms, family rooms, and other private domestic spaces. Black male
images could now enter private White spaces, one step safely removed
because these were no longer live performances and Black men no longer
appeared in the flesh. These technological advances enabled the reworking
of Black male sexuality that became much more visible, yet was safely contained. Take, for example, the stylized music video performances of hip-hop
artists. Camera angles routinely are shot from a lower position than the rapper in question, giving the impression that he is looming over the viewer. In
real life, being this close to young African American men who were singing
about sex and violence and whose body language included fists, angry gestures, and occasional crotch-grabbing might be anxiety provoking for the
typical rap and hip-hop consumer (most are suburban White adolescents).
Yet viewing these behaviors safely packaged within a music video protects
consumers from any possible contact with Black men who are actually in the
videos. Just who are these videos for? What are the imagined race, gender,
and sexual orientations of the viewers? Black men have long given performances that placed sexuality center stage—Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger,
and rapper Eminem all recognized and profited from this reality—but the
sexual implications of viewing Black men in the flesh rarely made it out of
African American settings where such performances had a different meaning. It is one thing to visit a Black nightclub to hear singer Millie Jackson’s
live performance of raunchy blues or gather in a neighbor’s living room to



listen to Redd Foxx records. It is entirely another to sit in an interracial
audience and listen to comedian Eddie Murphy’s uncensored boasting concerning Black male sexual prowess; or to count the times within a music
video that the camera hones in on rapper Ja Rule’s crotch.
Western perceptions of the sexuality of men of African descent also
became central to the national identities of European nation-states engaged
in colonial projects. England, France, and other colonial powers constructed
their national identities by manipulating ideas about men in the home country and in their colonies. The United States followed a similar path, with
ideas about race and masculinity intertwined with ideas about American citizenship.16 Like their female counterparts, men of African descent were also
perceived to have excess sexual appetite, yet with a disturbing additional feature, a predilection for violence. In this context, the “White heroes” of
Western Europe and the United States became constructed in relation to the
“Black beasts” of Africa.17 Moreover, both were used to signal the hierarchical relationship between colonizers and colonies. Overall, colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation relied upon this discourse of Black sexuality to
create tightly bundled ideas about Black femininity and Black masculinity
that in turn influenced racial ideologies and racial practices.
As these systems of racial rule recede in the post–civil rights era, what
if anything is taking their place? Over one hundred years ago, African
American intellectual William E. B. DuBois predicted that the problem of
the twentieth century would be the presence of the color line. By that,
DuBois meant that the policies of colonialism and racial segregation were
designed to create, separate, and rank the various “races” of man. Until
legally outlawed in the 1950s and 1960s, the color line policies of Jim Crow
racial segregation kept the vast majority of African Americans from quality educations, good jobs, adequate health care, and the best neighborhoods. In contrast, the problem of the twenty-first century seems to be the
seeming absence of a color line. Formal legal discrimination has been outlawed, yet contemporary social practices produce virtually identical racial
hierarchies as those observed by DuBois. By whatever measures used in the
United States or on a global scale, people of African descent remain disproportionately clustered at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The effects
of these historical exclusions persist today under a new racism.18
It is important to note that the new racism of the early twenty-first
century has not replaced prior forms of racial rule, but instead incorpo-



rates elements of past racial formations. As a result, ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and Black people as well as the social practices that these
ideas shape and reflect remain intricately part of the new racism, but in
changed ways. The new racism thus reflects a situation of permanence and
change. Just as people of African descent were disadvantaged within prior
forms of economic organization, a similar outcome exists today. On a
global scale, wealth and poverty continue to be racialized. This is permanence. At the same time, racial hierarchy is produced in a context of massive economic, political, and social change that organizes racial hierarchy
differently. The processes used to maintain the same outcome are also different. In a similar fashion, ideas about sexuality and gender that were very
much a part of prior forms of racial rule remain as important today. They
too are differently organized to produce remarkably similar results.
First, new forms of global capitalism frame the new racism.
Globalization itself is certainly not new—it was a core characteristic of
former patterns of racism. The African slave trade had a global reach and
its legacy created the contemporary African Diaspora. The colonial wealth
of Europe was based on a global system of racial subordination of people
of color. Yet the increasing concentration of capital in the hands of fewer
and fewer corporations distinguishes the contemporary global capitalism
from its nineteenth-century counterpart. Today, relatively few transnational corporations are driving the world economy and their decisions
affect the global distribution of wealth and poverty. These new forms of
global organization have polarized world populations. On one end are elites
who are wealthy beyond the imagination, and who have the freedom to
come and go as they please, wherever and whenever they want. The locals,
the people who are stuck in one place, without jobs, and for whom time
seems to creep by, populate the other end.19
People of African descent are routinely disadvantaged in this global
economy in which corporations make the decisions and in which “the company is free to move; but the consequences of the move are bound to stay.”20
Within a global context, Black people and other people of color are those
more likely to lose jobs in local labor markets. They are the ones who lack
control over oil, mineral wealth, or other natural resources on their land;
who lose their land to global agribusiness; and who are denied basic services
of electricity and clean water, let alone the luxury goods of the new information age. The benefits of telecommunications and other new technolo-



gies have had a far greater impact on Whites than on people of African
descent and other people of color. For example, though Europe and North
America constitute 20 percent of the world’s population, two-thirds of all
televisions and radios are owned and controlled in these two regions.21
The new racism is also characterized by a changing political structure
that disenfranchises people, even if they appear to be included. In the
United States, for example, people may vote, but corporations and other
propertied entities wield tremendous influence in deciding the outcome of
elections because they fund campaigns. All levels of government have been
affected by a growing concentration of economic power that has fostered
corporate influence over public policy. This same process operates in a
transnational context. Global corporations increasingly dominate national,
regional, and local governance. This concentrated economic power erodes
the authority of national governments and has created unprecedented
migrations of people and jobs both within and between nation-states. The
ineffectiveness of transnational governance and domestic policies of racial
desegregation in reducing Black poverty suggests an important link joining the experiences of people of African descent with postcolonial governance and the experiences of African Americans in the United States with
racial desegregation. The outcome is reconfigured social hierarchies of
race, class, gender, and sexuality, with people of African descent clumped
at the bottom. Patterns of desegregation and subsequent resegregation of
African Americans in the United States resemble the decolonization and
recolonization that characterizes the global context.22
The new racism also relies more heavily on mass media to reproduce
and disseminate the ideologies needed to justify racism. There are two
themes here—the substance of racial ideologies under the new racism and
the forms in which ideologies are created, circulated, and resisted. Ideas
about Black sexuality certainly appear in contemporary racial ideologies.
But the growing significance of Black popular culture and mass media as
sites for creating and resisting racial ideologies is also striking. The films,
music, magazines, music videos, and television shows of global entertainment, advertising, and news industries that produce superstars like
Jennifer Lopez help manufacture the consent that makes the new racism
appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable.23
The challenges of the new racism have been especially pronounced for
African American women and men, the subjects of this book. The issues



associated with the politics of the new racism and with the manipulation of
ideologies within them, in the case of African Americans, the discourse on
Black sexuality, affect everyone. But the specific form that race and gender
politics take for African Americans can serve as an important site for examining these larger issues. Moreover, the African American community contains a crucial subpopulation in these debates. A generation of young
African American men and women who were born after the struggles for
civil rights, Black power, and African nation-state independence has come
of age under this new racism. Referred to as the hip-hop generation, this
group has encountered, reproduced, and resisted new forms of racism that
continue to rely on ideas about Black sexuality. Expecting a democratic,
fair society with equal economic opportunities, instead, this group faced
disappearing jobs, crumbling schools, drugs, crime, and the weakening of
African American community institutions. The contradictions of the
post–civil rights era affect all African Americans, yet they have been especially pronounced for Black youth.24
A M E R I C A — A S E X U A L LY R E P R E S S I V E S O C I E T Y ?

Sexualized Black bodies seem to be everywhere in contemporary mass
media, yet within African American communities, a comprehensive understanding of sexual politics remains elusive. In a social context that routinely depicts men and women of African descent as the embodiment of
deviant sexuality, African American politics has remained curiously silent
on issues of gender and sexuality. As a result, African Americans lack a
vibrant, public discussion of the complex issues that the prevailing discourse on Black sexuality has raised for African American men and
women. In more candid moments, however, some African American
thinkers stress how damaging the absence of a self-defined Black sexual
politics can be. As African American cultural critic Cheryl Clarke pointed
out over twenty years ago:
Like all Americans, black Americans live in a sexually repressive culture. And we have made all manner of compromise regarding our sexuality in order to live here. We have expended much energy trying to
debunk the racist mythology which says our sexuality is depraved.
Unfortunately, many of us have overcompensated and assimilated the



Puritan value that sex is for procreation, occurs only between men
and women, and is only valid within the confines of heterosexual
marriage. . . . Like everyone else in America who is ambivalent in these
respects, black folk have to live with the contradictions of this limited
sexual system by repressing or closeting any other sexual/erotic urges,
feelings, or desires.25

Given the saturation of American mass media with sexual themes, and the
visibility of sexualized spectacles that include men and women of African
descent within movies, music videos, and popular music in particular,
Clarke’s comments may seem to be odd. How can American culture be
“sexually repressive” when sexuality seems to be everywhere? White
actresses routinely play roles that include graphic sex scenes. Moreover,
Black women are not downtrodden rape victims, but instead, also seem to
be in control of their own sexuality. Director Spike Lee’s African
American leading lady Nola Darling seemed to be calling the shots in She’s
Gotta Have It, Lee’s groundbreaking film about Black female sexuality.
Destiny’s Child and J-Lo certainly do not seem “repressed.” How can
African Americans be sexually “closeted” when Black sexuality itself
serves as an icon for sexual freedom?
For African Americans, these questions are crucial, especially in the
context of the post–civil rights era in which Black popular culture and
mass media are increasingly important for racial rule. Sexual regulation
occurs through repression, both by eliminating sexual alternatives and by
shaping the public debates that do exist. In order to prosper, systems of
oppression must regulate sexuality, and they often do so by manufacturing
ideologies that render some ideas commonsensical while obscuring others.
The expanding scope of mass media makes this process more visible and,
more important, in the United States, does seem to have produced a “sexually repressive culture.”
The treatment of human sexuality in American society reflects a curious
combination of censorship and excessive visibility (e.g., hypervisibility), of
embarrassed silences and talk-show babble. On the one hand, since colonial
times, selected groups within U.S. society have striven to suppress a wide
range of sexual ideas and practices.26 American colonists paid close attention
to the sexual behavior of individuals, not to eliminate sexual expression but to
channel it into what they thought was its proper setting and purpose, namely,



as a “duty and a joy within marriage, and for purposes of procreation.”27
More recently, the election of conservative Republican Ronald Reagan in
1980 emboldened the Christian Right to advance a fundamentalist family values discourse. Resembling the colonial discourse from the 1600s, the contemporary family values position argues (1) all sexual practices should occur
only within the confines of heterosexual marriage; (2) the fundamental purpose of sexuality is procreation; and (3) children should be protected from all
sexual information with the exception of abstinence as the preferred form of
birth control before marriage.
This historical and contemporary agenda that has suppressed and
often censored a range of ideas concerning human sexuality has made it
difficult to have open, candid, and fact-based public debates. This censorship not only affects public dialogues but it also influences research on
human sexuality.28 Heterosexism, with its ideas about what constitutes normal and deviant sexuality holds sway to the point where significant gaps
exist in the social science literature on human sexuality. Despite the conservative thrust since 1980, the suppression of a range of ideas about
human sexuality is not new. Research done in the 1950s by Alfred Kinsey
and his colleagues at Indiana University provides a textbook case of sexual
censorship. Kinsey’s work treated all sexual practices, including homosexuality and bisexuality, as inherently “normal” and defined the array of sexual practices reported by study participants as benign indicators of human
difference. But Kinsey’s work virtually ground to a halt when funding for
this line of scientific research dried up.
It has taken the field some time to recover from this censorship. In
essence, heterosexism and its accompanying assumptions of heterosexuality
operate as a hegemonic or taken-for-granted ideology that has influenced
research on human sexuality. Societal norms that install heterosexuality as
the only way to be normal still hold sway.29 For example, the term sexuality
itself is used so synonymously with heterosexuality that schools, churches,
and other social institutions treat heterosexuality as natural, normal, and
inevitable. Studying sexual practices that stray too far from prevailing
norms, for example, sex outside of marriage, adolescent sexuality, homosexuality, and formerly taboo sexual practices such as anal and oral sex,
become situated within a social problems framework. This approach not
only stigmatizes individuals and groups who engage in alternative sexual
practices but it also reinforces views of human sexuality itself as being a



problem that should not be discussed in public. Alternately, research on
human sexuality is often annexed to bona fide social problems, for example, adolescent pregnancy and people living with HIV/AIDS. Sexuality
seems to be everywhere, but research that investigates variations in human
sexuality outside of a social problems framework has only recently come to
the forefront.
The treatment of sex education in American public schools illustrates
how a sexually repressive culture strives to render human sexuality invisible. Sex education remains a hot topic, with students receiving spotty
information at best. Topics that are important to adolescents have been difficult to include within sex education programs. Despite high student
interest and a growing recognition that comprehensive sex education
might save lives, programs tend to shy away from discussing sexuality
before marriage, the use of contraception, homosexuality, and other controversial topics. Ironically, the checkered pattern of research on human
sexuality offers a good case for how heterosexism operates as a system of
power that negatively affects straight and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) students alike. Because adolescents of all sexual orientations are in the process of forming sexual identities, they are especially
affected by heterosexism. For example, despite a high adolescent pregnancy rate, worrisome increases in the rate of HIV infection among
American adolescents, and emerging research demonstrating that high
school students grappling with LGBT identities are more prone to depression and suicide, the reluctance to talk openly about human sexuality
within U.S. schools places students at risk. Similarly, a special report on
adolescent sexuality points to the difficulties of collecting data on adolescent conceptions of abstinence.30 Anecdotal reports suggest that many adolescents who engage in oral sex think that they are practicing abstinence
because they are refraining from genital sexual intercourse. These practices may protect them from pregnancy, but they also expose adolescents to
risks of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.31
Despite these repressive practices, on the other hand, sexual ideas and
images within contemporary U.S. society enjoy a visibility that would have
been unheard of in Kinsey’s 1950s America. Recognizing that sex sells,
corporations increasingly use it to sell cars, toothpaste, beer, and other consumer goods. This media saturation has made sexual spectacles highly visible within American popular culture. Soap operas, prime time television,



billboards, music videos, movies, and the Internet all contain explicit sexual material. Making sex highly visible in marketplace commodity relations
becomes important to maintaining profitability within the U.S. capitalist
political economy. The goal is neither to stimulate debate nor to educate,
but to sell products.
In the absence of other forums, talk shows on network television provide one important public medium for gaining sexual information.
Unfortunately, such shows foster the commodification of sexuality.
Stressing sexually explicit conversations that titillate rather than instruct,
talk shows illustrate how marketplace relations profit from sexual spectacles. By the early 2000s, this market had segmented into a variety of shows,
each carving out its specific identity, often based on distinctive norms
regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality.32 For example, The Montel
Williams Show routinely trumpets the benefits of the heterosexual family,
primarily by extolling the role of fathers in their children’s lives. By itself,
this message is fairly innocuous. However, the show’s format creates sexual spectacles that function as modern-day morality plays about race, gender, and sexuality. Mr. Williams, an African American, routinely conducts
paternity tests for women who are not “sure” who fathered their babies.
The potential fathers are invited to hear the results of the paternity test on
the air, with a stern talk by Mr. Williams concerning their “responsibility”
to those branded as fathers by DNA evidence. This family drama is played
out repeatedly, with Mr. Williams readying himself to deliver the message
to wayward young men—if you take it out of your pants, you need to take
care of your babies. Moreover, as an African American man married to a
White woman, on his show Mr. Williams repeatedly brings on workingclass, interracial couples in which young White mothers try to get their
sexually irresponsible Black boyfriends to claim paternity. If this weren’t
enough, Mr. Williams also devotes shows to the pain experienced by biracial children in search of their wayward parents.
The Maury Povich Show also trades in this racial family drama, but
with more emphasis on race and sexuality. Not only does Mr. Povich, a
White American, present shows in which White women seek paternity
tests for their Black male partners, Mr. Povich presents Black women and
Black men in an especially stark light. One show, for example, featured a
Black woman who brought on nine Black men as candidates for her sixmonth-old daughter’s “baby daddy.”33 All nine failed the paternity test.



After the revelation, with cameras rolling in search of the all-important
“money shot,”34 Mr. Povich followed the distraught young mother backstage, and volunteered to keep working with her until she had tracked
down the Black deadbeat dad. Like Mr. Williams, Mr. Povich delivers a
message about responsibility to the DNA-branded fathers. Via the choice
of topic, and showing the African American woman whose sexuality was so
out of control that she had no idea who had fathered her child, Mr. Povich
panders to longstanding societal beliefs about Black sexuality.
The crying and raw emotion solicited on Mr. Williams’s and Mr.
Povich’s shows pales in comparison to the staged sexual spectacles of The
Jerry Springer Show. Reminiscent of the London freak shows of Sarah
Bartmann’s time, Mr. Springer’s shows routinely combine sexuality and
violence, two sure-fire audience builders. Here participants are invited to
come on the air and reveal “secrets” to seemingly unsuspecting spouses,
lovers, and friends. The “secrets” routinely involve cheating, lying, and
false paternity. By his choice of guests, Mr. Springer’s show also takes sexual spectacles to an entirely new level. Morbidly obese women parade across
the stage in bikinis, verbally taunting the audience to comment on their
appearance. In a context in which women’s bodies are routinely sexualized,
displaying seemingly hideous female bodies is designed to shock and solicit
ridicule. These confessional talk shows also routinely conduct paternity
tests, show pictures of babies who lack legal fathers, discuss sexual infidelity, and display audience members in sexually explicit clothing (or lack
thereof). For many Americans, these shows substitute for public discussions
of sexuality because few other outlets are available.
African Americans are well represented in the pub