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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 "real" women

Nia Long with Taye Diggs in "The Best Man"                              Sanaa Lathan in "Love and Basketball"

 
 
 
The Right Time:
Lesbian and Bisexual Characters  in Black Movies
Sarah Warn

Editor, www.AfterEllen.com

 

In the last five to seven years there has a been a surge of feel-good films targeted at 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 shows.

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.

In 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 black men.

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 African Americans.

3. Bisexuality among black women does not exist.

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 tale.

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 orientation.

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 "real" women.

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 Communities:

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. 69).

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 homogeneity...(p.119)

But more and more African Americans are realizing that differences among black folks are 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, it's also 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 except one).

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 and in 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 2 and 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 in 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 clearly:

  • 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 otherwise.

posted June 2002

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

Fiction

#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

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, and scholar 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'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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.     

Professor Perry 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 Caucasian babies.

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 indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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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 Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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