The Message of the Verdict
A Three-Act Morality Play Starring Clarence Thomas, Willie Smith, and Mike Tyson
Charles R. Lawrence III
Americans are obsessed with sex and fearful of black sexuality. The obsession has to do with a search for stimulation and meaning in a fast-paced, market-driven culture; the fear is rooted in visceral feelings about black bodies fueled by sexual myths of black women and men. . . . Yet the paradox of the sexual politics of race in America is that, behind closed doors, the dirty, disgusting, and funky sex associated with black people is often perceived to be more intriguing and interesting, while in public spaces talk about black sexuality is virtually taboo. Everyone knows it is virtually impossible to talk candidly about race without talking about sex.
THIS IS AN essay about racism, sexism, and black sexuality. It is a part of my own effort to understand how the American mythology of black sexuality is related to the mutually reinforcing ideologies and systems of white supremacy and patriarchy. The roles assigned to black women and men in the black sexuality myth define and limit our humanity. They turn us against one another. They inhibit our creative definition of ourselves.
I want to explore the ways in which we are creatures of and captives to these roles. I want to understand how we internalize the myth even as we resist it, and in so doing aid the cause of our oppressors. I want to break the taboo against public talk of black sexuality and begin to speak honestly with my brothers and sisters about what it means to be black men and women. I want to ask my brother wearing the "Free Mike Tyson" T-shirt to think about how his sister Anita Hill’s struggle against sexism is related to his own liberation, his own freedom to define himself as a man. I want to ask my sisters to see how Mike Tyson is a victim of patriarchy and why his victimization makes it all the more important to hold him and other men responsible for their participation in sexism and misogyny.
These are lofty ambitions. The essay itself is a modest beginning. It examines three very public legal proceedings involving charges of sexual harassment and assault and seeks to understand the stories told in these legal dramas in the context of a larger cultural story of race, class, and sexuality. It looks for emerging themes that we can begin to make the subject of candid discussions among black men, between black men and women, and across lines of race and class.
The narrative that begins the essay was written four months after the Senate’s confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It opens with the announcement of the rape conviction of ex-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. But the story’s chronology and the essay’s conceptual and emotional origins begin in the midst of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into Professor Anita Hill’s sexual harassment charges against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
During these hearings, black sexuality took center stage in the most public of spaces. Millions of Americans watched this televised real-life drama with a fascination usually reserved for daytime soaps. The story of any Supreme Court nominee’s sexual harassment of a professional colleague might well have captured the American imagination, but both the nominee and the professor were black, and that made their story part of a much older story about race and sex in this country, a story deeply embedded in the American psyche.
The taboos surrounding black sexuality, of which Cornel West speaks, are strong. There was little acknowledgment or discussion of what was on everybody’s mind as we watched the Hill-Thomas hearings. Many black Americans, including some who believed her story, accused Professor Hill of "airing dirty laundry." All of us knew that white America would hear this story not just as a lesson about the ubiquity of sexual harassment in the workplace but as a story about oversexed black men.
There was another part of the story of black sexuality that all of us heard but few of us acknowledged: the story of the "unchaste" black woman who has no right to refuse the sexual advances of any man. When Senator Orrin Hatch charged that Professor Hill’s experience was the sexual fantasy of a spurned woman, he was evoking this myth. When he implied that she tried to seduce Thomas by inviting him into her apartment, and when he read the most lurid language from her testimony over and over again, all the while protesting his disgust, he was conjuring up these same racist images of the wanton black woman.
The myth of black sexuality was everywhere, but it was never named. We never challenged white folks to speak aloud the images, words, and feelings that made this televised drama a story about every black man and woman. Nor did we admit to each other that when we sat watching the hearings in the company of whites, we were cringing at what we knew must be on their minds. Our fear of perpetuating racist sexual stereotypes made us complicit in the enforcement of the taboo against naming them. We were made silent witnesses to the nominee’s and the Judiciary Committee’s abuse of Professor Hill, and our silence rendered us ineffective in our opposition to a man who will do great damage to the cause of human liberation during his term on the Supreme Court. Perhaps most important, we did not use this opportunity to talk with one another about how the myth of black sexuality, and the taboo against talking about it, undermines our opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, and class oppression within our own communities, as well as in American culture as a whole.2