Notes on Pride

On Being Reduced to Flesh: Vincent Woodard's The Delectable Negro

June 17th, 2021

"Vincent Woodard's work speaks to recent queer histories, such as the celebration of photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographic works, like his Black Book series, fetishized and exoticized black men's bodies. Mapplethorpe's photos, which have become iconic representations of gay art in the 80s, signal an ongoing delectability of Black flesh for white gazes."

Derrick Cross (1983), Robert Mapplethorpe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, 1996

A master would often choose “a favorite” male slave as the object of his cultivated delight. Black men in such contexts had to negotiate feelings of affection, hatred, shame, sexual degradation, and arousal toward white men. Cannibalism was unspeakable, but cannibalism coupled with the subject of homoeroticism went against conventional ideas of black men as stoic, as embodiments of the valiant struggle of will and mind over body, as agents of reason and political strategy (Woodard, 2014, p. 14)
Long before the poignant questions of the color line and the Negro problem registered in the black imagination, it seems that a more pressing problematic confronted the black citizen. In the form of a question, it might have registered as: “How does it feel to be an edible, consumed object?” In other words, how does it feel to be an energy sourced foodstuff, to be consumed on the levels of body, sex, psyche, and soul?” (Woodard, 2014, p.14)
“The Delectable Negro responds to the collective call for a deeper, more useful understanding of homosexuality in the context of slavery by focusing on the nineteenth centuries as a moment in which black masculinity, racial identity, homoeroticism, and a distinctive American appetite for black male flesh and soul congealed” (Vincent Woodard, “The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture(Woodard, 2014, p. 23)

Vincent Woodard unfortunately did not live to see the publication of his mind-blowing book The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture. The book, which won a 2015 Lambda Literary Award, details the obscure yet omnipresent histories of white consumption (cannibalizing) of black flesh in US slave culture. Centering the eroticized, black male body, Woodard traces insatiable white appetites for black sex, violence, bodies, and souls as central to the relations between the slave-owning classes and the enslaved. Woodard’s haunting tales from the archives articulate homoerotic force of chattel slavery. His book also offers up, much like the equally brilliant work of literary scholar Hortense Spillers in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” the processes by which the enslaved (and their descendants) were made into flesh. As Spillers reminds us, captive flesh is the disappearance of ethical consideration, regard, or any notion of humanity. It is a totalizing objectification wherein the whole of the captive community becomes a living laboratory (Spillers, Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, 68). Woodard’s work is instructive in so far as it zeroes in not just on the homoerotic modes of flesh-making but that it so poignantly shows us the histories of this reduction for the bodies of black men. This history IS the present. When black men are reduced to their flesh by white gay men in their Grindr DMs (“hey chocolate” 🍫), in “casual” conversation (“Ugh I LOVE black guys 🍆🍆🍆), and even their seemingly “harmless” fantasies (“Do you want to dominate me/make me your slave Daddy”), they reassert that longstanding black inheritance of the qualities of flesh, while also reminding us of their longstanding histories of feeling entitled to ours. So TL;DR version: maybe this Pride season (and like….moving forward) don’t fetishize the black men in your life/call them BBC? Just a thought. 🥂