Commentary Media

‘Orange Is the New Black,’ and How We Talk About Race and Identity

T.F. Charlton

OITNB isn't perfect in its handling of race, class, and gender, but the series does get a lot right about the conversations people of color and white folks have amongst themselves and with each other, and how different identities and experiences shape those interactions.

Orange Is the New Black, the original Netflix series created by Weeds showrunner Jenji Kohan, has been acclaimed for its portrayal of a diverse array of Black, transgender, Latina, working-class, and immigrant characters. The series, which is based loosely on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, centers around a character named Piper Chapman as she spends time in a minimum security women’s prison.

In an interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, Kohan described the Piper character as “my Trojan Horse,” explaining that “really fascinating tales of Black women, Latina women, and old women and criminals” are a “hard sell” for networks. Piper, as the “girl next door, the cool blonde,” is a “very easy access point … relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. [She’s] useful.”

Kohan’s comments raise questions about why the stories of marginalized women once again have to be mediated through a white protagonist, and whether a creator of color would be allowed the same opportunities to create the “fascinating tales” that Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has been praised for. It also raises the issue of how Piper and the cast of characters she’s meant to introduce us to read to viewers who are outside the “certain demographic” networks find most desirable.

Piper

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Seven episodes into OITNB, I can’t say that I find Piper particularly relatable. But I do find her and many of OITNB’s characters recognizable—especially their intra- and interracial interactions around the nexus of race, gender, and class.

Piper’s privileged self-absorption, the paternalistic, bigoted preferential treatment Piper gets from white male prison counselor Healy, and the incisive awareness with which Black characters like Taystee Jefferson navigate white supremacy, misogyny, and classism all feel authentic, if occasionally heavy-handed. All these things point to the ways in which mundane interpersonal bigotry supports and perpetuates structural inequity.

From the moment Piper steps foot in Litchfield—OITNB’s fictional prison, which is based on the Danbury women’s prison in Connecticut, where Piper Kerman served time—OITNB makes clear that this is a world where no veneer of polite colorblindness papers over racism and racial prejudice. Piper is rudely awakened to this reality when Lorna Morello, a fellow white inmate, concludes Piper’s orientation with a smiling comment: “We look out for our own.” Piper’s visible horror at this candid statement of racist preference is met with amusement: “Oh, don’t get all PC on me. It’s tribal, not racist.”

Over the next several episodes, we see Piper repeatedly appalled by the candid naming of race and bald declarations of racism and racial allegiances. Piper’s role as “access point” to Litchfield means that overt racism and honest discussions of race alike are framed as jarring and shocking—a reflection of her particular white, middle-class point of view, in which the realities of race and racism are usually shrouded in cultivated ignorance and the vague sentimentalities of liberal tolerance.

Piper is repeatedly confronted with the fact that her race, class, and other privileges make her experience and perspective fundamentally different from most of the women she’s incarcerated with; she is, as Kohan says, “a fish out of water.” Yet Piper is deeply committed to a series of racialized fictions about herself and her social position.

In episode 6 (“WAC Pack”), she responds to her mother’s complaint that Piper’s drug-running ex “stole” a life of upper-class comfort and affluence from her by vehemently declaring that she is “no different from anyone else in here.” Piper clearly sees and intends this as a rejection of her mother’s prejudices, but her next words expose her imagined identification with her fellow inmates as superficial and unempathetic: “I made bad choices. I committed a crime. It is nobody’s fault that I am in here but mine.” In reducing massive racial and economic disparities in incarceration to the product of “bad choices,” Piper reveals herself to be more repulsed by what she sees as political incorrectness than by the reality of structural racism, inequities, and violence.

Indeed, Piper is characterized by a studied refusal to acknowledge this reality, and her place in it. Even when the evidence of her complicity with racism and classism is undeniable, she continues to see and present herself as a safe, friendly, and loyal fellow inmate. A Black inmate known as Watson figures out that Piper took a screwdriver that ultimately led to Watson being sent to solitary confinement (“the SHU”). This realization comes when Watson recognizes that Piper is “acting all sweet” toward her, “like a piece of candy,” when “nobody’s sweet in here except for a reason.” Piper initially lies and pleads ignorance. When she finally admits the truth, she still argues that “technically” Watson was to blame because she “got all up in [correctional officer] Caputo’s face”—a victim-blaming reframing of Watson’s objection to being searched by male corrections officers.

The discrepancy between who Piper is and who she wants to believe herself to be is best summed up in her response to an inmate’s observation that Piper is “in denial” about the considerable privileges she enjoys: “I’m a WASP. [Denial’s] what we do.” Piper repeatedly distances herself from overt expressions of bigotry, but is ultimately content to benefit from less obvious oppression. This is especially so in her interactions with Healy.

Healy

In their first meeting, Healy, the prison counselor, warns Piper to “stay away” from lesbians while in prison and reassures her that she “does not have to have lesbian sex”—not realizing that Piper is incarcerated because of actions she took during a lesbian relationship. Piper is visibly uncomfortable with Healy’s homophobia, yet immediately volunteers that she’s engaged to a man. She does so ostensibly as a preface to asking whether he can visit her, but the timing of this statement implicitly validates Healy’s misrecognition of Piper as being, like him, both straight and a homophobe.

Extrapolating from Piper’s race, class, and gender presentation, Healy expects that her loyalties will be with him over her fellow inmates, and treats her differently than other inmates based on this assumption. In “The Chickening,” Healy harshly punishes Poussey Washington, a Black inmate, for running on prison grounds. Meanwhile, he reassures Piper that he won’t send her to the SHU, despite her role in setting off the very frenzy Poussey was caught up in, because she’s “new” and just “made a mistake.” He warns Piper to avoid exciting the inmates in the future: “They’re not like you and me. They’re less reasonable. Less educated.”

Healy represents the benefits that accrue to white women who ally with “benevolent” white patriarchy, and how this sort of patriarchy relies on hierarchies and divisions between women to maintain its power. In turn, Healy’s preferential treatment of Piper becomes incentive for complicity with his efforts to undermine the agency of other inmates. When Healy asks, “Chapman, we understand each other, don’t we?” she responds, “I think so.”

Healy expects that this understanding means she’ll agree to run as his candidate for the inmates’ Women’s Advisory Council (WAC): “The two of us working together, we could really turn some things around. Or at least, make things a little quieter.” Healy’s response when Piper declines this arrangement also illustrates how shaky and dangerous such alliances can be. He immediately resorts to deception, falsifying the election results so Piper lands on the council against her will (and to exclude the actual winners—women he presumably expects will pose a greater challenge to his authority than Piper).

Immediately following the election, Piper cuts a deal with Healy to find the source of erotic images being sent out of the prison in exchange for reopening Litchfield’s running track. This requires betraying a Latina inmate for whom the secret cell phone that contains the images is a lifeline to her partner on the outside. It’s on her way to delivering this phone that Piper is waylaid by Pennsatucky—a white, anti-choice, aggressively fundamentalist Christian—who pegs Piper as a “Judas Iscariot” and “teacher’s pet” whose educational and class privilege make her entitled and easily exploited. She warns that Healy will cast Piper aside as soon as she’s worn out her usefulness, that ultimately Piper is selling out for nothing.

This proves prophetic: Healy presses Piper for the name of the phone’s owner, and goes back on their deal because she refuses to snitch. Piper finds a way around his blackmail in a chance conversation with Susan, a white, female corrections officer who recognizes Piper from before her incarceration. After reminiscing about how Piper was a regular “pain in the ass” when Susan bagged her groceries in Brooklyn, Susan tells Piper, “As far as I’m concerned, you and me are the same. … The only difference between us is when I made bad decisions in life, I didn’t get caught.” Given the socioeconomic distance between the two women, it’s a striking echo of the themes of sameness, difference, and identity in both Piper’s and Healy’s earlier comments. Through this bonding moment and statement of mutual identification, Piper is able to persuade Susan to have the prison track reopened.

Healy’s furious reaction makes it clear that Piper has made a determined and powerful enemy by defying him. The trouble he’s surely planning for Piper in the second half of the series is foreshadowed in moments when he responds with anger and threats to perceived challenges from her.

Healy embodies the dangers inherent in benevolent patriarchy—in his repeated misperception of who Piper is, his attempts to press her into his service, and how quickly his “benevolence” turns into overt malice when expected loyalties and allegiances are betrayed.

Taystee

In contrast to Piper, many of OITNB’s characters who are working-class and/or people of color recognize and consciously navigate the dangers posed both by white men like Healy, and by white women like Piper. Black characters like Taystee Jefferson, Poussey Washington, and Black Cindy seem especially aware of the ways in which women like Piper support and benefit from white patriarchy and classism, to the disproportionate harm of women like themselves.

An exchange between Piper and Taystee, the Black inmates’ representative on WAC, shows how wildly different the two women’s respective stakes in the council, and as inmates, are. Piper imagines that she can spur dramatic improvements in Litchfield’s health care and educational services through her position on WAC. She’s aghast and offended to learn what Taystee already knows: Healy has no interest in real change, or in sharing power. Taystee’s more modest agenda—better hot sauce in the prison cafeteria and 50 Shades of Grey in the library—is played for laughs, but it reflects her savvy about prison politics, and her focus on getting out as soon as she can. She understands both that the council is purely symbolic and that her membership will reflect well on her as she prepares for a rapidly approaching parole hearing. With the promise of a letter from Healy pleading her case, Taystee says, “I ain’t looking to make waves.” When Piper objects that Taystee is breaking her campaign promises, she concludes, “That’s politics.”

In an earlier scene during the WAC elections, Taystee similarly dismisses the “health care” and “civil rights” campaign platform of Sophia Burset, a fellow Black WAC candidate, as unrealistic “white people politics.” Their debate is one part of three simultaneous conversations in the scene about race and ethnicity. In the white inmates’ section of the cafeteria, Lorna explains what she “know[s]” about “Hispanics”: “They live like 20 people to one apartment, they have more kids than even the Irish … they’re dirty, they’re greasy, and they’re taking our jobs.” At one of the Latina tables, a debate concludes with observations that Black people are “smelly, stupid, and lazy, but they ain’t got different bones”—”Except in their pants.” Meanwhile, at the Black table, Taystee and Poussey parody the mindset that embodies “white people politics,” deftly skewering white upper-class dilettantism (yoga, sushi, documentaries, and veganism), sexual repression (“quiet sex every night at 9:00″), and affluence (“Did you hear that piece on NPR about hedge funds?”).

The juxtaposition of these conversations arguably invites the conclusion that each of these groups are equally engaged in the same kind of prejudiced stereotyping (and seems to hark back to Lorna’s comment that “looking out for one’s own” is “tribal, not racist”). This framing undermines the insights of the scene into how people talk about race behind closed doors. It elides what’s actually going on within the three groups, implicitly equating the anti-Blackness of the Latina women and anti-Latina racism of the white women with Taystee and Poussey’s conversation—which is not prejudiced and certainly not mythical “reverse racism,” but instead a pitch-perfect meta-satire of the very kind of white femininity that OITNB routinely pokes fun at in Piper. And it comes from a place of knowing what these kinds of white women are like, knowledge demanded under white supremacy for Black survival.

This is reinforced in “Blood Donut”: Taystee’s statement that she can’t afford to “make waves” reflects concerns about anticipating what the disciplinary board wants to see and hear from her—specifically, what presentation of Black femininity they will find sympathetic enough to let her go home. In a mock parole interview, Black Cindy and Poussey advise Taystee that she needs to communicate remorse and having “seen the error of [her] ways”—no matter how unjust she feels her incarceration is—and tell the board she plans to go to college and help “underprivileged youth” learn chess. “Time to get serious,” they continue. “What are you going to do about your hair?”

The politics of Black women’s hair is picked up again in Sophia’s salon, where Taystee, Poussey, Black Cindy and others discuss the merits of mimicking Michelle Obama’s hairstyle (“[But] white folks scared of Obama.”) or “2009 Rihanna” (“Everybody still hating on Chris Brown, maybe they’ll throw me a bone getting back at that fool.”). Obama and Rihanna bookend a debate about which permutations of race, gender, and class identities will make disciplinary board members view Taystee more favorably. Taystee’s assertion that “brothers on the board” mean she’ll be “free at last” is shot down by Black Cindy, who argues that Black male board members will be more invested in proving they’re unbiased; she’s better off with white board members. “Hope for white women,” Poussey says. “They love drinking wine … talking about Black folks don’t get their fair shakes … giving they housekeepers an extra day off and shit.” Sophia concludes that Taystee should aim to “look like the Black best friend in the white girl movie.” In other words: safe, non-threatening, respectable, and knowing her place.

What resonates in these scenes is the depiction of Black women consciously grappling with how to negotiate and mitigate the real, material implications of how Black men and white people see us. They reflect the painful knowledge—which has been a topic of much discussion recently because of popular hashtags like #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #blackpowerisforblackmen—that Black women have no true allies in either of these groups. Black women can neither be certain that Black men will stand up for us, nor can we rely on any true solidarity from white women simply because we share a gender. Poussey sees white women as Taystee’s best bet, but only because of the paternalist pity and guilt of liberal white women towards the women of color whose labor they exploit.

None of this is to say that OITNB gets it all right in its handling of race, class, and gender. The depictions of Black and Latina women constantly threaten to veer into all too familiar tropes and stereotypes, for example. But OITNB does get a lot right about the conversations people of color and white folks have amongst themselves and with each other, and how different identities and experiences shape those interactions.

Commentary Race

No Sense in Slaughter: ‘Law and Order’ Policing Is About Irrational Fear

Katherine Cross

The wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.

“Senseless” is our favorite adjective to describe not just mass killings but all manner of murders. To most any person, regardless of class, race, or station, there is no sense to be found in slaughter. But this depth of unreason plunges further still with some crimes. Such is the case with the mass murder of Black Americans, performed in increments measured by police shootings. No sense, logic, or order can be imposed on something so inherently chaotic, so without reason or purpose.

Yet, countless white people on social media and mass media alike try to find a reason for the murder. He wore a hoodie. She didn’t follow instructions. He didn’t drop the toy gun. He twitched his leg threateningly. They shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood. She was playing her music too loud. They should’ve fixed their taillight. This apparent desire for justification satisfies not only the racist conviction that it is somehow acceptable for a Black person to lay dead from an officer’s sidearm, but also the “just world hypothesis” that too many of us remain addicted to: the false belief in a world where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, where “everything must happen for a reason.”

To be sure, racist systems of power in the United States have methodically propagated the idea of Blackness as a threat that needs to be controlled, which is a twisted kind of logic unto itself. In this environment, however, where so many—particularly white people—have been weaned on the notion of Black criminality, the wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.

As we search for answers in the wake of atrocities—in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and countless other cities—we can begin with this senselessness.

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This attempted analytical strategy is not a new endeavor. In writing about Nazi internment and concentration camps, for example, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt strove to do the unthinkable: Find sense in a pit of murderous chaos. But it was precisely a lack of sense, she discovered, that was key to the experience the Nazis—and many totalitarians before and since—had tried to create.

There’s no small irony in my invocation of her to understand this epic, continually unfolding crime. Arendt’s contempt of Black youth movements toward the end of her life was breathtaking in its bitter and intellectually uncurious contempt; she, too, had revealed herself to be an anti-Black racist. But like so many people who indulge such prejudices, her more transcendental ideas—such as this one—endure even with her failings.

As Arendt wrote:

The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. (Emphasis mine.)

Her point was that the terror of the camp lay in its disconnect from logic. You might face punishment even if you did nothing wrong, either according to the rules of the camp, or a higher moral authority. Your labors were Sisyphean, their own punishment, and rarely serving some higher end. Even when they were practical labors, they were deliberately inefficient, meant to cause suffering rather than ensure the speedy production of some good. For Arendt, this was central to totalitarian life.

This was how you made human beings superfluous as human beings, as she put it. You removed all sense from their lives, rendered their labors fruitless, took the very thing that makes us human—meaningful activity and life through our work—and rendered it an engine of vile nonsenses. If nothing you do has any connection to your prosperity or well-being, then what really is the point of life but random thrashing?

Whether Arendt herself might have approved of this understanding of her theory or not, the “daily production of senselessness” has bled out of the camps of Europe and into the day-to-day practices of police forces around the world, especially in the United States. In police brutality, too, we see a world of unreason. Death has no connection to guilt or what one can be meaningfully said to “deserve.”

This is what makes the plaintive wailing of the “All Lives Matter” crowd so tone-deaf, especially when they veer in the direction of critiquing every breath of those who have been restrained from breathing freely. Consider Megyn Kelly’s unconscionable second-guessing of Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, for not rendering aid to her dying partner outside of St. Paul, even as a police officer brandished a gun in her direction. Or CNN analyst Harry Houck, who said that the very fact Reynolds filmed the atrocity is cause to doubt both the sincerity of her affection for Castile and the man’s innocence. Each of these perversities is, of course racist; neither would happen if the victims in question were not Black, period. They are also attempts to impose order on what is inherently chaotic and without sense: the summary execution of innocent people, en masse, by the people whose very job is to maintain that vaunted “law and order.”

The unspoken corollary to all these excuses is always “therefore they deserved to die.” They didn’t put their hands up fast enough, therefore they deserved to die. They ran, therefore they deserved to die. They were walking in the “wrong” neighborhood, therefore they deserved to die. They made a Facebook post where they had a “thug” selfie, therefore they deserved to die. On and on and on.

It is here where discourses about “respectability politics” come into play—the idea that we as marginalized people should not treat “acting respectable,” as defined by those in our society with the most cultural capital, as a path to acceptance and liberation. Castile did everything right. He was gainfully employed, beloved at the school where he worked as a cafeteria manager—and his long history of being stopped by the police testified more to the racism of local police departments than any wrongdoing on his part. During this final traffic stop, he politely informed the policeman about his concealed handgun, as he is obliged to do by law. For doing everything “right,” he ended up dead from several shots to the chest.

This is not to suggest that it would be “logical” or “just” or “sensible,” of course, if all Black victims of police brutality were only those people with criminal records, who resist arrest or run, or who had weapons; those people are not somehow more “deserving” of death or abuse. And even if they were the sole victims of police violence, a similar senselessness would prevail—in a world where a minor infraction or a long-ago served sentence would still lead to summary execution, where police who have been able to capture even dangerous white suspects alive can only ever seem to put bullets in Black “offenders.”

This, in the end, is the reason. Black people are killed indiscriminately, no matter their job, their level of education, their erudition, their politeness, their criminal record or lack thereof, and so on.

Black Lives Matter—for all the unjust slanders hurled its way by politicians, police union bosses, and Twitter trolls—is actually an example of a profoundly dignified attempt to restore order in the best way possible. Its tactics of peaceful but highly visible protest demand better of us all, non-Black people of color and white people alike. It summons us to our better ideals, calling for the restoration of sense, and reason: the simple recognition that Black lives matter and should be afforded the full suite of human and civil rights. That requires structural change; it is not something one law can fix. It’s beyond the scope of body cameras, certainly.

BLM’s staunchly nonviolent ethic, and its humane approach to police—which unequivocally condemns recent attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, while seeking justice for the victims of police—actually makes a better claim to being about “order” than all the defensiveness of the police, and their many paid defenders in the press. “Law and order” politics and policing have always been about irrational fear and hatred, never about order in the sense of creating a safe life of sensible and predictable outcomes connected to one’s actions. The sole “logic” to be found in all of this is being seen as a mortal threat because of the color of one’s skin, and this fact produces a special kind of terror.

All victims have been rendered superfluous as human beings, to use Arendt’s phrase. Black individuals live knowing that all of their efforts can come to nothing due to the caprice of a racist police officer’s bullet.

With such senselessness ruling the day, is it any wonder some will abandon all reason in response, as with the killings of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge? That some may feel murder is all that can meet murder? The problem is indeed a lack of order, but not for the reasons many police chiefs and white twitterpaters may think; the “order” police currently uphold is one of utter chaos with no rhyme or reason behind it, save the fundamental irrationalities of racism and fear tinged by racism. There can be no order when mothers and fathers must counsel their children in the nearly vain hope that “good behavior” might save their lives from a police officer frightened by the color of their skin, when no right action or a life well lived is any insurance against such an ignoble death.

So is it a surprise when “the law,” a term synonymous with the police themselves, is increasingly not respected for its own sake? As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the Atlantic about Micah Xavier Johnson, the man who murdered five police officers in Dallas:

In the black community, it’s the force they deploy, and not any higher American ideal, that gives police their power. This is obviously dangerous for those who are policed. Less appreciated is the danger illegitimacy ultimately poses to those who must do the policing. For if the law represents nothing but the greatest force, then it really is indistinguishable from any other street gang. And if the law is nothing but a gang, then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street.

When you scaremonger about Johnson’s crimes, or about the need for “law and order,” this is all very much worth remembering. To many in this country, the police are simply the legal gang: vice by another name, tied to the coffers of the state, with only a gloss of virtue to separate it from the illicit variety. The murder of police officers remains criminal and tragic, both for all the obvious reasons, and because the realm of unreason and uncertainty they create is slowly consuming them as well, as Coates notes.

This is one of many reasons we must cease casting about for a just world and instead seek to create one—first by acknowledging the lack of justice in the one we have.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.

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