Chauncey DeVega “Race, Sex and BDSM . . .”

TUE AUG 14, 2012

Race, Sex, and BDSM: On “Plantation Retreats” Where Black People Go to Serve Their White “Masters”

by   chaunceydevega       Follow

plantationretreat1

Those who have loved and dated across the color line have to negotiate the realities of race in our society, and by extension, its impact on their relationships. For many, this is done through explicit conversations. For others, these dialogues come implicitly, through gestures, and taken for granted shared assumptions.

But how many folks actually talk about how race impacts their own sexuality, attraction, physicality, or notions of the erotic?

We live in a society that is structured around many different hierarchies of power, authority, and difference. As Foucault brilliantly observed, Power is not sitting out there in the ether, an abstraction that we just talk about in philosophy classes. Power acts through and upon bodies. Certain people are racialized in American society for example. Their bodies are locations of power–and yes resistance. Likewise, certain types of bodies are marked as “normal,” while others are deemed “different” or “abnormal.”

The “popular” imagination holds many assumptions about particular types of bodies. The black male body is something to be policed, controlled, and feared. It is both envied and despised. The Asian female body is “erotic” and “submissive.” The black female body alternates between being fecund, always available, and out of control, while simultaneously being marked as “masculine,” asexual, and unattractive. Latinas are “hot” and “sexy.” White bodies of a certain type are taken as the baseline for what is considered “beautiful” or “normal.”

Ironically, the bodies of black and brown people which are considered beautiful or attractive by the white gaze are judged as such either by how “different” they are from white norms (the exotic or savage) or how close these racialized bodies–almost like impostors or stand-ins–are to the normalized white body.

The very language we use to discuss race, the physical, and the sexual, is a quotidian example of Power in action. But, how are matters complicated when a significant part of a given person’s sexuality, and sense of the erotic, is centered on playing with the dynamics of dominance and submission?

Consider the following passage from the Colorlines article “Playing with Race”:

Contrary to popular notions, BDSM is not about abuse. It’s consensual and trusting and people refer to it as “play” (as in “I want to play with you”). The point of BDSM is not sexual intercourse. In fact, when Williams recalls her first experience as a masochist seven years ago, she says she met her partner, a white man, at a bar and “fell in love at first sight.” They made their way back to his hotel. “For the first time I felt someone could see who I really was.” And that was someone who found it erotic to be a submissive to her partner.In recent years, Williams has added another element to her repertoire as a masochist. She’s begun to engage in what is called “race play” or “racial play”—that is getting aroused by intentionally using racial epithets like the word “nigger” or racist scenarios like a slave auction.

Race play is being enjoyed in the privacy of bedrooms and publicly at BDSM parties, and it’s far from just black and white. It also includes “playing out” Nazi interrogations of Jews or Latino-on-black racism, and the players can be of any racial background and paired up in a number of ways (including a black man calling his black girlfriend a “nigger bitch”).

White master seeking black slave, however, seems the more popular of the combinations.

I could not engage is such types of role-playing. My personal politics would not allow it; my libido would not respond.That is my choice. I do not deny others their pleasure.

raceplay3However, as someone interested in the relationship between race, politics, and racial ideologies, I am fascinated by how individuals negotiate white supremacy and Power.

Are people like Williams or Mollena more “evolved” and “progressive” than those of us who cannot decouple the realities and burdens of race from their bodies and psyches in the present? Alternatively, could this deep sense of both owning and living in a racialized body, be turned into a location for pleasure and catharsis:

Vi Johnson, the black matriarch of BDSM, has presented on race play at kinky conferences and she believes the appeal is different for each person. “When you’re being sexually stimulated, you’re not thinking that what’s stimulating you is a racist image, ” she says. “You’re just getting turned on.”So, for some, she says, race play is about playing with authority and for others, it might be humiliation.

Well-known sexuality and SM educator Midori, who is Japanese and German, often presents her theory that humiliation in BDSM is linked to self-esteem. Take the woman who likes it when her boyfriend calls her a “slut,” Midori says. Perhaps the woman internalized the idea that “good girls don’t,” but she enjoys her sexuality. Because the boyfriend sees her in all her complexity, Midori says, when he calls her a slut, “he is freeing her of the social expectations of having to be modest.”

That’s different than having some stranger (and jerk) calling you a slut. The stranger doesn’t see the full woman. It’s similar with race play, Midori says. By focusing, for example, on a black man’s body, while he’s bound as a slave, she’s bolstering his own perception of himself as strong and powerful…

Her workshop demonstrations have included full auction scenes mimicking those of the Old South. In them, she is the plantation mistress inspecting a black man for “purchase.” He’s in shackles and “I slap him on his face and push him down on the ground, make him lick my shoes,” she says, emphasizing that she only does the demonstration after the “psychological” talk.

In the interest of transparency, I am a sex positive person (at least according to the survey onyourmorals.org). In many ways, I am also a bit of a libertine and a hedonist who is comfortable in both exclusive and open relationships. I also have certain predilections and tastes that more “vanilla” folks could find “kinky” or “different.” Ultimately, I am just myself, and do not know how to pretend to be anyone else.I am also full of contradictions and complications as sexuality and the erotic are not neatly bounded constructs (for example, I do not like watching interracial porn where white men have aggressive sex with black women as chattel slavery looms too large in my mind; however, I have no problems watching black men have aggressive sex with white women). I have also dated many women from a range of racial backgrounds: I love women; I love variety.

I share those details not to titillate; rather, because while I am rendering a judgement of sorts, I would not want to sound “judgmental.” The difference is a subtle, but nonetheless, an important one.

One of the questions I will be asking Viola Johnson from the Carter Johnson Leather Librarywhen I interview her in the next few weeks (fingers crossed) is how do we separate more “healthy” types of race play from those encounters that are rooted in disdain for the Other and white supremacy. Are these just inter-personal contracts or do these types of sexual relationships gain power (and are made erotic) precisely because of how they signal to larger societal taboos?

If the website Fetlife is any indication, there is apparently a not insubstantial number ofpeople who engage in sexual roleplaying and BDSM using the motif of chattel slavery in the antebellum South. A cursory review of the member profiles suggests that many of these people are white supremacists. This is apparently not a deterrent to the black men and women who want to “serve” these white masters.

plantation2Here a white “slave owning” master offers some insight on race play and “plantation retreats”:

My major kink-interest is in chattel slave-ownership in today’s world but following the historical models of 8,000 years of historical slave-ownership tradition (from Greek-Roman through modern day)…along with everything that might relate to it (which sometimes can go pretty far into the realm of BDSM activities, depending on the partner). I’m very knowlegable in the field of historical slavery.Some of my other non-kink interests include history and philosophy, classic cars, music, science, singing and writing lyrics, architecture, comparative culture, language, reading and counseling..

I get a lot of questions about “Plantation Retreat”…so here are some basic facts:

My goal in creating and hosting Plantation Retreat is to provide a safe and welcoming, private place (and opportunity) for White Masters and plantation slaves/niggers to meet and explore their mutual fantasies. I get a lot of questions and answer many individual questions. To simplify things…here is some general basic information:

The gathering lasts for up to 2 weeks this year, with the main gathering around the 4th of July…folks can stay as long or as short a time as they want (some stay even longer). Masters can stay at the compound here or in a hotel if they want to (as can any personal slaves that they bring with them or any other slave that is ordered to do so).

Slaves arriving on their own stay here and are considered (and protected) as property of the plantation or my personal property.

Slaves sign up for a specific length of service. Slaves can specify what their limits are or that they will serve in any way the Master/guests desire. Sex is not required, but depends on individual choice (as do other activities). Most Masters desire to use slaves sexually in addition to normal domestic services. Some slaves are used only for hard labor. A slave’s assignments and duties are based on its experience and ability-level (some require whipping or punishment). Masters have their own king or queen bed (up to 5 available); slaves sleep where they are told to sleep (unless they are ordered into a Master’s bed and allowed to sleep there). Normally a slave sleeps at the foot of a Master’s bed, but some can be chained or caged elsewhere.

The minimum requirement for slaves is that they be obedient and respectful of all Masters and work to give the Masters and enjoyable time. This can be anything from preparing and serving drinks and meals, doing housework or yard work, to providing sexual relief on demand, to hard labor in the compound (depending on the slave’s previously-stated limitations). Slaves should expect Masters to be totally comfortable and free in using humiliating or degrading racist speech in referring to or speaking to mud-slaves. It’s not all punishment and misery for slaves…there is plenty of time for camaraderie and playful fun also. Some slaves even form a brotherly bond with the other slaves that serve with them. Masters also form lasting bonds and friendships based on their mutual interests and sharing slaves.

It’s just a small friendly gathering of White Masters at my house/compound….being served by mud-slaves as might have been in a modern version of slave-days. one might call it a situation of consensual non-consent/slavery. Slaves can set their limits and the time they will be in service as slaves in advance…. and also what they expect to learn and experience from the experience. The more that a slave lets me know about itself in advance, the better I can guide its growth from the experience.

Backstage racism mates with BDSM, the eroticization of the black body, and finds a place online through a variant of cyber-racism. Amazing. We do in fact live in interesting times.White supremacy is a mental illness. Western (and global) society is sick with it. All of us, across the color line, have been impacted by white supremacy and white racism. But who are we to judge how adults in a consensual relationship decide to work through its pain and ugliness?

As is per my tradition, here are some concluding questions.

Have any of you engaged in race play? For those of you in inter-racial relationships, how do you negotiate these bigger questions of race and the erotic? If our kinks and sexual predilections are in some way a function of life experience, trauma, early childhood experiences, etc. what happened in the life of a black person who is willing to play a slave for the pleasures of white racists?

WHO IS CHAUNCEY DEVEGA ?

Chauncey Devega is an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice . . . of himself, he offers

“I am the editor and founder of We Are Respectable Negroes.
I am also a race man in progress, Black pragmatist, ghetto nerd, cultural critic and essayist.
I have been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland’s Alternet Radio Hour, the Thom Hartmann radio show, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground.My essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos.

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‘Conversation About Race’ Has Not Brought Cultural Consensus

CROSS CUTS

Never-Ending Story

‘Conversation About Race’ Has Not Brought Cultural Consensus

 

O.O.P.S.

By 

Published: September 27, 2013

The “conversation about race” that public figures periodically claim to desire, the one that is always either about to happen or is being prevented from happening, has been going on, at full volume, at least since the day in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown. It has proceeded through every known form of discourse — passionate speeches, awkward silences, angry rants, sheepish whispers, jokes, insults, stories and songs — and just as often through double-talk, indirection and not-so-secret codes.

What are we really talking about, though? The habit of referring to it as “race” reflects a tendency toward euphemism and abstraction. Race is a biologically dubious concept and a notoriously slippery social reality, a matter of group identity and personal feelings, mutual misunderstandings and the dialectic of giving and taking offense. If that is what we are talking about, then we are not talking about the historical facts that continue to weigh heavily on present circumstances, which is to say about slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

But of course we are still talking about all that, with what seems like renewed concentration and vigor. Nor, in a year that is the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address and the semicentennial of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, are we simply looking back at bygone tragedies from the standpoint of a tranquil present. The two big racially themed movies of the year, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” are notable for the urgency and intensity with which they unpack stories of the past, as if delivering their news of brutal bondage and stubborn discrimination for the first time.

"12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, with, from left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, with, from left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

 

And one of the strange effects of this country’s anxious, confused, hopeful and delusional relationship to its history of racism is that such narratives often do feel like news, or like efforts to overcome willful amnesia. The astonishing experiences of Solomon Northup, Mr. McQueen’s protagonist, a free man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South in 1841, are not being presented to the American public for the first time. Northup’s memoir was an antebellum best seller, nearly as widely circulated in abolitionist circles as “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A screen adaptation, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Avery Brooks in the title role (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Mr. McQueen’s version), was broadcast on PBS in 1984.

A scene from the mini-series “Roots” (1977) based on the novel by Alex Haley, with LeVar Burton.
Warner Brothers Pictures

A scene from the mini-series “Roots” (1977) based on the novel by Alex Haley, with LeVar Burton.

 

Some of the film’s representations of cruelty — whippings, hangings, the sexual abuse of a young female slave named Patsey by her sadistic master — will also stir the memories of those Americans (like me) for whom “Roots” was a formative cultural experience. In 1977, when the mini-series, based on Alex Haley’s book, was first broadcast, it was heralded not only for its authenticity and comprehensiveness, but also for its newness. This was the first time such a story had been told in such breadth and detail, and with so much assembled talent. It continued, two years later, with “Roots: The Next Generations,” which was in some ways more groundbreaking for bringing attention to the often neglected decades of struggle and frustration that fell between the end of the Civil War and the birth of the modern civil rights movements.

Such stories, of course, do not stay told. The moral, economic and human realities of slavery — to keep the narrative there for a moment — have a way of getting buried and swept aside. For a long time this was because, at the movies as in the political and scholarly mainstream, slavery was something of a dead letter, an inconvenient detail in a narrative of national triumph, a sin that had been expiated in the blood of Northern and Southern whites.

D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” may look now like a work of reactionary racism, but it is very much an artifact of the Progressive Era, embraced by President Woodrow Wilson and consistent with what were then understood to be liberal ideas about destiny and character of the American republic. In Griffith’s film (adapted from “The Clansman,” a best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon), the great crime of slavery had been its divisive and corrupting effect on whites. After Reconstruction, the nation was re-founded on the twin pillars of abolition and white supremacy.

Which is also to say on the basis of terror and disenfranchisement. But that side of the story was pushed to the margins, as was the harshness of slavery itself, which was obscured by a fog of sentimentality about the heritage and culture of the Old South. This was the iconography of “Gone With the Wind,” and while the pageantry of that blockbuster seems dated (to say nothing of its sexual politics), the old times it evokes are not forgotten, as Paula Deen might tell you.

The appeal of “Roots” lay partly in its status as a long-delayed, always-marginalized counternarrative, an answer to the mythology and romance that had shrouded popular representations of the American past. Much doubt has been cast on the accuracy of Haley’s book (which was marketed as a novel based on family sources), but the corrective power of the mini-series lay in its ability to reimagine the generation-by-generation sweep of American history from a perspective that had not before been synthesized on screens or public airwaves.

D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” filmed in 1914.
Kino Lorber Inc.

D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” filmed in 1914.

 

In retrospect, “Roots” — which arrived on television a dozen years after the legislative high-water mark of the civil rights movement, in the more immediate wake of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and the first “Rocky” movie — may have succeeded so widely with white and black audiences because it simultaneously opened and closed the book on America’s racial history. There were a lot more American families like the one in the mini-series, but also with their own distinctive sagas of captivity, freedom, migration and resilience.

Those intimate stories had never been shared in such a wide and public fashion and the reception of “Roots” had a catalyzing effect on the imagination of many black writers. Until then, slavery had been something of a taboo in African-American literature, whose thematic center of gravity was in the urban North and whose theme was the black experience of modernity. But “Roots,” clumsy and corny as parts of it look now, helped beget radical and ambitious novels like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” and Edward P. Jones’s “Known World.” They, along with artists like Kara Walker, took slavery as an imaginative challenge and an artistic opportunity.

But there was also a sense, after “Roots” and after “Beloved” claimed its place in the canon, that it had all been said. The white audience, moved by duty, curiosity and sincere empathy, could now move on. The horrors of the past, especially when encountered on television, cast a soothing and forgiving light on the present, where some of us could be comforted, absolved, affirmed in our virtue through the simple fact of watching.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” with Forest Whitaker.
Anne Marie Fox/Weinstein Company

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” with Forest Whitaker.

 

But after such forgiveness, what knowledge? Post-“Roots,” a Hollywood consensus took shape that replaced the old magnolia-scented mythology with a new one, almost as focused on the moral condition of white people, but with a different political inflection. The existence of racism is acknowledged, and its poisonous effects are noted. But it is also localized, in time and geography, in such a way as to avoid implicating the present-day white audience. The racists are clearly marked as villains — uncouth, ugly, ignorant in ways that no one watching would identify with — and they are opposed by a coalition of brave whites and noble, stoical blacks. At the end, the coach and his players, the preacher and his flock, the maid and her enlightened employer shame the bigots and vindicate the audience.

There are variations on this theme, of course, but it is remarkably durable. It links, for example, “The Help,” Tate Taylor’s mild and decorous look at master-servant relations in Mississippi in the early 1960s (based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel), with “Django Unchained,”Quentin Tarantino’s violent and profane (if no less fantastical) examination of the same subject in the same state a little more than a century before. In both cases, a white character (Emma Stone’s writer; Christoph Waltz’s itinerant dentist) helps a black protégé acquire the ability to humiliate the oppressors. The weapon might be a book, a pie or a hail of gunfire, but the effect is the same. Justice is served and everyone cheers.

Some of us, perhaps including the white directors, are cheering for ourselves. Look how bad it used to be. Thank goodness — our own goodness — that it isn’t anymore. And of course it is never just the way it used to be. The abolition of slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow really happened, against considerable odds and thanks to blacks and whites who took risks that later generations can only regard with awe and patriotic pride. The challenge is how to complete a particular story and leave the audience with the understanding that the narrative is not finished, that the past, to modify everyone’s favorite Faulkner quote, is not quite past.

Recent work by academic historians has emphasized the extent to which the exploitation and oppression of African-Americans — the denial of their freedom as workers and their rights as citizens — is embedded in the national DNA. Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams” shows how the Cotton Kingdom of the 19th-century Deep South, far from being a backward outpost of feudalism, was a dynamic engine of capitalist expansion built on enslaved labor. “Fear Itself,” Ira Katznelson’s revisionist study of the New Deal, shows how the great edifice of American social democracy, passed with the support of Southern Democrats, rested on and upheld the color line. And while neither white supremacy nor slavery has legal standing or legitimate defenders in America today, it would be hard to argue that their legacy has been expunged, or to confine their scope to the benighted actions of a few individuals.

Racism is part of the deep structure of American life, which is to say a persistently uncomfortable and also a persistently interesting subject, a spur to artistic creation as well as historical research. “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” may not be telling entirely new stories, but they are trying to tell them in new ways. Mr. McQueen infuses what looks like a conventional costume drama with the unflinching rigor that has characterized his previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame.” Mr. Daniels, the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” blends melodrama, naturalism and brazen theatricality into a pageant that knowingly flirts with self-parody even as it packs a devastating emotional punch.

“Django Unchained” (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino, with Christoph Waltz, left, and Jamie Foxx.
Andrew Cooper/Weinstein Company

“Django Unchained” (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino, with Christoph Waltz, left, and Jamie Foxx.

 

Some of that impact comes at the end of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which pointedly asks the audience to consider what has and has not changed. It is not much of a spoiler to say that Barack Obama is elected president, an event that is especially sweet and piquant for the title character, a black man who worked in the White House through the administrations of every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

And it is certainly not a spoiler to note that in real life, Mr. Obama’s election and re-election have not ushered in an era of colorblind consensus. On the contrary, the fervor of the opposition to the president, and its concentration in the states of the former Confederacy, have at least something to do with the color of his skin. But Mr. Obama’s victories, and the resistance to them, have opened a new and complicated chapter in a continuing story, which means also a new interest in how the past looks from this particular present.

This chapter is being portrayed on screen by filmmakers like Mr. Daniels and Mr. McQueen, and written in journalism, fiction and memoirs by a rising generation of African-American writers that includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward. Ms. Ward’s new book, “Men We Reaped,” is a Southern coming-of-age story that evokes a long tradition of black autobiography going back to slave narratives and (in its title) the words of Harriet Tubman and an old chain-gang work song. Ms. Ward’s stories of black men in tragic circumstances seem both ancient and contemporary, echoing back to the lives of those less lucky than Solomon Northup and connecting with the fates of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant III, whose 2009 killing by transit police in Oakland is the subject of the recent film “Fruitvale Station.”

What links these episodes is the troubling reality that now — even now, we might say, with a black president and a culture more accepting of its own diversity than ever before — the full citizenship, which is to say the full acknowledged humanity, of African-Americans remains in question. The only way to answer that question is to keep talking, and to listen harder.

 

A version of this article appears in print on September 29, 2013, on page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Never-Ending Story.