In the Fall of 2003 I was asked to be a model for P90X. It is now the world’s best selling workout DVD. If you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s a link at the bottom of this page. At that time, I was in the midst of a grand personal experiment. I had come to Los Angeles at the end of a national tour determined to be “LA Adam.” When I started the experiment, I wasn’t actually sure what that meant. But I knew one thing for sure, it involved having what I called the “LA Body.” This was a body that would always be camera ready, shaved, sculpted and looking 10 – 15 years younger than it actually was. Prior to the LA body, I had lived with people commenting on my body as a dancer, for its shape and definition and flexibility; sometimes, welcome, sometimes not. The most disturbing and regular comment on my body was “you black guys, never have to work out” or “you all look like that” or “dark skin always makes someone look better” or some variation on that theme. I will happily admit that my parents gave me some good clay to work with, but it was up to me as to what I did with that clay. The idea that my body simply appeared the way it did is naive to say the least. I started exercising when I was about ten or eleven. I secretly did hours of ballet exercises in my basement throughout high school. My freshman year of college, I spent more time in a dance studio than I did in class and then throughout the rest of college, the gym was my refuge from feeling like an outsider. This past year is the longest I’ve gone in 30 years without a gym membership or regular access to an exercise facility of some kind…only because I spend so much time blogging…but I still, run, do pushups and situps and ride my bike to work. Yeah, my body just happens because I’m black!
Black men and women have been objectified since day one in America. Being paraded, proded and peddled as livestock meant we had to have strong bones and teeth, good backs and healthy genitals for breeding. Stories of auction block antics surrounding the treatment of slaves would disgust most of you so I will let you explore that on your own (see links below.) But it is that same history that expects us to be good athletes and day laborers and not necessarily bookish and un-athletic. It is the same history that is behind racial profiling and is history that sits behind the assumptions about Trayvon Martin’s physical ability to inflict harm on George Zimmerman. Black women who are called “Brown Sugar”, black men who are called “Mandingo”…these and the dumb jock mentality are gross assumptions and the worst kind of stereotypes because the black community has frequently adopted them as well. Blacks have played into a self objectification that makes us out to be nothing more than collection of wildly exaggerated body parts.
It has been a very dicey business for me personally to separate just what is the perverse racially motivated fascination with black bodies in America and what is the perverse fascination with sexuality in America in general. Living at those crossroads is at times unbearable. How do you know if someone is going out with you because they like you or because they want to sleep with the ‘P90X Ab Guy’ or because they are expecting nothing short of a sexual freak when they get in your pants? Or how do you know if that same fascination isn’t just part of the whole “body=sex” equation here in the US?
Simply, you don’t.
I’d love to see us change the dialogue about how we not only talk about black bodies, but how we talk about ALL bodies. Objectification, racialization, gendering…these are all aggressions we throw at each other, sometimes all too casually. This fall I will be teaching a course at the Starr King School for the Ministry, In Your Hands: The Language, Ethics and Spirituality of Touch. My hope is that in this class I can lay the groundwork for changing the game. When I think of racially motivated violence, both physical and verbal, it is very clear to me that people are only capable of doing these things if they have never been intimate (in the platonic sense) with someone who looks different than they do. I also believe that faith community leaders have a unique power to introduce a new language of touch. The crimes of the Catholic church in abusing this power, show just how much power really exists in the ability to influence how someone sees their body. Repulsively, this power was used by certain members of the Catholic church to horrific ends. If we only punish them, no matter how severely, they have still won. We must make a concerted effort to not only make sure those crimes don’t happen again, but to establish a new way to communicate through touch. The answer is not to eliminate touch…that is inhuman. The answer is in exploring the deeper meaning of touch as it relates to our physical identity, sense of physical well being and creating a language of liberated body justice where we can not only touch one another, but we can enjoy what that means, without fear or threat. Imagine a room full of gang members (of any race), or people who hate one another, or total strangers, who are put in a room and simply asked to hold hands…no words. The potential is tremendous, if we do the tough work…exploring our fears about touch, bodies and physical intimacies. Faith communities have been vilified in terms of how they view the body and how they use the body. If faith communities and spiritual people can lead the way to reclaim touch and body awareness, we literally can change the world.