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Joan Morgan on Black Sex, Identity and the Politics of Pleasure

Joan Morgan, basking in her feminist glory.

Joan Morgan, basking in her feminist glory.

Welcome to Parlour’s newest smart brown girl series, profiling women of color in academia. Delving into their research, we’ll discuss what’s going on in the hearts and minds of those at the forefront of intellectual discussion in America and around the world. Who said feminism, intellectualism and learning was dead?

For our inaugural feature, we chatted with Joan Morgan, author of 1999’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, a feminist who negotiated a love of hip-hop. Ms. Morgan’s currently completing her ph.D program at New York University in American Studies while teaching a class at Stanford University this semester entitled The Pleasure Principle: A Post-Hip Hop Search for a Black Feminist Politics of Power, centering around the Politics of Pleasure. On Wednesday she’s hosting a panel discussion on the topic with several female scholars of color at Stanford at 5:30 p.m. PST at the Roble Theater followed by a talk on pleasure and relationships with author, journalist and activist Kevin Powell on Friday at Harmony House. And if you don’t know what Politics of Pleasure means, don’t worry, we didn’t either exactly so we asked.

Parlour: You talk a lot about the Politics of Pleasure, what does that mean?

Joan Morgan: Much of my work as a feminist revolved around how do we improve black women’s lives. I had been investigating how we talk about black women, particularly in terms of sexuality, without talking about pleasure. Instead, we identify the racial and sexual history, particularly in the United States, and why that history prevents or complicates black women’s sexuality from enjoying a sex positive space.

Feminism is very good at dissecting the politics of respectability and the culture of dissemblance thanks to Darlene Clark Hine. Still, we’re not so good at articulating a language for pleasure, which is crucial for any human being but it plays a critical role in other black women’s issues with which we don’t necessarily make the connection. For example, if we’re talking about black women and the rate of new HIV cases – the percentage of black women among new infections is disproportionately high – but when you look at the prevention, the language is ‘If he doesn’t want to use a condom, tell him to back off’ or, ‘If he really cares about you he’ll use protection.’ The discourse is centered around men’s pleasure.

Perhaps women don’t like the way condoms feel either, so how about developing protection that feels better without centering the conversation around men …
For black women, I think about our health and the diseases that compromise our lives due to stress, and we will send out the call to arms around obesity or heart disease. But we’re not talking about making a real commitment to joy in our lives, particularly around the erotic or sex and the body. I’m very interested in that little taboo area. With the Politics of Pleasure I begin to argue that what’s missing is language, and I really wanted to begin to articulate language and introduce pleasure as a feminist priority for Black women.

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