the silence

By Scott Rappaport

Photo: Jim MacKenzie

In a New York Times commentary last year, UC Santa Cruz American studies professor Tricia Rose offered up a set of stunning statistics—while black women make up less than 15 percent of the female population in the United States, they represented 64 percent of all new AIDS cases among women in 2001. Simply put, a black woman in this country is 20 times more likely to develop AIDS than a white woman.

Why are AIDS/HIV levels rising at such an alarming rate among African American women? And why do so many black women who know about safe-sex practices decline to adopt them, putting their own lives at risk?

While there is no single answer to these questions, a widely praised new book by Rose offers a window into the intimate lives of everyday black women—and in the process, may provide at least a partial explanation for these catastrophic infection rates. In Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy, Rose begins to break down a culture of silence that she says has prevented many African American women from speaking openly about sex, love, and relationships.

Described as a "pioneering collection" by Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, and a "landmark book in black letters and scholarship" by renowned author Michael Eric Dyson, Longing To Tell presents 19 in-depth testimonies about sexuality and intimacy, told by black women who span a wide range of ages, educational levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Although the sexual lives of black women have been powerfully portrayed in fictional works such as Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Rose's book records the genuine experiences of ordinary African American women. "It's the first oral history of black women's sexuality ever in print," says Rose, the new chair of UC Santa Cruz's American Studies Department. "There are snippets of black women's tales here and there in other books, but no sustained oral narratives like Studs Terkel's work that chronicles the lives of ordinary Americans."

Rose takes issue with the widespread popular belief in this country—fueled in part by media images of assertive, sexy, and outspoken black hip-hop and film stars—that African American women are more comfortable than whites in discussing and understanding their sexuality. She contends that in actuality, the opposite is true. Rose says that many of these women fear that discussing intimate topics will only reinforce racial stereotypes about their sexuality.

In Longing to Tell, Rose argues that the long history of distorted stereotypes in our culture—dating back to times of slavery—still affects today's public policies and may be indirectly related to issues such as the AIDS epidemic among black women. As she writes in the book's afterword:

All of these myths—although frequently perceived as outmoded and no longer resonant—remain embedded in our everyday lives and continue to influence legal, medical, and public policies. Until about thirty to forty years ago, it was a commonly held belief in legal courts that black women were too sexually loose to be raped. This made charges for raping a black women virtually impossible to prosecute successfully. As late as 1971, a judge admonished the jurors not to apply ordinary presumptions of chastity to black women.

Rose says that while some black women such as rappers Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown have decided to cash in on the profitability of these distorted sexual stereotypes—exploiting and reinforcing negative images of black women's sexuality as excessive, illicit, and exotic—the majority of black women have retreated into silence.

As 22-year-old Veronica puts it in one of the book's interviews: "At times I question being open about sex. I question whether people compute that and use words like 'promiscuous' that I think are linked to this idea that black women are jungle things—that we are sexual people, the way we dance, the way we move."

This culture of silence also extends to a similar reluctance to talk about safe-sex practices and may affect the ability of a black woman to convince a partner to use a condom to help prevent HIV infections. Rose notes that in order to understand why a black woman will or will not choose to practice safe sex at a certain moment, it is necessary to reveal the hidden layers of behavior in many sexual relationships.

"Some men interpret behaviors such as using a condom, or following a woman's sexual demands as a threat to masculine prowess," says Rose. "Similarly, they perceive women who are sexually informed and who set the terms for a sexual relationship as less desirable or less feminine. These hidden calculations are given added force in a popular culture where black women—especially young black women in music and film—are ritualistically portrayed as highly sexually available and valuable because of it."

Rose hopes that her new book will inspire dialogue about issues relating to sex and intimacy—and help break this pattern of silence. She says that presenting honest sexual testimonies of black women is an important first step in dispelling prevailing cultural stereotypes by portraying the sheer diversity of their experience. But Rose also points out the dire need for many more discussions that go deeper into the black community, and far beyond recent celebrity, male-dominated efforts in the mass media to address the health crisis.

"We have to stop saying, 'oh, what did Colin Powell say? What did Spike Lee say? What did Jesse Jackson say? What did Puff Daddy say'?" Rose insists. "That's not really going to solve this health crisis. We need to have more complicated, less flashy, conversations among ordinary women."

Rose argues that a better alternative to the recent advertising campaign in major U.S. cities—featuring basketball star Magic Johnson as the face of AIDS prevention—would be an outreach effort led by major institutions in the black community such as churches, public schools, and black AM talk radio. But if this kind of public outreach is the only approach taken to fight the AIDS epidemic, she believes that it too will fail.

"This is a war that must be fought on many battlefields at once," says Rose. "Lobbying for health resources, funding, and awareness campaigns must go on full-throttle. However, awareness campaigns must be accompanied by a real commitment to explore the legacies of sexual stigma associated with African Americans, the silences they have produced, and the deep-seated dynamics that shape contemporary sexual behaviors."

Midway through Longing to Tell, 35-year-old Rhonda poignantly sums up the toll that AIDS has taken in the black community: "I work at the juvenile court, and daily I see sisters dying from the silence, and it's painful," she says. "So my belief is that the more of us talk about it, the better."


-Courtesy Farrar Straus Giroux

Longing to tell is a natural extension of Tricia Rose's high-profile efforts to spotlight and confront many of our country's political and racial divisions. An outspoken and often-quoted resource on contemporary black culture, she is also the author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, which received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was named one of the Top 25 books of 1994 by the Village Voice.

Featured frequently on National Public Radio and numerous other radio outlets throughout the country, Rose also pens articles and essays about American culture, politics, women's issues, and black popular music for magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Village Voice, Time, Essence, ArtForum, Bookforum, and Boston Book Review. She has lectured at such venues as Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan, the Whitney Museum of American Art, UCLA, and Princeton.

"I see one of my roles as challenging or affirming key concepts and values we have in the world—such as democracy and social justice—and helping us to see the ways in which we are not living up to these ideals," Rose says. "I think it's critical to create a framework to interpret the world that we live in, instead of allowing corporate and media interests to have the last word."

Born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Rose earned her bachelor's degree in sociology from Yale and a Ph.D. in American civilization from Brown University. She came to UC Santa Cruz in 2002 via New York University, drawn to this campus by "its reputation for very serious scholarship, as well as its progressive, political commitment." She also felt that Santa Cruz would offer her something that living in the heart of New York City could not—the space to sit back, observe, and think.

"Constant engagement and distraction is a hallmark of contemporary life," Rose observed. "But you know, your best ideas don't come when you're racing down the street. They come when you're not doing things directly—when you're just sorting laundry or looking at something. During those quiet times, your thoughts settle down and ideas galvanize. Santa Cruz allows for those moments far more frequently than any other place that I've ever been."

The driving force that links all of her work—from hip-hop scholarship to urban politics to African American sexuality—is Rose's rapt attention to the contexts in which we live, the stories we tell, and how they shape us as people.

"When the forces that shape us are revealed—both productive and destructive—then we are better able to fashion informed choices and develop strategies that open possibilities," Rose says. "Hopefully then, we'll be better able to fight for the creation of more just and diverse environments and institutions."

—Scott Rappaport

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