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Juan Battle is a Professor of Sociology, Public Health, & Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (C.U.N.Y.). Prof. Battle is a Fulbright Senior[…]

Decades after figures like Bessie Smith asserted masterful control over black female identity, some racial and sexual stereotypes refuse to die.

Question: What is fear of black sexuality and what are its origins?

Juan Battle: I think the origins were clearly from this whole idea of an effort to keep black men away from white women. That was at core what the hope, wish and desire were. That’s where its origins were. How does that show up now if you will? There is kind of a tacit agreement that never has to be languaged, but it is extremely easy to tap into and that is that you know all black men want to screw white women or do something harmful to white women and women must therefore be protected. Okay, but based upon that alone so we can see racism. We can see patriarchy. We see sexism. We see misogyny, all sorts of things give rise in that scenario. There was an incident that happened a few years ago where a woman unfortunately drove her children into a river and claimed that a black man carjacked her. There were far too many reports in the media where women talk about or even men talk about they have beaten their own wives. And they claim that some black guy came along and did that. Well that is a narrative you don’t have to convince people of. All you have to do is simply tap into it, if you will.

If you were doing a survey to see how a racist a group of people were or in a certain region you wouldn’t say, “Hey, are you racist?” That’s a waste of breath because you know only the most extreme moron would answer yes to that question, but one way you can get at that question is to basically say to someone, “How comfortable would you feel…?” If you’re talking to somebody who is white in the south let’s say in rural areas, “How would you feel if your daughter brought home a black man?” You know what I mean? And then you can begin to measure comfort levels, something called feeling thermometers that they have in social science research. And that I think gets added and that exists all by itself. It doesn’t take a lot to create it. It already exists and all you have to do is just sort of tap into it. It’s just there.

Question: Why is everyone aware of this black male white female notion?

Juan Battle: Again, I go back to probably in the early 1600s when in the United States there was this desire for those who had power who were land owners who were overwhelmingly white men whose desire it was to maintain and to control all of their property and among their property they clearly saw was also the women in their lives. You know seeing black people as property that was easy. They already were property. That was clear, but in order to maintain control and so quite often when dealing with even women the whole idea was I’m trying to protect you from them you know that generalized other, that evil thing off to the side and you know I don’t think that’s unfortunately you know I don’t think that that is completely gone and when I say gone, I don’t mean to imply that there are people who wake up every morning and it’s the first thing that they’re thinking. I don’t mean to imply that, but there is awareness, and it goes both ways. When I say goes both ways, it shows up both negatively and positively, this controlling and displaying of bodies and the black male body and what that looks like through sports and the black female body and now we’re seeing it much more with Latino populations and Latinas. Jennifer Lopez, who I often times point to when she first quote, unquote, hit it big she was a raceless figure and then once she became Latina we then allowed for this space and opportunity for her to actually have a big ass and it was a good thing. Beforehand she was just this raceless person with a big butt and she needed to get a smaller one, but as soon as that label of Latino was put on to her she not only had it, we as a culture began to exploit it and looked forward to it and magnified and referred to it in shall we say bootylicious ways.

Question: How did figures like Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton broaden the notions of traditional black sexuality?

Juan Battle: They controlled their sexuality, in the case of Bessie Smith, with both women and men. She controlled her presentation of self and it wasn’t seen as a negative because it was so masterfully done and it was this sort of “I’m in charge of what is going on. I’m an actor and I’m just not being acted up.” Who white did that very well? Mae West: she did a great job of controlling it and you knew any man she was with she controlled him. She controlled the dynamics. She had the power of it and so it was this broadening and creating space and license for women to say you know you don’t have to just be you know acted upon. You can be an actor and you can enjoy sex. You can enjoy these broader expressions of sexuality and up until that point there was sort of “what a lady should do,” and I guess these women came along and said, “okay that is what you say a lady should do and there is what I’m going to do.”

Question: Does the “what a lady should do” idea still exist?

Juan Battle: Yeah, yeah. Until our culture comes up with an equivalent term that is pejorative for men who sleep around we’ll forever you know. We talk about man whores or whatever, but it still doesn’t have the same level of negative connotation. And in the very place that you work, if there was a gentleman who had slept with three or four of the ladies who work there, that sort of thing we might call him a dog. We might investigate the circumstances of those relationships. Conversely, if there was a woman who slept with four of the guys here it’s a short conversation. She is a slut. We’re done.

Recorded on March 2, 2010