Breaking the Chain

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Sunday, October 30, 2005

In Chicago and Centralia, Ill., where I grew up, folks loved and fought and stayed married for decades, even if they lived in separate bedrooms for nearly the entire time. There was always something risque in the air, but it was my glamorous, sexy Aunt Jackie who took things to a different level entirely.

Aunt Jackie is my father's older sister. She married and divorced five times, has two grown children, one of them a doctor, and has always been reputed to be skilled in the ways of the Kama Sutra. As a young woman (and even as an older woman, although I haven't seen her in years), she was attractive and witty, with an amply curvaceous figure. She attended my alma mater, Southern Illinois University, and a couple of years ago, when I visited SIU, a high-ranking dean who'd gone to school with my aunt remembered how she'd take the one-hour train ride from Centralia to SIU in the morning, then catch the train home to change outfits before returning to school to attend afternoon classes or to socialize.

Women were envious of Aunt Jackie -- irked that she always commanded the most attention in the room, especially if it was a room full of men. They were irked by her confidence and self-possession and the fact that her nails were perfect and her hair was perfect and she was always dressed to the nines. Lots of folks wondered how she was able to pull it off, working first at her parents' restaurant and, thereafter, very little at all. But lots of folks didn't have parents like Jackie's -- Momma Susie and Papa Lonnie everyone called them -- to lavish money and material things on their only daughter.

In the 1950s, Aunt Jackie would pay $7 for a pair of panties. And at a time when most white folks couldn't even afford to shop at Centralia's priciest store, the Smart Boutique, my aunt was on a first-name basis with the owners. She could call them up, and they'd have a cab carry a new outfit right to her house. I still have the 8x10 photograph of Jackie, beautifully coiffed and wearing a black negligee, that she gave out one Christmas. And, when we were young, the cousins couldn't wait to visit her house to see all the naked cherubs she had papered on her bedroom walls. Naturally, this kind of outsize living led to keen insights. And my Aunt Jackie has always been very generous about sharing.

"Lonnae, looky here," she began once in the mid-'80s, summoning me close. "A man don't want nothin' but two things. You got to be a lady in the front room and a bitch in the bedroom, you hear what I'm saying?" I did hear her. But since I was maybe 17 at the time, I could not fully appreciate that shimmery little pearl of wisdom.

When I was growing up, children weren't allowed to even break the threshold of the room where grown folks were talking, but hints of sex were always in the air. Momma Susie was known to bust out with a "Well, she shoulda kept her legs closed!" on the telephone, or a "Well, she ought notta laid down with him!" in living room conversation. Much later, Momma Susie professed to be most deeply offended by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. "What make it so bad, he was talkin' about havin' URRRL sex!" she said. (I believe the word she was looking for there was oral, but of course everyone in the room just let that one slide.)

My great-Aunt Ellen and her daughter-in-law Rita were always amused by the romance novels I read during my summers in Centralia. They smiled and elbowed each other when I announced I was going to be a virgin until I got married. And, although they genuinely lauded my book smarts, Aunt Ellen liked to point out that smart in the head usually means dumb down there. There was book sense, and there was bedroom sense, she maintained, and black women needed to have a generous helping of both. It can be tempting, in hindsight, to label those conversations as excessive -- to say grown people had no business talking to a young girl about such women things. But I don't think poorly of those working-class black women in my family who made bawdy references to sex. They faced a reality I cannot know. A reality circumscribed by race and gender and class, without the dimmest prospect of developing their range of talents to their full potential. Those women danced in the arena in which they found themselves, always searching for new moves, new ways to navigate and define themselves, instead of letting other folks (men, the larger white society) do it for them. Sexuality was just one tool -- another way to use what you had to get what you needed. Bitter history had taught them that there was no one who would come along to rescue you or carry you pliantly into happily ever after -- so you better find a way to get there yourself, and that's what they were trying to tell me. Even Aunt Jackie, who knew well how to leverage her looks and her smarts, had little opportunity to apply her savvy in the white world. So she worked at my grandparents' restaurant, made shrewd real estate investments, married and brought nuisance lawsuits to support herself when most black women were scraping by in domestic fields. She invented herself and then steered both of her kids to college so they could do the same. And she and the other women on Daddy's side worked hard to instruct us girl children to rely on our own sexual authority.

But like most of life's hardest lessons, it's something I had to learn in my own time.

Although it took 100 years before their white counterparts found the words to speak it, black women have long known that the personal is political. The bodies of black women have been among the most politicized terrains on the planet, and it used to be there was little more public than a black woman's sexuality. Often that's still the case.

From 1619 to 1865, black women in America did not own their babies or their bodies. They were inspected and poked and sold on the auction blocks. They were raped and sexually subjugated by white men, and mated with other slaves so their children could be added to the master's bottom line. Internationally, whites titillated themselves lining up in European cities to gawk at Saartjie "Sara" Baartman, the young southern African tribeswoman, dubbed the Hottentot Venus, who became an icon of black female sexuality and racial inferiority. In 1810, when she was 20 years old, Baartman was taken to Europe and exhibited naked, in a cage, in London and Paris. Her large derriere and distended labia were seen as "somatic evidence of the lasciviousness of blacks, a racial characteristic," wrote John Short, a professor at New York's Cooper Union College.

In her book Bulletproof Diva, essayist Lisa Jones raised the intriguing possibility that Baartman's notoriety was partially responsible for the rise in popularity in Europe of the corset that gave white women higher busts, rounder hips and exaggerated proportions of their own. After her death, Baartman's sexual organs were preserved, and they were displayed in a Paris museum until as recently as 1985. In 2002, the French government returned her remains to South Africa, with apologies.

Stereotypes of sexually rapacious blacks had origins that stretched back to Europeans' first contact with Africans. In Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives, Gail Elizabeth Wyatt, a psychiatry and biobehavioral science professor at UCLA, detailed those early encounters. She wrote that African women didn't cover their breasts (breasts were viewed as symbols of life, not sexuality), that women nursed their children openly and that sex occurred outside religious control, although not outside tribal norms and rituals.

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