"When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women, of that creative energy empowered , the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives. "
--Audre Lorde "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power"
Once upon a time, I was a junior at UC San Diego who couldn't get enough of bell hooks and frequently quoted Dorothy Roberts. I was studying the impact of race on gender and learning much about myself as a young, black woman. That's what college does to you.
One gorgeous day I was shopping at a Crown's Bookstore going-out-of-business sale in La Jolla, Calif. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this one caught my attention. Right on the front was a waist-up shot of a partially-nude black woman. She and I were the only black faces in the store. La Jolla is wealthy city, and there aren't many people of color there. The model was confident in her dark skin. Her arms crossed under her chest barely covered her breasts. The image was on the cover of Brown Sugar: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, edited by Carol Taylor. I assumed Brown Sugar was like a chocolate version of Harlequin but was proven wrong after a few pages. I was seduced by the beautifully written and detailed stories about black characters and their sexual experiences.
The tales showed the diversity within black sexuality: male, female, gay, straight and bisexual. I appreciated reading about black women enjoying sex, their bodies and defining their own sexuality. Not how some hip-hop music, exploitative talk shows or other mediums have put a negative mark on black female sexuality. Black women writers in this book were asserting their identity. The book only cost four bucks. I could afford that on my college budget.
I paid the cashier and read more the instant I returned to my apartment.
I was intrigued, because I didn't know black people wrote stuff like this. I started to do some digging and learned of the 1992 collection, Erotique Noire:Black Erotica which three college professors edited -- Miriam DeCosta- Willis, Reginald Martin and the late Roseann P. Bell. Fast forward a few months later. While watching HBO's Real Sex one late night, fate led me to the Oakland-based poetry group The Punany Poets. FYI, "punany" is a Caribbean term for sweet vagina. Then New York Times bestselling author Zane shot into the publishing stratosphere.
Black erotic lit fascinated me, and I took my curiosity to another level by conducting a research project on the genre at UCSD. My study looked at the history of black sexuality and how black erotic literature influences how black women perceive their sexuality today. I presented this paper at a research conference where some men and women were engaged. One woman in the audience said the material was "disgusting." I remember when I took classes at the all-male Morehouse College through an exchange program. A couple of guys who learned of my research project called me a "porn lady. " These were guys who made jokes and listened to edgy music. It's interesting how some people are uncomfortable with having a mature discussion about sex but feel more at ease with raunch. Still, many people asked for copies of my paper.
Black erotica was hot when I caught on to it in college. Black women were reading Zane's books on the trains and buses. Friends secretly confessed about reading erotic books and talked about the love scenes. My family friend told me she read the books in bed with her husband. But everyone wasn't, nor still is, in love. Some black folks find it degrading and think the stories reinforce the stereotype of black people being oversexed.
I decided to do further research on the controversy surrounding black erotic lit in graduate school. I took a totally different approach to my research than in undergrad. Running my pitch by some of the journalism school faculty at the University of Southern California was definitely a fun and interesting experience. There were cheeks blushing, nervous laughter and throat clearing in their offices. My thesis committee was entirely male, and they were very supportive. The project is my baby and I'm proud to say I finished it and am sharing it with you on my blog Cocoa Fly.
Things have changed since I completed my thesis in 2006. It seems like black erotic lit may have reached its climax. People are still reading and authors are selling books. But I feel like the hype isn't there anymore. It's almost like being with same lover for a long time. You know his/her routine in the bedroom and have explored their physical territory many times. It's not as exciting as the first time, but you still love them. Is it time to spice things up in black erotica literature? I don't mean more sex, but does black erotic lit need a rebirth?
I've posted my thesis in three parts called "Under the Covers: The Popularity and Debate Over Black Erotic Literature." Don't worry, it's not long because I wrote it like a magazine feature store. I'm publishing the original content from 2006, so some of the stats may be a little outdated. The meat of the piece is still relevant. The piece features interviews with some of the authors I named above, sex experts and readers.
Jenee D. Cocoa Fly http://cocoafly.blogspot.com
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