On the weekend of September 18th through the 21st, the College of Charleston hosted a conference titled Unleashing the Black Erotic: Gender & Sexuality, Passion, Power & Praxis. The conference featured a variety of presenters from colleges all across the nation.
This conference was the first of its kind to me where I saw and heard academia engage in discussion and research about gender and sexuality of black people.
The first panel was titled Visionary Poetics: Imag(in)ing the Black Erotic. This panel gave us a working definition of the term eroticism as Charlene Regester of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill defined Eroticism as hyper sexualized image of women in relation to their body. This first panel gave a historical definition of the way society began to view black sexuality. From Jean Toomer’s “Cane” to Dorothy Dandridge films and the poetry of Essex Hemphill, black sexuality began with a negative connotation.
Joan Morgan’s Keynote address set the tone for the rest of the conference with her lecture on The Pleasure Principle: The search for politics of Pleasure in Black Feminist Thought. She begins with the thought that there is an absence of language that speaks across boards and that is “If you don’t speak for yourself then other people speak for you”. Not telling our own stories results in a misguided view of the image of black women and we thus become victims of other people’s image of us, particularly those who are outside of our communities. The solution then for black women is to identify our own desire and eroticism and tell our stories of pleasure without the trauma and violence that is often accompanied by it, much like the women in Tyler Perry films. The final thought is that black women had to and continue to experience some form of pleasure in order to simply survive. Whatever is someone’s pleasure that brings them happiness or joy then who are we to judge, especially when we as often as we can engage in our forms of pleasure.
Day two of the conference focused on the ways Black women engage in forms of pleasure and display their sexuality. Conseula Frances of College of Charleston, describes in her paper African American Romance Fiction and the Pleasures of Vulnerability reasons black women should read romance literature. In many of the popular stories about black women embracing their sexuality, they are either seen as prostitutes and sluts or face some sort of repercussion for enjoying the pleasure of sex. The difference of romance novels is that the main goal of a Romance novel is to provide pleasure to women. These novels allow women to be their most vulnerable selves and enjoy sex with a tall dark and handsome hero and often times, risks his life to pleasure the woman. As cheesy as these stories might sound, they however provide a reverse to the degradation of Tyler Perry films, which seek to curse Black women for enjoying pleasure.
The final panel on Day two explored the roles of Women and sex in Hip Hop. SaraEllen Strongman of University of Pennsylvania discusses in her paper, Erotic Ambiguity: Janelle Monae’s Gender Performance as Liberatory Politics, the way Soul singer Janelle Monae is able to define her own sexuality. By her dress, music and behavior in interviews, Janelle Monae is able to preserve her erotic power and protect herself from those who might try to destroy her image. Monae has a new age and psychedelic soul sound that is quite different from the rest of her R&B contemporaries, not to mention her self-defined black and white uniform. She is almost always seen in a black and white suit ensemble and never wears anything too low or too short. Monae, quoted in an interview that her music is her work and just like her parents who everyday went to work and wore uniforms, she does the same. Janelle Monae is then able to control the image of her sexuality and keep everyone guessing by choosing not to play into the prescribed images of beauty and sexuality, a lesson for us all.
The conference was overall highly engaging and enlightening and I plan to personally to more writing that brings me pleasure, read some romance novels and reevaluate my personal wardrobe.