Erykah Badu: The Pornography of National Life

What characterizes pornography is not its erotic content
but its masturbatory privacy.— Michael Bell, 2000

At a moment when we are debating what counts as “hallowed ground,” it might be useful to relocate the scene of the discussion, and Erykah Badu’s recent $500 fine is a great point of departure. Badu was fined for stripping naked in her delicious video, “Window Seat.” Depending on the news source, though, she was fined for stripping naked or for stripping naked at the site of JFK’s assassination. Hallowed ground.

If the latter, the question becomes not merely one of decency, an already vexed question given the pornographic imagination that frames black women, but also one of appropriation. Can a black woman re-play the death of a white president? A Kennedy, so-called U.S. royalty? What happens when a woman of color tries to occupy one of the sacred sites of U.S. mourning and whiteness?

As my title might suggest, she broke a rule that, at least since the 1980s, has relegated erotic content to the private. We continue to consume black women’s bodies, but in our homes, on videos, on dvds, via the internet. We have privatized the erotic, turned it into the merely pornographic. My claim here, I hasten to add, has little to do with the erotic/pornography debate, though I continue to learn from Audre Lorde’s wise definition of pornography as sensation without emotion. Instead, I am interested in the pornographic imagination that frames black women, and secures its authority by claiming to inhabit the freedom of the psychic.

Put otherwise, and I am terribly hetero-centric today, men who will not date black women will jerk off to porn featuring black women. Black women offend, as Badu did, when they demand public spaces for their bodies. Especially when those public spaces are not framed through the safe prism of entertainment. In the video, she walks and strips in public. She is not like Beyoncé, whose scanty outfits can be described as stage costumes.

What makes the video even more obscene (off stage) is that it incorporates unknowing publics, families and professionals, who are forced to confront a black woman’s body, a beautiful mature body, in public space. Not merely in public space, but on hallowed ground, a site of martyrdom.

Badu breaks the frame that confines masturbatory fantasies to private, refuses to occupy the secrecy of the pornographic imagination, and dares us to imagine the significance of black deaths in the place of national (white) memory.

Those familiar with Clotel will recognize Badu’s signifying play. In Clotel, the illegitimate mulatto daughter of the president kills herself within view of the White House. Transforming the symbolics of social death into a practice of dying, Clotel sutures the two, drawing our attention to the materiality of social death, the living death inhabited by those unrecognized by the law of the father.

By re-enacting a pornographic death at JFK’s death site, Badu asks us to meditate on the ongoing histories of racial gendering and the persistence of the pornographic imagination. White men might no longer be raping black women—rape being literal and figurative, looking at you Strom Thurmond—but the pornographic imagination continues to shape black women’s access to the public. As a sidenote, I am fascinated by Beyoncé’s role in perpetuating the pornographic imagination, even as I marvel at her ability to deconstruct its premises.

But Badu does more.

In suturing the pornographic imagination to JFK’s death, she makes such an imagination more difficult to inhabit. Our desire for her beautiful body is disrupted by our rage at her desecration or our pleasure in her subversion. Here, the political mediates the libinal. And Badu, as with Kara Walker, insists on re-framing the pornographic imagination through the political, transforming the two in the process.

Do you really want to be the guy who jerks off at the black woman playing dead at JFK’s death site?

It is not simply that Badu strips in public. It is that she strips at the place where two powerful imaginations collide: the pornographic and the national. And she suggests that these two have always been intertwined within U.S. histories. U.S. histories enact a pornographic imagination—Jefferson and Sally Hemings are a metonym, not an anomaly.

That Badu has been fined $500, and has paid it, must surely count as one of history’s ironies.