Jasmine Gibson + Ra Malika Imhotep
Dedicated to Ntozake Shange
two writing-ass blk wimmin connected via email to discuss our relationship to drapetomania—“the disease causing negroes to run away.” one a mental health practitioner. the other phd student. both drawn to poetics as a medium of articulation. both kind of into black women performers in vintage porn. both curious about the other’s work.—Malika
….For the sake of introduction I’ll start with a brief disclosure of how I came into this piece (“Hysteric Drapetomaniac” in The Black Aesthetic Season II).
“Hysteric drapetomaniac” came from a real personal place of me grappling with my own mental health realities and how I kept seeing them mirrored back to me in the blk wimmin creators I held close to my heart (Nina Simone, Ntozake Shange, Lauryn Hill, to name the few I was thinking about early on). I began to wonder how my hypomania and my crying fits might be a product of inhabiting this unconquerable “metaphysical dilemma” that is “being alive, being a woman, and being colored.”1 Then just sitting with myself and my work (as a doctoral student in black studies) I was reminded that the desire to be free and black had been historically constructed as a mental illness and that to be a woman with feelings had also been diagnosed as mental defect. Yoking the two together made sense, I felt oddly at home in-between these made up labels. I literally wanted to print stickers and put them on all my things. To mark myself as part of this tribe I had made up by appropriating these racist and misogynist constructions. This desire to be free of something that was not my blackness or my femmeness but the structures that made it so i couldn’t see mysel(ves), couldn’t be whole. And these were all winter daydreams. Then the semester started and I was taking a course on Black performance theory and I found myself back there. I wrote a thing. And then unwrote it with more room for lyricism. And that’s what was published in The Black Aesthetic.
My first questions—where did you/do you find “drapetomania”? What do you hear when black folks say the word crazy?
I’m so sorry I’m late to respond. I’ve been thinking about your prompt. I don’t really envision anything concrete in what form this conversation will take but I’m excited to explore that with you. I see what you mean about holding space for the Black women and yourself in the historical ways in which the foundation of race and the psychiatric begin to form in the new petri dish of the Middle Passage and the Americas. There’s a certain “madness” to the process of racialization, it’s the feeling of being quartered and confined to an existence that you’ve “walked into” but the conversation is always changing around you and you need to “keep up.”
How I came to drapetomania was from a historical materialist perspective first, because of my politics and seeing how the Black Women in my own family dissociate or imbue the other Black women in my family with this ennui of anxiety, which is necessary for operating in the world as a Black woman. Then I came to understand drapetomania in work, thinking through the work of feminist theorist Hortense Spillers and Silvia Federici, when I worked as a case manager in the Bronx, and now as psychotherapist in Bushwick. I then started to think about this in theory pieces I wrote. I titled my chapbook Drapetomania, because I was thinking of the historic allostatic load that is inherited when you are a Black woman, and trying to explain that in poetic form.
Most of my patients are black and women, and they say “crazy” all the time, and I recognize that as a means of people trying to grapple with the immaterial things they’ve received from the world. When they say crazy they mean “instability” or “being unable to grasp” onto something stable that’s been placed out of range for them by external determinants. I see it as a starting point in order to talk about how emotional and and psychic vulnerability has been weaponized to discredit people, particularly other people that look like them and me. It’s an opportunity in the exercise of political education.
My question for you, what stood out for you with the piece (the antebellum Black lesbian pornographic photo spread that appears in “Hysteric Drapetomaniac”)? Is the weaponization of contact feigning for intimacy or is that what it is at all?
hmmm. “grappling with the immaterial things they’ve received” really resonates with me.
getting into the porn piece requires [another] bit of self-disclosure. I initially encountered the images as a tumblr post that has since been taken down. the blog was called “retro-fucking” and basically just shared images from vintage porn spreads. I think the first thing that caught me was the juxtaposition of lesbian desire and antebellum iconography. a lusty aunt jemima. so before I even confronted the obscenity, the pejorative, I was wrapped up in fantasy. Treva Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson have an article, “Searching for Climax,” which is kind of interrogating how (black women’s) pleasure is rendered unimaginable in the time of slavery and subsequent freedom. And i think my initial encounter with the image was very much me, this black woman in the isolation of her own bedroom engaging something I couldn’t believe had been thought up, performed, and captured. I tracked the image down, found the exact issue of Hustler they were published in and ordered it. The hard copy (complete with musty basement smell) kind of sullied much of the liberatory possibility the images held in my imagination.
Hustler was/is a notoriously crass pornographic publication. The tagline for the issue in question was “nothing is sacred” and there were several “nigger” and “jungle bunny” jokes peppered throughout the publication. Even the language given to contextualize the photo spread was a far cry away from the story the images told me that one night on tumblr.
But following some really paradigm shifting work on black sexual economies— L.H. Stallings’s Funk The Erotic, Jennifer Nash’s The Black Body in Ecstasy & Mirelle Miller-Young’s A Taste for Brown Sugar, Ariane Cruz’s The Color of Kink—I was working to hold space for the models in the shoot to be performing their own work and to hold space for my own erotic imaginary which meant allowing the things these images in isolation communicated to me to be valid and taking my gaze and all its black queer femme particularities seriously.
I wanted to read the images in a way that willfully displaced white phallic fantasy, so it wasn’t really about responding to the weaponization, but wanting to say something along the lines of, “The images are meant to stimulate and while I may not be of the number imagined in the initial production, by naming the thought they stimulate in me I am reclaiming a bit of what the framing of this encounter inside of my history is meant to falsify.”
I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between pleasure and mania. The erotic, the pornographic and the real. Thinking back to someone like Nina Simone whose insatiable sexual appetite is often discussed in a kind of unannounced parity with her mental health struggles. As a poet, as a professional, do pleasure/the erotic/the pornographic move anywhere (together or separate) in your work?
I like how in your previous email you describe how you found the images. I am a bit of a fan of vintage porn, especially with Black women performers. There’s something interesting about how Black women were framed at that time. Where you see a reckoning of the Black Power Movement kind of pushes this sexual and powerful Black woman to the front that isn’t on the front of a colonial card or joked about being raped. This Black woman is sure, she’s celestial, she’s hot and cannot be touched. It also produces a lot of vulnerability in the image of the Black woman. I think personally I like these images because in some narcissistic way I see my own body shape. My favorite is Lady Ernestine, she was a burlesque dancer, and there’s this beautiful picture of her with a boa and I think she became a body-builder.
Anyway, I think that on the flipside of this, magazines like Hustler took advantage of that and wanted to distill this more well-rounded take of Black women and sexuality to recenter it into the Jezebel during slavery looking for a fuck. Which is a white phallic fantasy where the agency of Black women is still under the heel of white masculine sexuality. Because outside of that view Black women are seen as objects that are just inflicted upon. Golems meant to awaken to a master’s call.
How I see this professionally is the lack of sexual education in Black and Brown communities. There is very little conversation about Black and Brown people actually enjoying their bodies, and understanding what they want emotionally, sexually, or psychologically from relationships. Conception is discussed as a punishment. Someone like Nina Simone is interesting to think about with her own sexuality because she was often demonized and pathologized for it. For Ms. Simone, what could’ve been seen as “oversexualization” could actually be seen as a negative coping mechanism that she had available to her. And particularly in her life, she was in an incredibly violent relationship with her husband where deprivation of personal freedoms, like having an actual place to feel physically and emotionally safe—of course you’re going to be seen as “oversexual” because it’s probably the only thing you do personally that makes you feel anything at all.
The erotic and pleasure are pretty prevalent in my work. I think they are prevalent because I thought there couldn’t be pleasure without pain, so I endlessly sought out pain to get pleasure. I was, and probably still am, inspired by this Bobby Womack quote: “Sly Stone once told me, ’Bobby, you fall in and out of love faster than anyone I know.’ I live for love. I’ve always been tortured by love. I don’t mind the pain. I want to be the king of pain.”
I’ve been proven wrong by that hypothesis and can love without pain. But I think that’s the challenge of wanting to love in this world as a Black women—wanting love in a world the doesn’t want to see you or believe you are worthy of love.