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Click here for Part I
How It All Began
In 1992 the groundbreaking anthology “Erotique Noire/Black Erotica” hit bookstores, igniting a sexual revolution in black literature. Three black English professors in Tennessee, Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Reginald Martin and the late Roseann Bell are editors of the collection that has been translated into several languages and is read throughout the world. Described as an “always spicy, sometimes raunchy, often tender and touching” collection of poetry, short stories and essays on the history of black erotica, the book features works from esteemed writers such as Gloria Naylor, Terry McMillan, Rita Dove and the late feminist-scholar Audre Lorde. Lorde’s “Love Poem” is featured in the book:
Speak earth and bless me with what is richest
make sky flow honey out of my hips
rigid as mountains
spread over a valley
carved out by the mouth of rain...
rigid as mountains
spread over a valley
carved out by the mouth of rain...
Although there have been a number of stories by writers like James Baldwin and Chester Himes that included erotic scenes, images of black sexuality were virtually nonexistent in literature. No book concentrated on the diversity and soul of black sexuality like “Erotique Noire.”
“It marked the first time that erotica was the focal point of a collection by black writers announcing, ‘Here we are speaking our own truths. Let’s celebrate!’” wrote Black Issues Book Review magazine’s Denolyn Carroll in 2004.
Willis and Bell were in their early 50s when they conjured up the idea on a Tennessee highway in the fall of 1988. The two professors from LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis were heading to Atlanta for business, but their conversations along the way were all about pleasure. In between Marvin Gaye’s plead to “get it on” belting from the speakers and blues-singer Lucille Bogan’s lusty lyrics off her “Copulation Blues” album, the ladies exchanged bed tales.
“We got into raunchy talk about our past love affairs. Roseann had like 50 or 60, and I think I had three at that point,” laughs Willis, now 71. “And we said, ‘Hey this stuff needs to be published.’”
Widowed earlier that year, Willis was on a personal journey of sexual reevaluation. Her second husband, whom she says was her “soul mate,” believed in pleasuring a woman. His death, along with growing up in a post-WWII era that Willis says restricted women’s sexuality, prompted her self-reflection.
“I was in my early 50s, but still young, energetic, interested and I thought, desirable,” Willis says. “What do I want to do with the rest of my life, which could be another 40 or 50 years? What pleased me?”
Frisky and 54, Willis left Memphis for Washington, D.C. the following year. She says she got a tattoo, and enjoyed “many wonderful lovers” in the nation’s capital.
“I stuck my plants and my computer in the car and just took off,” Willis says as her butterfly tattoo floats on her firm left arm. “I wasn’t going to sit around and rock any grandbabies. I just felt there was a whole world open to me. My sexuality was something I wanted to explore.”
Willis and Bell continued to work on the anthology, gathering works of black authors from as far as South America. But, they needed an extra hand and a male perspective. Eventually, Reginald Martin, then 30 and a professor at the University of Memphis, joined the team.
After its release, Martin says 10,000 copies of “Erotique Noire/Black Erotica” were sold a week. “I thought on that initial press run we were going to sell about 50,000 and we would all pocket $8,000. But the whole thing spiraled out of control,” says Martin, 47.
Roseann Bell didn’t live to see the book take flight. She died before the anthology was completed.
Zane’s accelerated success was also a surprise. The daughter of a theologian father and her mother a retired school teacher, she began writing risqué fiction in 1997. At the time, Zane was a single mother of two and bored with her life in North Carolina. After long days working in sales, she tucked her kids into bed and says she wrote erotic stories to escape the dullness. She sent her stories to friends, who forwarded them to their friends. Before long, strangers e-mailed her for more stories.
“I was stunned because I had never really read any erotica at all,” Zane says. “I just wrote a story that I thought was kind of hot but I didn’t have any idea that it was as hot as it apparently was.”
She wrote more, posting stories on her website. "Within three weeks I had about 8,000 hits from word of mouth alone," she says.
Zane began to self-publish her work, selling copies of her erotic stories that she made at Office Depot and Staples. “I put on my website that for $10 plus $2 shipping and handling I would send 10 of my erotic stories. I thought I might get a few sales,” she laughs. “It ended up being absolutely insane to the point I was living in Staples and Office Depot.”
Fans were so enthralled with her writing that they sent her work to publishers. Zane says she did not contact publishers, because they were calling her. However she rejected their offers because editors wanted her to tone down the content.
“I had to self-publish if I wanted to do the kind of writing I wanted to do,” she says.
For seven years Zane kept her face and personal life away from the public. Fans first saw her photo in a 2004 New York Times article. Later that year, the Boston Globe said Zane’s real name is Kristina LaFerne Roberts. When asked if this was her real name, she replies, “Not technically.” Zane admits that Roberts is her maiden name. This may not come as a huge surprise since her publishing company Strebor is Roberts spelled backward. And she says her writing pseudonym has no significance, but was a name she used in internet chat rooms
Zane says she concealed her identity to preserve her privacy and enjoy a normal life with her two sons and daughter. Humble about her achievements, Zane says she is not interested in being a public figure and standing in the spotlight.
“I can go to my son’s daycare and see the other parents reading my book, but they wouldn’t know it was me,” she says. After her photo appeared in this February’s Essence, a black women’s magazine, Zane says one of the parents at the daycare said, “Wow that looks like so-and-so’s mother.”
Her role as publisher is the reason for Zane’s coming-out. “As a writer I could have been anonymous forever. To run a publishing house and promote my authors, it was inevitable,” she says.
Now Zane is sharing more of her personal life with fans. In the February 2006 issue of Essence magazine, she talks about her recent divorce and how she struggled through a passionless marriage. The Howard University, chemical engineer graduate is also a spokesperson for the Africa Aids Foundation and a campaign to increase younger membership in the NAACP.
“People see the woman that writes sex books but that’s about five percent of what I actually do. I spend 60 days out the year writing about sex,” she says
Black bookstore owners and managers say that most of the people they’ve seen buying sex-lit are young black women from various economic backgrounds. “Most African-American books are bought by black females age 16-42. They dominate the market,” says Martin as jazz plays in his Memphis home office.
Despite the edgy content, some Zane fans boldly read her books in public. “It’s a craze,” says a black-male commuter in Chicago. “I see young black women reading her books when I’m riding the bus to work.”
“Zane made it acceptable to carry around pornography as a female,” says Nick Chiles, author of “What Brothers Think, What Sistahs Know: The Real Deal on Love and Relationships.” “They read it on the train and the bus.”
One 27-year-old San Diego woman reads Zane’s books during workouts at the gym, but conceals the covers. “When I read her books I think, ‘Oh no she didn’t just say that!’”
So where does the fascination come from?
“It shows women using sex as a weapon,” says Sandra Bryant with a sly smile. Bryant is the manager of the Waldenbooks in South Los Angeles, the second-highest grosser of black books in the Waldenbooks chain.
There’s also the argument that the literature is sexually liberating for black women. “It’s good that black women are able to write the type of literature and that it’s out there,” says a 26-year-old black erotica fan in Washington D.C. “There are more roles than having sex out of love and we shouldn’t restrict ourselves.”
African-American women’s support of erotic literature is an interesting factor in the genre’s popularity because some people in the black community say African Americans are not open minded when it comes to sex and sexuality. Reader Sonya Battey, 39, says she was drawn to Zane’s most popular novel “Addicted” because a story about a black woman with a sex addiction was surprising. “In our world sex is always hush-hush. It seems like you hear other races talking more about sex than the African-American family,” Battey says.
Some sex experts argue that because of the sexual abuse African Americans endured during slavery, sexual conservatism is rooted in the black community. And black women are the most repressed. Female slaves were frequently raped because they were dehumanized and viewed as the slave master’s property.
“During slavery, we had no control over our sexuality,” says Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, a gynecologist and sex columnist for Glamour and Essence magazines.
“We basically had to be available for any white man who desired to use our bodies sexually,” says Hutcherson. “And I think they made this stereotype of black women as being loose and always available sexually when that wasn’t the case.”
Hutcherson has patients from various racial and economic backgrounds but finds that black women are more sexually repressed because they are trying to dispel the oversexed myth that is still seen in the media today. “It’s much harder for us to let go, let our hair down and just really get into it,” she says.
Dr. Herbert Samuels, a sexologist at LaGuardia Community College/City University of New York, says black male slaves were also perceived as sexually charged. “Some renowned people of those days, like Thomas Jefferson, had this attitude that black men were bestial when it came to sex and they were very ardent with the female,” he says.
Samuels also notes that while black men were stereotyped as having large penises, black women were also regarded as having large genitals. “The assumption is that if black men’s penises were so big, women’s vaginas had to be big and deep in order to accommodate them,” he says.
Hutcherson says black men aren’t as sexually repressed because it’s more acceptable for men to be sexual in the black culture. However, they battle sexual stigmas too. “Because of this macho, sexually charged image that they all have, it’s difficult for them when they don’t live up to that image,” Hutcherson says.
Others, along with Hutcherson, argue that religion is another major influence of sexual repression in the African-American community.
“I’m un-churched,” says writer Miriam DeCosta-Willis, also a native of the Bible-belt South. “You look at black churches, and most of them have not dealt with the issue of AIDS, birth control, abortions, and other issues that are sky-rocketing in the black community.”
“I think we’re very religious and very puritanical,” echoes Preston Allen, a contributor to all four of the “Brown Sugar” collections and a creative writing professor at Miami Dade College. “And the bravest of us are only dirty.”
If black women are sexually inhibited why do they make up a high number of HIV cases and single parents?
“It’s the good girl versus the whore issue,” Hutcherson says. “Good girls don’t ask their men to wear condoms because he’s going to think you’re a loose girl. They can’t go out and buy condoms because that means they’re looking for sex and planning to have sex. That makes you a bad girl, and they can’t deal with that emotionally or psychologically.”
Samuels disagrees that African Americans are more conservative in the bedroom compared to other groups. He says that like other races, openness to sex varies in the community. However, he and Hutcherson both say that many African Americans don’t talk about sex openly. Yet, this doesn’t mean they’re not having sex.
“You basically get a difference in attitude but not behavior,” says Samuels. “You don’t have to put your business in the street but you can still be very active.”
However, black erotica is slowly stirring conversations about intimacy among black women. Both Hutcherson and Samuels say the younger generation is more accepting of enjoying sex. “Black women are getting more involved in the whole erotic aspect of their lives,” says Samuels.
Hutcherson says Zane’s work especially has influenced the gradual turn around. “Talking about Zane’s stories is an indirect way of talking about sex,” she says.
Marketers have caught on to the hot literary trend. Bookstore shelves in the African-American section are filled with racy titles and covers like White Chocolate’s “Sex in the Hood,” in which the cover model is dressed in a fishnet body suit with a black bra and tiny red shorts. Mary B. Morrison’s, “Somebody’s Gotta Be on Top,” cover features a young black woman with cranberry tinted lips and a “come hither” expression, lying on her back, wearing a gold-sequined bra top with her tongue cuddled around a lollipop.
The surge of sex in African-American literature hasn’t rubbed every black reader the right way. Some argue that the “video ho” shown in rap videos has invaded book pages and that these images fuel the stereotype of black people as hypersexual.
“The covers and descriptions paint a false image,” says Sherwyn Stephen, a 24-year-old teaching assistant in Los Angeles. “Life isn’t really like this.”
Writers say Zane’s success influenced publishers to sex up book covers. “Zane’s books are successful and more publishers are following her format in hopes of reaching the same audience, says “Brown Sugar” editor Carol Taylor.
A prominent black bookstore owner in California, who declined to comment for fear of losing business from these authors, was also uncomfortable with the new trend. But Laurinda Brown, author of the black-lesbian erotica book “Walk Like a Man,” says publishers know readers judge books by their covers.
“If it means that a picture of a half-naked woman standing next to a man is going to make a reader think ‘hmm what’s this about?,’ publishers want you to pick that book up and buy it,” she says.
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster senior editor Malaika Adero says readers should address booksellers if they want to see a change. “The buying public has the most influence because they are who the stores are catering to. If you walk into a store and want to see literary fiction up front then you have to insist on that,” she says.
Literary Works vs. Popular Fiction
Others say popular fiction is squeezing out the future Zora Neale Hurstons and James Baldwins. The popular fiction writers, or mainstream writers, sell more books than literary writers. And authors say the publishing houses want to print the money-making reads.
“You’re missing women and men writers that actually have literary potential,” says Brown, who doesn’t like to read erotica or pornography, but writes it. Prior to being published by Zane’s Strebor Books International, she says she never heard of the sex-lit queen. So why does Brown write the steamy stuff?
“Sex sells,” she replies.
Adero says popular writers’ manuscripts don’t have an advantage over literary writers, but acknowledges that they are “offered less money because they sell less.”
“It’s not that it’s harder for them to break into the business. If you’re a great writer you’re going to get the attention of editors like myself,” she says.
“Brown Sugar’s” Preston Allen is caught on both sides of the debate, being both a popular fiction and literary writer. Allen says he doesn’t have a problem making money from the mainstream “Brown Sugar” series, but is frustrated when publishers lower their advances for his books that have deeper story lines. He says some even ask him if his books will sale like Zane’s.
“[Editors] say, ‘why don’t you put more sex in it,’ because they want to sell me as the guy who wrote in ‘Brown Sugar.’ I say there’s other Preston Allens. There’s the Preston Allen who is the black William Faulkner. That person has serious stories that he wants to get out there and that will change the world. Those are the stories that I want to be known for.”
Adero says it’s the success of mainstream writers that allows literary writers to exist. “[Commercial writers] don’t close the door for the acquisition of literary work. They open the door because otherwise we wouldn’t have the money to publish literary writers,” she says.
Next Up: Part III Pornographic or Erotic