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.
Europeans used these initial observations as the basis for stereotypes, and the contention that blacks were hardly more than sexually voracious animals was part of the justification for slavery, scholars say. And slavery forced black women to make desperate decisions, about resistance against or capitulation to the sexual demands of white men, and to suffer the consequences. Acquiescence could mean estrangement from other slaves or being sold from loved ones by oppressed, vindictive white women who often found their high, chaste pedestals a desperately lonely perch. Resistance could bring severe physical punishment. In a reference volume she co-edited, Black Women in America, A Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Clark Hine told the story of a young Missouri slave girl:
Celia was 14 years old in 1850 when she was bought by Robert Newsome, a 70-year-old farmer. On the way home from the slave auction, he raped her. He raped her repeatedly after that until the night of June 23, 1855, when she resisted him with force. At that time, Celia, 19, was pregnant for the third time and had been ill for at least four months. According to court testimony, she had told Newsome that she would hurt him if he raped her while she was still sick. Despite her warning, he came to her cabin that night to force sexual intercourse upon her. Celia, who armed herself with a stick, struck him twice. He died immediately, and Celia was charged with first-degree murder. She was later hanged.
Wyatt wrote about James Roberts, a freed slave who, in his essay "The Narrative of James Roberts," tells of how 50 or 60 black women were bred on his plantation. How they were impregnated solely by whites in the hopes that their children would bring top dollar. "From these women, 20 to 25 children were born and sold away when they were ready for market," Roberts wrote.
In slave times, women were often given thin or ill-fitting clothes, and modesty was additionally often subservient to the hard realities of bending over and squatting in fields to perform their labor. This was offered as further evidence of black sexual aberrance. After Emancipation, sexual relations became one of the primary areas in which former slaves could act upon their freedom. With the end of Reconstruction, though, blacks were once again forced into political and economic subservience, so the ability to travel, and, most especially, to choose whom they wanted to love became among the clearest lines of demarcation separating slave days from free ones.
Still the stereotype of the insatiable black woman, which gave rise to the notion of the oversexed black man, who was a constant danger to the virtue of white women, continued and grew as a justification for the lynching that became widespread. "Black men were thought capable of these sexual crimes because of the lascivious character of the women of the race in a time when women were considered the foundation of a group's morality," wrote author and professor Paula Giddings in her essay "The Last Taboo."
In her 1994 book, Too Heavy a Load, Deborah Gray White wrote that black women's outrage at this slanderous sexual stereotyping sparked the black women's club movement.
This is why that early-20th-century movement of middle-class black women devoted so much energy to ladyhood and propriety -- because they were obsessed with defining themselves and debunking the stereotypes that were used to murder their sons and husbands. For women like educator and feminist Anna Julia Cooper, who was widowed young and never remarried, it also prompted extreme denial and a near sexless persona in service to the cause of uplift. Maxine Clair, an author and George Washington University English professor, recalls growing up in Kansas City when female teachers were compelled to resign once they got married or became pregnant, so as not to despoil their image of chastity. Clair has said that, although laws mandating resignation for white teachers were rescinded in the 1940s, the custom continued for black teachers, especially in small, Midwestern school districts, well into the 1950s.
My mother's family came out of that clubwoman tradition, and maybe that's why Grandma Mabel drilled decorum and respectability into my momma's head, while secretly writing sexy stories for pulp magazines. Perhaps that is why my mother never said a word to her daughters about sex, never helped me fashion a healthy self-concept or set of rules as I grew out of my girlhood, never taught me the facts of life. The women on my daddy's side, on the other hand, were pragmatists, working-class black women who seemed, if not to wholly own their sexuality, to at least be comfortable bringing it up in casual conversation.
That dual tradition in my family, a bifurcation along class lines, happened because middle-class black women had more resources and buffers against the most odious forms of racism, including sexual stereotypes. Education gave them greater access to the trappings of a larger, white world, or at least greater hope that, if they carried themselves like perfect ladies, they could become part of it. Daddy's people had to command whatever powers they did possess to get by -- and sex was not the least of them.
These women became studied professors of sexual politics, and my own instruction started young, and not only at the hand of Aunt Jackie. At 14, I was visiting my great-aunt -- Jackie's aunt -- Ellen, when a cousin stopped by to say that she was moving to Washington to live with her boyfriend, the father of her baby. Aunt Ellen was livid. "You move in with a man, you ain't nothing but an unpaid ho," Aunt Ellen told her. "Hell, the only time you a paid ho is when you get married." This stayed with me. This was the same summer I had been glued to the television, transfixed by the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and I keenly sensed the psychic dissonance in the messages I was getting. But, like most black folks -- even young ones -- my double-think, double-consciousness skills were sharp, so I just registered both messages and kept stepping. From an early age, I began to understand (abstractly) that sex was currency. Legal tender. Negotiable for all debts public and private. Still, it didn't become personal until later.
As a child growing up, I was very nearly Victorian when it came to thoughts of romance. I learned the facts of life (Eew!! Gross!!! ) from a pregnancy book I covertly checked out from the adult section of the library. But from the time I was about 12 until I left for college, what I loved to read more than anything in the world were Harlequin romances. I chain-smoked them, sometimes ditching school to read two a day. I had favorite authors, such as Janet Dailey and Carol Mortimer, and I had the formula for love down pat. (The books always featured about 188 pages of smart virginal heroines and rich older men.) The more interested I became in boys, the more obsessed I was with my fantasy of how my love life was supposed to go, gross anatomy notwithstanding.
It would be like Janet Dailey's bodice-ripping romance novel Big Sky Country, or like the movie "The Blue Lagoon," in which perfect innocents played by Brooke Shields and the sinewy Christopher Atkins discover sex in spite of themselves -- except somehow that epic romantic setting always eluded me. Big Sky Country was set on a ranch in Montana, so that was out, and there were simply no lagoons, blue or otherwise, where I lived. And, although plenty of folks lost it in Chicago at the Point on 55th Street, or Bongo Beach on 63rd, I didn't really know a lot of Chicago boys, and those places seemed very different anyway, so I was a virgin until I went to college. Despite the fact that, from the time I was a child, I memorized the R&B songs that urged, "We can do it, baby, do it tonight," or "Catfish makes my nature rise." Despite the fact that, when we were 15, my girlfriend Alicia and I learned all the words to "Nasty Girl" by Vanity 6 -- "Cuz tonight I'm living in a fantasy, my own little nasty world. Tonight don't u wanna come with me . . ." -- and felt ourselves on the verge of some new power we didn't understand.
I had moved when I was 9 from the cocoon of a black community to the mostly white suburb of Hazel Crest, Ill. I was part of a unique historical demographic -- that first generation born after all major civil rights legislation had been passed -- and I had never known the lunch-counter racism my mother experienced. It spawned in me a certain sense of entitlement, in ways good and bad. By the time I was in junior high, my black girlfriends and I had closed ranks and stopped associating with our white playmates from elementary school -- and they had stopped associating with us. From a safe distance, we listened as some of the white girls talked about sex and came to school with hickeys (even one girl who was in my honors classes!). Later I watched a couple of them try to date my brother and his friends on the football team. I heard all the nasty things he and his buddies said about them. Of course, when I started hearing about young black girls doing the same "nasty" things, in my mind, those were individual acts and didn't have any group implications at all. The protective-repressive cover that was thrown, like a burqa, over the middle-class black girls I knew growing up meant we were prone to unfair projections of our own about the deviance of whiteness. It often meant total silence about the implications of our own sexuality. And it meant I went away to college sadly, painfully, naive. And there is much to regret about girls who are naive far from home.
I had been unable to benefit from Aunt Jackie's insight or Aunt Ellen's sense of sexual politics until I got older. Until I left my first boyfriend, who was violent and abusive. Until, like they did, I began defining myself and charting my own path. Until I met the man who would become my husband, and got some hands-on training in working out power struggles and, hello, working on the kinks in my best moves.
This is why now, on the other side, I feel determined to own my sexuality and command it. Because, Lord knows, especially for black women, that's been hard to come by.
There is a scene from the epic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille production of "The Ten Commandments" that stayed in my mind when I was a child. As a girl, I loved Charlton Heston. I grew up with a recurring rescue fantasy, and he always fit the hero bill -- a strong and courageous man, a man of biblical proportions, I thought. But in "The Ten Commandments," I couldn't help but notice that Nefertiti, talking about all that myrrh perfuming up her hair, wielded her own special power. It was more earthy than ethereal, with a feel of depth and mystery, but it was a force nonetheless, a power to compel.
Nefertiti had thrown herself at Moses's feet when he faced judgment in the court of Pharaoh and sobbed as she was promised to Ramses as the future queen of Egypt. But when Moses came back around, no longer a fallen prince but a messenger of the Almighty sent to free his people from slavery, Nefertiti, who had also come into her own, was quick to hem him up. Quick to let him know she could be a powerful ally or a fierce opponent. Who do you think can harden Pharaoh's heart? she asks Moses. Or soften it?
In that moment, I knew she was talking about using what she had to get what she wanted. That she was talking about laying it down and whipping it on him. And even if I wasn't exactly sure what "it" was or how "it" worked, I knew instinctively "it" could tip the scales and bend things in favor of the queen. Now I'm grown, with three kids, and I must admit, I've been an "it" girl for a long time. And while I don't know if what I'm serving up would be enough to free the Hebrews from Egypt, I do pride myself on being a woman of many talents. And, like Nefertiti, I like to use them to bend things toward a favor all my own.
If I want to go out alone with friends on a Friday, for suppose, I start being real nice to my husband the Sunday before. I cook a good dinner a couple of nights in a row and keep the house orderly and straight. But since I know how to play to my strengths, I keep my trump card tucked away till later. I like to use it when I want to go out, but it works just as well when money's tight and I want a pair of pricey new shoes, or I need my husband to lend us his generator to power the neighborhood block party. I start dropping hints about whatever it is I want. I start talking about how happy it's going to make me, and I remind him how a happy wife does such happy things for her man. And that usually closes the deal and makes for one big happy family.
There's a certain sensual fluidity I like to bring to my current suburban pantheon. A quick tap on my husband's backside during the school sale at Target to say, "Baby, I dig how you gangstered that opening in Aisle Five." Perhaps a lick to my lips at family bowling when our eyes meet as the song overhead begs, "Just love me till my
tension's gone." Do you remember Will Smith in "Men in Black"? -- when he put on his suit and dark glasses, turned to Tommy Lee Jones and said, "I make this look good"? Well, that is exactly how I'm going to rock a Dodge Caravan.
I reject the notion that minivans desexualize. After all, sex -- and the children it got me -- is the reason I need one in the first place. That's why on a recent car-shopping trip, while my husband sat in a minivan driver's seat, I sat behind him cooing, "Baby, you look so good, that's all you," and rubbing his head while the car dealer looked on, befuddled. He must not know the sexiest thing on Earth is a black man in a ride that keeps everybody safe and allows enough room between the seats so that Cheetos thrown from the back don't land upside your head.
Aunt Ellen always maintained that there was a special place in Hell reserved for the women who undercut all our property values by givin' it away free. I sometimes wonder if she'd approve of me for givin' it away for a laptop or a brand-new, self-propelled vacuum. Or how about givin' it away just so I can get a little bit back. I wonder what all those women on my father's side, most of whom are long gone, would say if they could see that I've been married for 12 years. That it hasn't been perfect, but I can still find much to love about a night of wine and rose petals. That I like to bet dirty pretty things over a game of Ping-Pong in the basement.
That I've got a big house and a man who follows me around it from room to room.
Standing at a historically different place, a hard-fought place, I would say my life is rich in sensuality and eroticism, especially after dishes, when I'm not exhausted and my 2-year-old isn't in our bed. I would say something bluesy-sounding with a Jill Scott hook like, if I want to go out on a Friday night, I'm a treat you right, daddy, startin' Sunday 'bout noon.
I can almost hear my Aunt Ellen saying, with admiration: You sure turned out to be a well-paid wife.
Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a staff writer for The Post's Style section. This article is adapted from her book I'm Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, published this month by Amistad/HarperCollins. She will be fielding questions and comments about this issue Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.