Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sex in the Dirt - Fetishization of the Black Male

Current representations of the Black male result from a long history comprised of a multifaceted and all around messy interwoven relationship between race, politics and gender. Sexuality emerges as the center around which the complexity revolves. This is evident in the manner in which commonly held sexual myths of the black man are manifested in his representation. The differing representations are based largely on binaries established during years of imperialism between the (white) norm and the “Other,” including such themes as the bodily and earthly (Boime, 1990; Dyer, 1997; Kovel, 1988), heterosexual desire and threat (Dyer, 1997; Katz, 1995; Mercer, 1994), homoerotic appeal (Fraiman, 1994; Mercer, 1994; Stokes, 2001; Young, 1995), imperialistic property (Bhabha, 1983; Franklin II, 1994; hooks, 1981, 92; J. Hall, 1983; Mercer, 1994; S. Hall, 1977, 82; Staples, 1982), and masculine hypersexualization (Fanon, 1967; Franklin II, 1994; Marable, 1994; Staples, 1986; Stokes, 2001; Wiegman, 1995). It is in variations of each theme through which the Black male is objectified and fetishized (Fanon, 1961; Mulvey, 1989) through both the acts of castration and lynching (Stokes, 2001) and the process of image making (Bhabha, 1983; Dyer, 1982, 97; Mercer, 1993, 94). Out of this more general understanding, I am particularly interested in the manner in which this sexualized definition of the Black male is commodified and fetishized within a white patriarchal society through artistic renderings, with attention paid closely to the photographic medium. In reading images through this medium with the applied understanding of each as the “projection, in terms more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts” (Foucault, 1977, p.127), one is made more aware of the capacity of the medium in facilitating viewer’s projection of racial and sexual fantasies of the Black male body. Working from this base, I plan to eventually explore the manner in which this representation relates to the white female both in her historical definition and fetishized representation, focusing on the symbolic interaction between the black male and white female as a challenge to the established normalcy of white male heterosexual power.

The root of all visual representations of the Black man derives from his identification as “the Other” within the characteristic binaries established by those in positions of power, mainly white European males, during times of conquest. Richard Dyer (1997) explored the role of Christianity within this construction more fully, focusing on the association of the black male with the body in contrast to the white male identification with the “spirit, mind, soul or God (p.67).” This ground for equating racial blackness with the body was taken up by Robert Staples (1987) who explained its role in the creation of the myth of male black sexual “superiority,” as classic biologically supported racial ideology claimed the African inferiority in mind and morals to be due to the nature of their bodies. Within a religion focused on the ideal of sinless and pure spiritual existence, the body’s link with sexual behavior also presented with it the image of dirt. Joel Kovel (1988) conducted a study which looked at the manner in which Martin Luther’s challenge to the church moral authority further emphasized that ‘a principle of God was in man himself,’ highlighting the value of the spiritual abstraction and simultaneously devaluing that of a concrete nature such as the body. “Dirt,” he claimed, “is the fate of sensuousness lost to the world in the regime of whiteness.” The sensual body was understood as dirty. With the black man’s definition by that which is bodily, he too is made dirty. Albert Boime (1990) added an art historical dimension to this association between blackness and soil. Historically, black pigment was composed of soil and products of the earth. In addition, the representation of the humours provided characteristic values to colors; bile, a bodily fluid associated with melancholy, passion and emotion, would give a dark tone to the skin and therefore linked dark-skinned individuals with presumed emotional qualities.

The modern identity of the black man is often more explicitly understood as stemming from roots in imperialistic America through his role in the institution of slavery. Clyde W. Franklin II (1994) expanded on the various views of the black man’s character as a product of his being considered non-human property, including the black man as submissive, nonprotective, powerless and “stud supreme.” Sexual myths of the black man, particularly of his possession of an exceptionally large penis, derived from his having been expected to be healthy, strong and a “good breeder (p.273).” According to Homi Bhabha (1983), the manner in which these images of the black man rehearse situations of desire through expounding on a history slavery and empire indicate a “colonial fantasy.” This fantasy is divided between the racial other as subject of a sexual ideal and of an anxiety which stems from a need to defend white male identity. The visibility of this division in representational texts is what Stuart Hall (1982) called the split in the “imperial eye.” For each image of the black man as threatening savage, he is also shown as tame servant or jolly entertainer (p.41). One of the greatest threats posed by the black man was his possible sexual engagement with a white woman, a symbol of white man’s property and, according to bell hooks (1981), the ultimate reward for masculine success (p.113). Franz Fanon (1967) highlighted how this threat was made visible through the symbol of interracial rape. This symbol then strengthened images of the black man as aggressive and violent.

It is this image of violent sexuality that Robert J. C. Young (1995) worked from, having stated that racial theory is rooted in the almost neurotic imagining of interracial sex (p.181). Dyer (1997) expanded on this notion, explaining how the black man came to symbolize heterosexual desire through concepts of race as rooted in the body and in heterosexuality as a “means of categorizing different types of human body which reproduce themselves…the means of ensuring but also the site of endangering these differences (p.20).” The view of the black man as a threat in this heterosexual arena results from the white man’s tension in participating in what Jonathan Katz (1995) called the “heterosexual ideal” in which sexual bodily pleasure conflicts with the striving towards a chaste, fleshless spirit (p.30). Kobena Mercer (1993) discussed how the black man’s constructed sexual symbolic nature, defined visually by the phallus, was seen not only as a threat to the white master but to the greater civilized world through miscegenation and racial degeneration (p.353). Manning Marable (1994) noted how the black male stereotypes as being a sexual subhuman and a threat to white power and white female purity both fed into and helped perpetuate the value and sensitivity of the interracial sex/rape symbol through historical acts of punishment and discipline of a sexual nature, primarily through castration and sexual mutilation that occurred prior to lynching (p.71).

Despite symbolizing heterosexual desire, representations of the black man are often homoerotic in nature. Susan Fraiman (1994) suggested that this homoeroticism derives from the erotic undertones of social and political relationships, such as those between different races, which are “characterized by domination and resistance to that domination (p.68).” According to Mason Stokes (2001), this homoerotic power relationship between races can be seen in the act of lynching, “a ritual of sexual fascination and revulsion,” in which castration becomes a socially acceptable point of interaction between white men and black male genitalia. The myth backed threat of the black male phallus “becomes less strange through the white man’s control of it (p.134, 49).” The black male body was also made the subject of homoerotic attention in that, as explained by Young (1995), “playing the imperial game was already an implicitly homo-erotic practice.” Same sex interracial sex posed little threat because it did not result in children, but was rather “silent, covert, and unmarked (p.25-6).” Kobena Mercer (1994) expanded on this imperialistic homoeroticism by claiming that the image of the black man’s body encourages a fantasy of “appropriating the Other’s body as virgin territory to be penetrated and possessed.” In the aggressive act of looking, the black male subject is likened to the passive female. The homosexual element arises from the viewer’s transfer between a “fantasy of mastery from gender to racial difference (p.176-7).”

The development of a black male masculinity, still undefined and problematic, is the result of a history of white man’s various exercises of racial power. Robert Staples (1982) explained the “macho” code behavior within black masculinity as displaying an attempt to recover some degree of power in relation to the white male in response to having historically been denied commonly held masculine traits, mainly, “autonomy over and mastery of one’s environment (p.2).” According to Franklin II (1994), Black male slaves were perceived as possessing a sex, but not a gender (p.276). It was in the rising attempts to secure a state of masculinity in the movements of the 60s through universally held masculine traits such as violence and sexism (Staples, 1986) that has come to shape modern conceptions of the black man, still based in a history of oppression. As Fanon (1967) argued, the hypersexualized images of the “animalistic” black male, either as the aggressive symbol of heterosexual desire or the passive recipient of homoerotic desire, were constructed and utilized as a means to justify the (often violent) acts taken by white men to retain power and mastery over difference. Mason Stokes (2001) explored the manner in which the black man was identified as sexually tempting and sinful by having been equated with the snake in the Garden of Eden in the Christian story of creation. This story highlighted his purely sexual nature in connection with the fall of man, thus justifying the white man’s methods of control of his unbridled sexuality as a preventative measure against apocalypse (p.83, 7). Robyn Weigman (1995) showed how the very act of castration as a means of control is dependent on “an intense masculinization in the figure of the black male as mythically endowed rapist (p.83).” It was this hypersexualization of the black male as a result of the threat of rape which hypervisualized white female sexuality, fueling the image of interracial rape to the position of being what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (1983) called “the folk pornography of the Bible Belt (p. 335).”

It is through this historic construction of the black male identity which has influenced the manner in which he is depicted pictorially. Stokes (2001) discussed how the central imagination of the black male body’s to the act of interracial sex and of lynching with a focus on ritualized castration brought the black penis to the forefront of representations of the black male (p.149). As Fanon (1967) put it, “one is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis (p.170).” In essence, the black male has been objectified in the cultural conception of his identity. This conception is then solidified through the photographic image. He becomes the product of a medium that functions through methods of control (according to Dyer [1997] photographic “lighting” is “controlled visibility”) with claims to truth (p.84). In her analysis of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, Mercer (1994) discussed the photograph as objectifying by capturing the “thingness” of the subject through “clinical precision of master vision, control of technique (p.173).” Bhabha (1983) called this the photograph’s quality of “fixity” which plays off of “colonial fantasy” of freezing and image to reflect or produce stereotype linked to imperialism. In his objectified representation, the black male is made into the subject of Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” (1989) as the unseen viewer plays out the masculine fantasy of master and control over that which is framed through a kind of erotic voyeurism. Mercer delineated the various aesthetic methods through which the black male body is then fetishized, focusing specifically on a lack of context and the central focus on as well as detailing of the body through a “scopophilic dissection” of its parts (p.178-83).

It is valuable to study human sexuality at the center of this discourse because of the tangled nature of sexuality with identity and power due to its having been, as highlighted by Foucault (1978), historically constructed, crafted and perpetuated by a “regime of truth.” Artistic representations of human sexuality, such as through the simultaneous crafting and documenting nature of the photograph, present the complex intricacies and messy abstractions of and relationships between race and gender within a grander system of power and politics. A few scholars have began to link the cultural characterization and representation of the black male and the white female as a result of social constructions of sexuality based in history within and at the hand of white male heterosexual patriarchal interests. However, there seems to be a sufficient lack of attention placed on the manner in which the representations have interacted with one another over time. Although it has been established that the imaginings of both the black male and of the white woman represent(ed) a threat to the normative power of the white heterosexual male, in what ways has each subjective group utilized the visual rhetoric of the other in its conscious struggles within and against oppression? It is my intention from here to take a much closer look at the manner in which this dirty “truth” concerning both the racial and gendered “Other” has not only been materialized but has been consciously utilized and appropriated for progressive purposes.


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. 1983. “The Other Question: the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse.” Screen, 24.

Boime, Albert. 1990. The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

Dyer, Richard. 1982. "Don’t Look Now - The Male Pin-Up." Screen, 23.

Dyer, Richard. 1997. “The Matter of Whiteness,” “Colored White, Not Colored,” “Light of the World.” White. London: Routledge.

Fanon, Franz. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fanon, Franz. 1967. Black Skin, White Mask. Trans. Charles L. Markmann. New York: Grove.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol 1. London: Allen Lane.

Fraiman, Susan. 1994. "Geometries of Race and Gender: Eve Sedgwick, Spike Lee, Charlayne Hunter-Gault." Feminist Studies 20: 67-84.

Franklin II, Clyde W. 1994. "’Ain't I a Man?’ The Efficacy of Black Masculinities for Men's Studies in The 1990's," "Men's Studies, the Men's Movement, and the Study of Black Masculinities: Further Demystification of Masculinities in America.” The American Black Male: His Present Status and His Future. Ed. Richard G. Majors and Jacob U.Gordon. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 3-20, 271-284.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. 1983. "'The Mind That Burns Each Body’: Women, Rape, and Racial Violence." Powers of Desire: the Politics of Sexuality. New York: Monthly Review. 328-49.

Hall, Stuart. 1977. "Pluralism, Race and Class in Caribbean Society." Race and Class in Post- Colonial Society. New York: UNESCO.

Hall, Stuart. 1982. "The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media." Silver Lininings: Some Strategies for the Eighties. Ed. George Bridges and Rosalind Brunt. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

hooks, bell. 1981. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End P.

hooks, bell. 1992. "Representations of Whiteness." Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End P. 195-78.

Katz, Jonathan N. 1995. The Invention of Heterosexuality. New York: Penguin.

Kovel, Joel. 1988. White Racism: a Psychohistory. London: Free Association Books.

Marable, Manning. 1994. "The Black Male: Searching Beyond Stereotypes." The American Black Male: His Present Status and His Future. Ed. Richard G. Majors and Jacob U.Gordon. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 69-78.

Mercer, Kobena. 1993. "Looking for Trouble." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove, Michele A. Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge.330-59.

Mercer, Kobena. 1994. “Black Masculinity and the Politics of Race,” “Reading Racial Fetishism: The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.” Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge. 131-220.

Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Macmillian.

Staples, Robert. 1982. Black Masculinity: the Black Man's Role in American Society. San Francisco: Black Scholar P.

Staples, Robert. 1986. "Black Masculinity, Hypersexuality, and Sexual Aggression." The Black Family: Essays and Studies. Belmont City, CA: Wadsworth.

Stokes, Mason. 2001. “Someone’s in the Garden with Eve: Race, Religion and the American Fall,” “White Sex.” The Color of Sex: Whiteness, Heterosexuality, and the Fictions of White Supremacy. London: Duke UP. 1-22, 82-107, 133-158.

Weigman, Robyn. 1995. American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender. Durham: Duke UP.

Young, Robert J.C. 1995. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. London: Routledge.


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