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Caribbean Black Identity and Sex

A 19th C. caricature of Saartjie Baartman. (via Wikipedia)

MIAMI — Historically, the relationship of the black identity to sex is loaded and remains a deeply complex conversation. Africa’s black identity history is marred by images of the “African Hottentot Venus” Saartjie Baartman who was put on display and sent across the world like a circus animal before being dismembered for study purposes following her death.

This sexualized commodification of the human body underpinned the slave trade, which greatly impacted the entire Caribbean region. Now, the sensationalized, sexualized and dis-empowered depictions of male sports figures in global advertising campaigns seems to be an acceptable norm. How does one even begin to address such a historically laden topic in an area that is as geographically and culturally complex?

Two weeks ago editor Faith Smith spoke about her book Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean at a launch of publications from the New World series at Books and Books in Coral Gables, Miami. Smith’s approach to addressing this sizeable topic was to incorporate a multitude of voices by compiling a volume of essays by some of the Caribbean most influential writers.

Hank Willis Thomas work titled "The Liberation of T.O. I'm not goin back ta' work for massa in dat' darn field." (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Published in April last year, the book starts from the premise that “citizen” is a constructed identity and the influence and impact of applied socially normative categories such as race, gender, class, heterosexuality and other such predilections, add to its construction. The essays address hard topics including HIV/AIDS, queerness, travel, sexual politics, as well as the creative fields and their negotiation of black identity.

This got me thinking about the work of visual artist Hank Willis Thomas that highlights the re-entrenchment of black identity stereotypes by appropriating advertisements from the past that transformed, used, dictated, undermined and stereotyped black identity. But has anything really changed?

I recently came across the Puma sports brand’s advert for a new fragrance called “Jam” featuring topless world champion runner Usain Bolt “jamming island style” with Jamaica-born model Trishauna Clarke. Aside from being horribly trite, the ad relies on numerous cultural and social stereotypes the subtext of which might as well read:

“Jamaica is a carefree island paradise where you can go and party ‘island style’ with non-threatening, sexually available locals.”

PUMA's advert for "Jam" fragrance depicts Jamaican runner and model dancing "Island-style." Image courtesy www.eloisedreyer.com

Joane Nagel, in her book Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality, brilliantly talks about the topic of sex and tourism, specifically in the chapter “Travel and Romance in Ethnosexual Destinations” and highlights the trend for tourists to seek out “ethnosexual adventures.”Nagel describes how race is historically, politically and socially intertwined with sexuality. Stereotypes of black Caribbean men as being hypersexual and strongly masculine play into the fantasy/fallacy of black men being well-endowed and good lovers. Whereas this may at first appear flattering, these men are also depicted as available for the taking, dis-empowering them as nothing more than sexual objects as part of a holiday fling abroad. A naughty secret so to speak. Dr. Evangelia Tastsoglou describes the political component of Nagel’s argument explaining how national and sexual boundaries intersect stating,

Implicit in the idea of the nation are certain prescriptions and proscriptions for sexual crossings — what good citizens should and should not do sexually, and with whom.

This stirs a significant and unromantic “nature vs. nurture” question, “Is our sexuality a product of our environment and indicative of our economic needs/desires?” In her introduction to Sex and the Citizen, Smith approaches this question within the Caribbean:

… the present day package deals or trade-offs, associated more recently with the specific implications of the sex tourism associated with globalization, can help us to frame what it means for the territories in the region to claim, refute, or accept their place at the global table as the provider of particular services that cater to “foreign” tastes. It is these trade-offs — what many deem to be Faustian bargains with apocalyptic consequences — that are being discussed s heatedly in the region and it’s many Diaspora’s today.

And this is only the surface.

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