On September 27 & 28, 2013, I had the pleasure of attending, for the first time, the Black Sexual Economies conference that was held at Washington University Law in St. Louis. Although Black Studies and its various permutations – African American Studies, Africana Studies, African Diaspora Studies – have been institutionalized for at least 40 years, research in Black Sexuality has often been marginalized within the academy. This conference brought together some of the most influential scholars in the broad, heterogeneous area of Black Sexuality Studies: Cathy Cohen, Tricia Rose, E. Patrick Johnson, Rinaldo Walcott, and Indiana University’s very own Marlon Bailey and LaMonda Horton-Stallings, to name just a few. Key organizers, presenters and other participants represented a wide variety of disciplines and research interests, as well as being representative of academic institutions across the United States.
This was more than a conference, this was an experience. The emphasis was on mentorship, an often neglected and underestimated aspect of the academic environment, especially for scholars whose research is often viewed as risky, dangerous and taboo. The impetus of this conference was to provide a supportive intellectual environment for a new generation of scholars working in the overlapping areas of black/queer/trans/gender/diaspora/sexualities, opening up the now-institutionalized area of Gender and Sexuality studies, speaking to their blind spots, and creating much needed visibility around Black sexualities. While emphasizing the need to mentor younger scholars in this area, the key organizers, Mireilee Miller-Young and Adrienne Davis, were very aware of and acknowledged those scholars of an older generation, who had paved the way for us to do the kinds of research that we do. I felt as if I was part of a community, a community of scholars whom I could identify with and relate to. Community building can itself be a double-edged sword, especially when the idea of community can be exclusionary. However, the tone and atmosphere of this conference was one that celebrated and encouraged diversity – of people, for disciplines, of intellectual interests, of positions – emphasizing the potentialities of what a more progressive Black/Gender/Sexualities/Queer Studies project can look like. An important aspect of the conference was the validation of people’s research and what was most valuable was the ways in which more established scholars interacted with younger scholars, providing feedback and advice that was certainly aimed at enabling people to reach their fullest potential. Panel presentations, plenary sessions and workshops (pedagogy and methodologies) made this a holistic experience, grounding the conference in the very everyday experiences of learning how to navigate the academic institution.
Black cinema and visual culture definitely featured prominently amongst presenters. I was fortunate to present on a panel with two other scholars – Jennifer Nash and Ariane Cruz – working in the genre of pornography, an often marginalized and neglected area of research in Cinema/Film Studies. My paper was titled “Theatres of Transgression and Confession: Subverting Masculinities in Gay, Interracial, Bareback Pornography,” in which I explore representations of bareback sex between Black and White men, and argue that the association between barebacking and the death drive is insufficient to understand the complexities of this subculture. This was the natural association because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I suggest that barebacking needs to be theorized through the framework of futurity, one where the strict delineation between races and masculinities becomes increasingly blurred. While re-working this paper I am thinking about the relationship between sexual liberation and the potentialities for a new world order. The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive and has definitely allowed me to push my argument to the next level, as I prepare this paper for publication.
Jordache Ellapen is a Ph.D. student in the Department of American Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington. He works as a publications assistant with director Michael Martin at the Black Film Center/Archive.