Throughout the summer, Kara Walker’s critically-acclaimed exhibit, A Subtlety, had countless people talking, debating and thinking about the intersection of race, sexuality, class and history. Many of us who stood before her great sugar Sphinx (which she also referred to as a “new world sphinx”) were shocked and awed, and we couldn’t help but wonder how in the world she conceived of such a mighty thing. The short answer, we’ve discovered, is literature! It’s really no surprise (at least not to us book lovers), but Walker read texts like Sweetness and Power to prepare for her project—even likening some of what she experienced in the process to Ralph Ellison’s works.
Like Walker, many great artists are great readers first. In an attempt to inspire more conversations like those stirred by A Subtlety, here are five powerful texts that speak to the unique sexual experiences of black women and women of color.
1. Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Harvard professor and renowned African-American historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. brought together this hefty collection of essays, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in fiction by black authors (especially black women). Critical works from Zora Neale Hurston, Sherley Anne Williams, bell hooks and Houston A. Baker, Jr. make this a powerful read that will change the way you understand the unique position (and positioning) of black women in text and in society.
“The Highs and the Lows of Black Feminist Criticism.”
“Romance, Marginality , and Matrilineage: The Color Purple and Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
“The Future of Female: Octavia Butler’s Mother Lode.”
2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Truthfully, any work by Toni Morrison could be listed here, as she continuously uses her narratives to highlight, deconstruct and complicate cultural norms for women of color and their sexual experiences. The Bluest Eye may seem like an odd choice (Paradise could easily be considered the more appropriate text), as the 1970 novel specifically deals with incest and molestation. But Pecola Breedlove is a significant character in any discussion about the experiences of women of color. In the novel, European-inspired standards of beauty, poverty and the black father figure all play into (or, in this case, wreak havoc on) early understandings of sexuality for a young black girl.
The passage where Pecola collects her pennies to buy little Mary Jane candies becomes an even more fascinating read now that we have Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx—also a commentary on the addictive nature of sugar and ideals of beauty. “Three pennies had bought her nine lovely orgasms with Mary Jane.” Indeed.
3. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism by Patricia Hill Collins
Collins highlights the critical connections between race, sexuality and politics, but she also brings in pop culture theories to strengthen her arguments. She presents depictions of black women and their sexuality in media (alongside the presentation of black masculinity in the media) to create what she calls “progressive black sexual politics.” For those who believe that theory and practice are in opposition, Collins also addresses the importance of “honest bodies” in a time when sexual violence and HIV/AIDS are all too present in the black community.
“It’s one thing if Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé Knowles … profit from their own images and present themselves in performance as ‘bootylicious.’ It’s entirely another if adolescent girls tap into this message of female power and head off to their eighth grade classrooms decked in the same ‘bootylicious’ apparel … The theme here is not censorship of Black girls, but rather to question whether they can ‘handle it’ if they are so woefully uninformed about the legacy of Sarah Bartmann.”
4. Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S-PeRM—K-T, and Muse & Drudge by Harryette Mullen
We’re including Mullen’s collection of poetry in part to show that many genres tackle this subject critically—not just theoretical texts and works of fiction centered on black women. Recyclopedia gives you three-for-one, as it’s a re-presentation of Mullen’s three major poetry collections (Trimmings, S-PeRM—K-T and Muse & Drudge). The Gertrude Stein influence and the Sappho tributes create an unforgettable, unique atmosphere in the work. Mullen’s language is fierce—embracing, defying and redefining notions of femininity using her perspective as a black woman.
“Opens up a little leg, some slender, high exposure. Splits a
chic sheath, tight slit. Buy another peek experience, price
is slashed. Where tart knife, scoring, minced a sluttish strut.
Laughing splits the seams. Teeth in a gash, letting off steam.”
5. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Like the other texts on this list, Audre Lorde’s Zami was published many years ago yet remains an extremely important memoir (or “biomythography,” as Lorde calls it). Unfortunately, the experiences of black lesbians continue to be marginalized (although great strides have been made), but Lorde’s coming of age tale paints a brilliant portrait of the artist/activist as a young woman in New York, giving voice to the stories of many like her.
“To go to bed and to wake up again day after day besides a woman, to lie in bed with our arms around each other and drift in and out of sleep, to be with each other—not as a quick stolen pleasure, nor as a wild treat—but like sunlight, day after day in the regular course of our lives. I was discovering all the ways that love creeps into life when two selves exist closely, when two women meet.””
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.