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

On your class syllabus, you list Real Housewives and the lesbian coming-of-age drama Pariah as texts, how do those works tie-in with your pleasure principle?
We didn’t watch Pariah or Real Housewives, instead there was Beyoncé, director Ava Duvernay’s work and dream hampton. I use pop culture in a number of ways because I’m aware that my students do not just live in a world where they’re dealing solely with written text. It’s important for me to talk about Scandal, because I want them to learn how to use those sources as text, responsibly. We need to have a conversation about why you can’t read a music video as you would a documentary. Rihanna performing “Man Down,” her song about killing an attacker, doesn’t mean that she’s going to go kill somebody. One of my students began to do post critical readings and one of them is to think of Black women’s bodies as performance as a way to create safe erotic spaces and what is the power of just performance in itself, not just for the performer but for the women who are watching and enjoying the performance. To me Beyoncé does work that isn’t discussed beyond ‘Why did she have to gyrate that way?’ or ‘Why is she wearing that kind of clothing?’

I want to get past that. I want to look at how people, and women, are getting pleasure from what Beyonce does and so is she, and why that’s important.

Did you hit these ideas in the ‘Decoding Beyonce’ conversation you hosted at Stanford?
My lunch discussion, through the CCSRE (Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity) and the African and African American Studies Department, was on Beyoncé with two of my students so people could get an idea of what we’re doing in our Pleasure Principle class. Some things that arose were how we read Beyoncé’s body and what’s she doing, that became a deep conversation about African dance tradition and her connection to it shown in more than a couple videos. What are the reasons we don’t recognize that as African dance and call it something else? What does Beyoncé do and how does she work through the male gaze to position herself not a merely for justification but how does she use that gaze not only for her own empowerment but for the empowerment of women? What does it mean to have an all-female band in the testosterone space of the Super Bowl? We had difficult conversations too, like her blackface fashion spread in a French magazine in 2011. If that depiction is in a French magazine, do you read the blackface the same way you would in America? What happens if you superimpose the U.S.’s racial and professional history every where else? It was intense, tricky and fun, and that’s what happens when you talk about pleasure.

This Wednesday you’re hosting an all-star panel at Stanford around the Politics of Pleasure, how did that come about?
I reached out to the Institute for Diversity of the Arts at Stanford because I wanted to know the possibility for hosting a space where I could get together with other feminists, activists, scholars, cultural workers and singers. Stanford responded with ‘We’d love it but would you also teach a class on whatever you want?’ So I designed my course this semester very close to my own interests. Ultimately, it’s camp pleasure for the next three days. We talked seriously about re-theorizing the idea of black women’s sexuality, how do we make interventions into different kinds of spaces, not just academic spaces, conferences and panels? I call the panel participants my pleasure ninjas, we’re all committed to rethinking this. This round I have Dr. Treva Lindsay from the University of Missouri, Dr. Brittney Cooper, of Rutgers University who’s also founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, Esther Armah, a radio journalist at New York’s WBAI, and Dr. Kaila Story of University of Louisville.

For the last three days, it’s been our time. We didn’t share with anyone except ourselves which is great. Feminism by nature is one of those few intellectual forms of study within the academy that is a collective work. We work better that way. I’m so grateful to Stanford for the space and time to meet with each other and not only to share ideas. We’ve scheduled in massages, we did some dancing on Sunday and they’ll be some retail therapy somewhere. We’re talking pleasure in the more holistic sense. On Wednesday, I’ll be moderating the Politics of Pleasure panel on campus at Roble Theatre at 5:30 p.m. PST and that’s the big community event. On Friday, Kevin Powell and I having a new discussion at Stanford’s Harmony House about relationships and pleasure. It’s going to be pleasure week!

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