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Let Me Bang Your Box: The Erotic Life of the Blues


By Mark Anthony Neal | @ NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan in Exile



Tuesday, January 22, 2019.

It was perhaps fitting that the opening scene of 12 Years a Slave – a film that in its most effective moments captured the everydayness of the brutality of slavery – begins with another index of everydayness; the pursuit of some semblance of an erotic life amidst that brutality.  The scene features Solomon Northrup, in what amounts to the kind of public, yet private space that defined a slave citizenry – “manually ” bringing an unnamed and presumably unknown enslaved women to climax. The scene was described by one reviewer as a “painful sexual encounter” where  the “woman's desperation, Solomon's reserve, and the fierce sadness of both, is depicted with an unflinching still camera which documents a moment of human contact and bitter comfort in the face of slavery's systematic dehumanization.”   

To make less of a poetic or cinematic point, it was that moment of erotic release, as fleeting as one can only expect under any conditions, and performed by Northrup with the workmanlike quality he displayed throughout the film – that allowed many the ability to see another day or to make “a way out of no way” to make a more explicit existentialist point. Writing about the scene in the essay “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom”, historians Jessica Marie Johnson and Treva Lindsey note, “the sight of her, anonymous and silently demanding to be pleasured, is visually unfamiliar and a departure from the original text...Her sexual encounter unveils her desire to be felt, seen and aroused.”

The genius of the scene as captured by director Steve McQueen was that within a system in which Black bodies were rendered as little more than instruments of Capitalist ambition, they were often forced to be the instruments of their own erotic lives, pleasure reduced to the use of the same digits that harvested cotton, tobacco and indigo. That the enterprise would create an entire cottage industry erected around the shame of Black sexuality should not surprise.

The title of this essay is drawn from two sources: Sharon Patricia Holland’s book The Erotic Life of Racism and The Toppers’ 1954 single “(I Love to Play Your Piano) Let Me Bang Your Box.”  In the former Holland critiques the everydayness of anti-Black racism and the ways in which it is sustained via its embodiment within desire and the erotic – hence its continued power.  In the latter, the Toppers track, which was compiled more than 20 years ago in a collection called Risque Rhythm: Nasty 50s R&B, highlights the erotic life of Black bodies, literally at the level of an instrument:  “play your piano; Bang your box.”

Yet the curatorial decision to frame such a collection as “nasty R&B,” treating Black desire and eroticism as something bordering on pathological, yet available for public consumption and surveillance, highlights the fraught relationship of the private and even illicit dimensions of erotic Black lives and the necessity to locate a public and private humanity, more than a century after Emancipation.

That popular Black music would be the site (and source) of such discourse, should also not surprise.  And here it is also important to think about the Blues, as less a generic form of Black music, but as an aesthetic resource – a sonic and performative archive, if you will – that would inform future Black musics, such as R&B (or rough-and-Black, as James “Thunder” Early describes it in the cinematic treatment of the musical Dreamgirls), and even late 20th century rap music.

For many Black Americans, music was the site in which intimacy could be realized, and as Angela Davis points out in her bookBlues Legacies and Black Feminism, there were political ramifications.  Writing about Black life immediately after emancipation, Davis notes “For the first time in the history of the African presence in North America, masses of black women and men were in a position to make autonomous decisions regarding the sexual partnerships they entered.  Sexuality thus was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed.” (4)

With the advent of the phonograph and more access to the private consumption of music, the connection between music and Black intimacy became more concrete.  As Davis attest about the Blues tradition that emerges in the 1920s, “the most obvious ways in which blues lyrics deviated from that era’s established popular musical culture was their provocative and pervasive—including homosexual—imagery.” (3).  This was the music of a generation of Black folk—two generations removed from slavery and still suffering Jim Crow—for which the sensual and erotic use of their bodies were acts of survival, sustenance, pleasure and even resistance.

Though raucous forms of Blues may have had a hearing in public spaces (where everyone was an adult and up for a good time),  in many cases this was music intended for consumption in the private spaces of Black life, as was the case with Jelly Roll Morton’s 17-minute “Make Me a Pallet,” which contains the classic line "give me that p*ssy, let me get in your drawers/I'm gonna make you think you f*ckin' with Santa Claus."

Still the production and circulation of musical narratives of the Black erotic, within the context of the commercial music industry, and including the ambivalent relationship of the recording industry and White publics with what might be viewed as profane, enacted important labor towards attempts to fully realize both Black humanity and citizenship.  The moral and at times extra-legal policing of Black erotic lives, necessitated modes of expression that provocatively mocked a nation that kept such eroticism at arms length, even as it was, in part, the source of American empire – if we are to consider the inner workings of Black erotic lives and their relationship to the literal labor of empire – and coyly pushed the boundaries of acceptable public discourse that was bound to be subject to sanction both within and beyond Black communities.

While some of these narratives attempt to celebrate Black male virility and stamina in response to the need to mute certain performances of public Black masculinity – thinking here of The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” as one example – notable was the centrality of Black female desire and pleasure within those narratives.  As Davis observes, “denial of sexual agency was in an important respect the denial of freedom for working-class Black women.” (44)  It should not be missed, recalling that scene in 12 Years a Slave

, that it was that unknown and unnamed Black women who actively directed the action; his fingers were her instrument of pleasure.



Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Distinguished professor of African American Studies at Duke University where he chairs the Department of African and African American Studies and hosts the weekly webcast, Left of Black. He is the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999); Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002); and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013). Follow him on Twitter @newblackman.

Let Me Bang Your Box: The Erotic Life of the Blues

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