11. Reflect on the difference between subjective and objective approaches to sexuality.

16. Reflect on the effect of AIDS on sexual mores.

Section 2 > Exercise 10 > Sexuality and society

Sexual identity is also rooted in the social and cultural mores of a society. We will explore these issues further in Unit 6. For now, read the following excerpt from "Body of Life" a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and answer the disucssion questions below.

Elizabeth Alexander, from "Body of Life"

1. 1990

One by one ‘til
I’m the only one
left in the photo
we took in Gay Paree,
trill the final syl-
lable, thrill to
pretending we’re
the Revue Negre,
funking so fiercely
our black clothes stained
our curvature, fab-
ulous flames let loose
in the city of lights.

One by one you leave
the picture, nix nix nix,
my moonpie face left
shining there. Au Revoir,
or like they say
in Sula, “’Vwah!”, bright
as a bottle, the beau-
tiful children are
leaving me to trill
the final syllable,
this beautiful-
ugly world.

2. 1983

The other girls taught shy me to be a diva,
to preen, to plump my titties up like they did,
to work it. We danced. We wanted the body
of life and I lived for a year in that
body, the body of life, in D.C.,
in the African diaspora:

Chocolate City

That was my slut year.
All the men I didn't sleep with, all I did,
all the lunch dates, all the dinners, all
the whistles on the streets of Chocolate
City, all the men who called me Baby,
called me Girl, like the one who made me tuna-
fish and tried to suck my breasts, then asked
me to type up his resume. My buzzer
in the middle of the night, my phone, a man
who greased me head to toe with Lubriderm,
a Cape Verdean who appeared on busses
and trains as if by divination, sketched
me naked, never spent the night. I told
one man how much I loved Betty Carter
and he said, I hope you're not one of those
bulldaggers. A lonely Nigerian
who cooked fufu and groped me on the sofa,
his across-the-ocean wife and daughter
watching from their picture frames.
Rum and dancing, too many things in my mouth,
genitals cobbled with passion or disease, bright
clitoris a phantom limb, remembering –

I moved away to Boston and would call
you for the update: Renee was a samba
star at Brasil Tropical, shimmied
on Brazilian TV. Denise graduated
school and made the foreign service, moved
to Jamaica, to a bungalow, with
a man and a maid named Pansy. "Who's sick?"
I'd ask and you'd tell me, and who died,
and one day you said, "And I'm living with AIDS."

There was Kemron in Kenya.
You were saving to get it.
You met with a support group
of other black men. You had
a Dominican boyfriend,
same as me. Mostly you felt
O.K., but you hated
your medicine. You were fat
but you still took class.
No, Tyrone wasn't sick. But David was dead.

It was Njambi who called me to say,
you were back in shape. You performed
for the visiting Eminence of Senegal,
the next day went into the hospital,
the next day died. It made a romantic
story, but you're still gone. "I love when you call me
because you're alive," you said once,
one of your few friends still alive.
I'm writing this poem to say how we were,
that we danced and fucked and sweated, loved
ourselves and each other, lived fiercely,
knew joy. I'm writing to say,
I got lucky, you were my friend, you
knew me as a girl, I am a woman,
now, with my little piece of your story,
the year of the body of life.


Discussion questions

  1. What two cultural eras are depicted and what caused the shift from one to the other?
  2. How is each era characterized? What are the emotions associated with each?
  3. What does this poem say about the influence of an epidemic on sexual self-image? [See Stephen Mendelssohn in "Death and Dying" LINK ]
  4. Compare and contrast: This poem explores a conflict between the sexual body and the mortal body. How is this conflict yet another version of the polarities we have explored so far in this unit? Use the previous discussion questions to hone your answer. What does this poem add to our understanding of these polarities?

Clinical Correlate #13: HIV