Our avenues for joy and love are expansive even in the face of the violently compulsive heteronormativity. 


By Kim M Reynolds

Audre Lorde defines the erotic as a “creative source,” something that is incredibly generative and “self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.” The erotic functions as a respect for life, a recognition and practice of intentionality and sense of love that combats the individualistic and oppressive world order we live in.

The erotic is joy and a harnessing of self—from the joy of making love to the joy of sitting in the company of loved ones. It is complex and nuanced—an engagement with life that is not simply one thing or the other, but a multiplicity. Because of its expansiveness and, the way it destigmatizes sensuality and does not reduce it only to sex, Lorde’s erotic necessarily opens up our understanding of how queer folks can experience joy in a world that tries to limit us. 

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The stereotype of Black hypersexuality and the demonizing of queerness are wrapped up in colonialism and white supremacy. In settler colonies like the US or South Africa, white supremacy was built on ideas of Black inferiority and sexualized and gendered violence. The routine rape of Black women in both countries is justified as Black women are made to be a spectacle, hypersexual, and for the consumption and use of white men.

The enforcement of heterosexuality also stems from white supremacist ideas. South African scholar Desiree Lewis notes that the racist ideas regarding the primitiveness of Black people were connected to ideas of reproduction on basic levels, making homosexual expressions illegitimate. These ideas as well as the imposition of Christianity fuel and sustain homophobia and transphobia in the world broadly. 

With all of this in mind, how do bodies that have been constructed with so much violence find pleasure? What can Black queer relationships offer to healing? Black queer films like Pariah and uNomalanga and the Witch show us the ways the erotic and pleasure can be expressed in the midst of the complexities Black women hold. 

Pariah (2011) is a feature length film that tells the coming of age story of Alike, a high school senior in New York. Alike finds herself stepping into her sexuality and facing the realities of navigating supportive lesbian friendships, having sex for the first time with a woman, hiding her sexuality from her parents until it can no longer be hidden, and being kicked out of her home. She eventually finds a new home in writing, and ultimately in herself. 

via Focus Features

Alike experiences a lot of growing pains in the film—from fumbling with her first strap on, to having her heart broken by a friend who wrote off their intimacy as “playing around,” to experiencing physical violence when she confirms to her mother that she is indeed a “dyke.” But the pleasure Alike experiences still comes in the many forms, just as Lorde indicated it could.

Perhaps the most important experiences we see Alike have come in the affirming relationship between her and Laura, a fellow queer butch woman whom she finds a home with when she can no longer return to hers. Alike also experiences a profound sense of pleasure in self ownership. At the end of the film, the skies seem to part for Alike and her poetry lands her in an early college program, allowing her to leave her hometown and carve out a path that is written by her.  

via Focus Features

South African director Palesa Shongwe’s short film uNomalanga and the Witch (2016) also gives a framework for how queer healing takes place through pleasure. 

The film tells a story of two women, Nomalanga and Salome (the Witch). Nomalanga and her husband Sibusiso have just moved to a new small South African town from Vrede, Free State, after Sibusiso got a teaching job in the area. Nomalanga spends her days maintaining the house and is portrayed as a dedicated wife and Christian woman.

Things change for Nomalanga when she goes to greet her neighbor in a house that everyone seems to avoid as it is rumored that the woman who stays there killed her husband. Nomalanga bakes scones and takes them to the house (along with her bible), and this is where she meets Salome, a single woman who smokes and keeps to herself. After this first interaction, Nomalanga continues to see Salome and we witness an intimate friendship develop through conversations and hair appointments.

via YouTube

One of the most sensual scenes in the film comes when Nomalanga gets her hair done by Salome for the first time. In the intimacy of Salome’s home and the solitude of the working day, Nomalanga sits between Salome’s legs on her back porch and Salome gets to work. She begins moisturizing Nomalanga’s scalp with oil, gently running her hands over her hair from root to tip. This scene is then spliced with close up shots of oil being poured in what are most likely Salome’s hands. The shots become intertwined, one informing the other, both contributing to a sense of eroticism and sensuality.

It is through this subtle act that is routine for Black women that  we can understand that the erotic does not have to express itself in the conventional, taboo-ed ways or simply through physical touch or sex. Lorde tells us that being in touch with the erotic is to be “less willing to accept powerlessness” and derive a sense of joy from life, whether it be in painting or lying in the sun next to a woman you love.

via YouTube

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In both of these films, we can see the pain inflicted on Black women’s bodies; Alike as young queer person rejected by a lover and her mother; Salome as an outcast of her neighborhood who is dubbed a witch for not performing respectability, Christianity or widowhood; and Nomalanga who is forced under the institution of heterosexuality that she is challenging. Each character’s friendships and joy, and Alike’s passion for writing, offered pleasure.

Our avenues for joy and love are expansive even in the face of the violently compulsive heteronormativity. 

Neither of these works overlook the violence or pain or choices or realties Black women experience, but instead create a world where healing can still happen; the erotic can always be harnessed. 

When I think about these films, I think about the rewards of undoing the hierarchy of sensuality. I often think to what James Baldwin had to say in The Fire Next Time, “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

In destigmatizing erotic joy for Black queer people, we can embrace a sense of love about us that isn’t reserved for only one type of relationship, but allows us to move through the world and see each other in more full and human ways.

Kim M Reynolds is a queer Black woman, race and media scholar, writer, organizer, and music lover currently based in Cape Town completing a double masters in media and communications.