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BLACK
SEXUAL
POLITICS
BLACK
SEXUAL
POLITICS
AFRICAN AMERICANS, GENDER,
AND THE NEW RACISM
PAT R I C I A H I L L C O L L I N S
Routledge
New York & London
Published in 2004 by
Routledge
29 West 35th Street
New York, New York 10001
www.routledge-ny.com
Published in Great Britain by
Routledge
11 New Fetter Lane
London EC4P 4EE
www.routledge.co.uk
Copyright © 2004 by Routledge
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2004.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized
in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage
or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Collins, Patricia Hill.
Black sexual politics : African Americans, gender, and the new racism / Patricia
Hill Collins.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-415-93099-5 (cloth : alk. paper)
1. African Americans—Social conditions—1975- 2. African American men. 3.
African American women. 4. Sex role—United States. 5. African American—Sexual
behavior. 6. African American—Race identity. 7. Racism—United States. 8. United
States—Race relations. 9. Sexism—United States. I. Title.
E185.86.C58167 2004
306.7’089’96073—dc22
2003022841
ISBN 0-203-30950-2 Master e-book ISBN
CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
vii
INTRODUCTION: NO TURNING BACK
1
PA R T I
African Americans
and the New R acism
1
WHY BLACK SEXUAL POLITICS?
25
2
THE PAST IS EVER PRESENT: RECOGNIZING
THE NEW RACISM
53
PRISONS FOR OUR BODIES, CLOSETS FOR
OUR MINDS: RACISM, HETEROSEXISM,
AND BLACK SEXUALITY
87
3
PA R T I I
Rethinking Black Gender
Ideology
4
5
6
GET YOUR FREAK ON: SEX, BABIES, AND IMAGES
OF BLACK FEMININITY
119
BOOTY CALL: SEX, VIOLENCE, AND IMAGES OF
BLACK MASCULINITY
149
VERY NECESSARY: REDEFINING BLACK GENDER
IDEOLOGY
181
vi
PA R T I I I
Toward a Prog ressive
Black Sexual Politics
7
8
9
ASSUME THE POSITION: THE CHANGING
CONTOURS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE
215
NO STORYBOOK ROMANCE: HOW RACE AND
GENDER MATTER
247
WHY WE CAN’T WAIT: BLACK SEXUAL POLITICS
AND THE CHALLENGE OF HIV/AIDS
279
AFTERWORD: THE POWER OF A FREE MIND
303
NOTES
309
GLOSSARY
349
BIBLIOGRAPHY
353
INDEX
367
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I begin by thanking students from the University of Cincinnati
for their support of this project. Special thanks go to the
students who enrolled in “Seminar in Black Sexual Politics”
and in “Introduction to Black Gender Studies,” two new
courses in which I explored many of the ideas in this book. The
issues in their lives convinced me of the need for this book.
Undergraduate students also greatly helped my thinking about
contemporary hip-hop culture. Several University of
Cincinnati undergraduate student majors and minors in
African American Studies assisted me as student researchers on
various parts of this project. Adetra “Quay” Martin and Tanya
Walker helped me to complete research on films and popular
culture. Special thanks also go to Eric Styles, Kyle Riddle, Terri
Holland, Erin Ledingham, Keith Melson, Khalila Sanders, and
Torrie Wiggins for their insights.
Graduate students in Women’s Studies and Sociology also
provided important help. Valerie Ruffin made invaluable contributions to this project, both as my research assistant when
she was a student at the University of Cincinnati and as a keen
editorial eye concerning early drafts of this project. Special
thanks also go to Stephen Whittaker for his thorough research
in the literature of masculinities and for reading early drafts of
some of the chapters. Jennifer Gossett, Sarah Byrne, and Jamie
McCauley also shared ideas that improved the final quality of
this manuscript. Vallarie Henderson and Tamika Odum
assisted me with final manuscript preparation.
My University of Cincinnati colleagues also provided
much-needed support for this project. I want to thank Patrice
L. Dickerson for assistance with demographic material and
viii
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
William Jackson for his suggestions and critical eye concerning Black film.
I also enjoyed co-teaching “Introduction to Black Gender Studies” with
Marla Frederick and benefited from the insights of Regina Langley. Both
helped me think through ideas concerning race, gender, and religion.
Sharing the ideas in this project with colleagues greatly strengthened
this book. I especially appreciate being invited to participate in two exciting conferences on Progressive Black Masculinities held in 2001 and 2002 at
the Baldy Center at the University of Buffalo Law School. Organized by
Professor Athena Matua, these conferences helped me think through
issues of Black masculinity. Teresa Miller and John Calmore greatly stimulated my thinking on the prison industry and the treatment of African
American men within it. Special thanks to Devon Carbado, Kendall
Thomas, Thomas Glave, Mark Anthony Neal, Beverly Guy-Sheftall,
Bahati Kuumba, and many other conference participants whose thinking
greatly enriched my own. I also want to thank colleagues at other institutions who invited me to present chapters from this manuscript. A partial
list includes Rebecca Walter at George Mason University, Tom Greaves at
Bucknell University, Jeff Schulz at Arcadia University, Diane Vaughn at
Boston College, Gerald Early at Washington University at St. Louis,
Tukufu Zuberi at the University of Pennsylvania, and Tariq Modood at
the University of Bristol, U.K., where I spent a total of four weeks as a visiting professor in January and June of 2002.
In 2002–2003, I spent a year as a visiting professor at the University of
Kentucky, Lexington. The intellectual stimulation that I encountered
there enabled me to finish the manuscript. The support that I received
from everyone was wonderful. My deep thanks go to Mike Nietzel from
the Provost’s Office, Joan Callahan and Debra Harley in Women’s Studies,
and Gerald Smith in African American Studies. University of Kentucky
graduate students read parts of this manuscript and gave me helpful comments. In this regard, special thanks go out to Yaphet Bryant for her editorial comments on chapters dealing with Black popular culture and to
John Youngblood for his insights concerning the Black Church as well as
issues that face gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Black people. I
also want to thank Rachel Clark, my phenomenal graduate research assistant for the year who gave new meaning to the term “stealth feminist.”
The University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati both
helped defray costs associated with this book. The Provost’s Office at the
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
ix
University of Kentucky provided support that helped with the costs of
manuscript preparation. At the University of Cincinnati, the support provided by the Taft Fund for costs of travel and manuscript preparation has
been invaluable over the years. I also wish to thank Provost Anthony
Perzigian for his tireless support of my scholarship during lean financial
times. The three deans of the College of Arts and Sciences who held
tenure while I completed this project—Joseph Caruso, Chuck Groetsch,
and Karen Gould—also provided encouragement and support.
Administrative and secretarial support also made my life much easier. I
wish to thank Josephine Wynne for her professionalism and her ability to
manage the Department of African American Studies during my tenure as
chair of the department.
This project would not have come to fruition without the support of
the terrific team at Routledge. Ilene Kalish, my tireless editor at Routledge,
has been with me through this entire project and her enthusiasm (and
energy!) has not waned throughout. I would also like to thank the entire
editorial team who worked on the manuscript, with special thanks to
Kimberly Guinta, Mark Lerner, and Danielle Savin for their invaluable
contributions during the production process. I would also like to thank
Tricia Rose, who read and gave helpful suggestions on the final manuscript, as well as the anonymous reviewers provided by Routledge.
I also wish to thank my family for their continued backing. My spouse,
Roger and my father, Albert Hill, have been among my strongest and most
consistent supporters. I also want to acknowledge the unconditional love
offered by my two senior cats who kept me company as I wrote.
Finally, I dedicate this book to Valerie, my beautiful and talented
daughter. May the world come to see her and others of her generation as
the hope of our future.
INTRODUCTION
NO TURNING BACK
The spring of 1964 held great promise for African Americans.
On August 28, 1963, a crowd estimated at between 200,000 and
500,000 Americans of all races had marched on Washington,
D.C., petitioning the federal government to make good on its
commitment to equal and fair treatment under the law. As the
largest mass demonstration at that time ever organized by
African Americans, the march made it clear that Black people
were not turning back. Despite the bombing of Birmingham’s
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls just
two weeks after the march, and the assassination of President
Kennedy the following November, the tide of history was turning. The passage of momentous civil rights legislation that, for
African Americans, was designed to redress the devastating
effects of slavery and racial segregation was on the horizon.
That spring, I was a sixteen-year-old high school student in
a college preparatory public high school in Philadelphia. Because,
along with other Black people, my parents had been denied educational opportunities, they recognized the importance of education for African American empowerment. I was one of the many
Black kids who benefited from our parents’ personal sacrifices as
well as broader civil rights struggles. Schooled in this philosophy,
I tried to do everything that I could to be personally excellent.
Almost every day I carried home a pile of heavy textbooks and
almost every night I worked my way through hours of homework. School was tough, but I believed that it would be worth the
2
BLACK SEXUAL POLITICS
effort. Just like the White girls who attended school with me, I was promised
a bright future, and I wanted to be prepared.
One day that spring, I took a break from an endless round of studying
and went to the movies. As I sat in the theater waiting for the film to begin,
I could see two twelve- or thirteen-year-old African American boys seated
about three rows ahead of me. Like me, they too had paid their money and
were anxious for the film to begin. But unlike me, they just could not sit still.
One opened the side door of the theater, beckoned to his friend, and both
laughed as they ran back and forth through the theater door. Finally, they
closed the door and sat down. All seemed to be well until a White male usher
who was barely older than me seemed to appear from nowhere. Barreling
down on the two boys, he grabbed each by their shirts, pushed open the side
door of the theater, and threw both of them into the alley. From where I was
seated, I could see into the alley and I watched in amazement as he threw one
boy to the ground and kicked him while shouting, “That’ll teach you not to
sneak in!”
I was shocked by this brutality. How could I sit still and pretend that
nothing had happened? I headed to the back of the movie theater to find
the manager. When I arrived, I found that at least six African American
adults, some older than my parents, had gotten there before me.
Buttonholing the middle-aged White male manager, they began to complain. They too had been watching the boys and vehemently testified that
the boys had done nothing wrong, and certainly nothing that merited that
level of physical and verbal assault. Ignoring them, the manager turned to
his teenaged employee and asked him what had happened. Red-faced and
stammering, the usher denied hurting the boys and, if that were not
enough, claimed that he had seen the boys sneak into the theater. After
hearing his employee’s testimony, the manager turned back to the adults.
“You must have been mistaken,” he flatly stated. He turned his back on all
of us and simply walked away.
I was shocked yet again. If these Black adults were disbelieved, clearly
I would be too, no matter what my credentials. On that day I learned that,
in some situations, gender, age, social class, and education do not matter if
you are Black. The usher and the movie theater manager could see only
race and their perceptions of race clouded their judgment. I also began to
see how differences among African Americans caused by these very same
factors could lead to differential treatment. The boys were harmed because
NO TURNING BACK
3
they were young, Black, and male—the usher would not have dared to grab
in the same fashion the irate middle-aged Black woman complaining about
the assault. I saw how, in that situation, being young, Black, and female also
meant that my testimony would be routinely ignored, no matter how
impressive my elite high school credentials. Each Black person in that theater had a common struggle, but the form it took differed greatly as well as
our responses to it. As disheartened as I was by the outcome, I’m glad that
I joined the group in the back that complained. Most of the African
Americans in the theater sat quietly by, trying to ignore the confrontation
in the rear of the theater, diligently munching on their popcorn instead.
That event was one of many that taught me that while good ideas and
solid evidence certainly matter (the kind that I was studying in school), power
relations that elevate some groups over others can matter even more in determining whose view of truth will prevail. In short, knowledge and power are
deeply linked, and achieving social justice requires attending to both.
Over the years, in my work as a scholar I have tried to place my work
in service to social justice. For me, this has meant mapping differences in
penalty and privilege that accompany race, class, and similar systems of
social injustice and trying not to elevate one group’s suffering over that of
another. In my first book, Black Feminist Thought, I aimed to foster Black
women’s empowerment by identifying and legitimating Black women’s
intellectual production.1 I believed then as I do now that people become
empowered when they think and speak for themselves (even if, as was the
case in the theater, they are ignored or disbelieved). Ideas matter greatly in
this struggle for empowerment, and Black women’s intellectual production
(Black feminist thought) has been essential to the progress and sanity of
African American women. Because ideas do matter, they remain targets of
criticism, cooptation, and silencing. In Fighting Words, I cast a critical eye
on Black feminist thought itself and revisited this question of how knowledge and power are interrelated.2 I wanted to know what standards we
might apply to seemingly progressive social theories to see whether they
maintained their oppositional purpose. In both works, I argued that it is
not enough to imagine empowerment for Black women in isolation from
deep-seated changes in the social structure overall. Black women can never
become fully empowered in a context of social injustice.
But what about Black men? Little did I know that what I observed in
that movie theater in 1964 was an example of a much-larger pattern that is
4
BLACK SEXUAL POLITICS
carried out every day in schools, streets, workplaces, and the mass media.
Ushers, assistant principals, security guards, and the police subject Black
men to varying levels of verbal and physical violence that leave them fearful, angry, and far too often, dangerous to others and to themselves. Black
women often take up the slack, enduring low-paying jobs, endless hours of
childcare, lonely nights without love, and a sense of powerlessness that
things will never change. In the movie theater, we could see how American
race relations that conceptualized race in terms of family bound the manager and usher together. They were part of the White family and we were
disadvantaged because we did not belong. The manager believed the son
within his racial family and disbelieved the Black people who he felt were
no kin to him. We could see how America’s racial family drama generated
benefits for its White sons (in this case, being believed) and fostered physical punishment for its Black ones. Race certainly mattered, but the theater
episode was also about masculinity, social class, age, and the power that
they conferred. The invisible authority that took tangible form in the manager’s and usher’s actions also worked to silence us. We were in the
metaphorical theater of race together, and we could see then how young
Black boys (and girls) were harmed by racial discrimination. We had few
illusions that we owned the theater or that we might be allowed to manage
it. In 1964, Black people knew that, despite our differences, we shared a
common problem.
Much has changed since then. In the post–civil rights era, the power
relations that administer the theater of race in America are now far more
hidden. Ironically, the protests of Black boys are circulated in mass media
within a celebrated global hip-hop culture, yet the substance of that protest
continues to be ignored. Middle-class Black people may manage the theaters of academia, city hall, and the military, yet many seem far less willing
than the folks in the movie theater to defend the interests of the one out of
every three Black youth who live below the poverty level. Ironically, movie
theaters themselves have disappeared from Black inner-city areas, leaving
Black boys and girls marooned in neighborhoods where basketball seems to
provide the best way out. Wondering whether they are “black enough,”
assimilated upper- and middle-class Black youth growing up in White
neighborhoods and attending private schools play video games and socialize in suburban multiplex theater complexes, often paying top dollar to see
the latest film that features authentic “ghetto” Black hip-hop artists.
NO TURNING BACK
5
As a result of these changes, it is increasingly difficult to see how relations of race, class, gender, and sexuality that framed my 1964 study break
drama are remarkably intact today. Recognizing that racism even exists
remains a challenge for most White Americans and, increasingly, for many
African Americans as well. They believe that the passage of civil rights legislation eliminated racially discriminatory practices and that any problems
that Blacks may experience now are of their own doing. Violations against
Black men and women continue to occur, but one-third of African
Americans have moved into the middle class and Black people are more
visible in positions of authority in schools, companies, hospitals, and government. Many Black people have difficulty seeing their connections to
other Black people, let alone rushing to the back of the theater in defense
of Black boys whom they do not even know.
In the post–civil rights era, gender has emerged as a prominent feature
of what some call a “new” racism. Ironically, many African Americans
deny the existence of sexism, or see it as a secondary concern that is best
addressed when the more pressing problem of racism has been solved. But
if racism and sexism are deeply intertwined, racism can never be solved
without seeing and challenging sexism. African American men and women
both are affected by racism, but in gender-specific ways. Those African
American boys were attacked by the usher because they were Black and
male, not simply because they were Black.
The gender-specific contours of racism are even more pronounced
today. This was painfully clear to me o …
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