The Right Time:
In the last five to seven years there has a
been a surge of feel-good films
the black community - from ensemble dramas like
"The Best Man," "Waiting to Exhale,"
"The Wood," "The Brothers" and "Kingdom
Come" to romantic comedies like "How Stella Got her
Groove Back," "Love and Basketball," "Love
Jones," and "Two Can Play That Game."
The middle-class, professional, and law-abiding
African American characters in these films have provided a
long-awaited contrast to the overwhelming number of African
American movie characters Hollywood has churned out that are
poor, self-destructive, and/or criminals (there's nothing wrong
with being poor, of course, but this is hardly representative of
all African Americans).
These films were particularly welcome because,
for the first time, they assumed a middle-class black audience -
or at least an audience that is familiar and comfortable with
middle-class African Americans.
Bottom line: these films were written and
directed by black folks for black folks - and it
So what do these movies say about black
lesbians and bisexual women? Nothing good. In fact, from
watching these films, one comes away with the following
messages about the black community:
1. Straight black people do not have
lesbians among their family or friends.
This absence is
particularly glaring given that these films encompass such a
wide variety of black women - the uptight lawyer, the
hairdresser, the obsessed athlete, the stay-at-home mom, the
office ho, the dying friend, the workaholic stockbroker in love
with a man half her age, the woman whose husband leaves her for
a white woman. But no lesbians.
Among the black male characters, you have the
ex-convict, the uptight lawyer, the mechanic, the player, the
poet, the deadbeat dad, the cheater, and the consummate family
man. You even have the black gay man (albeit only occasionally
and not usually flatteringly) - from the black gay republican
characters in Spike Lee's
Get on the Bus to Gloria's
gay ex-husband and the ubiquitous gay hairdresser in
"Waiting to Exhale."
There's every kind of black middle-class
character in these movies but the kitchen sink - and lesbians.
This happens even in settings where the context
almost requires their inclusion.
Love and Basketball, for example, is a movie set in the world of
women's basketball where (in real life) lesbians exist in
disproportionate number. But in the movie? Nary a lesbian (of
any color) in sight.
2. Lesbians and lesbianism is only
acknowledged to serve as a warning to straight black women about
how to behave.
The only time lesbianism is
referred to in
Love and Basketball, for example, is
in a conversation between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and her mother (Alfre
Woodard) in which Monica verbalizes her mother's worst fear:
Monica's mom: I don't know why I keep
hoping you'll grow out of this tomboy thing.
Monica: I won't. I'm a lesbian.
Mom: That's not funny!
Monica: Well that's what you think, isn't it? 'Cause I'd
rather wear a jersey than an apron?
There are no overtly homophobic statements in
this exchange, just the assumption that it would break a
mother's heart if her daughter turned out to be a lesbian - and
since there are no actual lesbian characters in the movie to
present an alternative opinion, this fear is the only impression
with which the viewer is left.
The Best Man, Nia Long's
character is derided by her (male) friends as so "sassy and
independent" that she's "one step from lesbian."
In this one statement, the film has both reminded straight black
women that they may become undesirable to black men if they are
too independent, and characterized lesbianism as a rejection of
These two exchanges are pretty much the
extent to which lesbians and/or lesbianism
is referenced, included, or acknowledged in
these films. Oh, except for one scene in When Stella Got
Her Groove Back where a robust white lesbian comically
hits on Whoopi Goldberg.
Two insulting comments, one deliberately
unattractive white lesbian, and no positive portrayals of
lesbian characters anywhere to offset these homophobic
depictions. It's not enough for black
writers/directors/producers just to render black lesbians
invisible, they also have to use them as a weapon to remind
straight black women to toe the feminine line.
Never mind the contributions of women like
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (the first African American woman
to be elected to the House of Representatives from the South),
lawyer Pauli Murray (on whose writings the NAACP based its
argument in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education suit
which overturned school segregation), anti-racism activist and
writer Angela Davis, and the countless other black lesbians who
have worked hard to make life better for all women and
3. Bisexuality among black women does not
If black lesbians aren't real women, then black bisexual
women aren't real, period - they simply don't exist in black
films, either in person or in concept. Not even as a cautionary
Tell that to women like Alice Walker, Me'Shell
Ndege'Ocello, Bessie Smith, and the late poet June Jordan, whose
significant contributions to both the black community and
America as whole apparently matter little in light of their (bi)sexual
What does all of this say about the black
community's collective attitude and lesbianism?
Nothing that hasn't been said before. Many
black people continue to believe that lesbianism does not exist
within the black community (it's a "white" problem) or
that black lesbians are traitors to the race and/or not
In his book One More River to Cross: Black
& Gay in America, Keith Boykin argues that "any
discussion of homophobia in the black community must also
address the specific topic of antilesbianism" since there
is an "antilesbian strain of homophobia that sees
women-women relationships as threatening to the ever-important
black family" (p. 164).
Black lesbian writers Barbara Smith, Cheryl
Clark, Jewel Gomez, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and
many others have made and debated similar charges about and
within the black community.
This is not to imply that the black community
is any more homophobic than other racial/ethnic communities (in
fact, studies have shown the opposite, as Boykin explains in his
book). Bell hooks elaborates on this in her essay "Homophobia in
Black Communities" in the anthology The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black
Black communities may be perceived as more
homophobic than other communities because there is a
tendency for individuals in black communities to verbally
express in an outspoken way antigay sentiments (p.
Hooks goes on to say that often those black
individuals who make such homophobic statements in public are
actually very supportive of the gay people in their life. These
films, however, don't do that - they don't include sympathetic
lesbian and bisexual characters and sentiments to balance out
the antigay sentiments (although, to be fair, there are still
fewer stereotypical gay jokes in these movies than you'll find
in most mainstream ones).
This one-sided presentation is not necessarily
rooted in homophobia (although some of it certainly is), but a
mistaken notion held by many African Americans that you can't
fight racism and homophobia at the same time. Not only does
fighting racism take precedence, but attempts to challenge
homophobia actually weaken this fight. Audre Lorde
explains in "Sister Outsider":
Within Black communities where racism is a
living reality, differences among us often seem dangerous and
suspect. The need for unity is often misnamed as a need for
But more and more African Americans are
realizing that differences among black folks
not dangerous. And attitudes of
straight African Americans towards black lesbians and
bisexual women have changed over the last twenty years,
just as they have among Caucasians and other racial and ethnic
groups in America.
You would never know it, though, from watching
movies produced by and for the black community.
What remains unclear is whether this is
because many black writers, directors, and producers have yet to
realize the change in public opinion, because they harbor too
much of their own homophobia, or because even with a large
segment of the black community becoming more open-minded, they
fear the kind of vocal outcry from black conservatives that
followed the lesbian relationship in
The Color Purple in 1985.
Since films aimed at middle-class black
America are a relatively new phenomena,
possible that some black
writers/directors/producers have good intentions, but are
thinking something along the lines of "we can't do
everything at once, so let's just get your average (straight)
black folks more visibility and worry about showing diversity
within the black community later, when the time is right."
This is the same rationale the gay community
used (however unintentionally) to keep black characters out of
lesbian movies, and it has worked. Although films targeted at
the lesbian community tend to include more diversity than your
average film, the casts are still overwhelmingly white (see
If These Walls Could Talk
2 for a high-profile example - out
of ten female characters in the cast, all of them are white
Unfortunately, the "right time" almost
never just "comes along," it has to be created.
It doesn't help that well-known black
actresses who might have some clout in the writing/directing/producing
process do not appear to be clamoring for these roles. Even if
they have good intentions, it's likely that what keeps black
actresses out of black lesbian roles is the same homophobia that
keeps lesbian characters out of black movies.
If you watch what's coming out of Hollywood, in
fact, it appears that Nia Long, Whoopi
Goldberg, and Queen Latifah are the only established black
actresses willing to play lesbian characters. (Whoopi Goldberg
played a lesbian in
Boys On the Side
The Color Purple, Queen Latifah
played a lesbian bank robber in
Set it Off, and Nia
Long played a lesbian in two gay films,
If These Walls Could Talk
The Broken Hearts Club.)
You might be able to include Nicole Ari Parker
in this list (recently in "Remember the Titans" and
Showtime's series "Soul Food"), who starred in 1995's
"The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love."
But she was completely unknown at the time, and the film was
targeted at the gay community, not the black community.
There are many more still-unknown black
actresses and characters in independent and/or gay movies, such
as T. Wendy McMillan in
Go Fish, and Cheryl Dunye
Watermelon Woman. But none of these roles (besides Latifah's) have been in movies designed for black audiences.
And even Latifah's landmark role is offset by
the fact that her character falls into the tragic-and-criminal
stereotype (and since "Set it Off" does not exactly
fit into the "feel-good movie" category, it is also
outside the scope of this article).
Straight black folks clearly don't understand
the scope of the problem when they ask
black lesbians/bisexual women to be patient, or to
"put the black community first." To lay it out
there are only a very small number of black
lesbian/bisexual women in gay movies
there are no black lesbian/bisexual characters in movies
targeted at the black community
the few lesbian/bisexual characters in mainstream movies
are usually white.
All of which adds up to almost no black lesbian/bisexual
characters anywhere. Period.
Since this is basically the same complaint the
black community has been making about Hollywood for decades
regarding the invisibility of black characters (and later, positive
black characters) in mainstream films, it seems hypocritical for
these same black writers/directors/producers to turn a deaf ear
to this plea from members of their own community.
Because no matter how many black
lesbian/bisexual characters are rendered invisible in the
movies, in real life, black lesbians and bisexual women are not
going away. And it is both foolish and disrespectful to pretend
posted June 2002
* * *
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America. This
collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked
together to promote, disseminate, and critique the
literature of Spanish-speaking people of African
descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 4 March 2012