A Long Love Affair With Black Erotic Literature

"When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women, of that creative energy empowered , the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives. "
--Audre Lorde "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power"

Once upon a time I was a junior at UC San Diego who couldn't get enough of bell hooks and frequently quoted Dorothy Roberts. I was studying the impact of race on gender and learning much about myself as a young, black woman. That's what college does to you. One gorgeous day I was shopping at a Crown's Bookstore going-out-of-business sale" in La Jolla, Calif. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover but this one caught my attention. Right on the front was a waist-up shot of a partially-nude black woman. She and I were the only black faces in the store. La Jolla is a very wealthy, city and there aren't many people of color there. The model was confident in her dark skin. Her arms crossed under her chest barely covered her breasts. The image was on the cover of Brown Sugar: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, edited by Carol Taylor. I assumed Brown Sugar was like a chocolate version of Harlequin but was proven wrong after a few pages. I was seduced by the beautifully written and detailed stories about black characters and their sexual experiences. The tales showed the diversity within black sexuality-male, female, gay, straight and bisexual. I appreciated reading about black women enjoying sex, their bodies, and defining their own sexuality. Not how hip hop, raunchy talk shows or other mediums have tried to define black female sexuality. Black women writers were asserting their identity. The book only cost four books so I paid the cashier and read more in my college apartment.
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I was intrigued because I didn't know black people wrote stuff like this. I started to do some digging and learned of the 1992 collection, Erotique Noire:Black Erotica which three college professors edited--Miriam DeCosta Willis, Reginald Martin and the late Roseann P. Bell. Fast forward a few months later. While watching HBO's Real Sex one late night, fate led me to the Oakland-based poetry group The Punany Poets. FYI, "punany" is a Caribbean term for sweet vagina. Then New York Times bestselling author Zane shot into the publishing stratosphere. Black erotic lit fascinated me and I took my curiosity to another level. I did a research project on the genre at UCSD. I mainly looked at the history of black sexuality and how black erotic literature influences how black women perceive their sexuality today. I even presented this paper at a research conference. Some people supported me, and some thought I was a pervert. I remember when I was studying at Morehouse College and a couple guys who learned of my research project, they called me a "porn lady. " It's interesting how some people are uncomfortable with having a mature discussion about sex, but feel more at ease with raunch.

Black erotica was hot when I caught on to it in college. Sistas were reading Zane's books on the trains and buses. Friends would secretly confess about reading erotic books and talk about the love scenes. My family friend told me she read the books in bed with her husband. But everyone wasn't, nor still is, in love. Some black folks find it degrading and think the stories make black people look oversexed. Some readers prefer certain authors over another. I decided to do further research on the controversy surrounding black erotic lit in graduate school. I took a totally different approach to my research than in undergrad. Running my pitch by some of the USC journalism school faculty was definitely an interesting experience. There was cheeks blushing, nervous laughter and throat clearing in their offices. All of which is understandable since my thesis committee was entirely male. And they were very supportive. The project is my baby and I'm proud to say I finished it and will be sharing it with you on Cocoa Fly.

Things have changed since I completed my thesis in 2006. It seems like black erotic lit may have reached its climax. People are still reading and authors are selling books. But I feel like the hype isn't there anymore. It's almost like being with same lover for a long time. You know his/ her routine in the bedroom and where to touch them. You've explored their physical territory many times and although it's not as exciting, you still love them. Is it time to spice things up in black erotic? I don't mean more sex, but does black erotic lit need a rebirth?

Over the next few days I'll post my thesis in 3 parts called "Under the Covers: The Popularity and Debate Over Black Erotic Literature." Don't worry, it's not long. I wrote it like a magazine feature store. I'm publishing the original content from 2006, so some of the stats may be a little outdated. The meat of the piece is still relevant. The piece features interviews with some of the authors I named above.

Dim the lights. Slip into something comfortable and let's get under the covers....

Part I of Erotic Series

Part II of Erotic Series
Part III of Erotic Series
Photo Credits
1. Violet Bra by Shishy
Available at cards.artmam.com

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this piece. As a lover of Black erotica, it was refreshing to see other black women who ove this art form. It was amazing to see that you were referred to as the "Porn Lady" are people that misinformed? lol.

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  2. Thank you for your comment. And I like how you referred to the lit as an artform. Sadly I have been called Porn Lady a few times. LOL Actually, a former male friend took such issue with my work and accused me of liking porn that it ended our friendship.

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  3. Please use the "Name/URL" option when commenting. I don't care if it's fake.

    YOU DO NOT have to type in a URL.

    Thanks!

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  4. Stay strong. You have learned that your love of erotic books and your interest in them as an intellectual and social topic doesn't make you a pervert. It is important to embrace sexuality in literature and to try to lessen the stigma that exists about these kinds of books.

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  5. Thank you Lance. I knew back then when those young men made those comments that there was nothing wrong with my interests. Sometimes people are critical of others who are open and comfortable with being themselves.

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  6. Jah love sister. I am soo glad that I found your blog. I love the work that you are doing. I read the Black Erotica book when it was first published 22 years ago and I loved it. Prior, I loved listening to women of color write about sexuality at the student led writing seminars at U.C. Berkeley when I was a graduate student (1990-1993). I have been reading and viewing the erotic works of many non black writers online. I love the Good Vibrations magazine erotica section. They have great writers but it seems that this has been discontinued. I was surprised that blacks and folks of color were not represented at all in these posts even though the company is based in San Francisco. I am concerned about the lack of black representation in erotic culture online. I am also bothered by how erotica and erotic experiences are defined or described simply with sex or sexual acts. For example, I am currently living in Paris, France. I am in Pigalle a lot and that is the location of the Moulin Rouge and the Musee D'Erotique or the Erotic Museum. And lo and behold, the museum contains 5 floors of "erotic" art but it's all sexually explicit! I think that they are probably trying to match the culture of the neighborhood which is inundated with sex shops. I like the quote that you used by Audre Lorde whose work I cherish and I really find her writing about erotica very useful and inspiring. Still, I am conflicted about her stance on pornography. I have come across really good works about feminist pornography and the book which is edited by Tristan Taormino is a must read on my list. I think that we have to make the distinction between erotica, erotic culture and sex and pornography. It seems to me that at this time folks are conflating all of these and what we get is an overemphasis on sex acts. And we should be more concentrated on how folks express sexuality and I feel that erotica and eroticism are important to that process. And for black folks everywhere who are grappling with body issues in a post slavery context we need to contend with these ideas before they get a hold of us in the media and in the ways that we communicate. Thanks a lot for your work and I am excited about reading all of the entries. Blessed love.

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    1. Wow it has been 22 years since that book was published. I love Good Vibrations as well. I got to present a portion of my thesis earlier this year at the Women of Color Conference at UC Berkeley. As for porn vs. erotica, it's interesting because sometimes the lines blur. Not all of the time, but every once and a while. And even sometimes I'm not sure if what I'm watching or reading is porn, erotica or both. I agree that black folks have to define and celebrate their sexuality outside of the definition mainstream culture and media has imposed on us. Thank you for reading my series!

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  7. Thank you for sharing this. Being a white male who writes erotica and appreciates women of any color (and very attracted to black women) I love to read what you think. What you like. It helps me be a better writer. It took courage to do what you did. Again, thank you. A~

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    1. Thank you. There's so much diversity in Black erotica and Black sexuality. Good luck with your work.

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