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The Naked Reader: Coming in Colors: The Landscape of African-American Erotica, Part 1

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What is erotic? Ask the question of 100 people, 100 different answers volley back like flaming arrows toward a castle under siege. Each is as unique as the stripes on a tiger, some markedly more dangerous, all indisputably valid.

  Playing Catch-Up

“It is important to realize that there isn’t anything different about African-American sexuality than there is about European-American sexuality,” says Nicholas Baham, Ph.D., “except the history.” Baham, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Ethnic Studies at California State University, East Bay, has been teaching a course on African-American sexuality for a decade. “It’s the history that guides the self-perception and how people feel about their bodies. Therefore, the erotic becomes important—both visual and print—because it’s making present these bodies that have a history that is buried in shame and degradation and a whole bunch of things.”

Even if African-American people don’t connect immediately and consciously with this history, he says, it’s ever present. “It’s the most fundamental part of sexuality. If you don’t feel good about your body, the rest of it is over with.” Making certain types of bodies and cultural elements present, says Baham, reaffirms that it’s okay for you—for people like you—to be there.

“The supply has always lagged behind the demand because of the misguided notion that we don’t, can’t or won’t support the product,” notes bestselling author, sensuality coach, and editor of the recently released Cleis Press anthology, Can’t Help the Way That I Feel: Sultry Stories of African-American Love, Lust and Fantasy. “It always takes one to break out—whether it’s Spike Lee, Terry McMillan or, in erotica’s case, Zane, to prove that there’s a viable market to be tapped into.”

Zane, largely considered to be a godmother of modern African-American erotica, “is an exceptional author, publisher and businesswoman,” says Bryant-Woolridge. “But she is only one voice—one point of view.” She believes Zane’s own publishing venture, Strebor Books, is likely in part an acknowledgement that it will take many more voices from this community to approach the genre from the far-flung corners of the sexual identity map.

When compiling stories for Making the Hook-Up: Edgy Sex with Soul, it was imperative to editor Cole Riley (who is also a prolific writer) that the selections he chose expanded and broadened the psychological and sexual terrain of the black community. “I think writers have a duty to push the literary envelope,” he says. “Taking risks is essential … There is still an untapped black audience there, hungering for a complete view of themselves other than the usual stereotypes and crude images. And whites are curious about us as well. They want to see something other than Sambo and Buckwheat. They are curious about us as human beings.”

  Racy Prose

Baham’s class begins in the era of slavery and discusses Jim Crow, but it also delivers theoretical perspective on top of the history. “I think it’s important to take things like the myth of the big, black penis and the worship of the big, black booty and conceptualize them historically. I have students who don’t know about Sarah Baartman (the most famous of the women of color exhibited as freak-show attractions in 19th-century Europe, Baartman was known as the “Hottentot Venus,” and famed for her exaggerated posterior). They don’t understand where some of those concepts come from in the era of colonialism … nor do they understand the historical trade-off of being hypersexualized and thought of as ignorant at the same time: The more body you have, the less mind you have.”

But it also moves through general sexuality, dealing with everything from GLBT identity to BDSM to marriage alternatives like swinging. Baham brings in people who are representative of these communities as speakers. This year’s guest list included a gay black filmmaker and Miss International Leather 2010, Mollena Williams.

While the gender split in class has generally been 50/50, Baham, says his student demographic is shifting. African-American women still make up the largest percentage, but increasingly, “people who are not black don’t feel like they should be alienated from the process,” he reports. This year, the class had a healthy contingent of white women, as well. “In past years I’ve generated audiences of Muslim women who are really fascinated by this topic precisely because it’s taboo.”

  Beneath the Surface

While students initially identify as heterosexuals with, for the most part, vanilla sex lives, Baham says the by the fourth or fifth week, as their comfort level grows, they come out of their shells, often revealing more exotic flavors. “By then, maybe 25 percent of the class is bi or bi-curious.”

Many make private or even public admissions, such as one young woman who, after an assignment that had students reading and writing their own erotica, talked explicitly about a rape fantasy she’d had. This, he believes, is the kind of affirmation one can get from this art form, particularly those without a forum in which their curiosities and desires can be legitimized. “Who,” asks Baham, “is going to write an erotic narrative for this woman?”

He believes the material can—and should—go deeper. “What’s out there now is largely too middle class,” he says. “It’s too safe, the range of sexual play. It’s not really what I think the majority of the people I’ve been teaching are thinking about … Hey look, it’s a fantasy about having sex in the Laundromat. Well, big fucking deal …”

Really hot sexual play, Baham says, is always going to be politically incorrect. He points to additional hot-button areas he believes are underserved. “How about a piece on race play that pushes cultural boundaries with slavery or white supremacy?” he asks, referencing the work of Vi Johnson, a doyenne of the black BDSM community, “things that people are still dealing with and negotiating.”

After extensive study in the BDSM community, Baham references not only the kink, but matters that sometimes lay beneath: trust, violence and abuse issues. While researching, he encountered a man who was in the military—and also a gay bottom. “He enjoyed being ‘forced’ to have sex—sort of a semi-rape—by well-built white men who abused him verbally,” he recalls. “He wanted to be called a n*gger while it was happening. But he wanted to control that.”

In other words, outside the sexual spectrum, the N-word was absolutely unacceptable. So when this casual lover dropped one into friendly conversation? “He beat his ass! Baham reports. “Partners need to respect one another’s needs in the sex play and outside it.

“Give me something like that,” he says, “that smolders with something real so we can have a genuine conversation.”

To purchase the Naked Reader Book Club selections, visit the Naked Reader Book Club Store.

The Naked Reader Book Club Selections for July 2010
Frenzy. 60 Stories of Sudden Sex, edited by Alison Tyler Can't Help The Way That I Feel, edited by Lori Bryant-Woolridge
Making The Hook-Up Edited by Cole Riley



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