Secrets and Cries

"What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split apart." When she wrote those words, poet Muriel Rukeyser must have been envisioning Tricia Rose's new book "Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy" (Farrar Straus Giroux), in which a chorus of women rip stereotypes of black female sexuality to shreds.

There's Sarita, who begins her story, "Ever since I was born, my life has been one big drama." Her father, an American-born Muslim, had two wives. Now she struggles to balance her hard-earned feminism with her love for her family. AIDS activist Linda Rae recounts her physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her family, and the turning points that made her a symbol of hope for others. Cocoa has tried playing Miss Perfect and failed. "I don't think that society understands black women's sexuality," she says. "They go to a light-skinned woman with long hair and say this is pretty, and when they see the dark-skinned lady, they say this is the nurturing type.... Or if they show a dark-skinned woman in a sexual light, she's poor, she's loud talking, she's not intelligent... I know it has an impact on my little niece...She watches BET and MTV."

Taking a page from Studs Turkel's oral history playbook, author Tricia Rose lets the women speak for themselves in natural language. This makes for the fastest 400-page read of the summer. Rose, now a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, came to prominence with the seminal book "Black Noise: Rap Music and Culture in Contemporary America." In this book, the theory appears only in small cameos. The stories take the fore.

Each of her subject's lives is so impossibly complex that they defy stereotypes -- precisely the point. But certain common experiences emerge. Many of the women have been sexually exploited, either as children, adults, or both. Most who have not been raped fear it. One of the deepest myths of Western society is that our values prevent this exploitation. Or as Dr. Judith Herman puts it in her book "Trauma and Recovery," "Women like to believe that they have greater freedom and higher status than they do in reality. A woman is especially vulnerable to rape when acting as though she were free -- that is, when she is not observing conventional restrictions on dress, physical mobility, and social initiative."

Those words echo a story a black American reporter in South Africa told me. Before the fall of apartheid, he was accompanying a local man through a township. The man said, "My brother, you walk as if you are free." In order not to attract attention, the American changed his gait.

In this sense, Rose's book bridges the gap between narratives of (white) women and black (men). Just as white male is the default position in American society, the female is assumed to be white, and the black assumed to be male. Rose's book is a classic example of law professor Kimberle Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality, which considers multiple identities at once. In one description, intersectionality puts the black woman at a literal crossroads. If she got hit by a bus, it could be racism, or sexism, or both. A black woman harassed by black men, then fetishized by white men, has just been hit by two buses.

Add to that heterosexism. Some of Rose's subjects are lesbians. Others, many others, have had one-time or ongoing sexual experiences with women. Says Pam, "I'm very shy, but I'm politically a lesbian. I've been an out lesbian on campus since I've been there....I've had really good sexual relations, I think. I expect my partners to be attentive and ask me what I want, and to try new things."

Despite the struggles, there is still both good sex and good love in this world. As Anondra says, "Sex with love is on a whole other level. It's not just physical. It's emotional. It's mental. It's sensual." Sex + love is a basic human longing. Along with uncovering pain and shame, "Longing to Tell" reveals that this dream still comes true.


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