HealthOpen LetterSex & Gender
shame the devil, use the erotic
August 23, 2017
Throughout 2017, AFROPUNK asked black thinkers from countries around the world to document the contemporary experiences from the viewpoint of their communities. The pieces, which we call “Open Letters,” are an exercise in perspective, local stories that are also broader descriptions of this time in history. And while the writing spotlights what’s different about each international point of view, more importantly, it makes clear that what is happening around the world is common and shared.
“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.” – Audre Lorde
Hundreds of yellow taxicabs rush past the large windows of the cafe I’m sitting in Manhattan; streams of metallic vehicles carrying people that have undoubtedly known shame and redemption. I’m reminded of my childhood, of sneaking to watch HBO’s Taxicab Confessions. I would turn the volume down low so that my mother could not hear me listening to people talk about their lives candidly, albeit drunkenly — especially about those fascinating subjects, sex and the body. I loved when the show’s characters would expose themselves and discuss things I identified as taboo, and I knew to stay quiet, so my family wouldn’t know, so I would not be shamed. HBO’s Real Sex and Showtime’s Queer as Folk operated in similar ways. As a young queer boy, these were my only insights into the forbidden. I would watch these shows with my ears pressed to the screen and my eyes devouring explicit sexuality, my mother none the wiser.
I was innocently curious about this fruit that adults had located, a fruit that grew where the body and desire met, in a place we often call sexuality; and though I was never told about this fruit, I did not need to know God to know it was forbidden. Before I knew a healthy sexuality, I knew shame. My mother never explicitly told me that sex and nudity were things to be ashamed of, but the absence of conversation — the secrecy — functioned in a way that I knew it was shameful. And so, shame has been my shadow for most of my life.
My childhood and young adult endurances are hardly unique in the black community, and perhaps even less intense than other black folks I have talked to. I’ve been told stories of physical abuse young people have experienced by parents and guardians because they were caught masturbating. I’ve been told about young women, beaten and humiliated in public by mothers and fathers once it was discovered they were sexually active. I’ve been told about children with gender non-conforming performances being critiqued in front of family members during holidays, and of obese children being fat-shamed during family reunions. I’ve been told about kids kicked out of homes once their queer sexual orientation was unearthed, about straight teenage boys being lured into sexual relationships with adult women in order to prove their manhood, and about queer teenage boys being lured into sex acts with adult men they were supposed to trust as a way to explore their sexuality or gain validation. All these horrific stories return to shame.
Shame is revolutionary. It gets underneath your skin and transforms how you see the world. It is addictive and invasive. It overthrows your sense of self and reality, only to be replaced with a darker version of you; each cell is in on the coup d’état against the soul, and any moment you thought you might have been righteous or decent is turned into occasions where your true evil self was simply hiding inside a trojan horse of kindness. Shame unleashes anarchy in your imagination, where you can no longer control yourself. If recognized as useless, shame can be extinguished; but often rather than getting pushed out, it molds people into becoming the very lie they feared the most.
Shame followed me into adulthood. What could have been a comfortable, well-adjusted sexuality turned into a string of heinous anxieties. It wasn’t until the age of 23 that I recognized the way I thought about myself, my body and my desire wasn’t sustainable for a healthy person. I could not simultaneously hate and reject myself, while also possibly thinking I could make love or feel worthy. I deconstructed this by redefining how I looked at the body. I reimagined what my skin, my hands, my eyes, my ears were for. I began convincing myself, cell by cell, that I was worthy of desire, but existed beyond desirability. I told myself that my curiosities were not wicked.
My body was a deeply erotic, profound thing not because of how it arrived on this Earth, but because of the consciousness held inside of it. The anxieties I had around my queer wants, my kinks and my curiosities slowly began to disappear. The anchor for this evolution was Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” a 1981 essay in which the feminist writer revealed how we are socialized into the oversimplification of our bodies, minds, and power — and how one of the main tools that make this possible is shame. Lorde bribes the reader to see The Erotic as not just a one-dimensional pornographic space, but a profound one where deep feeling happens — manifesting in the bedroom, and in all of life. Which is to say, the difference between me writing this essay and writing this essay erotically is, the former asks that I simply transcribe my thoughts and feelings into words, whereas the latter — the erotic — is naming and honoring the deep joy and excitement that I find in the practice of articulating my feelings into words for the public to consume. It is a small detail, but it is the detail that separates those who exist, those who live, and those who thrive. Reimagining my body through Lorde’s text didn’t just change who I was in the boudoir, it changed who I was entirely.
Three years later, I still revisit moments when shame informed much of how I moved around the world and around my own community. To this day, I am routinely reminded of the violent results of shame everywhere I look. Trans black women are dying. All women are being raped, trafficked and assaulted. Homophobia and other forms of queer-antagonism is as familiar to us as the prison-industrial complex. People socialized into self-recognizing as men are trading being whole for toxic patriarchal power. The saddest part of these truths is how shame does not seem to be minimizing, but perpetuating itself, especially among the people I hold most dear.
To truly have a conversation about preventing patriarchal domination and toxic practices that express themselves through violence — both sexual and non- — we must discuss, agitate, and ultimately destroy shame. Just as to truly discuss our involvement and collusion with white supremacist capitalism, we must discuss and dismantle greed.
Scholar, artist, and advocate for the trans black femme community, Jamal Lewis writes, “I believe desire and uncontrolled perceptions about trans and gender non-conforming bodies coupled with misogyny to be the root of the death and violence trans and gender nonconforming people experience. Because our bodies do not belong to us and to a nation-state that determines gender via medical institutions by genitalia, trans and gender non-conformity will always be read as deception in the cis imagination. When we dare to be ourselves, with audacity, it is always reduced to how our bodies are consumed for the pleasure of others (We want to trick men).”
Yet shame begets silence, so these conversations fail to happen and these modes of domination do not get dismantled. And silence about trans and gender-nonconforming people does not leave room for neutrality, but informs the monstrous logic that they should be killed and erased. The erasure around men who love trans women and gender-nonconforming people — and the silence around trans and gender-nonconforming individuals outside of the gaze of desire — births the shame of this desire, and ultimately, the violence shame turns into. Once again, silence equals death.
In the 1960’s and early 70s, white America had a sexual revolution, a season of love. I name the moment as mainly serving white people not to suggest no black people participated, but to suggest that all of the moment’s cultural energy was aimed to assist white youth in their reclamation and reimagination of their bodies and minds, while any black people being affected was more byproduct than a goal. Now, Black people need our own sexual and gender emancipation.
That funk singer Betty Davis screamed “He was a big freak!” in a 1974 song is not to be ignored. It is in the black tradition to dismantle the shame that white supremacy and patriarchy normalized around our black bodies and minds, negating all of the queer ways in which blackness manifests. It’s also in the lyrics of Ma Rainey blues songs, in which she coos about her lesbianism. See, we do challenge. Davis proudly wore her desire and kink while pushing us to think about emotions and feelings differently in her funk classics. She sings, “He used to laugh when I’d make him cry.” We do reimagine and transgress — like Sylvester, like Grace Jones, like Prince.
However, we can not ignore that black people have never had a moment to properly engage our bodies, minds, and desires outside of a system that is imperialist white supremacist capitalist and patriarchal, which explains what we are conditioned to ignore. We do not need to take a moment — we need lifetimes. We do not just need radical gender and sexuality icons, we need new and radical ways to teach ourselves and our children about our genders, our desires and our bodies. If we do not disrupt shame, shame won’t stay static. It will spread. It is spreading. The evidence is in the levels of violence against those who transgress. Humans seem hardwired to attempt to exterminate those that fail the dominants’ idea of how blackness can exist: the trans bodies, the sex-positive bodies, the fat bodies, the queer bodies, the femme bodies, the bodies that have survived violence, the bodies that don’t desire sex in the ways society is conditioned to think is acceptable (if at all), the male bodies that choose to exist outside the expectations of the white supremacist patriarchy, and the disabled bodies. We are in an unique moment where our generation — the AFROPUNK generation — can assist in the dismantling of this blanket of shame we are often socialized into living inside of. We have the potential to push black culture into a new, freer space.
As black people, we can’t continue to think sexuality, desire, and shame are isolated, pornographic events that happen for fifteen minutes. It is bigger than what you snuck off to watch as a child. It is bigger than the moment you orgasm. It starts way before a person decides to use their hands to kill someone they desired in order to remain accepted as authentic. Our relationship with The Erotic — eroticism, desire, sexuality, love — and with our bodies informs who lives and who dies. It determines who exists and who thrives. We must realize that this insurrection happens underneath the skin, is often about the skin, but should not be mistaken for being just skin-deep.
Image credits: Shikeith, “A Missed Prayer” and “Brush Your Blues,” photos courtesy of the artist
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