The Politics of Pleasure and the Smell of Desire

The following is a guest post from Kinitra Brooks, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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I like your weight. The slim, pecan shell-colored gentleman softly declared his appreciation of my figure. He spoke firmly, but gently, as his dark eyes beheld mine own. He had deftly mastered that complicated balance of respect, clarity, and male appreciation that bedevils so many contemporary men. It was at this moment that I fully acknowledged that Jamaica was going to be a place that demanded my growth as a black woman who proudly identifies as a black feminist.

You’re not fat Kinitra; to us you are simply big. My Trinidadian colleague, A.N., had tried to explain this to me years earlier. A stunningly beautiful woman with skin the color of warm honey encasing an elegant athletic build, A.N. parsed the appreciation Caribbean men had for the delightful mix of blackness, womanness, and fatness that comprises me. To be big offers a healthy space for the conflation of attractiveness and fatness. Yet, I’d seen How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)—even though Taye Diggs’ supposed attractiveness has always eluded me—and I’d had friends and colleagues that were of Jamaican (and/or Caribbean) descent. I knew Caribbean men enjoyed their women across the spectrum of size and skin tones. And it is not as if I am without male attention in the States—this post is not about me discovering that men love fat black chicks. I knew that Jamaican standards of beauty leaned heavily in my favor, at least in theory. What I do choose to consider in this post is the unexpected cognitive and emotional dissonance I experienced due to the drastic cosmological and ontological shift Jamaica required of me as it privileged my kind of beauty. Further, I want to use my dis-ease to interrogate black feminism on the politics of being desired within black feminist critic Joan Morgan’s framework, “The Politics of Pleasure.”

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Feminists are kind of allergic to pleasure. This quote by mentor E. Frances White is how Joan Morgan opens her articulation on The Politics of Pleasure while being interviewed by Mark Anthony Neal. Morgan contends that pleasure and all the ways it manifests in women’s lives must become a feminist priority—particularly for black feminists and other feminists of color. Morgan laments the lack of success in black feminist thought at “developing a language for pleasure and a language for the right to pleasure.” Morgan’s ideas echo Adrienne Davis’ insistence that the “mastery of language” is a key tool in combatting the “linguistic vacuums” that trap black women’s sexualities, keeping the subject forever entwined within the traumas of slavery and post-bellum survival sex. (216) Morgan understands the hesitancy of black women to revel in pleasure and acknowledges that “our sexuality is often written in a way that is historically problematized” and proffers The Politics of Pleasure as a safe space in which black feminists can not only imagine and invent a language of pleasure but to develop an overall mastery of the different types of pleasures that potentially permeate the lives of black women.

It’s about The Politics of Pleasure and The Smell of Desire. Mark Anthony Neal brings these phrases together as he introduces Morgan and they begin to discuss her [then] new body butter and fragrance line that makes black skin glow. Morgan shares that her business, EmilyJayne, is about expanding black women’s ideas of pleasure. That pleasure goes beyond sex to the realm of sensuality. That pleasure is about feeding one’s senses, about “black women developing a tactile relationship with her own feminism—so that the idea of non-sexualized touch fails to be foreign.” And yet, where does this leave desire? My intervention queries the politics of being desired as I wonder upon the possibilities of a black feminist language framework that allows us to be free from the politics, period.

***

It’s that bum you have behind you, Kinitra. That thing drives us men here crazy. This is how my friend and confidant in Orcabessa described my appeal to the opposite sex that I was beginning to relish even as I became increasingly uncomfortable with its reality. Here lay the aforementioned dissonance as I attempted to hold the conflicting truths of being consistently, respectfully, and openly desired for those qualities that made me uniquely black and woman with my life’s work fighting for the basic humanity of black women.

Help! I’m carrying a weapon of mass destruction on my lower back! I frantically typed to a friend as I freaked out about being perceived as incredibly attractive in this country that appreciated the many different sizes and shades of gendered Africanized beauty. As I articulated my fears, the exploratory nature of my questions began to expand beyond my individual experience. Are we, as black feminists, equipped with the necessary tools to handle being the standard of womanhood? Have we considered the realities of occupying that vaulted place upon the pedestal so long occupied by white womanhood?

We are always asking for access to the simple right to be considered beautiful. According to my sistagirl/colleague Elle, here at home we black feminists are always in the midst of the struggle—the struggle to be recognized, the struggle for self-articulation, and even the struggle to desire and be desired when we step outside the strictures of academia and respectability politics. I contemplated Elle’s insight as her shy smile peeked through her smooth Hershey-colored face and then it clicked. In Jamaica, I allowed myself to surrender the struggle of both respectability politics and the politics of pleasure to allay the disquiet of my heart and mind to guilelessly surrender to the pleasures of being desired. I have discovered a new path to pleasure and it smells like desire.

Sources:

Cooper, Brittney. Single, Saved, and Sexin’. March 15, 2013.

Davis, Adrienne. ““Don’t Let Nobody Bother Yo’ Principle:” The Sexual Economy of American Slavery.” Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies. Ed. by Stanlie M. James, Frances Smith Foster & Beverly Guy-Sheftall. 215-239

Neal, Mark Anthony. Left of Black with Joan Morgan and Andreana Clay. Season 3, Episode 12. December 3, 2012.

Comments

  1. Kami Fletcher says:

    Kinitra, thank you for this post! As a Black woman academic who studies Black feminism and Black women’s history and embeds it in her pedagogy and writing, I too understand that as it relates to sexuality our have been hijacked. But not until I read this post did I think about how our sexual wants, needs, and desires have been manipulated to the point that we might not can tell where our wants meet social constructions.

    Again, great post!

    • Kinitra, I really enjoyed reading how you skillfully and carefully walked me through the political labyrinth you negotiate and the myriad implications that abound with each turn and step.

      I didn’t know being desired could situate one in such a complicated space. What was most intriguing is how your feminist politics seemed to both provide you with a necessary historical context and lexicon to map out the dubious feelings and emotions you encountered while also seeming to be a cumbersome obstacle that you must step over or around in order to just be.

      I’m sure I still don’t get it (and that probably has everything to do with me being a man) but I appreciate you sharing these insights with a brother. I’ll continue to ponder this fascinating nexus of pleasure, desire and black women’s feminism and I’ll be sure to peep the discussions you cited for further insights. Keep writing sis; You is dope!!! :-)

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