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Nobody Is Supposed to Know

Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low

C. Riley Snorton
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Nobody Is Supposed to Know
    Book Description:

    Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of the "down low"-black men who have sex with men as well as women and do not identify as gay, queer, or bisexual-has exploded in news media and popular culture, from theOprah Winfrey Showto R & B singer R. Kelly's hip hoperaTrapped in the Closet. Most down-low stories are morality tales in which black men are either predators who risk infecting their unsuspecting female partners with HIV or victims of a pathological black culture that repudiates openly gay identities. In both cases, down-low narratives depict black men as sexually dangerous, duplicitous, promiscuous, and contaminated.

    InNobody Is Supposed to Know, C. Riley Snorton traces the emergence and circulation of the down low in contemporary media and popular culture to show how these portrayals reinforce troubling perceptions of black sexuality. Reworking Eve Sedgwick's notion of the "glass closet," Snorton advances a new theory of such representations in which black sexuality is marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation. Through close readings of news, music, movies, television, and gossip blogs,Nobody Is Supposed to Knowexplores the contemporary genealogy, meaning, and functions of the down low.

    Snorton examines how the down low links blackness and queerness in the popular imagination and how the down low is just one example of how media and popular culture surveil and police black sexuality. Looking at figures such as Ma Rainey, Bishop Eddie L. Long, J. L. King, and Will Smith, he ultimately contends that down-low narratives reveal the limits of current understandings of black sexuality.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4090-8
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Transpositions
    (pp. 1-36)

    On April 16, 2004, Oprah Winfrey began her episode “A Secret Sex World: Living on the ‘Down Low’” with an unusual announcement: “I’m an African American woman.” Her studio audience responded with laughter. Realizing, perhaps, that her show opener had not elicited the intended reaction, Winfrey explained that the producers ofThe Oprah Winfrey Showhad had a similarly skeptical, perhaps even dismissive, response when she discussed her choice to open with a declaration of her identity: When I told the producers I wanted to say that, they go like, “Reallynow?” But I’m an African-American woman, so when I...

  5. 1 Down-Low Genealogies
    (pp. 37-66)

    Commissioned and then later dropped by the cable channel, LOGO, one of three stations catering to queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender audiences, Abigail Child’s documentary,On the Downlow(2007), conforms to the genre of exposé: “There’s a secret within the African American community,” the tagline begins. “This film raises the curtain.”¹ Principally,On the Downlowfollows the lives of four men in Cleveland, Ohio. It opens with images of the city: scenes of closed factories, depictions of waste siphoning off dilapidated buildings, a shot of a police car, and then two black men, walking amid this postindustrial carnival. Cinematographer...

  6. 2 Trapped in the Epistemological Closet
    (pp. 67-93)

    Robert Sylvester Kelly, known to his listeners simply as R. Kelly, is a recurrent figure in popular representations of the down low as of 1996 with the release of his R&B hit “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” which detailed the consequences of heterosexual indiscretion, then in the 2000s with his widely popular, episodic, music video hip-hop operaTrapped in the Closet(hereafter,Trapped).¹

    Trappedbegins with the protagonist Sylvester (R. Kelly) waking up alone, noticeably disoriented, in the bed of a presumed one-night stand. His sexual partner, Cathy, soon returns to the bedroom to inform Sylvester that her husband...

  7. 3 Black Sexual Syncretism
    (pp. 94-120)

    The frequent pairing of the down low and the black church in popular culture is not simply another titillating, if seemingly banal, coupling of the secular and the sacred. Nor would it be analytically sufficient to think of the down low and the black church as two opposing poles of black sexual morality. Rather, we should consider the down low a signification practice that threatens the black church’s representational claim to moral legitimacy and authority. The term “black church” refers to Protestant churches that minister to predominantly African American congregations. Some black churches are affiliated with predominantly black denominations, such...

  8. 4 Rumor Has It
    (pp. 121-146)

    In a 2007 interview forVibemagazine, then 24-year-old R&B singer and songwriter Shaffer Chimere Smith, better known to his fans as Ne-Yo, replied to the various rumors circulating about his sexuality. “This is the way I look at it now,” Smith explained. “For one, you’re nobody ’til they think you’re gay—that’s the truth of the business. Two? You really gotta [sic] take the good with the bad.”¹ While the question of the “bad” is up for interpretation, perhaps the “good” to which Smith refers was his platinum debut albumIn My Own Words,which reached number one on...

  9. Epilogue: Down-Low Diasporas
    (pp. 147-154)

    In an editorial published in theWashington Post,columnist Courtland Milloy recommended the following: “I propose a TV public service announcement that goes something like this: You see a man holding a gun to a woman’s head and pulling the trigger while professing his love for her. Voiceover: ‘Is that any different from what a “down-low brother” does when he has unprotected sex with other men, then comes home and has sex with his unwitting wife?’”¹ The visceral violence of Milloy’s proposed PSA equivocates the dangers of the down low with the coldly calculated decision to act as executioner for...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 155-184)
  11. Index
    (pp. 185-200)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)