Book Chapter
Conclusion: Making Flesh Matter
Put another way, can the possibilities of masochism as sexual exceptionalism/subversion... extend to black women?
Book Title
Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism
Book Author(s)
Amber Jamilla Musser
Press and Year
NYU Press, 2014
Medium of Publication
Number of Pages


A nearby label reads "Kara Walker, American, b. 1969. The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, 1995. Cut paper and adhesive on wall.” Stepping back to consider again the silhouetted scene, reading from left to right, we are met with several challenges, one after another. We see a young woman with stereotypically black facial features, seated with her back against a tree and legs raised onto the shoulders of a younger white boy who dangles a toy sword in front of her vagina, while being egged on by a female playmate. Nearby, three women dressed in domestic workers' garb form a chain of suckling, mouths to breasts, as if to mimic the action of the baby resting on one of their laps. These women appear to be unaware of the events surrounding them, so engaged are they with one another. Elsewhere, without necessary connection to the preceding, a newborn emerges from a man’s anus, just to the right of a one-legged man—with a little girl’s body inserted partway into his own anus—who leans on a sword upon which a small child has been impaled. The only solitary figure in the scene is an impish baby whose placement separates the above scenarios from a central event. Traipsing before us, the baby leaves his mark in mounds of shit that draw an arc around a three-figure grouping, thus demarcating its place as a plinth does a monument’s. This group comprises a menacing girl who wields an axe, backward, over the head of a small child with a pronouncedly "Negroid” physiognomy, while behind her an adolescent figure aims a huge splinter at her buttocks.[1]

When read from left to right, The End of Uncle Tom comprises four groupings of silhouette characters involved in nightmarish acts. The first scene contains a group of three slave women and a child involved in a moment of mutual nursing. This is followed by a larger arrangement of three small slave children, one holding a basket, another a spike, and the third a tambourine. Their young mistress, who raises an axe high above her head, stands in the center of the grouping. The third scene is dominated by the character of a corpulent and crippled master who rests his belly on the back of a pubescent slave whom he is sodomizing. He counterbalances his girth with the aid of a saber that is thrust into the body of an infant beneath him. The final scene centers on a balding male slave who, knees bent and hands clasped in prayer, is connected by a cord dangling from his anus to a baby lying on the ground. The tableau concludes with two partially obscured women.[2]

The work of art that Darby English (the first quote) and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw (the second) describe is one of Kara Walker’s most well-known and more controversial pieces—The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven. Produced in 1995 and composed of black paper cutouts stuck to a white gallery wall, the work is compelling both for its subject matter and for its effect on the viewer. The black shapes and the work’s title make it clear that it is a tableau about slavery; more specifically, it is a re-visioning of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal abolitionist work Uncle Tom's Cabin. The tufts of trees and houses that dot the background evoke a plantation, while the large images in the foreground are familiar as stereotypical renditions of black and white bodies engaged in a variety of violent and erotic acts. We see, or I should say, I see, a trio of women (and an infant) nursing, a boy defecating, a girl wielding an ax, an old man sodomizing a young slave, a man with his hands raised to the sky in prayer as a fetus lies on the ground near him. Walker’s tableau is graphically specific and yet open to multiple readings and interpretations. While there are commonalities between these descriptions, I am most interested in the differences. Either a pubescent slave is sodomized by her master or a little girl emerges from a one-legged man’s anus; Shaw notes that the “balding male slave” is praying even as he is connected by a cord from his anus to a baby on the ground; English describes the solitary baby who leaves a trail of excrement around the group of figures; English opens with a rape scene but omits the partially obscured women that Shaw describes. The list could go on, but highlighting these examples illustrates the mobility of Walker’s work. By foregrounding the multiplicity inherent in one image, an image whose own complicated relationship to masochism will be explored, Walker calls attention to the frames that figure these possibilities. In this way, the work operates at an arresting angle to the histories of masochism that fill this book.



Kara Walker, The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, 1995. Cut paper on wall, 156 x 420 inches, 396.2 x 1066.8 cm. Installation view: Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2008. Photo: Joshua White.

Throughout this book I have used empathetic reading to flesh out multiple relationships to power by focusing on sensations correlated with masochism. While this methodology has enlarged our concepts of masochism and foregrounded how power can be embodied, there are still further questions to be explored. Lurking at the heart of these narratives are particular relationships between subjectivity, sexuality, and agency. Masochism provides insight into this nexus because it forces us to attend to all three at once. In making this claim, I argue that the discussions on masochism tend to fall into two camps—those who see masochism as functioning as a tool that masks agency and eroticizes powerlessness and those who see masochism as offering a parallel narrative to other processes of desubjectification and alienation. In the former group I place the characterization of patriarchy as alienating and abusive, complicity as linked to coldness, and liberal subjectivity as laced with guilt. In these three narratives, masochism allows for the illusion of powerlessness while simultaneously coding for other forms of agency. In the latter group I place colonialism, becoming-black, and illness. Here, tropes of masochism are activated so as to indicate the actual lack of agency in these structures of power. This divides subjects into those who have agency and those who do not because of structural constraints. Sexuality, then, enters these narratives in multiple, complex ways, often cloaked by the language of love and authenticity. While love and sexuality are not interchangeable terms, the possibility of sexuality has been framed by these narratives as akin to the possibility of giving and receiving love. Here, let us recall Frantz Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir, O, and even Audre Lorde. The relationship between sexuality, subjectivity, and agency is often phrased thus: Can subjects who do not possess agency love? Do they possess sexuality? These debates about false consciousness matter because they speak to the assumption that one must have agency and subjectivity in order to have sexuality and vice versa.

In this concluding chapter, I turn to Walker’s The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven as a way of interrogating these questions. Because it opens onto many readings and offers multiple points of entry, this work of art focuses our attention on sexuality, agency, and subjectivity for black women, who, as we have seen, occupy a particularly fraught space within these configurations of power, agency, and subjectivity. This chapter asks whether they can have agency and whether they can have sexuality. Put another way, can the possibilities of masochism as sexual exceptionalism/subversion (which I explored in the introduction) extend to black women?

In addition to opening us up to think about the myriad ways that the tableau can be read, I begin this chapter with descriptions from English and Shaw in order to emphasize the interactive practices of viewing that The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven encourages. The viewer must insert him- or herself into the tableau to give it meaning. Thus Walker’s art allows us see how the silhouette works as a device that flattens depth into a two-dimensional shape; complexly racialized bodies are morphed into black shapes that we might think of as skins. Popular throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries for capturing likeness, silhouettes solicit imagination and attention through their flatness. In Walker’s work, we experience the affective result of the transition from paper to skin in several ways. Shaw writes, “With their elegant, albeit negative, form, Walker’s silhouettes express a void: an unknowable black hole, a kind of blank darkness, which is signified by an outer contour line....This delineation produces an extraordinary space of psychological projection.”[3] As Joan Copjec notes, this process renders all bodies black, leaving marks of difference visible through stereotype: “Composed of black paper, all the human figures are, technically, black, though we are able to distinguish the diegetically white ‘folk’ from the diegetically black on the basis of their stereotypical profiles, postures, and clothing.”[4] By allowing viewers to latch onto stereotypes as part of their practice of reading the image, the silhouettes invite viewers to construct the narrative according to their own relationships to history, identity, and race. This process of projection and the dynamic meaning of the tableau highlight the constructedness of identity in general, as David Joselit points out, and the fantasies that surround our relationship to the past.[5] English writes, “Beginning to square with the difficult possibility that slavery may be no more real—for us, now—than it can become within the terms of this play,’ means curbing the urge to restore the tableaux to the realistic mode that they evacuate precisely in order to distinguish themselves.”[6] Walker’s use of the silhouette (a play of surfaces), then, produces a space for various interiorities—viewer, history, and fantasy—to mingle, thereby illuminating the work of the frame.

In unpacking the collision between surface and depth, I have structured this conclusion so that it echoes the process of viewing Walker’s piece. If we first notice the black figures and their flatness, I equate this to the reduction of the black female body into a homogeneous signifier for the flesh. Walker’s images become part of a lineage of representations of woundedness. This results in a meditation on the way Walker’s images play with history and this concept of black female flesh. Recognizing Walker’s work as a space of historical play sets the stage for a larger reflection on history and the viewer’s place within it. Here, that is manifest as a discussion of masochism, race, and history and the possibility of black female masochism. Finally, I step back to discuss the framing of Walker’s work, which opens into questions of thinking subjectivity, agency, and sexuality.

Black Women and the Flesh

In thinking about the flattened black figures of Walker’s silhouettes, I want to pause for us to dwell on what this circuit of viewing and feeling does. In many ways these silhouettes evoke affective currents similar to those of Glenn Ligon’s I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown against a Sharp White Background, which I discussed in an earlier chapter, because they activate processes of identification within the viewer (it should be stated that these may become manifest in any number of ways, including nonidentification and alienation). While Ligon’s piece forces the viewer to experience the simultaneity of identifying with the colored “I” and/or the sharp white background, the points of potential identification in Walker’s piece are figural. This is an important difference from Ligon’s abstract and inclusive “I” because Walker’s figures are weighty. Despite being flat surfaces, they come bearing their own matter; they are gendered and raced and embedded in a particular historical context. I argue, in fact, that by calling attention to bodies in this way, Walker makes visible the ways that certain bodies—those of black women—are associated with the flesh. This is not just any flesh, however: it is flesh that resists theory, and it is flesh that does not possess agency.

The linkage of black female bodies with untheorized corporeality has been a thread throughout this book. In this way it works alongside Sharon Holland’s argument in The Erotic Life of Racism that the black female queer body remains unthinkable in contemporary theory. She writes, “Black.Colored.Female.Queer. marks an undisciplined sector of the discipline: the representations of her have shifted from the dangerous and volatile to the abject and weak; S.H.E. (Singular. Historical. Exogenous) is both protector and protected. Her status continually reminds us that we have not yet accomplished our lofty goal of politically efficacious and practiced theory.”[7] The failure to grapple with the ways in which she has not been theorized is something that I have traced throughout this book. In each chapter, women of color have served as an underside to the discussions about masochism and sensation. Audre Lorde’s discussion of the erotic provided an alternate model for processes of desubjectification and masochism; the angry black woman contrasted with the passive ahistoric, biological black man; the dominance of Norah and the black handmaidens in The Story of O reminded us of the line between complicity and economic necessity; and the figure of the black butch illuminated the hollow nature of the phallus. This concluding chapter centers the persistent connection between black femininity and the flesh by working through the historical frames that create this vision.

There are several layers of dealing with the historical embeddedness at work in these figurations of black women as untheorized flesh. Most important, however, is the removal of these bodies from theory because they have been deemed historical. Even in progressive projects, which aim to invigorate theory with the bodies of black women, a temporal flattening occurs. We see this most clearly in the history of intersectionality, where the initial desire to be attentive to black female difference ends up perversely reifying the black female body as a site of woundedness.

Intersectionality began as a mode of inquiry to draw attention to the force of multiple marginalizations. In proto-intersectional texts such as those written by the Combahee River Collective, black feminists argued that black women’s lives are structured according to multiple forms of domination; their task was to create a movement to examine and challenge the “manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”[8] These oppressions included race, gender, class, and sexuality and led to the consolidation of intersectional theory in black feminism. As intersectionality gained institutional traction it focused more narrowly on the intersection of race and gender than on sexuality and class. As Jennifer Nash argues, “Sexuality and class would become largely erased by black feminist work on multiple marginalization, suggesting that black women’s lived experiences were constituted solely by the interplay—or intersection—of race and gender.”[9] This focus on race and gender and the particular figure of the black woman has had several important consequences. As Nash notes, it “neglects the heterogeneity of ‘black woman’ as a category” and equates black feminism almost exclusively with this intersection, thereby foreclosing “explorations of other intersections to a range of related activist-intellectual projects.”[10] That is to say, black women became the sign of marginalization; they were invoked as a trope to consider the multiplicity of marginalization, but the category’s own multitudes were seldom interrogated.

The erasure of heterogeneity from the category of black woman is the mechanism that works to produce black women as the fleshy (yet flat) other. The consolidation of the category “black women” into a singular entity who becomes emblematic of a series of historical and structural oppressions marks the black body as irreducible flesh, the limit of theory and agency. In her own analysis, Holland argues that the black queer woman has become the position to describe various exclusions, but while that fact leads to critique, it has not led to the incorporation of her body into theory: “But the categories ‘black,’ ‘colored,’ female, queer point to a persistent problem in queer theorizing—how to have our queer theory and our feminism while still seeing the colored body or how to have our colored criticism while still seeing the female and the queer body and so on.”[11] As Jasbir Puar notes, intersectionality both reifies difference and situates the woman of color (we might consider the black woman a subset of this category) as an always marginal subject: “But what the method of intersectionality is most predominantly used to qualify is the specific ‘difference’ of ‘women of color,’ a category that has now become, I would argue, simultaneously emptied of specific meaning on the one hand and overdetermined in its deployment on the other. In this usage, intersectionality always produces an Other, and that Other is always a Woman Of Color (WOC), who must invariably be shown to be resistant, subversive, or articulating a grievance.”[12] Intersectionality has produced a vision of the woman of color subject as emblematic of oppression at the hands of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism, a subject who is defined by both her difference and her marginalization. The omission of other potential axes of identification and the assumption that women of color are persistently marginalized regardless of context are some of the by-products of attempting to account for the woman of color as a situation who is thought most insistently as wounded flesh. In this way, structural and historical violence becomes interchangeable with the specter of female bodies of color. The most marginal theoretical position becomes visible as the woman of color’s body. Not only does this form of centering the woman of color render her opaque and undertheorized, but it marks her as passé. According to Holland, “Her figuration at this point in our critical history looks profoundly like that of... a dead zone (think ‘impasse’).”[13] By this Holland means that she is a reminder of historical wrongs but is not assimilated into a political future.

This link between black femininity and historicity provides us with one frame for reading Walker’s tableau. From this perspective, the tableau illustrates the perpetual and enduring wound of slavery. Following Carol E. Henderson, I use the trope of the wound to invoke the way this traumatic history manifests itself in visible corporeal form.[14] In keeping with this reading, we might argue that Walker illuminates both the woundedness of black women by figuring the atrocities of slavery and the flattening effect of this woundedness through her use of silhouette. These processes are described at length in Hortense Spillers’s essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Here, Spillers traces how black women become flesh through the Atlantic slave trade. While all black bodies become flesh through the process of enslavement—“Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender specific”—there is still a particularly gendered dimension to the experience.[15] This happens because sexuality is the frame for interacting with racialized flesh, the broad contours of which Spillers outlines: “1) The captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time—in stunning contradiction—the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of ‘otherness’; 4) As a category of ‘otherness,’ the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general ‘powerlessness,’ resonating through various centers of human and social meaning.”[16] What we see in Spillers’s articulation of how gender and sexuality shape the modes of fleshiness is the explicit link between violence, sexuality, and powerlessness. While these factors also clearly work in the production of black masculine flesh, Spillers is more concerned with articulating how this wounds black women.[17] Here, Spillers focuses on the reordering of kinship through the separation of mothers from children and the inability for a woman to elect whether to reproduce and with whom. This denial of motherhood and removal of the paternal function produces a web of contradictions that, Spillers argues, are unique to the black female subject and render her flesh in a particular way: “In this play of paradox, only the female stands in the flesh, both mother and mother-dispossessed.”[18] Spillers is insistent that the black woman’s equation with the flesh is distinct from other forms of becoming-flesh. Indeed, it is clear that this form of objectification is different from the becoming-flesh that Beauvoir discusses because the terms of objectification do not veer into narcissism. It is also different from the becoming-flesh that Fanon describes because this formulation of becoming-flesh is linked to the particular historical moment of slavery rather than the sticky temporality of animality and becoming-biological. Nor is this mode of the flesh equivalent to the pain produced by illness or the dominating gaze of patriarchy or colonialism. While it shares some things with these forms of embodiment, this fleshiness is marked by a particular conglomeration of sexuality, violence, and objectification. This is flesh that has been caught in the perpetual wound of slavery, so that agency cannot even be illusory: it has already been foreclosed.

Through this emphasis on objectification, we begin to see the particular processes of flattening at work. In addition to reading this flattening into flesh as a mode of inhabiting historicity, the politics of slavery enable us to read this flattening as part of a circuit that uses black women’s bodies and absents their sexuality. Spillers, here, is adamant that the flesh that black women inhabit is one that does not allow her access to her own sexuality but renders her available for the use of others. The black woman functions, Spillers argues, not only as a marker of difference but as a route for others to experience that difference. In “Interstices,” she writes, “[The black woman] became instead the principal point of passage between the human and the non-human world. Her issue became the focus of a cunning difference—visually, psychologically, ontologically—as the route by which the dominant male decided the distinction between humanity and 'other.’”[19] Further, she adds, “While there are numerous references to the black woman in the universe of signs, many of them perverted, the prerogatives of sexuality are refused her because the concept of sexuality originates in, stays with, the dominative mode of culture and its elaborate strategies of thought and expression.”[20] Even as black female bodies are sexualized because of their relationship to difference (as it is produced by various hierarchies of domination), sexuality is foreclosed for black women, just as motherhood is.[21] I will return to thinking about this linkage between sexuality and maternity later in the text, but what I want to emphasize in this discussion of Spillers is the way black women’s alterity becomes coded as sexually available flesh, what Spillers calls “pornotroping.” This is the wound and flattening that slavery produces.

Through this process, however, representation also becomes its own wound.[22] The assumption of marginalization works in tandem with the very structures of oppression that it is attempting to highlight and subvert. This produces a double bind in which subjects attempt to avoid these flattening processes but end up with a different set of constrained behavioral choices. Most notably, we can see this tension in Patricia Hill Collins’s critique of “controlling images.” Controlling images are representations of black women that hew to “racial-sexual mythologies.”[23] Varying widely in scope, they depict black women as “licentious, animalistic, libidinous Jezebels; as asexual, comical, masculinized Mammies; or as tough, detached, ‘strongblackwomen.’”[24] Collins argues that these images proliferate because they justify the continued disciplining of black women and black female sexuality as linked to the “moral and fiscal ‘deterioration of the state.”[25] In her critique of the various forms of marginalization that these images enact, Collins seeks to distance representations of black female subjects and sexuality from them, which is to say that she ends up advocating for self-discipline in order to prevent disciplining from the outside.

Walker’s emphasis on flatness, then, plays both with and against these tensions. She calls attention to the processes that fix and flatten black female sexuality, but her relationship to these images is ambiguous. Is her tableau a critique of this process, or do these representations reinscribe them? These are central questions in thinking about the reception of Walker’s art and the production of her fame. In 1997, the year that Walker was awarded the MacArthur Grant, Betye Saar, an artist known for exploring how cultural images circulate, began a letter-writing campaign against her work. Saar’s letter asked: “Are African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?”[26] Responding in support of Saar’s campaign, another critic, Michael Harris, writes, “When we become artists who use Pickaninnies as a means to develop notoriety and artistic success, there’s no need for a Klan. There’s no need for any kind of racist opposition because they are so Stockholmed to the point where we will begin to oppress ourselves if we’re not careful.”[27] In addition to voicing anxiety that representations of the past might cloud the present and further reify notions of black flesh as other, these criticisms speak to the policing of representations of blackness so as to avoid the problem of injury. These critics view Walker as trafficking in woundedness. As English argues, their critiques suggest that “the motivation behind work like Walker’s is perceived to be anachronistic in itself, like a fragment of slavery carried over unmodified into the present.”[28] Further, English makes clear the link between representation, historic wounds, and present injury when he writes, “In order to be communicable, the notion that Walker’s work virtually reimplements slavery, or its operative psychologizations, requires a contemporary perceiver who enjoys an unbroken view of the institution and its mechanisms, who can picture them.”[29]

Given the fraught nature of representation, it is clear why Walker’s silhouettes have ignited firestorms. Since black female subjectivity has been reduced to flatness either because of the process of othering or as a tactic of self-disciplining, Walker’s silhouettes carry a lot of representational weight. Since they do not conform to idealized models of blackness, they ask the viewer to look more closely, thus making their opacity and dependence on the viewer’s projection more overt.

Playing with History, Playing with Race

In thinking about the relationships between history and identity that her tableaux stir within the viewer, Walker provides her own insight into the affective historical games that she is playing. In an interview with Jerry Saltz, Walker says, “Afro-Am or African-American artists are always espousing the horrors of slavery and Gen-Afro Apartheid.... But the horrors are always tolerable to repressed individuals to whom they may occur. This allows for a stronger sense of masochism in future generations, makes for riots, very colorful.”[30] In his discussion of this comment, English interprets Walker’s invocation of masochism as having to do with an attachment to a scripted role of submission: “Indeed, the endless reproduction of rhetorics and images about slavery’s ‘direct’ impress upon our time, insofar as they minimize or eliminate the inscription of mediation, will strengthen masochism, one version of which depends on an attachment to scripted roles and a submission to the restrictions they imply.”[31] Underlying English’s analysis of Walker’s invocation of masochism is the idea that the passage of time renders the horrors of slavery more abstract and produces a different relationship to them. Masochism, then, stems from an alienation and attachment to this history. While I agree with English’s understanding that history plays a large part of thinking through what masochism might mean in this context, I think it is important to emphasize the affective attachments to history that are taking place. In her statement to Saltz, Walker not only emphasizes pleasure in remembering history but suggests that pleasure may have been part of slavery in and of itself. Walker’s investment, then, might also be understood as using history to play with the different types of identification that she wishes to facilitate, identifications that may or may not have to do with masochism.

In this section, I take up English’s claims that Walker’s work operates according to a distance from history and attachment to it by focusing on one section of The End of Uncle Tom—the cluster of four figures (three women and a baby) engaged in mutual nursing. In addition to illuminating Walker’s play with history, this portion of the tableau situates the black woman at the center and asks us to heed her claims or lack thereof on history, subjectivity, agency, and sexuality. In making his claim that Walker plays with history, English argues that Walker’s tableaux resist the facile readings that Saar and Harris wish to graft onto them. Instead, English argues, they illuminate multiplicity and produce an array of strong contradictions: “The tension itself comprises a laundry list of dynamic oppositional entanglements, between black and white, obviously; but also between violence and pleasure, death and birth, orality and anality, documentation and fantasy, art and nonart, seeing and imagining, and so on.”[32] The End of Uncle Tom in particular “depicts the force of desire as capable of stressing nearly every boundary required for the order of ‘civilized society’ to hold: human and animal, old and young, safe and unsafe, powerful and subjected, consensual and forced.”[33] It is in these affective chasms that subjectivity (both that of the viewer and that of Walker) is located. Walker writes, “In order to have a real connection with my history, I had to be somebody’s slave. But I was in control: that’s the difference.”[34] Despite the historical foreclosures that I have already outlined, Walker is invested in allowing for agency, not only her own, but that of her viewers to identify as they wish.

Indeed, at the heart of the detail from The End of Uncle Tom we see women who appear to be taking control. Shaw describes this scene as “an unsettling arrangement of four silhouetted characters, three bare-breasted slave women and an infant child, who are engaged in a chain of mutual nursing. All three women essentially look alike: they are young, they have kerchiefs on their heads, their dresses are pulled down about their waists, their backs arch forward, and their rear ends press outward.”[35] Shaw argues that this image subversively represents “female sexual reflexivity” because it alters the script for the idea of black women nursing.[36] Though the representation of bare-breasted women recalls the inability of black women to own their bodies during slavery, these women depart from that imagery. They are not figured as mammies, and their engrossment in the activity of mutual nursing suggests that they are neglecting their duties both as women sexually available to their masters and as caretakers. Shaw writes, “The child, instinctively knowing that it must obtain the breast in order to be satiated, in order to survive, strains hopelessly to get a teat within its grasp. However, the women have lost all desire to placate it. With the attention they give to their erotic activity, they all but forget the infant.”[37] Further, the enjoyment that Shaw reads into this scene is one of explicit subversion: “This orgiastic carnality speaks of a racialized transgression of sexual and gender roles. No longer are their bodies to be used by others, by men or by babies; now they are to be enjoyed by the self and one’s own kind, now they are in themselves the objects of desire as they consume the bodies of their analogues.”[38]

In Shaw’s reading, Walker has taken a historically harmful trope and inverted it, so that these women, though they may be legible as slaves, are subverting the social order by not performing the prescribed script. Instead of nursing white infants, they nurture each other. Instead of making their bodies available for white men, they seek comfort within the realm of women. This reading of this grouping endows them with individuality by linking their activity with pleasure and resistance. This process of rescripting grants them a form of liberal subjectivity in which resignification produces agency and subjectivity.[39]

There is more to this historical play, however. Since the piece is a dialogue between representation and identity, we are also asked what it means to see this as an image of history. That is to say, what is at stake in producing this image of the non-Mammy suckling? Shaw’s pleasure in the image’s subversive potential is clear, but when Walker was asked what this vignette was about, her response hit upon different notes: “History. My constant need or, in general, a constant need to suckle from history, as though history could be seen as a seemingly endless supply of mother’s milk represented by the big black mammy of old. For myself, I have this constant battle—this fear of weaning. It’s really a battle that I apply to the black community as well, because all of our progress is predicated on having a very tactile link to a brutal past.”[40] Seen in this light, it would be easy to view Walker’s explanation as an extension of Audre Lorde’s discussion of the erotic in which women are connected historically through their blackness and historical marginalization. This would link Walker’s reading with Shaw’s and work toward a recuperation of history through agency. Christina Sharpe’s reading adds to this through her attention to the fact that it is not mother’s milk but mammy’s milk that the women are consuming. This is a mode of nonbiological community: “What is most extraordinary about Walker’s reading of the portrait (which is not, I think specifically about the portrait itself) is that what she analogizes is the mammy-as-history-as mother’s milk.”[41] The connection between milk as a nurturing substance and the “orgiastic carnality” that Shaw reads into the image adds to this interpretation. Indeed, even Spillers’s linkage of maternity and sexuality as foreclosed sites of experience and pleasure for black women can be mapped onto this type of recuperative reading of the image.

On the other hand, we might read Walker’s comments about historical connectedness as further entrenching these figures within a milieu without agency. Rather than recuperate the image, Sharpe’s comments actually veer toward this direction. The image, then, traffics in historical hurt in several arenas. First, it references the historical reality that black women were made to care for white children at the expense of their children; Sharpe reads the child who is unable to suckle as part of this cycle of foreclosed maternity. Playing off of history in this way highlights the simultaneously absent and omnipresent maternal at work in thinking about black women. Second, these images force the viewer to confront the ways that these histories play into contemporary black women’s lives and understandings of themselves. Sharpe argues that the images are “an attempt to look at shame itself, in order to try to account for its eruption into the present.”[42] Sharpe comes to this conclusion by foregrounding what is invoked but absent in the image—the white suckling child. That is to say, the ties that bind these women are not actually produced by their own machinations but have been structured by their collective exclusion from agency. Sharpe writes that the women are “held together by their emphasis on reproduction, on passing on evidence, on making the horrors of slavery as ‘visible as the blood,’ and in reproducing for and reproducing the desires of the slave owner.”[43] This image can be read, then, not as subversive, but as an illustration of the continued shame that this historical form of objectification produces from our contemporary vantage point. Sharpe reads this image as the “animation of shame (as the opposite of pride, black pride in particular).”[44]

Shaw’s insistence on seeing pleasure and on reading it as a site of resistance that offers the possibility of a heroic recuperation of agency and subjectivity from the dehumanization produced by slavery is at odds with Sharpe’s vision of shame, but Walker also asks us to consider another possibility—the middle ground where pleasure and shame mingle. We are invited to ask if there can indeed be happiness in slavery.

In Extravagant Abjection, Darieck Scott considers the question of pleasure vis-à-vis the production of black power in abjection. He asks, “Would such a pleasure [in abjection] be a form of the (black) power that we are investigating—which is to say, would such pleasure be a way to resist, or work with or work through, the challenges presented by a process of racialization through sexual degradation?”[45] In parsing out the possibility of this formulation of pleasure, Scott makes clear that the primary barrier is that which separates the present viewer/reader from the past. Understanding whether pleasure was possible in these situations is impossible because our understandings of pleasure rely on contemporary notions of individuality and personhood, which cannot be grafted onto the historical reality of slavery.

The only thing that we have access to is a projection (literalized by Walker’s silhouettes) that tends to perpetuate the idea of blackness and femininity as “total objecthood,” “complete abjection.”[46] This projection, however, has a flattening effect on understanding the multiple possibilities of subjectivity and experience, reducing them to a stance of victimization. Representations of pleasure in abjection, however, grant us access to the possibility of pleasure even as they may not have an exact correlation to reality. Scott argues that the illumination of these pleasures is “at once a suturing of the past to present and a declaration of independence from that history.”[47] Even as the past is inaccessible in the present moment, we can imagine pleasure as possible because we are not actually in the past. Scott writes, “We can name our reimagination and even our reenactment of what they experienced as pleasure (just as we could name it as pain or anything else, even, however morally or ethically bankrupt it might be to do so, as boredom). We can do so because we are not them and because they did suffer, because our legacy is both their suffering and their achievement of recovery from suffering (or, perhaps more accurately, their achievement of living-with-suffering) and the (relative) political advantages brought thereby. To represent blackness as/in abjection in such scenes is a way of working with the legacy of history.”[48] These representations, then, are about one’s relationship to history rather than a statement about reality. While playing with history is a way of connecting to the past and affirming the idea that it is important to connect to these ancestors, this distance between the past and present is crucial. As Scott writes, “This removal is key: it depends on a connection to a history in which people really were violated, people who, because of the effectiveness of racialization, are presumably of intimate (though at the same time far distant) relation to oneself.”[49] In part, identification with this past means that these projections of history are operating on a circuit of sympathy and empathy similar to the one I described in the fourth chapter. However, as Scott makes clear, our participation in these circuits is “not fully a choice, since we are all of us, as participants in a culture that like all cultures recycles and revises and repeats the narratives that have given it life and shape, the unwilling, unasked inheritors of that culture’s terrors and suffering.”[50] This absence of choice means that we must “work with the material of history bequeathed to us.”[51]

We can easily map Scott’s analysis onto Walker’s image. The pleasure that we might excavate from this detail of the nursing women is symptomatic of our own connections to the past. By calling forth violence, history, and sexuality in silhouetted form, Walker, I argue, invites us to consider our own relationship to this history and how we have made our own identities vis-à-vis this image. More specifically, the complex identifications that the silhouettes produce invite us to think about masochism and how racialization, shame, and pleasure coalesce through agency and subjectivity.

Attending to Race and Masochism

Since I have argued throughout Sensational Flesh that masochism is a mobile entity whose meanings shift depending on context, I am not invested in producing a fixed idea of masochism around Walker’s images, but I am interested in how masochism hovers around these discussions of pleasure and racialization. Though I have previously discussed masochism as it applies to the formation of white masculine subjectivity and the suffering black body, complicity in the objectification of female bodies, and an individual project of corporeal integrity in the face of illness, different sensations attach to these usages of the term. This form of masochism has to do with history and one’s relationship to it and the forms of identification produced with historical figures. To put it another way, why do we think about masochism, either Walker’s or our own, when we see her images?

Precisely because of the difficulty of thinking about agency, subjectivity, and sexuality, these forms of identification are often figured as fraught when one is talking about the history of African Americans. To this end, both Elizabeth Freeman and Christina Sharpe are drawn to Isaac Julien’s film The Attendant because it makes these difficulties clear by explicitly thematizing S&M because of its exploration of black history. The Attendant features a black museum guard who has an after-hours sexual encounter with a white museum visitor in one of the museum’s galleries. The encounter, however, appears modeled on a painting depicting the transatlantic slave trade. Reality and fantasy begin to mix at this point, and the film becomes a series of tableaux vivants depicting the black man’s domination by the white man. These images invoke the transatlantic slave trade and the historical oppression of black people, but the atmosphere is suffused with eroticism and pleasure.

In her analysis of the film, Freeman draws on its use of S&M to analyze the reparative possibilities that this queer temporality produces. She writes that “it is inescapably true that the body as sadomasochistic ritual becomes a means of invoking history—personal pasts, collective sufferings, and quotidian forms of injustice—in an idiom of pleasure.”[52] In this S&M scene, the histories that are embodied are recognizable as historical traumas—they are responsible for producing the imago of the suffering black body that I discussed in the fourth chapter, “Time, Race, and Biology.” However, Freeman argues that Julien, by drawing on race play, enacts a critique of this model of blackness. Julien’s film uses history in a way that “relentlessly physicalizes the encounter with history and thereby contributes to a reparative criticism that takes up the materials of a traumatic past and remixes them in the interests of new possibilities for being and knowing.”[53] In this way S&M functions as a therapeutic repetition of the past in order to open possibilities in the present.

The scene's corporeality is important because it suggests that S&M in this instance is functioning not as a mode of mere repetition but as a mode of temporal disruption that brings the flesh to the surface. Flesh, in turn, introduces difference and multiplicity. More specifically, Freeman argues, it sutures queerness and blackness: “His tableau vivant of the slave trade insists that the sufferings of black people are in the first instance fleshy—and thereby not fully reducible to the heterosexist, sentimentalist account that the violation of their family ties constitutes the worst offense against them. Conversely, the tableau vivant also offers a queer image of aliveness, of sheer animacy unfettered by the narrative drives of biography or history, and in so doing conjures up the possibility of a future beyond both reproduction and writing.”[54] This flesh, which is brought to the fore through historical embodiment, disrupts heteronormativity by illuminating flesh in a nonreproductive mode and as a space of possibility. It is this critique, along with the forced encounter with the historical material conditions of slavery, that leads Freeman to discuss the film as belonging to the genre of queer of color critiques. As Freeman writes, “S/m might be a way of feeling historical that exposes the limits of bourgeois-sentimental, emotional reactions to historical events.”[55] Through its reliance on embodied temporality and the unruliness of sensation and affect, the film offers the possibility of contingency and therefore different futures.

Freeman argues that Julien’s film uses S&M to “bring the body to a kind of somatized historical knowledge, one that does not demand or correct information about an original experience of past events, nor even engender legibly cognitive understandings of ones space in a historically specific structure.”[56] This form of embodied history “enacts the oscillation between historically specific forms of time (or between a historically specific form of time and its constructed or fantasized opposite) and illuminates some past consequences and futural possibilities of this movement.”[57] This emphasis on multiplicity and embodiment leads to new formations of belonging in history; different possibilities for orienting oneself toward the past and future have been introduced. Indeed, following on Walter Johnson’s discussion of the different temporalities of African Americans and the potential subversive spaces they offered during slavery, we can read this form of historical play as reinvigorating a sense of the multiple temporalities that black bodies could occupy and as an attempt to subvert the dominant narratives surrounding blackness.[58]

Sharpe’s reading of the film differs from Freeman’s in that she argues that it illuminates the “sadomasochism of everyday black life.”[59] Sharpe is not invested in reading S&M as a rewriting of the past. Rather, she sees it as emblematic of the unspeakable tensions that occupy the present. She writes, “The uncanny juxtaposition of Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, s/m, and daily museum work shifts the look of slavery and the viewer’s relationships to it from the past to the present, from the way the history of slavery is archived in the museum, narrativized in film, and presented in museological practices to the way it is worked out in everyday relations.”[60] S&M mobilizes the unspeakable because it refuses to be reduced to something simple; in conjunction with history and complicity, it works to undermine simple readings of the film. This multiplicity ruptures what Sharpe calls the “proper affective responses to slavery” because “through them [Julien] turns the viewer’s attention back to the production of post-slavery subjectivity itself, to the ways that post-slavery subjects continue to occupy these abjected bodies in their postures of submission and mastery and the ways that this occupation in the present is a source of (ambivalently experienced) pleasure.”[61] Here, Sharpe is quick to point to the pleasure that we see on both men’s faces as well as the pleasure that is produced by witnessing the scene.

In Sharpe’s reading of the film, it is not just black pleasure that is at stake but pleasure in understanding how the present is a continuation of the past. While it is important to see that this is not a simple repetition of the past, it calls attention to our interest in the abject and our investment in understanding blackness as abject. Sharpe argues that this manifests itself in the film as a “compulsion for white and black viewers to ‘play the slave a little bit,’ to occupy and then disavow the occupation of an abject, subjugated position.”[62] Though this plays out differently for different bodies, it emphasizes the fact that “it is black bodies that continue to be the port of entry or point of access into any number of physical, spiritual, or subjective states.”[63] The representation of black flesh, then, is embedded within various circuits of masochism, producing guilt and shame either through identification or, as I discussed earlier in the book, through sympathy.

This terrain of masochism through identification is complicated, however, when we return to Darieck Scott’s examination of the reimagined pleasure in scenes of subjection. His own analysis talks around the question of masochism. Though many of masochism’s key terms (pleasure, power, subjection, objectification) are at work in his analysis, he is leery of collapsing black power with masochism. He writes that he is describing something analogous to masochism: “And is this possible pleasure or power a window to, an access granted to, a constitutive masochism in human sexuality, as we could see Fanon’s muscle tension as such an access to an anonymous or amorphous existence inhering in the body as it existed by consciousness? Or is this power/pleasure distinct from that masochism, perhaps analogous to it but different?”[64] Later he creates more distance between his discussion and masochism, writing, “That such masochistic pleasure and its confusions might become the ground, the material, or even the expression, for the abilities or powers I am attempting to locate in blackness’s abjection ... does not mean that this is a study in black masochism, however.”[65] He rejects the idea that he is talking about erotogenic masochism in the Freudian sense, and he does not discuss moral masochism: “Though such familiar terms as masochism and castration overlay, overlap, and even partly describe this power, they do not fully encompass it, adequately name it, or exhaust it.”[66] Scott’s anxiety about using masochism to describe this relation points both to the difficulty in attaching masochism to anything in particular and to the baggage that the term has when applied to black bodies.

As difficult as it has been for critics to merge discussions of masochism with race, the problem is compounded when one is speaking of black women. Here, I believe it is worth pointing out that these attempts to discuss race and masochism have been articulated by working through black masculinity. The discourse on black female masochism has been dominated by voices from 1980s debates on sexuality. Critics such as Alice Walker and Audre Lorde revile the practice for dismissing the historical record. In contrast to many of the articulations of masochism as offering the potential to understand the history in new ways, these critics argue that S&M is emblematic of a problem within society. I am not attempting a prescriptive statement about S&M, but working through these tensions illuminates a great deal about how individual practices of subversion, suspension, or therapy can be read as conservative, regressive, and harmful for society by critics of S&M.

Walker’s critique of S&M in “Can This Sadomasochism Be Saved?” is that individual choices of submission are read as potential reinscriptions of slavery, which is to say that they will produce a collapse between the past and the present. Her short story produces a debate between students in the fictional classroom. A pro-S&M student in Walker’s class argues for the individuality of the practice: “It is all fantasy, she said. No harm done. Slavery, real slavery is over, after all.”[67] Walker’s retort, which she voices as a black female student, describes these fantasies as regressive and harmful because they cannot be contained by the individual and threaten to reproduce historical violences against black women: “I feel abused. I feel my privacy as a black woman has been invaded. Whoever saw that television program can now look at me standing on the corner waiting for a bus and not see me at all, but see instead a slave, a creature who would wear a chain and lock around my neck for a white person— in 1980!—and accept it. Enjoy it.”[68] In addition to recalling the specter of the suffering black body, Walker articulates a slippery line between fantasy and reality and individuals and society. In this rescripting of history, the particular historical suffering of black women is used as grist for other people’s erotic benefit and threatens their contemporary freedom. Indeed, as I have already argued, tableaux of suffering were circulated both for generating sympathy and for the explicit purposes of erotic practice.

The fear that Walker describes is that social order will slip away. It is a fear not only of temporal suspension but of reversion to a prior time. In an interview with Susan Leigh Star for the volume Against Sadomasochism, Audre Lorde expresses a similar fear about S&M. She argues that it is this timeless quality that is most pernicious; she describes it as feeding “the belief that domination is inevitable.”[69] “Sadomasochism,” Lorde says, “is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/ subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically.”[70] This articulation of suspension is one that suspends subversion and extends the status quo of oppression. Lorde argues that sadomasochism is perceived to operate on the level of the individual but is actually about the manipulation of society. Further, Lorde uses the feminist mantra of “The personal is political” to think about the implications of sadomasochism. She says, “I do not believe that sexuality is separate from living. As a minority woman, I know dominance and subordination are not bedroom issues. In the same way that rape is not about sex, s/m is not about sex but about how we use power. If it were only about personal sexual exchange or private taste, why would it be presented as a political issue?”[71] Lorde’s description of the politics of sadomasochism is part tautology—calling on the feminist debates regarding S&M to argue for its politics beyond individuals—and part reminder of the contingency of the very concept of individuality. Her statement, like Fanon’s argument that the black man cannot be a masochist, illuminates the structuring of individuality by forces such as capitalism and is articulated through notions of privacy. In effect, Lorde argues that black women are seen as representatives of their race and as such do not have the luxury to partake in individual projects that suspend time because they are already assumed to be living in the past.

In many ways this problem of an impossibly individual black woman is signified by the collapse of black women into not only the flesh but the most objectified, most abject sign of fleshiness. In their refusal to allow for individual agency, Walker’s and Lorde’s criticisms of S&M speak to the way that sexuality has been foreclosed as a space for black women. Thus they enact Spillers’s argument that black women are discursively outside of sexuality and individuality. This reading also collapses racialization with masochism, forgetting that masochism, as we have seen through the book—despite the forms it takes—is elected.

Race Play: Choosing Powerlessness

By way of thinking through black female masochism, I turn toward Mollena Williams, an African American BDSM practitioner and educator who has emerged as a spokesperson of sorts for S&M. While Williams’s status as an individual who practices S&M would seem to foreclose questions regarding its possibility for black women, I am interested in reading her own statements on S&M and other people’s writing on her in order to analyze the ways that she navigates the collapse of subjectivity agency and sexuality in a system where one would assume she does not have access to these things. Williams has been interviewed extensively about S&M and her attraction to it. This, in large part, is because she favors S&M play that revolves around historical racially charged situations—race play. She defines race play as “any type of play that openly embraces and explores the (either ‘real’ or assumed) racial identity of the players within the context of a BDSM scene. The prime motive in a ‘Race Play’ scene is to underscore and investigate the challenges of racial or cultural differences.”[72] Though there are numerous possible ways to enact race play, the explicit foregrounding of historical circumstances of oppression remains constant.[73]

Williams argues that race play serves a therapeutic function. In this way, we can read it as another version of Freud’s repetition compulsion in which people are compelled to repeat the trauma of the past in order to come to terms with it. She says, “It is not blasphemy to want to touch that wound. You can’t heal something in your soul by letting it remain in its original state of pain. It HAS to be touched. Otherwise it will never heal.”[74] She also emphasizes the importance of trust in race play. This reopening of the wound, as she describes it, requires particularly attentive participants so that the therapeutic function is preserved. Race play, according to Williams, demands commitment and consent because it is emotional and physical labor: “Doing race play is HARD. It isn’t some walk in the fucking park. And finding people I trust enough to do it with is almost impossible because it is hard, and they are at risk.... The one thing—the only thing—that separates BDSM from abuse is consent. Now, there is implied consent. However, at no point is [there] not [sic] control. Never.”[75]

Here, we see that Freeman’s analysis of The Attendant as a form of reparative historiography could also be applied to Williams’s performances of race play. In her published writing on race play, she describes playing the part of a virginal slave who is raped by her master. While Williams scripts her character, Molly, as a reluctant participant in the scene, she describes small ways that her body yields to the Admiral’s touch. She writes, “I felt horribly ashamed and yet... as he pulled his hand away, my hips lifted every so slightly toward him.”[76] Though it does not subvert historical scripts, Williams’s fantasy, like Julien’s film, speaks to a mode of inhabiting an oppressive history with hints of pleasure. This reading of Williams’s work foregrounds the pleasure that she gains by experiencing a different affective connection to the past and can be read alongside Shaw’s recuperation of pleasure and agency in Kara Walker’s depiction of the quartet of nursing bodies.

By way of thinking about electing pleasure as a way of recuperating sexuality for black women on both the individual and the collective level, I turn toward the work of Jennifer Nash, who foregrounds the possibility of finding pleasure in racialization in her readings of black women in pornography. Nash’s methodology is racial iconography, “a critical hermeneutic, attentive to the nonracist meaning-making work that black women’s bodies perform in pornography and to the historical contingency of racialized pornographic texts,” in order to rescript agency and sexuality onto black female bodies.[77] Through a reading of Sexworld, a pornographic film from 1978 that features many interracial couplings, Nash illustrates how one can take pleasure in blackness. She describes an encounter between Roger, a white man who initially describes his disgust at blackness and mistakes Jill, his black scene partner, for a maid when she first appears in his room. Undeterred, Jill seduces him, and Roger ultimately gives himself over to his desire for black women. Conventional readings of this scene position Jill as a stereotypical “hyperlibidinous black woman for the pleasurable consumption of both the white male protagonist and the ostensibly white male spectator.”[78] Instead, Nash reads the scene as articulating the way that “blackness is represented as a pleasurable site for the black protagonist.”[79] Nash does this by reading Jill’s seduction as an attempt to transform racism into pleasure in racial difference. Jill, Nash argues, is “emphatically present ... insisting on the potential pleasures of interracial sex and the pleasures she takes in her black body.”[80]

Is there a way to perform this sort of reading on race play? This is where the difficulties of S&M come in. While Freeman offers us tools to read race play as producing pleasure from historical oppression, the pleasure that Williams describes is very different from the pleasure that Nash reads from Jill’s body. Williams takes pleasure, not in her blackness, but rather in the seductive aspects of whiteness and debasement. She describes how as a child watching Roots, the television miniseries on slavery, she began to fantasize about the master: “I wondered if, possibly... just maybe... it wouldn’t be so bad if your master was ... nice.... And if he was handsome, then that would be kind of neat, too!”[81] This admiration of the Other manifests itself in her other fantasies as well, yet it is always mixed with bad feelings on her part. In her description of her fantasy with the Admiral, she finds herself transfixed and terrified by his penis: “I could not take my gaze from his hand wrapped around the enormous shaft thrusting aggressively from his lap.... I was sickened.”[82] This admixture of interracial eroticism and humiliation constitutes Williams’s experience of race play. She is not playing with her race as much as she is playing with the racial assumptions that she assumes others bring to the table. This much is made clear when she voices her difficulties with race play: “Playing with real-time fears and hatreds is hot for precisely the same reason it is risky: danger. Danger of slipping into a bad headspace. Danger of believing that your top is really a racist. Danger of believing that your bottom really is your inferior and has no intrinsic value, is less than human, because of their race.”[83] These statements indicate Williams’s interest in S&M as a form of objectification and humiliation. She wants to play at powerlessness without actually inhabiting that position. The danger is that because of race and gender her subjectivity may become flattened, so that her desires are read not as desires particular to her but as a collapse of the historical script. For Williams, race play is not only about blackness but about power. She wants to retain her individual desire to submit and to play. The scripts of her racial and gender identity, however, are things that she cannot avoid; and so, Williams writes, “I do ‘race play’ whether or not I want to.”[84]

We might profitably think about race play as a form of disidentification. Like racial iconography, disidentification is another hermeneutic that helps us read difference. According to José Esteban Muñoz, “Disidentification can be understood as a way of shuffling back and forth between reception and production.”[85] Disidentification is useful in this scenario because it captures the interplay between an external assignment of identity and an internal response to that identity formation. The term captures the affective dissonance that comes with forms of partial identification. In describing the work of various queer minority performance artists, Muñoz uses disidentification to describe modes of agency that subjects who “are hailed by more than one minority identity component... [and] encounter obstacles in enacting identifications” possess.[86] This space of conflict is where “discourses of essentialism and constructivism short-circuit.”[87] If race play for Williams is where racial essence meets sadomasochistic sexual preferences, we can identify it as a mode of disidentification. Williams’s blackness and interest in S&M are identities at odds with each other, yet race play allows her to bring them together in order to complicate the experience of both. What S&M means is changed by her participation because the racial element is inescapable. Likewise, her relationship to race is complicated by her attachment to a performance of powerlessness.

Not only does the frame of disidentification help us to see how Williams’s performances of S&M are constrained by her legibility as a black woman, but it allows us to focus on the ways that her identity is considered a public matter.[88] The public nature of the black body is something that Nash considers at length in her discussion of racial iconography: “The regulation of the black female body has rendered it a public site, a space onto which social debates and collective anxieties about morality, religion, policy, and the state are inscribed.”[89] Nash goes on to describe the confluence of antipornography feminism and black feminism as manifesting itself in unpacking this public black body as overexposed and subject to racial fetishization. Race play mobilizes the visibility of Williams’s body and channels it into a different type of public performance. At the same time, race play may allow her to enact a certain freedom vis-à-vis race, a freedom that Muñoz might describe as the ability to imagine transformative politics and counterpublics.

Disidentification is also precarious. The stigma surrounding race play is such that although Williams is producing an act of radical resignification, she is read as adhering to particular essential categories. This reading of Williams as performing not disidentification but false consciousness is precisely the difficulty that we encountered when discussing the problem that radical feminists have with lesbian S&M in general and what Alice Walker and Audre Lorde describe with regard to race play in particular. In this reading, we return to the flattening of the black female subject into the fleshy limit of theory. Williams’s status as a black woman shapes the ways that she is perceived and how she interacts with others. Most pressingly, it produces her as a member of a category, which limits her ability to be read as possessing individual agency. This is the other side to disidentification. If S&M is Williams’s mode of performing the self, it can also be read as symptomatic of her identity as a black woman. The opacity of her subject position produces this confusion and renders her (and race play) threatening.

There, is, however, another aspect of critique in Williams’s performance of race play: even as her performances of self may be difficult to disentangle from marginalization, she uses the practice to illuminate the workings of racialization in general. In her analysis of “play with racial, ethnic, and national themes,” Margot Weiss argues that Williams’s play with race is as much about her own pleasure as it is about “mak[ing] visible, and thus available for reimagining, the normally invisible construction of racialized belonging.”[90] In describing Williams’s wish to add realism to the slave auctions staged by the Society of Janus, Weiss underscores the link between slavery, S&M culture, and race that Williams wishes to trouble. She writes, “For her, the realism of the scene— dragging in unwilling slaves, stripping, and inspecting them while they scream not to be separated from their children—would ‘rock people’s worlds’: intervene in the social world by smacking it ‘upside the head.’”[91] Here, we see that Williams’s intervention into history, pleasure, and violence is akin to but different from Kara Walker’s. While Walker troubles identification with slavery and our reading of the past, Williams wants to make visible the ways that race and racial histories structure domination and submission and the pleasures that they might provide. Weiss writes, “By dramatizing, often spectacularly, the social meanings of race, the invisibility of whiteness (as race), and the trace of a US history of slavery, this play provides an opportunity to challenge the colorblind white social logics that produce and justify the community.”[92] Ultimately, race play calls attention to the larger framing of blackness.

Framing Race

In this way, Mollena’s SM is less about sex-desire as a personal, private, affective relation and more about sexual performance as a social, cultural, and public dramatization of power, a dramatization that forces SM practitioners to reflect on their eroticization of and reliance on racialized national belonging. Making the referents of a scene public and generating an affective response can, she hopes, be educational; her desire is to create scenes that demand a public recognition of what is normally unspoken or unseen, by making people connect what they do in a scene with their own history, a larger national history.[93]

But if we accept, as I think we must, that part of what Walker’s work takes on is the transmission and effects of profound interracial (sexual) violence (as well as intraracial violence) in, for example, The End of Uncle Tom and The Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, from which the vignette of the four women/girls is drawn, how are we to read these scenes as scenes of slavery (and its traumatic return) without those white characters who are its primary agents (master, mistress, young master, young mistress) and their agents (driver, overseer)? ... Without the white characters we see nonchalance and not horror in these black performances; without the white characters and with no memory of the conditions under which such acts are compelled, the excessive sex and violence that we see might well be described as that phenomenon called “black-on-black crime.”[94]

I begin this final section with these two extended discussions of Mollena Williams and Kara Walker because they both illuminate the ways that playing with race and playing with history extend beyond the purview of an examination of blackness. In the first, Weiss describes Williams’s commitment to S&M as a form of political play in which she aims to make visible the connection between simulations of domination and histories of race. In the second, Sharpe draws attention to the white figures in Walker’s tableaux to illuminate the fact that her portrayals of the violence of slavery are not complete without a consideration of the interracial dynamics at work in the institution. This fact, which is frequently forgotten, alters readings of the images as merely performances of degradation and shows them to illuminate the monstrosity of slavery as an institution. In both of these narratives, masochism (both in its S&M incarnation and in its looser sense) functions as a way to draw attention to the framing of race more broadly. It attempts to show how everyone, not just black women, is embedded in the historical narrative put forth by slavery.

While this reading of masochism is politically salient, it arguably produces an erasure of black female subjectivity and agency. Weiss goes so far as to remove Williams’s performance of S&M from the realm of “sex-desire as a personal, private, affective relation,” and Sharpe’s attention to the white figures in Walker’s work illuminates the black figures’ lack of agency. Rather than see this as furthering Spillers’s discussion of the impossibility of black female sexuality, however, I will take this opportunity to look at the conditions that produce that impossibility. By doing this, I examine the frame that surrounds both the black and white figures. In this way, I am taking up Chandan Reddy’s argument that landscape “is a social space constituted through and against the complex networks and webs of social relations that characterize the racialized industrial mode of production.”[95]

Here, I am talking about the background for these performances of masochism. In Walkers case, this means examining the stray houses and tufts of nature that dot the background of the tableaux as well as the white gallery walls that they are mounted on. Both offer ways for us to interpret how masochism is functioning in this context. In his examination of Walker’s paintings, English foregrounds Walker’s use of landscape, which he argues is “a type of representational enactment, an interested act of social vision.”[96] English argues that Walker’s images participate in the “picturings and erasures, desires and violences that are endemic to culture formation.”[97] Walker’s works achieve this, English argues, by illuminating the artifice of the tableaux that they are meant to represent. They commemorate violence, which “point[s] to the capaciousness of landscape, as an idiom, to absorb and amplify the power of rhetorical, political, and historical representations.”[98] That is to say, Walker’s tableaux reveal the failures at the heart of America; they show that the underside is actually constitutive of the ideology. In this way, Walker’s play with landscape reinforces the message that her figures send, but what of the white gallery walls?

Most literally, the gallery walls provide the conditions of visibility for Walker’s work. The galleries, as arms of the artistic establishment, have deemed Walker’s art to have artistic merit and to be worthy of display, backing up that commitment with physical space, financial support, and cultural approval. What this institutionalization of the work calls forth, however, is a longer, larger history of the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in America. While that topic is far too large to be broached here, the way it intersects with the backdrop of S&M is one of the larger stakes of this project. As I have worked through various local histories of S&M and masochism, the terms shift and the underlying sensations change, but there is one constant—its embeddedness in a discourse that tethers subjectivity, sexuality, and agency. Masochism cannot be theorized outside of this frame.

Whether masochism is connected to colonialism, patriarchy, racialization, or constructions of the self, it relies on a logic that makes sexuality, subjectivity, and agency almost interchangeable terms. While I discussed this conflation briefly at the beginning of this chapter, here I would like to argue that masochism is bound up in this nexus of subjectivity, agency, and sexuality because of its formation through the sciences of sexuality. As Michel Foucault points out in History of Sexuality, overlapping ideologies linking the construction of sexuality with the discourse on the self and the management of populations with racialized hierarchies are emblematic of our contemporary investments in sexuality as a nexus of power. The sciences of sexuality are one of the instruments by which this power is reified. We see this most clearly in the first chapter’s history of reading masochism as an exceptional and subversive practice, but all of the local histories of masochism that fill these pages also offer testament to these commitments by illuminating how these discourses are attached to particular iterations of masochism and particular sensations.

In the historical trajectories that I have traced, masochism does not emerge prior to sexology or psychoanalysis, and in each of the local histories we can see the imprint of this relationship between these sciences and the concept. While these connections are overt in the relationships between Sigmund Freud and Frantz Fanon, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and radical feminist arguments against S&M, and Bob Flanagan’s casual use of psychoanalysis, they also underlie the formations of masochism at work in The Story of O, The Second Sex, and Gilles Deleuze’s theories of masochism. Both Pauline Reage and Simone de Beauvoir write against the conventional scientific scripting of female passivity as natural and female masochism as an aberration, but they simultaneously fuse sexuality with agency and subjectivity. As I argued earlier, O submits so that she gains recognition as a subject, and Beauvoir argues that a woman’s path to transcendence (autonomous subjectivity) is economic independence or an authentic (mutual) sexuality. Deleuze formulates his early theories on masochism explicitly against Freudian ideas by putting women in the position of power; these narratives culminate in the “new man,” a persona in which sexuality, agency, and subjectivity are fused to the degree that he emerges as almost sadistic. Deleuze’s later theorization of masochism as a mode of desubjectification differs from this, but I will deal with it separately.

We might, then, ask how we might begin to shift frames of knowledge so that it is possible to think about black female masochism and produce an agential black female sexuality. In some ways, however, I wonder if asking that question tethers us further to a biopolitical logic. We would still be stuck in a world where some are marked by surfaces and flatness. Alternatively, we might ask how else to think about sexuality, thereby truly engaging Foucault’s project to find resistance in “bodies and pleasures.” We have several options for theorizing agency outside of sexuality and subjectivity. One of them is Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of assemblages, and the other is Audre Lorde’s formulation of the erotic. In the previous chapter I discuss both of these concepts at length, and both have appeal for several reasons. Deleuze and Guattari’s portrait of power as diffuse and spread around various components of an assemblage (recalling here that they describe the masochist as a form of becoming-animal in which masochist, mistress, saddle, and whip collaboratively desire to become-horse) opens us to thinking about desire in an alternate vocabulary to that of subjectivity and sexuality. But it is an uncontrollable entity; these processes of opening desire can easily be attached to any number of political projects and can work to obscure black female sexuality on other terms. Indeed, my usage of assemblages as part of my practice of empathetic reading speaks precisely to this openness. This leaves us with Lorde’s formulation of the erotic, which, as I argued previously has resonances with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage. The notable differences are that Lorde’s erotic destabilizes subjectivity by introducing the plural subject, who is explicitly political and agential. Bound through affect, this subject is often reduced to a homogenous, flat, public subject, but this does not have to be the case. We could consider the plural subject, hailed by the erotic on the register of multiplicity. While Lorde does not delve into this possibility because she is invested in the erotic as a space for black women, I conclude this book by asking what it would take to maintain the multiplicity of the erotic.[99] To produce an erotic multiplicity that could enliven not only black female bodies but others, I suggest we shift sensational registers and, to this end, think of the erotic as a polyphony of voices, thereby activating Lorde’s description of erotic connection as “stretch[ing my body] to music and open[ing] into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms.”[100]

Here, I turn to Nina Simone’s song “I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Recorded for her 1970 album Black Gold, it is a medley of two different songs from Galt MacDermot’s 1968 musical Hair, suturing them together to form a narrative arc of pain and empowerment. The fast tempo drives the listener through the track while Simone’s low voice registers the emotional rollercoaster that she takes us on.

I ain’t got no home, ain’t got no shoes
Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class
Ain’t got no skirts, ain’t got no sweater
Ain’t got no perfume, ain’t got no bed

Ain't got no mind

Ain't got no mother, ain't got no culture
Ain't got no friends, ain't got no schooling
Ain't got no love, ain't got no name
Ain't got no ticket, ain't got no token
Ain't got no God

And what have I got?
Why am I alive anyway?
Yeah, what have I got
Nobody can take away?

Got my hair, got my head
Got my brains, got my ears
Got my eyes, got my nose
Got my mouth, I got my smile
I got my tongue, got my chin
Got my neck, got my boobs
Got my heart, got my soul
Got my back, I got my sex

I got my arms, got my hands
Got my fingers, got my legs
Got my feet, got my toes
Got my liver, got my blood

I've got life, I've got my freedom
I've got the life

I've got the life
And I'm gonna keep it
I've got the life
And nobody's gonna take it away
I've got the life

First, Simone sings of material lack—lack of clothes, money, and home. Digging deeper, she sings of a lack of mother, love, and religion. Instead of despairing, however, she turns inward to find that what she has left is her body, her flesh. Most notably she has her heart, her soul, her sex, and her freedom. In this instance Simone reterritorializes her flesh. She takes back her body from a landscape of lack and flatness. She enacts what Fred Moten describes as “an erotics of the cut,” which is “blurred, dying life; liberatory, improvisatory, damaged love; freedom drive.”[101] She’s got the life and we have her voice, a voice that breathes life, subjectivity, and possibility into the frame. When she sings we can hear how flesh and sensation matter.


[1] English, “New Context,” 73–74.

[2] Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable, 38.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman, 83.

[5] Joselit, “Notes on Surface.”

[6] English, “New Context,” 89.

[7] Holland, Erotic Life of Racism, 66.

[8] Combahee River Collective, “Black Feminist Statement,” 13.

[9] Nash, “Home Truths.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Holland, Erotic Life of Racism, 66.

[12] Puar, “I Would Rather Be.”

[13] Holland, Erotic Life of Racism, 78.

[14] Henderson, Scarring the Black Body.

[15] Spillers, “Mama’s Baby,” 67.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Scott outlines the way these factors play into black masculinity in Extravagant Abjection.

[18] Spillers, “Mama’s Baby,” 80.

[19] Spillers, “Interstices,” 76.

[20] Ibid., 78.

[21] Hammonds takes up the silence surrounding black female sexuality in her essay “Black (W)holes.”

[22] For a more complete analysis of black feminism’s argument that representation is pernicious and “collectively presumes the meaning of the black female body in the visual field, assuming that representation is a site that neces- sarily injures black women,” see Nash, Black Body in Ecstasy.

[23] Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs.”

[24] Nash, “Strange Bedfellows,” 57.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Betty Saar, quoted in English, “New Context,” 78.

[27] Michael Harris, quoted in Dalton, “Past Is Prologue.”

[28] English, “New Context,” 81.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Kara Walker, quoted in Saltz, “Kara Walker,” 84.

[31] English, “New Context,” 84.

[32] Ibid., 75.

[33] Ibid., 87.

[34] Walker, quoted in English, “New Context,” 87.

[35] Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable, 43.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 47.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Here we might think of Butler’s discussion of agency in Gender Trouble.

[40] Kara Walker, quoted in Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman, 98.

[41] Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies, 164.

[42] Ibid., 157.

[43] Ibid., 166.

[44] Ibid., 168.

[45] Scott, Extravagant Abjection, 155.

[46] Ibid., 163.

[47] Ibid., 165.

[48] Ibid., 165–66.

[49] Ibid., 167.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] E. Freeman, Time Binds, 137.

[53] Ibid., 144.

[54] Ibid., 150.

[55] Ibid. 144.

[56] Ibid., 168.

[57] Ibid.

[58] W. Johnson, “Time and Revolution.”

[59] Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies, 123.

[60] Ibid., 117.

[61] Ibid., 123.

[62] Ibid., 121.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Scott, Extravagant Abjection, 155.

[65] Ibid., 168.

[66] Ibid., 171.

[67] Walker, “Can This Sadomasochism Be Saved?,” 207.

[68] Ibid., 208.

[69] Lorde, “Interview with Audre Lorde,” 68.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid., 70.

[72] Williams, “Interview with the Perverted Negress.”

[73] In an interview with racialicious, a website dedicated to critical examinations of race, Williams describes the varieties of Race Play:

We in the US like to think we have cornered the market on racial politics. So, obviously, people go for Antebellum South slavery stuff. But even there, there are many variations: you can have the White master/Black slave thing. You can have a “tables-turned” scenario, with a slave seducing the master, blackmailing them. The “Mandingo” black stud thing. And let us not forget we [Black folks] owned one another. And let us not forget the skin color caste system! “High yellow” versus dark skinned. . . .
This expands to a lot of sins in this country: Whites [and] Native Americans; the internment camps where we packed up Japanese Americans.
But it isn’t just us. . . . How about a captured Iraqi prisoner tortured by Marines? Or a Sinn Féin extremist being interrogated by a rogue SIS agent? Or a dark skinned Indian person avenging themselves on a lighter-skinned higher-caste individual? North [and] South Koreans. Hutu [and] Tutsi. . . .
The only limit is your imagination.
This is part of the reason I boggle at the knee-jerk reaction people have. The fact that something is scary, dangerous, real: why does this mean you should not explore it? For fuck’s sake, driving a car is danger- ous. Falling in love is dangerous. Understanding that part of the draw, to me, of BDSM is that it tests my fortitude in this body and in this mind and with this heat is what keeps me doing it. How the fuck am I going to let something stop me because it is scary? (Ibid.)

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Williams, “BDSM,” 69.

[77] Nash, “Strange Bedfellows,” 64.

[78] Ibid, 67.

[79] Ibid., 68.

[80] Ibid., 69.

[81] Williams, “BDSM,” 63.

[82] Ibid., 66.

[83] Ibid., 72.

[84] Ibid., 70.

[85] Muñoz, Disidentifications, 25.

[86] Ibid., 8.

[87] Ibid., 6.

[88] Warner discusses the public life of marginalized subjects in “Mass Public.”

[89] Nash, “Strange Bedfellows,” 57.

[90] Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure, 189–90.

[91] Ibid., 210.

[92] Ibid., 211.

[93] Ibid., 217.

[94] Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies, 176.

[95] Reddy, Freedom with Violence, 89.

[96] English, “New Context,” 96.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Ibid., 101.

[99] To a certain degree I see this project in conversation with José Esteban Muñoz’s theorization of the brown commons.

[100] Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” 56.

[101] Moten, In the Break, 26.

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Arts + Justice

Approaching justice from the perspective of arts and culture enables us to attend to its affective, embodied, social, and political dimensions, thus bringing together a range of cross-disciplinary dialogues.


In this contemporary world of violent protests, internecine war, cries for food and peace, in which whole desert cities are thrown up to shelter the dispossessed, abandoned, terrified populations running for their lives and the breath of their children, what are we (the so-called civilized) to do?…This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art. (Toni Morrison, 2015)

Justice, a capacious conceptual category, impacts lives in quotidian and spectacular ways, influencing political institutions, impacting social relations, and inscribing bodies with deeply ingrained habits of thought. Approaching justice from the perspective of arts and culture enables us to attend to its affective, embodied, social, and political dimensions, thus bringing together a range of cross-disciplinary dialogues. While Arts and Justice began with a concentrated effort to coalesce around the particular crises of mass incarceration, privacy and surveillance, border politics, and aesthetics of protests that haunt a broken democracy, we already invite future conversations that exceed the police state, such as on climate justice, ecofeminism, and indigenous praxis. Out of these injustices, we hope to materialize a more just future. 

The Arts + Justice Colloquy explores the relationship between the arts and justice using the arts to understand the symbiotic cultural life of law: culture shapes law and laws determine cultural practices. The arts are frequently celebrated for their capacity to evoke empathy and activate ethical responsibility. While artists have turned to forms of cultural expression to express a sense of voicelessness, this colloquy cautions against romantic celebrations of arts as panacea for social suffering. Cultural productions not only function as an antidote to injustice but can entrench dominant ideologies. Conversely, we are critical of an almost reflexive suspicion of law, which excoriates law as an a priori terrain of injustice, perpetuating existing discriminations. Collectively, these offerings imagine the legal terrain as culturally constituted, suffused with its own practices, and as a powerful force shaping our subjectivity, social relations, and political institutions. Releasing law from text and realizing it in performance provides a kinetic, dynamic mode of thinking about legal scripts activated in embodied and aesthetic form. 

Scholarship on justice in the humanities has tended to cluster around "law and literature" formulations, which, while generative, are also limited in their purview. The focus on law-as-text underestimates the ways in which legal statutes determine and script live, embodied action; law awaits its full realization when it is released from text and realized in performance. To this end, performance provides a kinetic and dynamic mode of thinking about legal scripts that are activated in performance. These offerings expand beyond the frame to include exciting new work in performance studies, art history, music and sound studies, affect theory, critical race theory, new materialism, environmental humanities and queer theory.  

These offerings reflect the guiding thoughts of the Arts + Justice Research Workshop  as sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center from 2020 to 2022 and coordinated by Professor Jisha Menon and graduate student Anna Jayne Kimmel, alongside an infinite team of supporting students, faculty, staff and community members. The series has been co-sponsored by: the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, and the Stanford Arts Institute.

Morrison, Toni. "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear." The Nation. March 23, 2015. Web.

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