Sexuality and the Black Woman (#2)



Rekeik Meshesha


Black women in America face dual complexities in both the disenfranchisement of their race, and their gender. As a black woman, I am no stranger to these complexities, but of course find it difficult to balance the issues that are associated with what our society sees as an inferior gender and race. This is why I found a particular depiction of black woman during slavery, and post emancipation so interesting. The ‘jezebel’ figure was able to combine both race and gender stereotypes in order to create a distorted figure of the black woman, one that was promiscuous, sexually hungry, and driven by lust to negate the wrongdoings of the white men that abuse her. Through this jezebel figure, we see the black woman’s sexuality overshadowing any other part of her. This depiction of the jezebel has embedded itself in society so much so that it has morphed in to slang used to describe black women in a hypersexual way even today, where the words “ho” and “thot” are thrown around carelessly to describe a (usually) black woman. As one of my male friends, Kalabe, remarked, “I just say it when I don’t know a female’s name, just like you guys say things like ‘my bitch’ or ‘bitches’, we say hoe or thot, like, ‘there’s some hoes over there’ you know?”

As my cultural artifact, I chose this collection of images from slavery, as well as the Jim Crow era. The images on the far left and right are of Sarah (Saartije) Baartman, an African woman brought to England in order to be exploited for her natural attributes. Baartman had features that Europeans oversexualized and ultimately profited from because they did not match the standards or norms of beauty and womanhood in Europe at the time. Her “…large buttocks and unusual colouring made her the object of fascination by the colonial Europeans who presumed that they were racially superior. Dunlop wanted Sara to come to London and become an oddity for display” (SAHO). In pictures, Baartman is depicted with exaggerated features including her breasts, buttocks, and genitals being enlarged. The image in the upper middle section is a caricature of an ‘African’ woman that draws upon everything wrong with depictions of black women in America. The woman has large lips, unkempt hair and is purposefully drawn ugly to perpetuate dominant stereotypes. The image in the lower middle section is that same caricature, but overtly sexualized through the caption which reads “she can do the most outrageous things with her tongue! It’s incredible!” These pictures, and European history of fascination in black bodies,  all have one commonality between them which is that they spread ideas of African American women that are problematic to how society views us as people because mass media chose, and still chooses to, portray us.

These images, caricatures, are meant to be depictions accurate to the stereotypes of black women as told by the white population. Even though I could not find who exactly created the pictures, I would theorize that their intent was less than moral. The images were drawn by artists who utilized the ‘jezebel’ stereotype and the diverse features of African American women to mock and ridicule how they looked in relation to white women, who at the time were seen as the standard for morality, modesty, and goodness as well as modern beauty.

The portrayal of Black women then, and now still hurts us as a group. Personally, I find that these depictions whether they be in the form of caricature, the infamous ‘video ho’ or a powerful black woman that is true to her work while also fulfilling her sexual desires (like Olivia Pope) all paint black women as a monolith because no matter what you are doing, or what you have achieved in life, you are still a black woman with breasts, an ass and thighs that white (and black) men will lust after. We are overshadowed by our sexuality through the objectifying of our bodies and thus taken advantage of. In lecture, we learned that this began during slavery because by law, slave women were a white mans property and the white man had a right to do whatever he wanted with the slaves he owned, but now this is survived through the perpetuation of this idea that black women are morally loose, and therefore it makes it okay to degrade, sexualize, and abuse them.

Images like these, though detrimental to an entire community of people, are significant in nature. These pictures help us to understand where controlling images originate from and how they were spread. At the time these images were released, it was a lighthearted way to perpetuate horrible stereotypes about black women and turn intrigue in to exploitative ways in which white people ridicule our features. It reflects the racist ideas of the white majority that viewed Black women as animal like sexual predators who were unable to control themselves, and with their enlarged features cannot help their sexual desires. The significance of these types of pictures today serves as a way to look to the past for explanation, like why the black woman is largely assumed to be a hoe today. It helps to view the past, and how black women were portrayed in media and in the white public. Our course material really emphasized controlling images of black people as the number one source of discrimination in the era post emancipation. “Ethnic Notions”, which we watched in lecture, brought to light the many stereotypes white people used against African Americans, in order to further oppress a population coming out of a tumultuous  period in history. In class we also expanded on these images and their classifications. For example, the ‘sambo’ embodied a lazy, silly and childlike image of the black man, which mirrored how some of the white population felt when slaves were emancipated. Another, the ‘mammy’, was a happy and asexual woman who was a happy servant in the white household. Each stereotype, or controlling image painted the Black population in a negative way, which is key to understanding why certain images persist today.

The time period in which these images range from, slavery to Jim Crow, is extensive. But, in the context of the evolution of the jezebel image, slavery is key in the development. Slavery allowed for the sexual exploitation of black women to occur often, and also gave way to reproductive exploitation as well. One of the ways this sexual manipulation occurred is through the power of the white master and his claim to ‘property’, and is described “African Americans were objectified as chattel, their black bodies commodified as property…” (Pittman, 2015). This time period is important for African Americans in the sense that every stereotype, and image of our women is derived from exploitative practices and atrocities done by the white men that had the power to shape these images. It is also evident that controlling images of black women served as validation for the abuse against them as rape was “masked and justified via controlling images-mule, breeder, jezebel” (Pittman, 2015). During the Jim Crow era, or post emancipation, the image of the jezebel black woman stood as sexual violence against her stayed an imminent threat. There was little ways in which to combat these images, but black women did try. Patricia Collins, author of Black Sexual Politics writes “Middle-class Black women, especially those in the Black Baptist Church and within the Black Women’s Club Movement, refuted the controlling image of the jezebel by advocating a “politics of respectability” characterized by cleanliness of person and property, temperance, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity” (71). Still, black women in Jim Crow were at a disadvantage when there was any sexual violence committed against them by white men, as they could not testify in court, much like times in slavery wherein black women’s voices were stifled under white supremacy.

This artifact, though disappointing and degrading to black women, ties in to the idea of the black woman being a “thot” today. Any woman can own their sexuality, and be called a whore, slut, etc. but the black woman especially is targeted in these ways. Owning your black sexuality means being subject to exotification, degradation, and fetishizing on higher calibers than women of other racial minorities. The mass media ideal of a black woman does not aid this, but perpetuates it as our assets seem to only include coke bottle figures and perfectly toned skin. The jezebel image continues to persist as this country still depicts black women as sexual objects with loose morals, much like it was engineered to in order to maintain a level of inferiority and supremacy between the white male and black woman.

Works Cited

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Pittman, LaShawnda. “Black Sexual Politics.” University of Washington, Seattle. 8 Dec. 2015. Lecture.

“Sara “Saartjie” Baartman.” South African History Online, 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

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