In this blog entry, Trimiko Melancon, author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, discusses contemporary dynamics regarding race, gender, and sexuality.
A week ago I served as an invited moderator for a college student forum, “Freakum: The Hypersexuality of Black Women.” What the event and the students organizing it sought to explore, in part, were representations of black women. More specifically, how today’s portrayals of black women are images of them as the event flyer and prompt indicated, “oversexualized to the point where a black woman cannot just be portrayed as a woman, but as a sexual being.”
Questions from students ranged from inquiries attempting to ascertain the history of such images and if black women and blacks generally are in control of media representations of their sexuality. There were also discussions of black female pop cultural icons, including mega superstar Beyoncé Knowles and leading televisual personas Olivia Pope (ABC’s Scandal) and Mary Jane (BET’s Being Mary Jane). While the forum was stimulating, and the students were very intellectually engaged, I was struck by how, even in the twenty-first century, their understandings of these dynamics and representations of black women were punctuated by, and articulated through, binaries. Either they expected black women to uphold respectable representations always, or to do the diametrical opposite: be both carefree and, indeed, free to not at all worry about or contend with how they carry themselves or are perceived and, ultimately, portrayed.
In these very notions of black womanhood and representations—and the still, at times, limiting or narrow roles or characterizations confronting them—reverberates the precise motivation and premise behind my book, Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation. My book idea actually started during my very own matriculation as an undergraduate English major struck by and grappling with representations of black women in literature. These interests became the groundwork of my college senior honors thesis, doctoral dissertation, and now this first book—a reflection, of course, of the evolution and intellectual maturity of those formative ideas over the course of more than a decade of research, critical thinking, and writing.
In Unbought and Unbossed, I examine post-civil rights representations of black women in literary and cultural texts of the 1970s and 1980s, informed by and produced during consequential political movements: civil rights, feminism, black nationalism, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution. This is a particularly significant era precisely, in part, because of the ways in which black women’s texts of the era embody and embrace a shift in terms of representations. Unbought and Unbossed explores how these moments create a space, cultural and political, for “the transgressive:” representations of black women who transgress and challenge racial, gender, and sexual circumscriptions or mandates that impose particular roles and circumscriptions of female identity on black women. Ultimately, I argue for far greater complexity (and complex understandings) when it comes to black women, representation, and sexuality—especially in terms of what constitutes “woman” and “normativity.” But I also illuminate how certain behaviors/actions operate as strategies in these literary and cultural texts. Sexuality becomes representative of not simply intimacy but, more broadly, of a larger aspirational desire for more complex understandings, renderings, and notions of race, gender, and sexuality as it relates to black (female) bodies. These women exercise their rights to be full citizens, in the racial and sexual sense, reminding us not to falsely mark any, every, and all expressions of black sexuality as perverse, illicit, or pathological but, rather, to afford blacks the range both allowed their white counterparts and reflective of the human (sexual) condition.
Unbought and Unbossed explores various moments, literary and cultural, post-civil rights and contemporary—from Toni Morrison’s novel Sula and Nelly’s rap video Tip Drill and tons in between. It does so to illumine not only the racialization of sex and the ways race, gender, and sexuality intersect. But, it also enables us to better understand the black sexual revolution, representations in the age of First Lady Michelle Obama, and the complexities surrounding black sexuality. And so, just as I asked the students to consider what black sexuality might look like unencumbered by stereotypes and either/or binaries, so, too, does Unbought and Unbossed ask all of us to contemplate this notion, as well as transgress simplistic conclusions regarding black women and black sexuality. After all, it is the twenty-first century and time to allow blacks the full measure of their humanity, sexual and otherwise.
Trimiko Melancon is an Assistant Professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University New Orleans. Learn more about her work on her website www.trimikomelancon.com or connect with her on Facebook (Trimiko Melancon) or Twitter (@trimikomelancon).