Black Female Too-Muchness: Between Hypersexual Norms and Respectable Exceptions – The Feminist Wire

Black Female Too-Muchness: Between Hypersexual Norms and Respectable Exceptions

By Janell Hobson

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Ten years ago, pop star Janet Jackson received the brunt of public outrage – which culminated in FCC fines – when Justin Timberlake boldly ripped off part of the bodice from her costume, thus exposing her breast before the world during a performance at the Super Bowl’s halftime show.  I had written about the incident in Venus in the Dark, in which I had noted: “That Janet’s body – and not Justin’s undressing of her body – would take the brunt of this scandal … reminds us of the difficulty in women’s self-representation, as well as the racial undercurrents that shape the public condemnation and fascination for her duplicated image [i.e. various gifs freeze-framing the “moment” circulated widely on the Internet]” (p. 114).

I think of this historical moment since our public has informally marked this tenth anniversary by condemning yet another black female body inhabiting public space – here I refer to another pop star, Beyoncé, and what some have called an “inappropriate” display of sexuality when she performed her controversial hit song, “Drunk in Love,” with her marital and music partner Jay Z as the opening act at this year’s Grammy Awards.  Once again, black female sexuality within the public sphere signals danger, illicitness, vulgarity, and definitely “too-muchness.” Our bodies are “too much.”

This “too-muchness,” however, has both a historical legacy and a contemporary counterpoint, and here is where I turn to Lupita Nyong’o, the ingénue Kenyan actress who has received both critical acclaim for her debut role as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s celebrated 12 Years a Slave and public approval for her dark-skinned beauty, charismatic presence on the awards-season circuit, and impeccable fashion sense on the red carpet.

What would it mean to situate Lupita Nyong’o within historical and popular legacies of black female sexuality here in the U.S.?  How does she fit into these scenarios, and how might the praise she has received relate to the condemnation of Beyoncé today and Janet Jackson ten years ago?

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Nyongo’s movie character Patsey resembles a standard trope in black men’s slave narratives, and Solomon Northup’s story is no different. She is the abject rape victim and literal whipping post. The strength of Nyongo’s performance lies in stamping on such a stock character a depth of pain and humanity that haunts us well after we have finished viewing the film.   And yet her characterization is of sheer passivity, so much so that viewers project onto her stoic resistance and emotional suffering.  I think of this when comparing her to the other female slaves in the story – Eliza (played by Adepero Oduye) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) – both of who admit complicity in their sexualized roles as mistresses to their white slaveowners.

Eliza and Mistress Shaw are fascinatingly more complex in their roles, but it is Patsey that we remember. I want to suggest that we remember Patsey, not so much because Nyong’o’s performance is stronger (perhaps stronger than Oduye’s performance but certainly not stronger than Woodard’s) but because her sexuality is more legible to us.  Nineteenth-century stereotypes and narratives have passed down to contemporary audiences two basic tropes of enslaved black female sexuality: the Jezebel and the Rape Victim.  Since neither Eliza nor Mistress Shaw fits neatly into the hypersexual and “lascivious” label (as slaveowners and traders often mislabeled enslaved women), they are less recognizable to us, in the way that Patsey the rape victim is.  Indeed, the sexual violence visited upon her body positions her within a politics of respectability since she is devoid of sexual desire.  And it is this respectability that propels Nyong’o forward from slave movie role to red-carpet fashion queen and gracious award winner and Oscar nominee.

I imagine – had McQueen filmed the rape scene with Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) in such a way that allowed Patsey to evoke even a quiver of pleasure – her character would have become illegible to us, and perhaps talk of awards and acclaim (not to mention the audience response) may have taken a different turn.

I say this, not to erase the historical reality of slave rape, but considering how both McQueen and Fassbender spoke of this scene in the context of Edwin’s complex “love” for Patsey, I have to ask why Patsey wasn’t afforded the same complexity and agency (and reducing Patsey to “she was a slave” is not a compelling answer). We only have our own projections to place onto Patsey, the object of our pity.

In their work on enslaved women’s histories, Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson suggest that we place black female sexuality at the center of our methodologies if we are to rediscover fully fleshed out human beings with erotic lives, feelings, and subjectivity.  Even then, given the work of feminist historians in repositioning enslaved women beyond the hypersexual label and in exposing the institutional practice of sexual violence in slavery, just showing a quiver of pleasure could set us back 500 years!

Just as Beyoncé’s singing of raunchy acts and taking pleasure in rough sex – replete with violent language serving as sexual metaphor – has set back her feminism (so the argument goes).

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In contemporary settings, black women are expected to tread very carefully away from hypersexuality (passed down to us, the stereotypes suggest, from the “bed wench” ways of our predecessors) and toward respectability (where there is only sexual resistance and sexual control).  And against this backdrop, we glory in the accolades and positive reception of Lupita Nyong’o, who boldly steps out into the limelight sporting short-cropped hair and donning different colors and styles that show off the flawlessness of her dark skin.  Her look seems so new to us, but that is because dark-skinned beauties in the past (Iman, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, and Lauryn Hill) have been sidelined for women of color who accommodate their bodies toward white supremacist norms.

It is tempting to think Nyong’o could change the beauty game and the reception of black female bodies. At least she provides healing for some and excitement for others. But in an atmosphere that can recast pop artists like Beyoncé as “whore” because she danced and dressed provocatively with her husband on a live stage, let us be cautious.  Sure, one can create dichotomies just in the invocation of these two different public black women.  Nyong’o is “classy” (many have described), she speaks eloquently, and she graduated from an Ivy League (and from the same school as fellow acting alumni and mega stars like Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, and Angela Bassett).  None of this is surprising when one considers her middle-class upbringing in Kenya (where her father is a Member of Parliament) – perhaps only a surprise for those who have no knowledge of a middle-class existence on the African continent.

What is problematic is that Nyong’o now inhabits the “exceptional” role.  Her dark skin is the exception; her middle-class and Ivy League status is the exception; her flawless fashion sense and beauty are the exception.  The hypersexual black woman, the thinking goes, is the norm, while “respectability” is not.

Nyong’o might also occupy that African immigrant space of exceptionalism, as Amy Chua has already suggested in her controversial book The Triple Package, which argued that Nigerian immigrant communities in the U.S. have traits that make them “successful” (as opposed to the traits that make local African American communities “failures,” the unspoken corollary).  This latter point has already been verbalized by some who fault the producers of 12 Years a Slave for casting non-U.S. black actors for a quintessentially African American story.

If Nyong’o is a “success” for black women, does that indicate other black women are “failures”? And will this failure always be located in black female sexuality that exists outside of white, heterosexual, and/or middle-class norms?

As we celebrate Lupita Nyong’o (and pop stars like Janet Jackson and Bey – I see no reason to create dichotomies), let us think of the ways that each of these public women try and complicate the tropes of black female representation and what is permissible in depictions of our beauty and sexuality.  White supremacist narratives pushback constantly against notions of black female desirability – often cast as “too-muchness.”  In this environment, there is no legible black female sexuality, for it is always reduced to a stereotype, a trope.

I have lowered my expectations for Nyong’o to alter the beauty game. She may temporarily allow darker-skinned women and short-cropped and natural-haired women to feel affirmed in the public sphere, but no real change will come about if the structures in which black women operate have not changed to accommodate our differences. I am more concerned that Nyong’o is able to access more roles that would allow her to shine, which can only happen if the entertainment industry, as Shonda Rhimes reminded us recently, would start casting differently and telling different stories – the way McQueen did when he chose to cast Nyong’o in his film (just as he once had to argue vehemently for his choice of Nicole Beharie as the interracial love interest of Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame).  Toward that end, different storytellers are needed. The more diverse the stories and images, the more black female sexualities will become legible.

If we continue to reduce all black women in public spaces as either only hypersexual or only respectable, then we needlessly feed into white supremacist and misogynist narratives that cannot recognize black sexual subjectivities and complexities.  We will only remain those sexual deviants over there – misrecognized since the era of slavery – with “respectable” and beautiful black women always existing as the “exceptions” to this rule.



Janell Hobson is an associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany. She has authored two books – Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (2012) and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2005)– and regularly blogs and writes for Ms. Magazine, including the cover story, “Beyonce’s Fierce Feminism,” in the Ms. Spring 2013 issue.



  1. filmfemme

    February 6, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    This post is a complete mess. What exactly is your POINT with this essay? You conflate SEVERAL ideas here and I have no clue what your thesis is (Lupita vs. Patsey, Lupita vs. BEYONCE, Patsey vs. the “trope” of Black female slave, AMY CHUA!…HUH?!)

    Lupita Nyong’o is an actor who is receiving acclaim for a great performance in a film, for which she is nominated for an Oscar (and may actually win). She is also a gorgeous Black woman who wears designer clothes with a panache many fashion models would envy. OF COURSE she’s going to get media attention! Her handlers are making sure she’s in every magazine possible, especially now that she’s Oscar-nominated! I don’t this think has anything to do with her education or upbringing, although it definitely helps her narrative. Four years ago, another Black, Oscar-nominated actress was the “it” girl featured all over the place. And she grew up in a Brooklyn ‘hood and was not Ivy League-educated. Her name is Gabourey Sidibe. And she would have received even MORE attention if she had been skinny like Lupita. Was Sidibe not as “respectable” or “exceptional” as Nyong’o because of her background? Hardly.

    And your argument that Patsey should have been allowed to “evoke even a quiver of pleasure” in the rape scene in “12 Years” is absolutely ridiculous! Just because Epps “loved” Patsey doesn’t mean that Patsey loved him BACK. That’s why it’s a RAPE SCENE (and I would argue that in the case of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson: even if Hemmings DID love Jefferson, he was still her RAPIST because she was a slave and had no choice in the matter)! And yes, sometimes when a person is raped s/he can have an involuntary pleasurable reaction. But why impose that on the character if it’s not TRUE to the story?! And no question that if Steve McQueen had taken the route you suggest, the wrath of Black folks, feminists, Hell…THE WORLD would’ve crashed on his head like a ton of bricks! He would have been accused of romanticizing rape.

    And about Beyonce: she has the right to express herself in whatever fashion she pleases. But I think the criticisms of her are a bigger issue of sexism and double standards in the music industry than Black women’s “respectability politics.” Just ask Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga… And I had a WAY bigger issue with Bey & Jay referencing REAL domestic violence in a love call (“Eat the Cake, Anna Mae!”) than what she was wearing or singing, which ironically you don’t seem to have a problem with–tagging it as a “sexual metaphor.” Right. So is Ani diFranco planning an artist retreat at a slave plantation a “cultural metaphor”?!

    So yeah, congrats on using Lupita, Bey and the kitchen sink as click bait. Hope it helps you get tenure.

    • Firebred

      February 6, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      Thank you!!! I thought it was just me… I was honestly trying to make sense out of this mess. You have touched in every aspect of my argument, and have done so eloquently, and in a precise manner, covering all bases. I’ll just leave this as “Yeah! What she said..!”

    • RSL

      February 6, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      Read it a little bit slower. It is very well written.

  2. Timothy

    February 6, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    You nailed it. The last paragraph solidified it.

  3. Holly Jeanay

    February 6, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    @filmfemme I think the point was that if Patsy’s character would have enjoyed even a second of the sex, would only prove that she wanted it all along and was never a victim. After all black women have historically been stereotyped as hyper-sexual/Jezebels this is why black women were never really seen as victims of rape. The author addresses the issue that black women have to always deal in terms with the politics of respectability and if they show any amount of enjoyment or exposure of their sexual nature it would push them back. You try to refute the authors arguments by implying that the issue of politics of respectability is not race based.Then you give examples of white female artists…it is not the same struggle although yes the white women you mentioned have to deal with sexism. They don’t have to deal with being deemed a slut for some one else’s actions. Let’s compare the Miley Cyrus and Janet Jackson issue. Miley Cyrus willing goes up to Robin and shakes her bottom. Janet Jackson has her top snatched off. You can see the surprise in her face and automatically she is attacked. People blame her and say she planned it. Like the slave girl who is raped by her master she wanted it. There fines and MTV was banned from ever performing from the superbowl and I wonder if there were any calls for fines or bans to be made for when Miley Cyrus had her performance? It totally different struggle it is problematic when you say that “Oh it’s a sexism issue” and make the assumption that all women share the same experience all you do is relegate black women’s issues to the back of the movement. I loved this article and I understand the point of the “exception” rule. Class and status does play a role. Focusing only one factor is just asinine to me.

  4. Holly Jeanay

    February 6, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    Yes,I had a lot of grammatical errors. Oh Well. Hope you get the point.

  5. Demarcus Jackson

    February 6, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Hmm…this essay offers a thought-provoking analysis; however, I am not sure that your point, Ms. Hobson, is made by your argument. This is because of the uniqueness of all the women you presented and the inherent subjectivity of each from the standpoint of the observer. I disagree that “Eliza and Mistress Shaw are fascinatingly more complex in their roles”. In fact, I thought those characters and the performance by the respective actresses were one-dimensional and routine. However, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance of Patsey is rightly acclaimed because it is extremely complex in the subtly of the psychology put forth by the actress and reflected in the FOUR-dimensional Patsey.

    I do think your analysis of the diversity of perceptions regarding Black women in America is noteworthy. We seem to paint our own ideas and project our own feelings onto the American Black female. And when I say “we”, I mean, of course, Black people. While I think your analysis is fairly accurate of the larger society and how Black women are perceived. I think it is MORE accurate of how Black women view other Black women.

  6. ElleinSC

    February 7, 2014 at 12:13 am

    I also didn’t get the point and I’m a black PhD student in Women’s Studies.

  7. TheGoodReads

    February 7, 2014 at 1:18 am

    I found this post very thoughtful. I think you are right to invoke Shonda Rhimes, who created a very human character for Kerry Washington (even though I can’t stand how soapy that show is).

  8. R S

    February 7, 2014 at 8:39 am

    THIS ARTICLE IS AWFUL. Your fetishisation of Lupita is bordering on racist. Your suggestion that her success is about us demonising Beyonce is so poorly founded. You should pull this article from the web. This article is so ill conceived and constructed. WHAT A SHAME.

  9. Pingback: Friday’s Listens, Looks, & Reads (2.05.14) | African-American Studies Organization at UAB

  10. Janell Hobson

    February 7, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Thank you to those who left thoughtful remarks, as opposed to those who simply wanted to leave mean-spirited ones (to shut the conversation down?).

    I imagine we can let the Internet fuel the fires of anti-intellectualism and mean-girl nastiness, but I do appreciate spaces like The Feminist Wire that try to transcend the general online sewage, and those of you who offered helpful and engaging comments are doing much to fend off the Trolls.

    I especially appreciate your counter-arguments, Demarcus Jackson, and I understand why you would resist finding commonalities/connections in the very different depictions of Lupita, Beyoncé, Janet, or even in the roles depicted in 12 Years a Slave. But I thought it was an intriguing proposition to try to place these different women together in the same analysis.

  11. Janell Hobson

    February 7, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Oh, and I do have tenure, and trust me when I tell you: writing online pieces WILL NOT help me to get promoted to Full Professorship.

    But not to worry: I’m getting that taken care off, with the various book projects in the pipeline.

    I’m simply here to engage the online community and because I like writing (especially for sites like The Feminist Wire)! 🙂

    • Heidi R. Lewis

      February 10, 2014 at 1:50 am

      And we love when you write for us, Janell!

  12. Joey Lusk

    February 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    To the naysayers, the only way to deconstruct a “fetishization” of Nyong’o (or any woman’s person/body)is to create a space in which women can reappropriate their own sexuality without being labeled as whores or “asking for it”.

    Some rape victims do experience physical arousal when raped. Some people want to use that fact to discredit charges of rape. The author is highlighting a particular narrative about respectability, that Patsey’s suffering might only be legitimate because her character has no sexual agency. She’s getting at several entrenched conundrums. It’s complex stuff. Give it a second, third, and fourth read.

    And learn how to level some credible critiques. Playing the ad hominem “Shame and Blame” game is not really worthy of feminism. Bring your A game.

  13. filmfemme

    February 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Ms. Hobson:

    I’m writing directly to you now.

    1) I’ll acknowledge that my comments had a sharp edge, but there was a reason for that which I’ll get into later. But I don’t appreciate being called a troll. I read this piece because I was sincerely curious about your analysis. In my view, the analysis was weak on proof and built more on ideas that you feel more comfortable talking about (like “respectability politics,” which you apparently think applies ONLY to Black women. But that’s another conversation for another day).

    2) So “thoughtful remarks” in your view = remarks from people who compliment you and agree with you?

    3) I read the essay again. I ask again: WHAT. IS. YOUR. POINT?!

    4a) It seems like you’re conflating Lupita with her character Patsey. Lupita is an actress portraying a role framed by the screenwriter and director, with some of her own flourishes thrown in. As a well-educated, beautiful, talented woman who was Oscar-nominated for her very first film role, Lupita IS EXCEPTIONAL!! There’s nothing wrong with celebrating that. What does that have to do with all of the other Black women in the world?! Many Black women are exceptional doctors. Exceptional lawyers. Exceptional teachers. Exceptional mothers. Exceptional farmers. Exceptional artists! Just because they are not featured in the pages of Vanity Fair or Vogue is not a negation of that! I don’t need white magazine editors to tell me who to exalt and be proud of. In Lupita’s case, we just happen to be on the same page.

    4b)Patsey is a slave that was brutalized and raped by her slave master. That’s not a trope. That’s what HAPPENED. Also, I AGREE with you that Eliza and Mistress Shaw being as you wrote “[complicit] in their sexualized roles as mistresses” makes their stories interesting and against the norm of what we think about as slave women. But that’s not AGENCY from a feminist lens. And I can safely guess that they didn’t get PLEASURE from it. Eliza and Mistress Shaw’s “choices” weren’t really choices. Being a slave–under ownership to someone else–means you don’t have REAL choices.

    5) I’m a Black female filmmaker, and I get really annoyed with Black intellectuals who want to nitpick EVERY LITTLE THING about a piece of art or media, and the people who make or perform said art of media. Black artists should have the freedom to create their work. Even if it makes some of us mad. Even if it goes over our head sometimes. That’s when I find “respectability politics” grating and exhausting. But the one VALID criticism you mention: Beyonce and Eat-Cake-gate, you brush off. By the way, in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” that reference comes while Ike is beating Tina and before HE RAPES HER. So yeah, sexual metaphor my ass.

    Again, if you had a cogent thread in this piece, even if I didn’t agree with everything you wrote I would be able to see the value in you writing it.

    That’s all I have to say. Peace.

    • Joey Lusk

      February 7, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      filmfemme, on what planet should a film not be subject to critique? How would you like it if someone came along and said, about one of your films, “Please don’t engage in the work of academic or artistic critique, I hate it when people discuss films. There’s no reason to discuss the major themes.”

      Hobson isn’t criticizing the film, she’s exploring the dynamic. And not in a bid to chastise the screenwriter, or the director, but rather to take what they’ve presented and build on it. Good art often reflects issues of the day, regardless of the time period of the work. She’s not nitpicking. This kind of critique is usually desired by film makers, as it indicates people were moved to think about the work.

      And I’m fairly certain Hobson is aware that these issues don’t impact black women alone, but why shouldn’t she be able to write a piece that is specifically about how this film ties into other cultural events related to black women? What made you think that was a reasonable criticism?

      There is nothing straightforward about the politics of sexual agency and the Catch-22 of “respectability”. One of the reasons I enjoy reading Hobson’s articles is because she doesn’t shy away from the tough intersections. There are a ton of women of all colors who want to see these kinds of conversations about sex and agency. Not all women agree that the Cake issue is really an issue. They’re artists presenting art. Sexually charged art. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anyone trying to sanitize the naughty bits in my sex life. I appreciate the reality that sex and attraction are rarely politically correct.

  14. Janell Hobson

    February 7, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    Filmfemme, if you don’t want to be called a troll, it would help if you didn’t immediately resort to insults. You’re a filmmaker, I’m a writer. You should know that, as Erykah Badu says about creators: “we’re sensitive about our shit.”

    That said, to answer your question, “WHAT IS YOUR POINT?”

    My point is that there is a larger media universe that, for centuries, have created stereotypes and images that shape the way we understand race, gender, and sexuality.

    Within this cultural climate, a standard depiction of black female sexuality exists in media and pop culture. Namely, that depiction casts us, as black women, as hypersexual. This depiction is often treated as the norm, so when one creates a sexual spectacle – as pop stars as Janet Jackson and Beyoncé have done – they invite castigation and accusations of “corrupting” mainstream American culture. Outside of that representation, black female beauty and desirability and classiness (as embodied by Lupita Nyong’o) serve as “exceptions to the rule,” meaning that Lupita Nyong’o – on her own – cannot change the paradigms around beauty and sensuality in this culture, which have dictated black women’s undesirability since the era of slavery.

    Which is why I discussed the history of these representations, especially considering that Lupita depicted a historical character, Patsey. And I am talking about Patsey, as a TROPE, because in nineteenth-century African American slave narratives, there were common characteristics and stock characters that shaped the genre. The abject female rape victim is one such trope, and you can find similar characters in Frederick Douglass’s narrative, in William Wells Brown’s narrative, as well as in Solomon Northup’s narrative, which 12 Years a Slave is based on.

    By calling Patsey a trope, I am not erasing the historical horrors of slave rape. However, if you want to read a slave narrative that completely complicates the subject of slave rape and considers how the enslaved black female subject negotiated this oppressive system by asserting her own sexual agency and authority, I recommend Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (I’d love to see THAT made into a film!)

    To introduce the prospect of female slave desire (which Jacobs’ narrative does) was about considering what is permissible in the realm of storytelling.

    Again, as a filmmaker, I imagine that you and any actors you work with would definitely bring more nuance and humanity to the historical subject, even if you had to use your imagination to add to the historical record.

    I actually found the other characters in the story more nuanced, but I totally understand why Lupita Nyong’o is getting all the attention (her performance is the one that haunts us).

    And in some ways, I also get the visceral defensiveness in your post. For so long, we have not had a woman like Lupita in the public sphere – with dark skin and short natural hair and obvious grace, beauty, fashion sense, and talent – that any critique (including an intellectual one) seems like an attack.

    I’m totally in awe of Lupita Nyong’o. It’s because I’m intrigued by her representation in the media right now why I even devoted time to write about her and to position her within the representational sphere of black women in general (which is why I attempted a comparison in this essay).

    Your defensiveness is indicative of how much pain we as black women have felt by the negative media onslaught against our bodies and our character. Please understand there is a difference in offering critique (which, to me, is not “nitpicking”) versus an unwarranted attack.

    And as a black female filmmaker, I wish you well in the business. But again, like Shonda Rimes says, these media representations are not going to change until real effort is made to create diversity on and off screen.

    Lupita is a refreshing start, but I want her to last for a while, which is why I asked us to think what changes are necessary for more Lupitas to exist in media, while also allowing space for other black women in the public sphere to create narratives about their own sexual desire and desirability.

    Thanks, Joey, for adding your insights! 🙂

  15. Samina Ali

    February 8, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Dr. Hobson, just wanted to give my support. This article was fantastic and definitely has me thinking about respectability politics when it comes to non-white women’s bodies in popular culture. As far as the negative comments go, I find it odd that people who don’t comprehend your advanced writing skills feel the need to attack. I’m very surprised to see this kind of vitriol on TFW. Thanks for the post.

  16. cris

    February 9, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    I was really surprised by all of the negative comments. I thought this was one of the best articles I’d read online in a long time. Every paragraph I was like “ah ya, I’ve never thought about that aspect. I think this will help me understand [such and such popular occurance].” I really appreciate the article, and all the effort the author put into writing it.

  17. Arlene R Keizer

    February 10, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    This an excellent, nuanced essay about black female sexuality and representation. Thank you!