Funk. It is multisensory and multidimensional philosophy used in conjunction with the erotic, eroticism, and black erotica. It is the affect that shapes film, performance, sound, food, technology, drugs, energy, time, and the seeds of revolutionary ideas for black movements. But funk is also an experience to feel, to hear, to touch and taste, and in Funk the Erotic , L. H. Stallings uses funk in all its iterations as an innovation in black studies. Stallings uses funk to highlight the importance of the erotic and eroticism in Black cultural and political movements, debunking "the truth of sex" and its histories. Brandishing funk as a theoretical tool, Stallings argues that Western theories of the erotic fail as universally applicable terms or philosophies, and thus lack utility in discussions of black bodies, subjects, and culture. In considering the Victorian concept of freak in black funk, Stallings proposes that black artists across all media have fashioned a tradition that embraces the superfreak, sexual guerrilla, sexual magic, mama's porn, black trans narratives, and sex work in a post-human subject position. Their goal: to ensure survival and evolution in a world that exploits black bodies in capitalist endeavors, imperialism, and colonization. Revitalizing and wide-ranging, Funk the Erotic offers a needed examination of black sexual cultures, a discursive evolution of black ideas about eroticism, a critique of work society, a reexamination of love, and an articulation of the body in black movements.
About the Author
L.H. Stallings is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park.
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Funk the Erotic
Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures
By L. H. Stallings
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Sexual Magic and Funky Black Freaks in nineteenth-Century Black literature
What is called the imagination (from image, magi, magic, magician, etc.) is a practical vector from the soul. It stores all data, and can be called on to solve all our "problems." The imagination is the projection of ourselves past our sense of ourselves as "things." Imagination (image) is all possibility, because from the image, the initial circumscribed energy, any use (idea) is possible. And so begins that image's use in the world. Possibility is what moves us.
— Amiri Baraka
I believe that the healing, liberating, and rejuvenating resources we need for the planet and ourselves are restored within Black Funk.
In various iterations of funk music, we find a recurring theme and subject that many black critical traditions ignore or remain wary of — sex work and sex workers, or as I am claiming, antiwork sexual activity and funky black freaks. From James Brown and Parliament (and Funkadelic) to a great deal of hip-hop, the representation of sexual activity as trade becomes a critique of domesticity's regulation of gender and sexuality, and therefore capitalism's organizational influence on US society. Representations vacillate between depicting this activity as waged sexual labor, unwaged domestic labor, or erotic play meant for sexual leisure. From James Brown's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," a song that addresses technology, capitalism, kinesthetics, and the automation of mankind, to Whodini's articulation of the everyday spectacular and hidden performances of freakdom in "The Freaks Come Out at Night," and ending with Lil Wayne's unforgettable refrain "what's a goon to a goblin," there remains a conscious disidentification with the human in contemporary black cultural narratives. These narratives hail from a specific lineage that has been depoliticized by white Western histories of sex, work, and spirituality. This depoliticization and misrecognition of the particular historical moment(s) relevant to funk's creation of freak as subject is an act of sexual pacifism, one specifically linked to colonialism and imperialism's sexual violence and sexual terrorism. The erasure of funk's freak impedes undoing the coloniality of being/truth/power/freedom.
This chapter utilizes funk's ideologies about labor, leisure, and imagination to counteract colonial meanings of freak because black funk freakery remains a significant black intervention on white America's definition of sex, work, and sex work. By highlighting the black revision of freak in the written narratives of three nineteenth-century black subjects, occultist/clairvoyant/sex magician Paschal Beverly Randolph and conjoined twins Christine and Millie McKoy, we can discern how black culture has redefined its humanity with a criteria of difference that has been underwritten for some time now — funk's immaterial affirmation of difference rather than a biological negation of difference. I detail how funky black freaks understand sexuality and sexual difference as originating elsewhere; that is, outside the body. On this ethereal plane, gender or sexual difference does not equate with or become sexual deviance as it does in sexology. These representations of sexual difference then provide an alternative narrative about sexuality, work, and morality that plays out in how black men and women use their bodies in slavery and freedom.
There has been a great deal of criticism about the appropriative use of freak or freaks in black American culture, with critics assuming such use accepts a hypersexualization of black bodies. Yet, long before Patricia Hill Collins engaged how "the term freak travels in the new racism" and argued that "the differing meanings associated with the term freak are situated at the crossroads of colonialism, science, and entertainment,"2 nineteenth-century black narratives were creating a literary tradition of funk that would deploy the affects of sexual pleasure and corporeal displays to situate the freak at the crossroads of resistance, spiritual transcendence, freedom, and art and entertainment. As this chapter demonstrates, funky black freaks should not be equated with Western science and modernity's freak and its implicit biological and moral deviance created within the institution of slavery. Abdur-Rahman argues that, "despite the importance of late-nineteenth-century medical and legal discourses, which founded theories of sexual perversion and its punitive consequences, racial slavery provided the background — and the testing ground — for the emergence and articulation of those theories" (27). In agreement with her claim, I submit that although slavery may have provided the testing ground for sexual deviance and deviants, it was freedom, imagination, and imagining freedom as more than social and political and difference beyond the biological that led New World blacks to shift the definition of freak for their future living and to orchestrate sexuality as something other than ars erotica or scientia sexualis.
Fucking has always been a leisure activity with functional and aesthetic value, but it was civilization and then modernity's manifest destiny that tasked it with nation building and made it into a labor-intensive model of production and reproduction. Fortunately, lyrics such as James Brown's "Get up / Get on up / Stay on the scene / Like a sex machine" demonstrate how funk destabilizes the nature versus culture divide that rationalizes slavery and neoslavery if an antiwork approach and postwork imagination are maintained. It does so by sonically and lyrically recounting the organic pleasures of the body to counter capitalism's threat to consume for profit alone. Brown invokes the belief that the black body can be the site of both energy (power) and imagination. The sex machine works, but the dancing and fucking are individual labors and exalt uses of the body deemed excessive, leisurely, and useless in the human world. Reading the lyrics alone does not convey such meaning, for the beat and an Otherly human response to it keeps the subject from becoming a sex machine. While being like a sex machine, the individual's movement acts against future and unforeseen colonizing uses of the body: these inhuman actions form a movement against the oppressive regimes of the human's work world. These exterior and interior movements have been read as conjure and magic in black America. In addition to Amiri Baraka's reading of magic and imagination, Herukhuti's Conjuring Black Funk remarks upon funk as magic. Funky black freaks have always understood their identity, existence, becoming, and movement throughout many worlds as originating in magic as defined and determined by Baraka and Herukhuti. Funk's temporal displacement of a present work subject for a future unknowable subject led to the black reinvention of freak.
These moments of magic and play are historically shaped by, not originating in, black people's involuntary participation in what legal scholar Adrienne Davis terms the "sexual economy of slavery," as well as an implicit materialist valuation of funky black freaks in the nineteenth century rather than an acceptance of the stigmatized and criminalized white prostitute. Davis's theory of the sexual economy of slavery helps us "understand our collective sexual histories and then confront our choices, realizing that each of us makes different ones." Freaks have a history in this economy that differs from slaves and prostitutes. Writings by Randolph and the McKoys are counternarratives to other black antebellum autobiographies and slave narratives about being human. What makes a black individual a freak during the sexual economy of slavery is his or her disidentification with a particular genre of the human rather than Western medical and scientific writing of corporeal difference. Because the authors of these narratives cannot depoliticize work or sex, their engagement with sexuality and leisure culture reveals black cultural knowledge about the existence of multiple sex industries that have existed since the founding of this country into our present time and the negotiation of those industries using alternative systems of knowledge. They propose a resistance to the science on race and sexuality that would write them as deviant, disordered, dysfunctional, or diseased.
The United States and its imperialist agenda have a history of simultaneously valuing human labor through a Protestant work ethic while forcing Africans and their descendants to provide free or cheap labor. The sexual economy of slavery's ethical and moral contradictions surrounding work and sex are why black people have repeatedly struggled to submit to a work ethic and a politics of representation derived from an idea of the human that could not make sense of their corporeal and cultural differences or surviving ideologies from African metaphysics. Therefore, this chapter thinks through the interior lives of those black people who might be called sex workers. From there we can ascertain how black freaks' cultural productions subvert facts of science and transgresses the so-called truths of identity politics. An examination of the freak's ontology and phenomenology in black America illustrates the creation of a subject resistant to the private/public split of sexuality and the depoliticization of work. What would the study of prostitution and sex work look like if it were not so interested in rescuing and securing the purity of white women reasoned as vitally important to projects of nationalism and imperialism?
Like a Sex Machine: The Sexual Economy of Slavery and a Phenomenology of Black Funk Freakery
The term sex work upholds the public/private binary that makes all kinds of repressive and white supremacist regimes possible in regard to gender and sexuality. The most amenable way to secure white womanhood, as Bernstein explains, is by framing sexuality as a private matter:
By the end of the nineteenth century, two grand scientific enterprises were emerging side by side — sociology and sexology — destined to professionalize as two autonomous disciplines. Together, these two modernist projects would serve to institutionalize a common understanding regarding the distinction between life's social and biological realms, creating a framework which placed sexuality outside of the social sphere. (22)
Bernstein's use of enterprise signifies the merging of sciences with market ventures as sex is privatized. While science was used to create strategies to privatize sexuality, Kathi Weeks explains how industry was privatizing work: "But there are additional mechanisms that secure what I am calling work's privatization. One is its reification: the fact that at present one must work to 'earn a living' is taken as part of the natural order rather than as a social convention" (3). Specific bodies, however, can and will interrupt this reification. Current political actions that term the sexual bartering of men and women as sex work do so to access privileges that might come with being viewed as legitimate contributors to society. However, this triple privatization and the privileges derived from them can only be for humans and not their Others since the false divide between the public and private sphere has been historically vexed when the bodies or workers are not white.
Davis's work perceptively captures the history and precariousness of the split when it attempts to manage black bodies:
The idea of a "sexual economy of slavery" may seem odd on first impression. We divide our economic relationships in the workplace from our intimate family interactions. We view these relations as taking place in two segregated spheres: the market and our intimate lives. It is in this latter space that we feel enabled to make our decisions, conduct our lives, love our families. We may experience dissonances when sex and economics are juxtaposed. ... But the cases and rules I will examine expose a different relationship between sex and markets for enslaved black women.
Davis later explains how there was seldom any separation of sex and market for enslaved black women because their bodies were used as modes of production and modes of reproduction (113), but her evaluation opens up an entirely new conversation on how all Americans should rethink the use of public and private regulation of sexual pleasure and expression. Beginning with the worker-slave, as opposed to the master-legislator, Davis reveals the dimensions of private and public spheres from a position previously deemed inconsequential — the slave's — to produce another history of sexuality.
The slave, freak, and the sex worker are three subjects linked by stunted readings of difference, in addition to the historical subjugation, stigmatization, and criminalization of their bodies in the West. With an understanding of the relevance of the sexual economy of slavery, Kempadoo's exploration of transactional relationships, and Hortense Spillers's theory that all slaves become gender neutral, it becomes more apparent why black culture would produce an alternative to the prostitute and prostitution: to expose the white supremacist fantasy of work as natural and to thwart human ethics and morality that justify slavery, colonization, and sexual terrorism. Staying gendered within the assignments of man and woman and accepting the boundary between public and private with work ethic and family would make it difficult for slaves and free black people to ever speak of their own intimate lives or their own right to be and become free. Funk's freakery introduced unique causality and agency that would provide rhetoric for black intimate lives.
Although this chapter does not provide a history of freak shows and race, it does briefly submit the relevancy of recognizing the freak show as an enterprise operating parallel to slave auctions and a burgeoning asexual sexual industry of Western medicine that stressed exhibition and exploitation for the sake of producing knowledge and learning. In addition, we must also remember that traveling tent shows, carnivals, and freak shows did not showcase only physical human anomalies. Each site deployed similar aesthetics and strategies, but black participants would glean maneuverable differences, whether on the slave block or the stage, and devise new aesthetics and strategies to subvert the impact of commercial economies on their families. Benjamin Reiss's The Showman and the Slave and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's Staring do offer analyses of freaks away from the freak shows and with some attention to race, but I am interested in how black transaesthetics with the body demonstrate antiwork activity and postwork imagination. Because free blacks and black slaves were possible actors and victims in all shows, their perceptions warrant further exploration.
At the same time that freak shows were becoming a common cultural phenomenon, occultism in the United States was growing and the field of teratology (the science of studying monsters) was being founded by Isidore Geoffroy SaintHilaire on the basis that "monsters are also normal beings, or rather, there are no monsters, and nature is one whole." At the core of this spiritualism and science was a determination of what is outside the course of nature and what is against the course of nature. Monsters were considered outside the course of nature (unnatural), while marvels were determined to be against nature (supernatural). Yet once critics ask what constitutes nature and what elements determine outside or against nature, we comprehend that subjective judgment is being made based on Western discourses of what it means to be human, to be man: "Stone Age cave drawings record the birth of the mysterious and marvelous bodies the Greeks and early scientists would later call 'monsters,' the culture of P. T. Barnum would call 'freaks,' and now we call 'the congenitally physically disabled.'" These are discourses that have created divides between a human and nonhuman world that are not applicable to all societies. As Robert Farris Thompson reminds us, West African traditions of tricksters deem it useful to rethink Western medicines and popular culture representations of freaks: "As a matter of fact, both Eshu and Osanyin share the attribute of one-leggedness, and like Eshu, Osanyin was once a prince." Eshu and Osanyin read as minor deities or royalty elsewhere would be read as medically and scientifically deformed and inferior. Funk's freaks challenge inclinations that would privatize their corporeal difference in the service of Western imperialism and white supremacy to remind us that "beyond voyeurism and fine art, freaks provide ready access to some essential truths about the potential within each of us."
Excerpted from Funk the Erotic by L. H. Stallings. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Freaks, Sacred Subjectivity, And Public Spheres
1 Sexual Magic and Funky Black Freaks in Nineteenth-Century Black Literature 33
2 In Search of Our Mama's Porn: Genealogies of Black Women's Sexual Guerrilla Tactics 59
3 "Make Ya Holler You've Had Enough": Neutralizing Masculine Privilege with BDSM and Sex Work 88
4 Marvelous Stank Matter: The End of Monogamy, the Marriage Crisis, and Ethical Slutting 122
Part 2 Superfreaks And Sites of Memory
5 Sexuality as a Site of Memory and the Metaphysical Dilemma of Being a Colored Girl 149
6 From the Freaks of Freaknik to the Freaks of Magic City: Black Women, Androgyny, Dance, and Profane Sites of Memory 176
7 Black Trans Narratives, Sex Work, and the Illusive Flesh 205
Conclusion: Funk Studies?The B-Side 235