Sexuality & the Black Church: A Womanist PerspectiveSexuality & the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective
Kelly Douglas
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From the publisher: Kelly Brown Douglas tackles the "taboo" subject of sexuality which has long been avoided by the Black church and community. She argues that this view of Black sexuality has interfered with constructive responses to the AIDS crisis and teenage pregnancies, fostered intolerance of sexual diversity, frustrated healthy male/female relationships, and rendered Black and womanist theologians silent on sexual issues. Part One determines why sexuality has become a "taboo" issue for the Black church and community. Douglas examines the function of sexuality in White culture and the denigration and exploitation of Black sexuality through a discussion of White culture and the denigration and exploitation of Black sexuality through a discussion of White cultural myths, sterotypes, laws and customs concerning Black women and men. Part Two studies how Blacks have responded to sexual myths and stereotypes by retreating into silence on the subject of sexuality. In this section, Douglas discusses the function and role of sexuality in the Black church and community, homophobia/heterosexuality and how Black sexuality is protrayed in black fictional literature. Finally, she explores the importance of sexuality and sexual discourse to the Christian theologial mandate and to Black churches. Using the language and tools of womanist theology, Sexuality and the Black Church advocates use of a "sexual discourse of resistance," arguing that the Black church must talk about sex and so do in a way that resists the White culture stereotypes. Douglas suggests programs by which the church and community can "nurture the kind of discussion that promotes acceptance and appreciations of the rich diversity, even sexual diversity, of the black community."
     

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Chapter One


Black Sexuality

A Pawn of White Culture


Growing up Black in America means discovering early in life the various stereotypes that surround blackness. Many of these stereotypes involve sexuality. Whether one learns through the oral tradition of Black popular culture or the tragedies of Black history, an early lesson of Black youth is that White culture regards Black men and women as highly sexualized, lascivious beings. To hear a White person remark, whether in earnest or jest, about Black men's sexual prowess or Black women's sexual promiscuity is not an uncommon experience for most Black people. But why is this the case? Why is Black sexuality so vulnerable to ridicule and exploitation in American society? Why is an attack upon Black sexuality so crucial to White culture?

    A popular belief among Black people is that White America's preoccupation with Black sexuality reflects White people's fascination with, yet fear of, the same. There is little doubt that a White pathology of fascination and fear in regard to Black sexuality does exist. Recent historical events strongly attest to this. One such historical indicator was the unnecessary public spectacle that the U.S. Congress and the mass media made of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas during Thomas's confirmation hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court. With the hearings broadcast from gavel to gavel on every major television network, White Americans were able to peer into certain sexual behaviors of two Black people. As male White senators "dutifully" extracted from Hill vulgar details of Thomas's alleged sexual harassment, many White Americans undoubtedly confirmed their deep-seated fears concerning Black people's sexual deviance, while also satisfying their fascination with Black people's sexual activity. As bell hooks aptly observed, "[U]ltimately the Thomas hearings were not only a public political spectacle orchestrated by whites but ... whites were, indeed, the intended audience. The rest of us were merely voyeurs."

    The circuslike attraction to the 1995-96 criminal trial and subsequent 1996-97 civil trial of O. J. Simpson further evinces the prevalence of White fascination and fear about Black sexuality. For many White Americans, Simpson's guilt or innocence was less a factor than making clear that he, as a Black man, would have to pay the price for what they perceived as his flamboyant sexual involvement with a "model" White woman (namely, blonde and blue-eyed). In any case, he would have to pay the price for allegedly abusing and killing her. The specter of race and sex pervaded the entire internationally broadcast Simpson fiasco.

    Yet, as obvious and real as White fascination and fear are in relation to Black sexuality, alone they do not explain this kind of sustained attention. These two factors do not adequately account for the consistent barrage of malicious and denigrating attacks made upon Black men's and women's sexuality throughout American history. Even when reflecting upon such an event as the Hill and Thomas exhibition, it soon becomes clear that something more was at stake for White America. bell hooks points to this when she says of that spectacle:


We were witnessing yet another plantation drama where the labor and bodies of black folks were made to serve the interests of a system that has no intention of fostering and promoting the social and political growth of black people or eradicating racism and white supremacy.


    White America's fixation with Black sexuality appears to be grounded in something more integral to the very existence of White society. Indeed, the violation of Black sexuality by White culture is about nothing less than preserving White power in an interlocking system of racist, classist, sexist, and heterosexist oppression.

    This chapter will show that the exploitation of Black sexuality is inevitable and, in fact, essential for White culture as it serves to nurture White patriarchal hegemony. First I will define the nature of White culture and then try to discern the significance of sexuality for it. As a theologian, I am paying special attention to the role of Christianity in shaping cultural responses to human sexuality. My primary framework for understanding the role of sexuality in society is Michel Foucault's theory of power. Because Foucault's analysis is unapologetically "Francocentric" and "Eurocentric," and thus virtually ignores matters of race, I intend to complement his inquiry with insights from Black female and male social critics. These insights should help answer the specific question, Why does White culture malign Black sexuality? and should help us begin to apprehend the complexity of Black people's attitudes toward sexual issues.


WHITE CULTURE


Attacks on Black sexuality seem intrinsic to White culture. A full appreciation of the intimate bond between Black sexuality and White culture necessitates a precise understanding of this culture. Literary genius and social critic James Baldwin helps to provide such an understanding. Attempting to determine the "price of the ticket" for being Black and male in America, Baldwin comments on the "price of the ticket" for being White in America:


They come through Ellis Island where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American....

The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white —: and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less.


    Baldwin gives a vivid description of a cultural phenomenon that occurred as Europeans invaded what for them was a "New World," America. Whether they came through Ellis Island or by an earlier, more dubious route, Europeans, reflecting the ethnic and cultural diversity of their continent, encroached upon America. They arrived as Irish, Italian, English, German, and various other ethnic and cultural groups from Europe. Yet somewhere on the shores of America they established a new identity. They became White. They subordinated their ethnic and cultural particularities in order to adopt a common national identity as White Americans.


The Meaning of Whiteness


At least two salient features have been used to determine whiteness in America: ethnic heritage and physical appearance. Initially, it seemed not to matter why one came to America or even what was one's economic or class status prior to coming. The "ticket" to whiteness was arrival from Europe. The varied ethnicities were supplanted by whiteness. The fact that there were few restrictions on intermarriage between the various European ethnic groups suggests the unimportance of maintaining a pure and complete ethnic identity in the "New World."

    White identity was further based on physical appearance. The "normative classical gaze" that emerged during the Western Enlightenment was no doubt fundamental to a visual assessment of whiteness in the new world of America. According to Cornel West, this "gaze" was achieved during the Enlightenment recovery of "classical antiquity." This recovery not only nurtured an admiration for Greek art and scholarship but also cultivated an awe for Greek beauty. Greek bodies and physical appearance were admired. The dominant Western culture held in high esteem those physical characteristics that most resembled those of the Greeks. Not surprisingly, European skin color and phenotype were deemed to approximate those of the Greeks — even though what was understood as typical European physiognomy (that is, blond hair and blue eyes) was atypical of Greek characteristics. Nevertheless, with the relationship drawn between Greeks' physiognomy and that of Europeans, it was easier to establish not only who was White but also the superiority of whiteness. West explains:


What is distinctive about the role of the classical aesthetic and cultural norms at the advent of modernity is that they provided an acceptable authority for the idea of white supremacy, an acceptable authority that was closely linked with the major authority on truth and knowledge in the modern world, namely, the institution of science.


    The link between science and White supremacy, which West notes, was forged in eighteenth-century Europe as scientists and anthropologists began to conduct studies to discern the origin of skin color. This research was motivated in large measure by the appearance of the "Negro." Historian Winthrop Jordan notes the problematic when he suggests, "The question of the color of man was pre-eminently the question of the color of the ‘Negro.’" The concern was to establish that a skin color so diametrically opposed to whiteness was not in some regard "superior" to whiteness. As Jordan further points out, "It was not so much a matter of why the Negro was black as why the Negro had become the very negation of white."

    Though there were those who argued that White and Black people were of different species and shared no common ancestry, the dominant assumption of the eighteenth century was that the two races of people shared a common origin and thus were "members of the same species." Underlying this "monogenesis" theory, however, was the widely held notion that the original color of humanity was White. Black skin color was viewed as a severe aberration of whiteness. Numerous studies on the origins of skin color confirmed this "scientific" myth. In his 1774 volume History of the Earth, Oliver Goldsmith suggested that variations of human color "are actual marks of the degeneracy in the human form; and we may consider the European figure and colour as standards to which to refer all other varieties, and with which to compare them." As Jordan goes on to point out, "The concept of degeneration from primitive whiteness was seemingly confirmed by a curious phenomenon: Negro babies are born considerably lighter than they shortly become, a fact which many eighteenth-century writers noted with almost gleeful interest."

    While the "scholarship" of eighteenth-century Europe — which suggested the inherent inferiority of Black-skinned people — certainly laid a firm foundation for a comprehensive ideology of White supremacy, such an "intellectually" based ideology did not fully emerge in the United States until the nineteenth century. Following the lead of their European colleagues, American scholars explained blackness as a sign of degeneracy. Eminent physician and "humanitarian" Benjamin Rush speculated in a 1792 presentation to the American Philosophical Society that the "Negro's" color was due to leprosy. This disease, he concluded, could also explain "Negro features," meaning big lips and flat noses. Still others suggested that the color difference had to do with climate. The influence of the Greek normative gaze was most evident in these climate-based explanations. Stanley Stanhope Smith, a prominent eighteenth-century educator and former president of Princeton University, put the matter plainly:


It may perhaps gratify my countrymen to reflect that the United States occupy those latitudes that have ever been most favourable to the beauty of the human form. When time shall have accommodated the constitution of its new state, and cultivation shall have meliorated the climate, the beauties of Greece and Circassia may be renewed in America; as there are not a few already who rival those of any quarter of the globe.


    The rise in the United States of "intellectual" arguments that vindicated White supremacy by asserting Black inferiority coincided with the rise of the abolitionist movement. This movement forced slave apologists to articulate the "positive good" of enslavement, such as, slavery controls and perhaps civilizes otherwise savage beings. In this regard, the fact of a person's Black skin color was reason enough to enslave him or her. Slavery and blackness became virtually synonymous. A missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Elias Neau, remarked, "I have been told that the Negroes bear on their foreheads the marks of the reprobation and that their color and their condition [enslavement] confirms that opinion." In fact, much of the antislavery literature as well as the literature of those wishing to "Christianize" the enslaved Africans had to include "apologies and extenuations" of the enslaved's color in an effort to counter arguments that the dark color was a sign of inhumanity.

    If a studied and conscious ideology of Black inferiority began in the United States as a rationale for slavery, it would later become the justification for postemancipation practices of White supremacy in general. George Fredrickson explains:


The attitudes that underlay the belief that the Negro was doomed by nature itself to perpetual slavishness and subordination to the whites were not new, nor was the doctrine itself if considered as a popular belief that lacked intellectual respectability; but when asserted dogmatically and with an aura of philosophical authority, ... it became, for the first time, the basis of a world view, an explicit ideology around which the beneficiaries of white supremacy could organize themselves and their thoughts.


    Essentially, whiteness — whether determined by ethnicity or biology — emerged in America, even as it had in Europe, as a mark of human superiority. It was viewed as the normative and certainly most valued human characteristic. As such, it was a central factor for holding together a once motley throng of European people, even as it became a measure for denigrating other human beings. This contemptuous White group identity in America was the harbinger of White culture.


The Efficacy of White Culture


White culture is not marked by its uniquely creative and enriching social contributions. Rather, it is distinguished by its ability to promote the sanctity of whiteness by devaluing that which is non-White. This culture asserts the supremacy of whiteness and is accompanied by social, political, and economic systems that also privilege whiteness. Whiteness has become, therefore, the ticket to social, political, and economic status, if not power, in American society. White culture with its secretion of White supremacist values and ideology serves as a safeguard for a White, racist, patriarchal hegemony in America.

    It should be noted that some White people, though recognizing White hegemony, refute the existence of White culture. White Americans sometimes disavow it in an effort to escape responsibility for its vile nature. They denounce its existence, yet they continue to benefit from the varied privileges of being "White." Others deny the existence of White culture for more judicious reasons. One such person is political theorist Manning Marable.

    Reflecting the Marxist philosophy that influences his thought, a philosophy that typically minimizes the value of culture in favor of class/ economic categories, Marable argues:


To be white in the United States says nothing directly about an individual culture, ethnic heritage, or biological background. A society created to preserve "white culture" either would be very confused or tremendously disappointed. White culture does not exist. White power, privileges, and prerogatives within capitalist society do exist.


    Although he does not admit a White culture, Marable does acknowledge whiteness as a "racial" identity. Race, he says, is an "artificial social construction" deliberately imposed upon people in order to secure exploitation. Race, according to Marable, indicates "an unequal relationship between social aggregates." In this regard, whiteness as a racial identity is a mark of privilege. Marable elaborates:


Whiteness is fundamentally a statement of the continued pattern of exploitation of subordinated racial groups which create economic surpluses for privileged groups. To be white means that one's "life chances" ... improve dramatically.... Whiteness was fundamentally a measure of personal privilege and power, not a cultural statement.

    Marable is correct in establishing whiteness as a "measure" of privilege and power, while also emphasizing that White Americans represent various cultural backgrounds. Yet to deny the existence of a White culture is to ignore the various marks of culture that usher forth from whiteness. If culture is "the totality of any given society's way of life" and "comprises a people's total social heritage, including language, ideas, habits, beliefs, customs, social organization and traditions, arts and symbolism, crafts and artifacts," then a White culture is certainly operative in the United States. It has become virtually synonymous with American culture, as it negatively juxtaposes White/American culture with that which is non-White. For instance, "classical" American music, literature, and art typically reflect European roots or White American preferences, suggesting an inferior status to non-Euro/non-White art forms. The symbols of beauty in White/American culture also bespeak whiteness. Standard language reflects White cultural values. For instance, words associated with blackness customarily signify evil and badness. Words associated with whiteness are commonly an indicator of purity and goodness. Given the preponderance of cultural markers, it would seem precipitous to deny the existence of a White culture.

    Though it may be considered degenerate, destructive, oppositional, or indistinct, White culture is real. It permeates American society. To disavow it precludes a thorough analysis of White racism. White culture is the very culture that harbors and nurtures White racism. Built on a false premise of superiority, if not a specious foundation of national identity, White culture functions to secure White supremacy. It sustains White power.

    Recognizing the validity of Marable's observation concerning the diversity of cultures that comprise White America, it is important, however, to clarify that not everything issuing from White America (such as research, literature, music, visual arts, and so on) is necessarily a reflection of White culture. White Americans can choose not to affirm and not to perpetuate White culture. They can renounce the unmerited social, political, and economic privileges of whiteness as well as acknowledge the inhumane nature of White culture. More especially, White Americans can renounce if not diminish the power of White culture by doing at least three things: (1) self-critically reclaim their cultural heritage and historical struggles that occurred prior to their becoming White in America; (2) take responsibility for the "price" of shameless privilege and arrogant elitism they have paid to be White in America; and (3) accept culpability for the inexorable "price" non-Whites have been forced to pay to ensure the primacy of whiteness in America. Realizing that White culture has "choked many a human being to death," James Baldwin offers this redemptive possibility for White Americans: "Go back to where you started, or as far as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know when you came."

    Notwithstanding the fact that White culture is not necessarily synonymous with White America, the vibrant reality of this nefarious culture simply cannot be denied. This is a culture that continues to be sustained by its uncanny ability to dehumanize and denigrate non-White peoples. It is a destructive force in people's lives, especially the lives of Black people. It is, in fact, White culture's disparaging nature that demands the virulent exploitation of Black sexuality. Let us now then turn to the role of sexuality in White culture.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Sexuality and the Black Church by Kelly Brown Douglas. Copyright © 1999 by Kelly Brown Douglas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.