Online Now! “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom”

Online Now! “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom”


My journal article, co-authored with Treva Lindsey (Ohio State University), in the current issue of Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, is in mailboxes and LIVE online right now via ProQuest!

Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson. “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 12, no. 2 (2014): 169–95.


In August 2013, the newly launched YouTube channel, All Def Digital, posted a video entitled “The Harriet Tubman Sextape.” Reactions to the tape were swift and overwhelmingly negative. Decrying the desecration of the iconic Tubman and the positing of sexual transactions as a liberatory tool for enslaved black women, responses to the digital short shed light upon uncomfortable and complicated interpretations of the role of sex, sexuality, sexual economies, and sexual violence played in black lives during chattel slavery. Situating Tubman at the center of these dialogues offers an opportunity to pose new questions about the erotic life of slavery.

This essay is a call to explore and a foundational excavation of the sexual lives of black women during slavery, and more specifically, historical narratives of pleasure. Grappling with the erotic lives of black women during slavery offers a new lens with which to comprehend the lived experience of chattel slavery. Uncovering sensation, intimate interiority, and erotic experiences challenges a historiographical approach rooted in a twentieth century black liberation ethos and demands that we take seriously the erotic subjectivities of black women during slavery as part of an emancipatory politics. Using “The Tubman Sextape” as a point of entry, this essay examines how to create erotic maps of Tubman, and black women during slavery more broadly by engaging the historiography of slavery, popular representations of bondage, and emergent theories and conceptualizations of erotics.

This issue of Meridians is a special issue in honor of Harriet Tubman and it is HISTORIC. Organized and edited by Janell Hobson, it builds on work presented at Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance, 100th Anniversary Symposium & Celebration. It includes essays by feminist and community accountable scholars like Brittney Cooper, Alexis Pauline Gumbs (whose artwork is also on the cover!), Karsonya Wise Whitehead, and more. There is also a conversation between Paula Gidding, Beverly Guy-Shefthall, and Barbara Smith! YES!

“Searching for Climax” is an original essay contributed after the symposium and in the wake of the Harriet Tubman Sex Tape, the film #12YearsaSlave, Leslie Jones’s SNL skit, and Kara Walker’ Sugar Baby.

Many thanks to Janell for being a phenomenal editor! Thank you for asking us to contribute to this historic issue!! It is a huge honor to appear alongside scholars, activists, thinkers, and artists I’ve admired for YEARS.

We weren’t quite able to add an acknowledgements to the essay itself but I’d like to send a quiet thank you to black feminist historians and scholars of slavery who keep pushing research on sex, slavery, freedom, pleasure, violence, kinship, and intimacy during the period of Atlantic slavery and across the Atlantic African diaspora. This article owes a great debt to work that has come before. Please explore the bibliography. It extends well beyond cited work and hopefully reflects this rich legacy. The bibliography is also evidence of how researching sex, slavery, pleasure, and more is an on-going conversation. I’m so excited by where the work is going and honored to be able to contribute to the discussion.

All of my love and gratitude to my co-author Treva B. Lindsey who, as always, keeps me in the Zone. They say collaborations are difficult and complicated. I don’t know if it was the generative rage we brought to our work, black feminist pleasure-magic, or some combination of both, but this was quite the opposite. It was a deeply satisfying and truly joyful experience. Thank you for sharing your brain and pen with me. I look forward to writing alongside you again.

And thank you, above all, to Harriet.

I’ve posted a PDF on my profile here.

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