Reclaiming our bodies through Black erotica
We must acknowledge it, being both sex and erotica, as *of us* to know the power of pleasure on the page.
by Donnie Moreland
Literarily, the words Black and erotic are dissonent. A by product of what would become synonymous with talk about sex, in the public domain, for Black folk—sin, depravity, immorality, etc. Though canonically scattered, some Black folk do dabble in erotic fiction. A previous romantic partner of mine introduced me to Zane—the most familiar voice of contemporary Black erotica. Addicted (1998), The Sex Chronicles (1999) and The Sex Chronicles: Getting Buck Wild, are titles which come to mind. And though I believe there is much entertainment to be found along the stirring sentences of Zane, and her contemporaries, there is a reliance on a specific scope of Black class performance and dialect to tell these stories, which I find limiting.
I believe the technique by which erotica demands the writer to use the kaliedoscope of Black bodies can cause the page to dance with the dimensions of their sex in the manner by which they deserve and we deserve, in spectatorship, as part of a practice in reparatory meditation. But we must acknowledge it, being both sex and erotica, as of us to know the power of pleasure on the page.
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There hasn’t been much written in investigation of Black erotica. In my research, the last article of note published about the literary subgenre, Michel Marriot’s “Black erotica challenges Black tradition,“ was published in the New York Times in 1997. The article makes mention of erotic fiction as part of the world’s literary canon, but Marriot conflates all contemporary artistc examples of the Black and steamy as erotica—the throughline being Toni Braxton’s 1997 VIBE magazine cover.
What is most interesting is less the authorship and more the opinion of detractors of Black erotic display. Dr. Estelle B. Freedman, when interviewed by Marrriot, entertained the two most common appeals against public illustrations of Black eroticism-racial propaganda and religion. “The assumption is that that is all we are permissive, highly sexual people who are sensually out of control, but nothing could be further from the truth… The other side of the story has not been told that we are a very conservative, moral people who are highly religious and have very strong values and rules about sexuality.”
Freedman’s arguments are historical diatribes which have both dissuaded and excited artists bent on taking stake of Black sexual expressivity in the public forum. Stories such as Cordelia the Crude, written by Wallace Thurman, in the singularly published issue of Fire!! A Quaterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists agitated the Black moral right, and fundamentalist religious middle class, with bluntly drawn images of sex, prostitution, and both especially in the metropolitan areas of interest for young Black folk.
Cordelia begins, almost as an invite for controversy, preferencing the sexual proclivity, and vulnerabilities, of its teenage protagonist: Cordelia. “Physically, if not mentally, Cordelia was a potential prostitute, meaning that although she had not yet realized the moral import of her wanton promiscuity nor become mercenary, she had, nevertheless, become quite blase and bountiful in the matter of bestowing sexual favors upon persuasive and likely young men.”
It is the explicit disregard for literary discretion, in which the Black moral right found means to protest the distribution of the publication and, as it’s been rumored even by publications editing staff, to include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gwendolyn Bennett, that it was this community which organized the burning of the Press House in which the publication was being produced—a type of cruel irony, given the name of the publication.
It is also this position of the Black moral right that we see later literary figures, such as James Baldwin, use sexual imagery to crique the hypocrisy of this argument, given what was occuring in the chambers of those who protested that which was both Black and sensuous. In his 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin takes a moment to unravel the almost sacrilegious sexual proclivities of the zealot Mrs. Hunt during a sequence in which Fonny, our secondary protagonist, recalls overhearing the vulgarity of her and her husband Frank Hunt’s most private affairs.
“I’d hear her say, The Lord sure blessed my soul this evening. Honey, when you going to give your life to the Lord? And, baby, he’d say, and I swear to you he was lying there with his dick getting hard, and, excuse me, baby, but her condition weren’t no better, because this, you dig? Was the game you hear two alley cats playing in the alley……And he’d say, Shit woman, I’m going to bring the Lord to you. I’m the Lord…..he got her naked and got on top of her and she was still crying, Jesus! Help me, Lord! My Daddy would say. You got the Lord now, right here…. Where you want the Lord to enter you, you dirty, dumb black bitch……..And the bed would shake and she would moan and moan….And in the morning…..She still belonged to Jesus.”
Baldwin, here much like his contemporaries such as Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, J. California Cooper, and Jamaica Kincaid used sex as evidence, either as critique of some sinless posturing held up by the Black moral right or as evidence of the fact that Black folk and sex, no matter how perverse, were always synonymous—even in the slave quaters, or in the Master’s chambers, of the Plantation. But even in assuring that we note the history and complexity of our proximity to sex, we still require the evidence of our relationship to orgasm, to lust, to pleasure, and everything a part of our relationship to that which occurs in sex.
In the introduction to Erotique Noire, editor Miriam Decosta-Willis asserts about the Black life span and sex that “the unfortunate fact of life is that so many of us still lead dispirited, buried lives in which full sexual expression is denied us.” Decosta-Willis continues by referencing author Beryl Gilroy’s contention about erotica as reparation. “I think erotic poetry is excellent therapy. I work mainly with ethnic minority women who have never experienced ‘verbalization’ in love and the poems (I firmly believe) trigger all kind of sensations.”
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What Gilroy and Decosta Willis recognize about erotica is that it offers a space to consider the body, the Black body, in an apolitical context. Erotica has the propensity to affirm something about our autonomy, which is essential to the liberation of both the audience and the author. As Decost-Willis further attests, “Opening the vaults” to revel the “hidden [erotic] self” not only frees Black characters but also releases the creative energies of the writer. Audre Lorde calls this life force “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.”
This freedom of the Black body from partriarchial, post-colonial and Post-Slavery disturbances which denies it the healing is ever present between the covers of Erotic Noire, the most comprehensive collection of Black erotic writing to date. And more than just a collection of verse, Erotique Noire is a book of possibility. The possibility of peace offered by the pleasures of the many shades of our many palms. To end, I’ll offer word from the artists of Erotique Noire, as an offering of that very possibility:
a woman’s long legged
wetness wrapped round my waist-dreams
truth-i touch myself
-Kalamu Ya Salaam’s Haiku #52
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.