The Physical Terrain

  • Brenda Dixon Gottschild


White gaze, black gaze; female gaze, male gaze; rich or poor gaze: black is ugly or black is beautiful. Each of us makes our world: Who we are, how we feel, react, and think shapes our reality, our preferences, and our criteria. We make reality—not the other way around. For centuries whites have seen the black body as a sexualized terrain—not because black people are sexually different from whites, innately or biologically, but because that is how whites chose to perceive blacks. Be it seductive or repulsive (or both, as was the case with the rash of “Hottentot Venuses” who were paraded around Europe in the early nineteenth century and exploited as sexual objects), the black body has served as the screen upon which white fears and fantasies have been projected. It is the Self-versus-Other syndrome of colonialist discourse at work. Attract. Repel. Attract. Repel. Underneath white critique of the black body lurks sexual innuendo and physical danger. The geography of these desires and hatreds has been charted as one dimension of the long history of violence against black people: slavery, lynchings, chain gangs, rape, and more. The flip side of the coin reveals the exotic-erotic syndrome. The black body is loved for its blackness, above and beyond its accomplishments. Shelley Washington gives a prime example that returns us to the black dancing body:

We did a piece a few years ago. I can’t remember where it was, it might have been Germany. … We did the Sinatra [Songs], and they didn’t like it because it was too sweet. … They love the Fugue, and Keith Young and I did the first duet, and we were black, and we didn’t get booed, and everybody else got booed. Stuff like that I remember. And I remember things like taking a bow in Paris and maybe, I don’t know how it goes, but we would come out and take bows individually And I had very little to do, and I got the most applause. … You know, people saying things like “Oh, the French love the black woman. So exotic.” If anything I remember that, and being in Finland and just having people follow you around and go “Ahhh.” Or when I was in Saigon with Martha [Graham] in 1974–75, buses, people would just stop, really, the roads would just screech and stop if I walked down the street. People would come out of the shops, and they weren’t even shy [about ogling me].


Black Woman Black Body Stereotype Threat Black People Black Person 
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© Brenda Dixon Gottschild 2003

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  • Brenda Dixon Gottschild

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