Sex Stereotypes of African Americans Have Long History
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And now we are going to outsiders who give us a historical look at the black body as a product. With me is Herbert Samuels, a sex educator and professor of natural and applied sciences at LaGuardia Community College in New York. And also Mireille Miller-Young, a women's studies professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. Welcome to you both.
Professor HERBERT SAMUELS (Natural and Applied Sciences, LaGuardia Community College): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
CHIDEYA: Thank you.
Professor MIREILLE MILLER-YOUNG (Women's Studies, University of California): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So Mireille, let's start with you. Siobhan found that black women were paid less, treated worse than other strippers. What do you think that says about the value that's placed on black women's bodies in general?
Prof. MILLER-YOUNG: Oh absolutely. I think that Siobhan is very correct in her research. She talks a lot about in her work, which I've read extensively, about the lower erotic capital of black women in the sex economy as being reflective of our lower value in the entire labor economy. And I think that - my work specifically looks at pornography, for example - you can see that in the production of the types of films that black women appear in: lower production value, less of the kind of market, lower kind of values in how they treat the workers. Women are paid half to three quarters of what white actresses tend to make. And this, you know, reflects the ways in which black bodies have historically been devalued in our labor market since, you know, slavery to the present. I think that, you know, it speaks to the ways in which there's this simultaneous problem that was like a deep desire to have those bodies present and to consume those bodies as commodities, but a deep disgust for black people, our humanity and our bodies, at the same time that allows that devaluing to function.
CHIDEYA: Herbert, you study intimacy. Now, stripping and pornography are multi-billion-dollar industries. They provide one view of black sexuality. Do they tell the real story of how African-Americans are - Siobhan mentioned this view of black folks as oversexed, for example.
Prof. SAMUELS: Well, in many ways it's a social paradox that if you look at the history, and really going back to the mid-1500s or so and continuing on to slavery within the United States and even further than that, black men and women were said to be animalistic in their sexual desires, particularly black men. That black women were very easy and responded enthusiastically towards any sexual advance that anyone would want to approach them.
And now we get to a point where if the paradox is the devaluation of what in the erotic industry or the sex work industry is doing is the exact opposite of what one would think given the history and attitudes particularly that white societies had about African-American men and women.
CHIDEYA: What strikes me is that both of you, and Siobhan, are also in this world where sex and sexuality is being discussed in an academic way as never before. And Mireille, you wrote a 2005 article for Color Lines magazine that talked about what you said, quote, "the institutional sexism and racism of the adult entertainment business." Why do you want to study this? Why is this important? I feel like, you know, for example, a lot of my relatives probably right now are saying, why is Farai even covering this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. MILLER-YOUNG: I'm glad you are covering it. Thank you. Because this needs to be discussed in our community. I think that, you know, part of the problem is that, you know, our kind of freedom struggle has been like deeply masculinist, often misogynistic in its nationalism in terms of ignoring the kind of labors of not only women, but gay people, trans people.
We have, like, a deep history that has kind of been articulated through homophobia and through erotophobia. And it's understandable. I mean, you know, what Dr. Samuels was speaking of, that we have to understand from the beginning. Slavery existed as a sexual economy, and that black bodies have always been (unintelligible) both breeders and concubines. They have been erotic - kind of illicit erotic commodities in an economy that is built upon our labor.
And one of the ways in which black communities try to deal with that is through kind of this culture of dissemblance or scholars discuss it. Which is basically about disidentifying with sexuality, you know, in total, in order to protect their selves from that kind of symbolic and actual threat that, you know, being hypersexual posed, particularly, you know, for example, the kind of scapegoating of black people in lynching as being, you know, sexual animals.
So, you know, we can have understand the kind of politics of respectability, then, as a way to kind of, you know, protect the community. But ends up - the problem is that it polices the community and disallows us to even talk about sex. Sex becomes the unspeakable. And it's so shocking and taboo within our own community for many people to talk about sex, let alone sexual labor, which my interest is in drawing a kind of genealogy to talk about. There's been a long history of black women and men participating in sexual labor as one kind of labor option…
CHIDEYA: Let me…
Prof. MILLER-YOUNG: …(unintelligible) kind of space.
CHIDEYA: Let me get Herbert back in here, because I was really struck by Mereille talking about the way that African-American folks, we may disidentify with sexuality as a whole in order to protect the image of the community. Do you think, Herbert, that the struggle between this view of the hyper-sexualized black man and black woman and the kind of correct, you know, right path walking person creates a space where people who are not strippers and not necessarily anti-pornography crusaders just feel like, gosh, you know, what can I do as a person in order to express myself as a full person, but also, you know, sort of be a standup person. Does that make any sense to you?
Prof. SAMUELS: Oh, sure. It makes perfect sense. And there's always been a split within the black community about accepting your sexuality for what it is and in what it might be presented to a larger community. And again, it goes back to the hyper sexuality of black men and black women. And you walk a fine line where you want to have a satisfying sex life yourself but you don't want to be perceived as being overly due it.
So the pendulum sort of swings back and forth to where you have - in certain situations where you want to, you know, have a mainstream view, but in other situations you are told that you are, you know, something that you're not. And then trying to come to grips with that and trying to develop a sexual identity that you're comfortable with oftentimes leaves people in almost a sense of cognitive dissonance, if you will.
CHIDEYA: We've been talking mainly about black women. And women are more likely, I believe, to be involved in the sex industry, but there are certainly men who engage both on the legal side of stripping and the illegal side of prostitution. How are men in general affected by the way that men are portrayed in, whether it's pornography or, you know, onstage, things like that? Herbert first, and then Mireille if we have time.
Prof. SAMUELS: Sure. Well, that's a double-edged sword. I mean, if you look at it from one perspective, the number of things that have been said about black men in this country for the most part have been about as negative as you can possibly get. That you're shiftless, that you're no good. I mean, in terms of that.
And if you can get one positive thing out of it, if someone says that you are good at sex or that your penis is bigger than anyone else's, that's about the only positive that you can get out of all those negatives to a certain extent. And I think some black men have bought into the myth that they are hyper sexual, that their sexual prowess and the size, the physicality is greater than others. And it's sort of a false identity that sets up, and you buy into that myth yourself rather than discovering who you are as an individual.
CHIDEYA: Very, very, very briefly, Mireille. What about men?
Prof. MILLER-YOUNG: Yeah, I think that it's really interesting what's happening with men, at least in the pornography business. Black men have historically been really marginal, but it's been in the past, you know, ten years that actual male stars in the industry are black men.
So something's happening where, and I think perhaps through the kind of popularization of hip-hop and the kinds of, you know, hyper consumption around black masculinity as it's being commodified throughout the world, there's a certain way in which, you know, black men have come to stand in as, like, the symbol of sexual prowess that a lot of white men…
CHIDEYA: We've got a…
Prof. MILLER-YOUNG: …are buying into.
CHIDEYA: All right, Mireille, Herbert, thank you so much.
Prof. MILLER-YOUNG: Thank you.
Prof. SAMUELS: My pleasure.
CHIDEYA: Herbert Samuels, sex educator and professor at LaGuardia Community College, and Mireille Miller-Young from UC Santa Barbara.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, a new resource to find slave ancestors and Condoleezza Rice's first authorized biography.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.