R. Kelly, Kobe, the Jacksons—the pop figments of Black sexuality are everywhere these days. The Janet Jackson episode proved that where Black libidinous activity is concerned, a part stands in for the whole—one raw titty can produce a panic about the thing itself. Apocalypse now: live Black yoni in your living room. Easier to tabloidize than to theorize about, Black sexuality awaits its Foucault—with good reason. Any writer whose project is American racial and sexual politics has a lot of historicizing on their hands: a legal history to unpack, from slave ownership and slave rape to lynching to the trials of Anita Hill and O.J. Simpson, and the irony that much of what’s perceived as Black sexuality is a corporate media construct. There’s the communion of Black sexuality and subjectivity—the “Monster Speaks” aspect of the thing, the voice of our sexual selves as displayed in the scant films and literature we can find that are unmediated by the corporate gaze. There are statistics (pregnancy, abortion, AIDS in Africa) and the charged politics thereof, with welfare, housing, and public medical policy demanding inclusion. There is Black homosexuality and Black homophobia, and then there is class: working-class strippers, prostitutes, and those upper-middle-class Black Atlantans who convene weekly sex parties in their posh homes. Then comes the problem of making sense of it all. Three recent titles take up the challenge from widely differing vantages. A mash-up of this trio, with recent books by Tricia Rose and Jill Nelson, could produce a Black-sex dreamtext.
Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Sexual Politics is one of the most steaming mad books on sexuality since the days of Andrea Dworkin—a brief but dense attempt at totalizing racial and sexual politics in American life. For riled-up ambition alone it constitutes a breakthrough. Her chapter titles are provocatively au courant (“Booty Call: Sex, Violence, and Images of Black Masculinity”). Collins is boldest when putting forth the notion that racism and heterosexism are intertwined forms of oppression. She lambastes notions of Black community that squeeze out non-church or nationalist-approved difference: “a narrow Black identity politics that demands an unquestioned loyalty to one version of Blackness consistently privileges some versions of Blackness and disadvantages others. Such politics routinely derogate and exclude African Americans who are the wrong sexual orientation; who love significant others that are the wrong color.” A jeremiad against reactionary gender and race politics, BSP doesn’t have time to identify their practitioners in a nuanced fashion.
Thomas Shevory’s Notorious H.I.V. is more coherent and incisive, focusing on Nushawn Williams, drug dealer and alleged one-man AIDS epidemic. His story began in upstate New York and went national after he was found to have had sex with 13 women while knowing he’d been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Shevory notes that in initial reporting the number became inflated to as high as 300 and Williams’s area of infection spread, via journalistic fiction, to at least eight states. The majority of those women were white, some even upper-middle-class. In the press, the case became a microcosm of American racial mythology, where Williams was labeled a monster who traded drugs for sex with his white slaves and knowingly transmitted HIV to his victims. Much of Shevory’s book is concerned with language, law, and knowledge—how Williams’s case was misrepresented and spurred a call for the criminalization of HIV-positive folks who don’t share that info with their partners. (Legal trickery got Williams convicted not for viral transmission or drug dealing but statutory rape.)
Shevory interviewed Williams several times in prison, and Notorious provides a complicated portrait of an erratic, impulsive, and fairly typical teenage drug hustler. Shevory’s Foucaldian interests in the case have less to do with Williams per se than how race provided the state a means to begin criminalizing the behavior of those who carry the disease.
Jacob Levenson’s The Secret Epidemic is the most disappointing of these books, if only because it doesn’t come alive on the page as the rallying cry it intends to be. Though he has moving accounts from a variety of African Americans—some victims, some activists—the organization of the material diffuses the cumulative emotional impact. If Collins is too sweeping and full-frontal in her approach, and Shevory purposefully narrow, Levenson never seems to enter the story as an on-the-ground investigator to provide the immediacy and intimacy this tragedy demands. There is a fair amount of information culled from studies by Black medical researchers and Black AIDS activists, dating back to the late ’80s. But without revealing AIDS’s current status as a “Black” disease, Epidemic lacks a dramatic sense of the present—not least because it only touches on how the poorest of African American communities in the South are confronting AIDS devastation. Levenson unveils the link between crack use, poverty, and the epidemic, but never produces the kind of relationships with African Americans that would give his book the currency his subject requires. The Random Family of the African American AIDS crisis has yet to be written.