Women Essay, Research Paper
Scientific racism has been used to oppress, enslave and to justify torture. In my essay I will explore how scientific racism has been used to detriment the health of women of colour. Throughout history women of colour have been experimented upon, sexualized and reproductively abused with scientific racism as justification or the underlying premise for the thought behind this abuse. I will explore this idea using examples throughout various periods of history, as well I will show the contemporary effects.
First, I will look at the enslavement of Africans in the New World. During this period women of African descent were raped and abused. They were deemed as sexual beings and were used not only as producers but also as reproducers, to replenish the enslaved population. This latter role was also perpetuated through the rape of enslaved African women by their white slave masters. Thus, the health of these women was negated for the welfare of the plantation system. This system was justified by scientific racism and my essay will show how Europeans came to the conclusion that this was morally permissible. I will also explore how this has affected the idea of motherhood, showing the eurocentric view of African motherhood and contrast this with
Another historical issue I will investigate is the governmentally coerced sterilization of women of colour in North America. I will particularly focus on Native American women, women of African descent and Puerto Rican women. I will look at the historical influence of governmentally funded sterilization from the beginning of the eugenics movement, a movement, which originated through scientific racism, in the nineteenth century to see how this affects women of colour today. I will also investigate the social prejudices and rationalizations for sterilization of the “less-talented” members of society advocated by the most influential social and biological scientists in North American history. These “science”-based eugenic influences break through the lines of science in to the world of politics, promulgating anti-humanistic views of poor women of colour in the form of legislation fraught with bigotry and baseless generalizations. This political view flows through the judicial system, as courts apply eugenic philosophies in determining who should be sterilized and for what reasons.
Black feminists have investigated how rape as a specific form of sexual violence is embedded in a system of interlocking race, gender, and class oppression (Davis 1978, 1981, 1989; Hall 1983). Reproductive rights issues such as access to information on sexuality and birth control, the struggles for abortion rights, and patterns of forced sterilization have also garnered attention
Examining the links between sexuality and power in a system of interlocking race, gender, and class oppression should reveal how important controlling Black women’s sexuality has been to the effective operation of domination overall. The words of Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and Alice Walker provide a promising foundation for a comprehensive Black feminist analysis.
The Sexual Politics Of Black Womanhood
Patricia Hill Collins
Even I found it almost impossible to let her say what had happened to her as she perceived it … And why? Because once you strip away the lie that rape is pleasant, that children are not permanently damaged by sexual pain, that violence done to them is washed away by fear, silence, and time, you are left with the positive horror of the lives of thousands of children … who have been sexually abused and who have never been permitted their own language to tell about it.
– Alice Walker 1988, 57
In The Color Purple Alice Walker creates the character of Celie, a Black adolescent girl who is sexually abused by her stepfather. By writing letters to God and forming supportive relationships with other Black women, Celie finds her own voice, and her voice enables her to transcend the fear and silence of her childhood. By creating Celie and giving her the language to tell of her sexual abuse, Walker adds Celie’s voice to muted yet growing discussions of the sexual politics of Black womanhood in Black feminist thought. Black feminists have investigated how rape as a specific form of sexual violence is embedded in a system of interlocking race, gender, and class oppression (Davis 1978, 1981, 1989; Hall 1983). Reproductive rights issues such as access to information on sexuality and birth control, the struggles for abortion rights, and patterns of forced sterilization have also garnered attention (Davis 1981). Black lesbian feminists have vigorously challenged the basic assumptions and mechanisms of control underlying compulsory heterosexuality and have investigated homophobia’s impact on African-American women (Clarke 1983; Shockley 1983; Barbara Smith 1983; Lorde 1984).
But when it comes to other important issues concerning the sexual politics of Black womanhood, like Alice Walker, Black feminists have found it almost impossible to say what has happened to Black women. In the flood of scholarly and popular writing about Black heterosexual relationships, analyses of domestic violence against African-American women–especially those that link this form of sexual violence to existing gender ideology concerning Black masculinity and Black femininity-remain rare. Theoretical work explaining patterns of Black women’s inclusion in the burgeoning international pornography industry has been similarly neglected. Perhaps the most curious omission has been the virtual silence of the Black feminist community concerning the participation of far too many Black women in prostitution. Ironically, while the image of African-American women as prostitutes has been aggressively challenged, the reality of African-American women who work as prostitutes remains unexplored.
These patterns of inclusion and neglect in Black feminist thought merit investigation. Examining the links between sexuality and power in a system of interlocking race, gender, and class oppression should reveal how important controlling Black women’s sexuality has been to the effective operation of domination overall. The words of Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and Alice Walker provide a promising foundation for a comprehensive Black feminist analysis. But Black feminist analyses of sexual politics must go beyond chronicling how sexuality has been used to oppress. Equally important is the need to reconceptualize sexuality with an eye toward empowering African-American women.
A Working Definition Of Sexual Politics
Sexual politics examines the links between sexuality and power. In defining sexuality it is important to distinguish among sexuality and the related terms, sex and gender (Vance 1984; Andersen 1988). Sex is a biological category attached to the body-humans are born female or male. In contrast, gender is socially constructed. The sex/gender system consists of marking the categories of biological sex with socially constructed gender meanings of masculinity and femininity. Just as sex/gender systems vary from relatively egalitarian systems to sex/gender hierarchies, ideologies of sexuality attached to particular sex/gender systems exhibit similar diversity. Sexuality is socially constructed through the sex/gender system on both the personal level of individual consciousness and interpersonal relationships and the social structural level of social institutions (Foucault 1980). This multilevel sex/gender system reflects the needs of a given historical moment such that social constructions of sexuality change in tandem with changing social conditions.
African-American women inhabit a sex/gender hierarchy in which inequalities of race and social class have been sexualized. Privileged groups define their alleged sexual practices as the mythical norm and label sexual practices and groups who diverge from this norm as deviant and threatening (Lorde 1984; Vance 1984). Maintaining the mythical norm of the financially independent, white middle-class family organized around a monogamous heterosexual couple requires stigmatizing African-American families as being deviant, and a primary source of this assumed deviancy stems from allegations about Black sexuality. This sex/gender hierarchy not only operates on the social structural level but is potentially replicated within each individual. Differences in sexuality thus take on more meaning than just benign sexual variation. Each individual becomes a powerful conduit for social relations of domination whereby individual anxieties, fears, and doubts about sexuality can be annexed by larger systems of oppression (Hoch 1979; Foucault1980, 99).
For centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic “outlet” for white men in Europe and America. We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners. We need only think of the license the “master” of the slave women enjoyed. But, most telling of all, we need only study the old slave societies of the South to note the sadistic treatment-at the hands of white “gentlemen”-of “beautiful young quadroons and octoroons” who became increasingly (and were deliberately bred to become) indistinguishable from white women, and were the more highly prized as slave mistresses because of this. (Walker 1981, 42)
Alice Walker’s description of the rape of enslaved African women for the “pleasure and profit of their owners” encapsulates several elements of contemporary pornography. First, Black women were used as sex objects for the pleasure of white men. This objectification of African-American women parallels the portrayal of women in pornography as sex objects whose sexuality is available for men (McNall 1983). Exploiting Black women as breeders objectified them as less than human because only animals can be bred against their will. In contemporary pornography women are objectified through being portrayed as pieces of meat, as sexual animals awaiting conquest. Second, African-American women were raped, a form of sexual violence. Violence is typically an implicit or explicit theme in pornography. Moreover, the rape of Black women linked sexuality and violence, another characteristic feature of pornography (Eisenstein 1983). Third, rape and other forms of sexual violence act to strip victims of their will to resist and make them passive and submissive to the will of the rapist. Female passivity, the fact that women have things done to them, is a theme repeated over and over in contemporary pornography (MeNall 1983). Fourth, the profitability of Black women’s sexual exploitation for white “gentlemen” parallels pornography’s financially lucrative benefits for pornographers (Eisenstein 1983). Finally, the actual breeding of “quadroons and octoroons” not only reinforces the themes of Black women’s passivity, objectification, and malleability to male control but reveals pornography’s grounding in racism and sexism. The fates of both Black and white women were intertwined in this breeding process. The ideal African-American woman as a pornographic object was indistinguishable from white women and thus approximated the images of beauty, asexuality, and chastity forced on white women. But inside was a highly sexual whore, a “slave mistress” ready to cater to her owner’s pleasure.2
Contemporary pornography consists of a series of icons or representations that focus the viewer’s attention on the relationship between the portrayed individual and the general qualities ascribed to that class of individuals. Pornographic images are iconographic in that they represent realities in a manner determined by the historical position of the observers, their relationship to their own time, and to the history of the conventions which they employ (Gilman 1985). The treatment of Black women’s bodies in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States may be the foundation upon which contemporary pornography as the representation of women’s objectification, domination, and control is based. Icons about the sexuality of Black women’s bodies emerged in these contexts. Moreover, as race/gender-specific representations, these icons have implications for the treatment of both African-American and white women in contemporary pornography.
I suggest that African-American women were not included in pornography as an afterthought but instead form a key pillar on which contemporary pornography itself rests. As Alice Walker points out, “the more ancient roots of modem pornography are to be found in the almost always pornographic treatment of black women who, from the moment they entered slavery . . . were subjected to rape as the ‘logical’ convergence of sex and violence. Conquest, in short” (1981,42).
One key feature about the treatment of Black women in the nineteenth century was how their bodies were objects of display. In the antebellum American South white men did not have to look at pornographic pictures of women because they could become voyeurs of Black women on the auction block. A chilling example of this objectification of the Black female body is provided by the exhibition, in early nineteenth-century Europe, of Sarah Bartmann, the so-called Hottentot Venus. Her display formed one of the original icons for Black female sexuality. An African women, Sarah Bartmann was often exhibited at fashionable parties in Paris, generally wearing little clothing, to provide entertainment. To her audience she represented deviant sexuality. At the time European audiences thought that Africans had deviant sexual practices and searched for physiological differences, such as enlarged penises and malformed female genitalia, as indications of this deviant sexuality. Sarah Bartmann’s exhibition stimulated these racist and sexist beliefs. After her death in 1815, she was dissected. Her genitalia and buttocks remain on display in Paris (Gilman1985).
Sander Gilman explains the impact that Sarah Bartmann’s exhibition had on Victorian audiences:
It is important to note that Sarah Bartmann was exhibited not to show her genitalia-but rather to present another anomaly which the European audience… found riveting. This was the steatopygia, or protruding buttocks, the other physical characteristic of the Hottentot female which captured the eye of early European travelers…. The figure of Sarah Bartmann was reduced to her sexual parts. The audience which had paid to see her buttocks and had fantasized about the uniqueness of her genitalia when she was alive could, after her death and dissection, examine both. (1985, 213)
In this passage Gilman unwittingly describes how Bartmann was used as a pornographic object similar to how women are represented in contemporary pornography. She was reduced to her sexual parts, and these parts came to represent a dominant icon applied to Black women throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, the fact that Sarah Bartmann was both African and a woman underscores the importance of gender in maintaining notions of racial purity. In this case Bartmann symbolized Blacks as a “race.” Thus the creation of the icon applied to Black women demonstrates that notions of gender, race, and sexuality were linked in overarching structures of political domination and economic exploitation.
The process illustrated by the pornographic treatment of the bodies of enslaved African women and of women like Sarah Bartmann has developed into a full-scale industry encompassing all women objectified differently by racial/ethnic category. Contemporary portrayals of Black women in pornography represent the continuation of the historical treatment of their actual bodies. African-American women are usually depicted in a situation of bondage and slavery, typically in a submissive posture, and often with two white men. As Bell observes, “this setting reminds us of all the trappings of slavery: chains, whips, neck braces, wrist clasps” (1987, 59). White women and women of color have different pornographic images applied to them. The image of Black women in pornography is almost consistently one featuring them breaking from chains. The image of Asian women in pornography is almost consistently one of being tortured (Bell 1987, 161).
The pornographic treatment of Black women’s bodies challenges the prevailing feminist assumption that since pornography primarily affects white women, racism has been grafted onto pornography. African-American women’s experiences suggest that Black women were not added into a preexisting pornography, but rather that pornography itself must be reconceptualized as an example of the interlocking nature of race, gender, and class oppression. At the heart of both racism and sexism are notions of biological determinism claiming that people of African descent and women possess immutable biological characteristics marking their inferiority to elite white men (Gould 1981; Fausto-Sterling 1989; Halpin 1989). In pornography these racist and sexist beliefs are sexualized. Moreover, for African-American women pornography has not been timeless and universal but was tied to Black women’s experiences with the European colonization of Africa and with American slavery. Pornography emerged within a specific system of social class relationships.
This linking of views of the body, social constructions of race and gender, and conceptualizations of sexuality that inform Black women’s treatment as pornographic objects promises to have significant implications for how we assess contemporary pornography. Moreover, examining how pornography has been central to the race, gender, and class oppression of African-American women offers new routes for understanding the dynamics of power as domination.
Investigating racial patterns in pornography offers one route for such an analysis. Black women have often claimed that images of white women’s sexuality were intertwined with the controlling image of the sexually denigrated Black woman: “In the United States, the fear and fascination of female sexuality was projected onto black women; the passionless lady arose in symbiosis with the primitively sexual slave” (Hall 1983, 333). Comparable linkages exist in pornography (Gardner 1980). Alice Walker provides a fictional account of a Black man’s growing awareness of the different ways that African-American and white women are objectified in pornography: “What he has refused to see-because to see it would reveal yet another area in which he is unable to protector defend black women-is that where white women are depicted in pornography as ‘objects,’ black women are depicted as animals. Where white women are depicted as human bodies if not beings, black women are depicted as *censored*” (Walker 1981, 52).
Walker’s distinction between “objects” and “animals” is crucial in untangling gender, race, and class dynamics in pornography. Within the mind/body, culture/nature, male/female oppositional dichotomies in Western social thought, objects occupy an uncertain interim position. As objects white women become creations of culture-in this case, the mind of white men-using the materials of nature-in this case, uncontrolled female sexuality. In contrast, as animals Black women receive no such redeeming dose of culture and remain open to the type of exploitation visited on nature overall. Race becomes the distinguishing feature in determining the type of objectification women will encounter. Whiteness as symbolic of both civilization and culture is used to separate objects from animals.
The alleged superiority of men to women is not the only hierarchical relationship that has been linked to the putative superiority of the mind to the body. Certain “races” of people have been defined as being more bodylike, more animallike, and less godlike than others (Spelman 1982,52). Race and gender oppression may both revolve around the same axis of distain for the body; both portray the sexuality of subordinate groups as animalistic and therefore deviant. Biological notions of race and gender prevalent in the early nineteenth century which fostered the animalistic icon of Black female sexuality were joined by the appearance of a racist biology incorporating the concept of degeneracy (Foucault 1980). Africans and women were both perceived as embodied entities, and Blacks were seen as degenerate. Fear of and distain for the body thus formed a key element in both sexist and racist thinking (Spelman 1982).
While the sexual and racial dimensions of being treated like an animal are important, the economic foundation underlying this treatment is critical. Animals can be economically exploited, worked, sold, killed, and consumed. As “mules,” African-American women become susceptible to such treatment. The political economy of pornography also merits careful attention. Pornography is pivotal in mediating contradictions in changing societies (McNall 1983). It is no accident that racist biology, religious justifications for slavery and women’s subordination, and other explanations for nineteenth-century racism and sexism arose during a period of profound political and economic change. Symbolic means of domination become particularly important in mediating contradictions in changing political economies. The exhibition of Sarah Bartmann and Black women on the auction block were not benign intellectual exercises-these practices defended real material and political interests. Current transformations in international capitalism require similar ideological justifications. Where does pornography fit in these current transformations? This question awaits a comprehensive Afrocentric feminist analysis.
Publicly exhibiting Black women may have been central to objectifying Black women as animals and to creating the icon of Black women as animals. Yi-Fu Tuan (1984) offers an innovative argument about similarities in efforts to control nature-especially plant life-the domestication of animals, and the domination of certain groups of humans. Tuan suggests that displaying humans alongside animals implies that such humans are more like monkeys and bears than they are like “normal” people. This same juxtaposition leads spectators to view the captive animals in a special way. Animals acquire definitions of being like humans, only more openly carnal and sexual, an aspect of animals that forms a major source of attraction for visitors to modern zoos. In discussing the popularity of monkeys in zoos, Tuan notes: “some visitors are especially attracted by the easy sexual behavior of the monkeys. Voyeurism is forbidden except when applied to subhumans” (1984, 82). Tuan’s analysis suggests that the public display of Sarah Bartmann and of the countless enslaved African women on the auction blocks of the antebellum American South—especially in proximity to animals-fostered their image as animalistic.
This linking of Black women and animals is evident in nineteenth-century scientific literature. The equation of women, Blacks, and animals is revealed in the following description of an African woman published in an 1878 anthropology text:
She had a way of pouting her lips exactly like what we have observed in the orangutan. Her movements had something abrupt and fantastical about them, reminding one of those of the ape. Her ear was like that of many apes…. These are animal characters. I have never seen a human head more like an ape than that of this woman. (Halpin 1989, 287)
In a climate such as this, it is not surprising that one prominent European physician even stated that Black women’s “animallike sexual appetite went so far as to lead black women to copulate with apes” (Gilman 1985, 212).
The treatment of all women in contemporary pornography has strong ties to the portrayal of Black women as animals. In pornography women become nonpeople and are often represented as the sum of their fragmented body parts. Scott McNall observes:
This fragmentation of women relates to the predominance of rear-entry position photographs…. All of these kinds of photographs reduce the woman to her reproductive system, and, furthermore, make her open, willing, and available–not in control…. The other thing rear-entry position photographs tell us about women is that they are animals. They are animals because they are the same as dogs-bitches in heat who can’t control themselves. (McNall 1983, 197-98)
This linking of animals and white women within pornography becomes feasible when grounded in the earlier denigration of Black women as animals.
Developing a comprehensive analysis of the race, gender, and class dynamics of pornography offers possibilities for change. Those Black feminist intellectuals investigating sexual politics imply that the situation is much more complicated than that advanced by some prominent white feminists (see, e.g., Dworkin 1981) in which “men oppress women” because they are men. Such approaches implicitly assume biologically deterministic views of sex, gender, and sexuality and offer few possibilities for change. In contrast, Afrocentric feminist analyses routinely provide for human agency and its corresponding empowerment and for the responsiveness of social structures to human action. In the short story “Coming Apart,” Alice Walker describes one Black man’s growing realization that his enjoyment of pornography, whether of white women as “objects” or Black women as “animals,” degraded him:
He begins to feel sick. For he realizes that he has bought some of the advertisements about women, black and white. And further, inevitably, he has bought the advertisements about himself. In pornography the black man is portrayed as being capable of *censored*ing anything … even a piece of *censored*. He is defined solely by the size, readiness and unselectivity of his cock. (Walker 1981, 52)
Walker conceptualizes pornography as a race/gender system that entraps everyone. But by exploring an African-American man’s struggle for a self-defined standpoint on pornography, Walker suggests that a changed consciousness is essential to social change. If a Black man can understand how pornography -affects him, then other groups emeshed in the same system are equally capable of similar shifts in consciousness and action.
Prostitution and the Commodification of Sexuality
In To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Lorraine Hansberry creates three characters: a young domestic worker, a chic professional, middle-aged woman, and a mother in her thirties. Each speaks a variant of the following:
In these streets out there, any little white boy from Long Island or Westchester sees me and leans out of his car and yells–”Hey there, hot chocolate! Say there, Jezebel! Hey you-’Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding”! YOU! Bet you know where there’s a good time tonight . . . ” Follow me sometimes and see if I lie. I can be coming from eight hours on an assembly line or fourteen hours in Mrs. Halsey’s kitchen. I can be all filled up that day with three hundred years of rage so that my eyes are flashing and my flesh is trembling-and the white boys in the streets, they look at me and think of sex. They look at me and that’s all they think…. Baby, you could be Jesus in drag-but if you’re brown they’re sure you’re selling! (Hansberry 1969, 98)
Like the characters in Hansberry’s fiction, all Black women are affected by the widespread controlling image that African-American women are sexually promiscuous, potential prostitutes. The pervasiveness of this image is vividly recounted in Black activist lawyer Pauli Murray’s description of an incident she experienced while defending two women from Spanish Harlem who had been arrested as prostitutes: “The first witness, a white man from New Jersey, testified on the details of the sexual transaction and his payment of money. When asked to identify the woman with whom he had engaged in sexual intercourse, he unhesitatingly pointed directly at me, seated beside my two clients at the defense table!”(Murray 1987, 274). Murray’s clients were still convicted.
The creation of Jezebel, the image of the sexually denigrated Black woman, has been vital in sustaining a system of interlocking race, gender, and class oppression. Exploring how the image of the African-American woman as prostitute has been used by each system of oppression illustrates how sexuality links the three systems. But Black women’s treatment also demonstrates how manipulating sexuality has been essential to the political economy of domination within each system and across all three.
Yi-Fu Tuan (1984) suggests that power as domination involves reducing humans to animate nature in order to exploit them economically or to treat them condescendingly as pets. Domination may be either cruel and exploitative with no affection or may be exploitative yet coexist with affection. The former produces the victim-in this case, the Black woman as “mule” whose labor has been exploited. In contrast, the combination of dominance and affection produces the pet, the individual who is subordinate but whose survival depends on the whims of the more powerful. The “beautiful young quadroons and octoroons” described by Alice Walker were bred to be pets–enslaved Black mistresses whose existence required that they retain the affection of their owners. The treatment afforded these women illustrates a process that affects all African-American women: their portrayal as actual or potential victims and pets of elite white males.3
African-American women simultaneously embody the coexistence of the victim and the pet, with survival often linked to the ability to be appropriately subordinate as victims or pets. Black women’s experiences as unpaid and paid workers demonstrate the harsh lives victims are forced to lead. While the life of the victim is difficult, pets experience a distinctive form of exploitation. Zora Neale Hurston’s 1943 essay, “The ‘Pet’ Negro System,” speaks contemptuously of this ostensibly benign situation that combines domination with affection. Written in a Black oratorical style, Hurston notes, “Brother and Sisters, I take my text this morning from the Book of Dixie…. Now it says here ‘And every white man shall be allowed to pet himself a Negro. Yea, he shall take a black man unto himself to pet and cherish, and this same Negro shall be perfect in his sight’” (Walker 1979a, 156). Pets are treated as exceptions and live with the constant threat that they will no longer be “perfect in his sight,” that their owners will tire of them and relegate them to the unenviable role of victim.
Prostitution represents the fusion of exploitation for an economic purpose-namely, the commodification of Black women’s sexuality-with the demeaning treatment afforded pets. Sex becomes commodified not merely in the sense that it can be purchased-the dimension of economic exploitation-but also in the sense that one is dealing with a totally alienated being who is separated from and who does not control her body: the dimension of power as domination (McNall 1983). Commodified sex can then be appropriated by the powerful. When the “white boys from Long Island” look at Black women and all they think about is sex, they believe that they can appropriate Black women’s bodies. When they yell “Bet you know where there’s a good time tonight,” they expect commodified sex with Black women as “animals” to be better than sex with white women as “objects.” Both pornography and prostitution commodity sexuality and imply to the “white boys” that all African-American women can be bought.
Prostitution under European and American capitalism thus exists within a complex web of political and economic relationships whereby sexuality is conceptualized along intersecting axes of race and gender. Gilman’s (1985)analysis of the exhibition of Sarah Bartmann as the “Hottentot Venus” suggests another intriguing connection between race, gender, and sexuality in nineteenth-century Europe-the linking of the icon of the Black woman with the icon of the white prostitute. While the Hottentot woman stood for the essence of Africans as a race, the white prostitute symbolized the sexualized woman. The prostitute represented the embodiment of sexuality and all that European society associated with it: disease as well as passion. As Gilman points out, “it is this uncleanliness, this disease, which forms the final link between two images of women, the black and the prostitute. Just as the genitalia of the Hottentot were perceived as parallel to the diseased genitalia of the prostitute, so to the power of the idea of corruption links both images” (1985, 237). These connections between the icons of Black women and white prostitutes demonstrate how race, gender, and the social class structure of the European political economy interlock.
In the American antebellum South both of these images were fused in the forced
prostitution of enslaved African women. The prostitution of Black women allowed white women to be the opposite; Black “whores” make white “virgins” possible. This race/gender nexus fostered a situation whereby white men could then differentiate between the sexualized woman-as-body who is dominated and “screwed” and the asexual woman-as-pure-spirit who is idealized and brought home to mother (Hoch 1979, 70). The sexually denigrated woman, whether she was made a victim through her rape or a pet through her seduction, could be used as the yardstick against which the cult of true womanhood was measured. Moreover, this entire situation was profitable.
Rape and Sexual Violence
Force was important in creating African-American women’s centrality to American images of the sexualized woman and in shaping their experiences with both pornography and prostitution. Black women did not willingly submit to their exhibition on southern auction blocks-they were forced to do so. Enslaved African women could not choose whether to work-they were beaten and often killed if they refused. Black domestics who resisted the sexual advances of their employers often found themselves looking for work where none was to be found. Both the reality and the threat of violence have acted as a form of social control for African-American women.
Rape has been one fundamental tool of sexual violence directed against African-American women. Challenging the pervasiveness of Black women’s rape and sexual extortion by white men has long formed a prominent theme in Black women’s writings. Autobiographies such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) and Harriet Jacobs’s “The Perils of a Slave Woman’s Life” (1860/1987)from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl record examples of actual and threatened sexual assault. The effects of rape on African-American women is a prominent theme in Black women’s fiction. Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975) and Rosa Guy’s A Measure of Time (1983) both explore interracial rape of Black women. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1980) all examine rape within African-American families and communities. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis’s(1985) study of domestic workers found that mothers, aunts, and community othermothers warned young Black women about the threat of rape. One respondent in Clark-Lewis’s study, an 87-year-old North Carolina Black domestic worker, remembers, “nobody was sent out before you was told to be careful of the white man or his sons” (Clark-Lewis 1985, 15).
Rape and other acts of overt violence that Black women have experienced, such as physical assault during slavery, domestic abuse, incest, and sexual extortion, accompany Black women’s subordination in a system of race, class, and gender oppression. These violent acts are the visible dimensions of a more generalized, routinized system of oppression. Violence against Black women tends to be legitimated and therefore condoned while the same acts visited on other groups may remain nonlegitimated and nonexcusable. Certain forms of violence may garner the backing and control of the state while others remain uncontrolled (Edwards 1987). Specific acts of sexual violence visited on African-American, women reflect a broader process by which violence is socially constructed in a race- and gender-specific manner. Thus Black women, Black men, and white women experience distinctive forms of sexual violence. As Angela Davis points out, “it would be a mistake to regard the institutionalized pattern of rape during slavery as an expression of white men’s sexual urges…. Rape was a weapon of domination, a weapon of repression, whose covert goal was to extinguish slave women’s will to resist, and in the process, to demoralize their men” (1981, 23).
Angela Davis’s work (1978, 1981, 1989) illustrates this effort to conceptualize sexual violence against African-American women as part of a system of interlocking race, gender, and class oppression. Davis suggests that sexual violence has been central to the economic and political subordination of African-Americans overall. But while Black men and women were both victims of sexual violence, the specific forms they encountered were gender specific.
Depicting African-American men as sexually charged beasts who desired white women created the myth of the Black rapist.4 Lynching emerged as the specific form of sexual violence visited on Black men, with the myth of the Black rapist as its ideological justification. The significance of this myth is that it “has been methodically conjured up when recurrent waves of violence and terror against the black community required a convincing explanations (Davis 1978, 25). Black women experienced a parallel form of race- and gender-specific sexual violence. Treating African-American women as pornographic objects and portraying them as sexualized animals, as prostitutes, created the controlling image of Jezebel. Rape became the specific act of sexual violence forced on Black women, with the myth of the Black prostitute as its ideological justification.
Lynching and rape, two race/gender-specific forms of sexual violence, merged with their ideological justifications of the rapist and prostitute in order to provide an effective system of social control over African-Americans. Davis asserts that the controlling image of Black men as rapists has always “strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the black woman as chronically promiscuous. And with good reason, for once the notion is accepted that black men harbor irresistible, animal-like sexual urges, the entire race is invested with bestiality” (1978, 27). A race of “animals” can be treated as such-as victims or pets. “The mythical rapist implies the mythical whore-and a race of rapists and whores deserves punishment and nothing more” (Davis 1978, 28).
Some suggestive generalizations exist concerning the connection between the social constructions of the rapist and the prostitute and the tenets of racist biology. Tuan (1984) notes that humans practice certain biological procedures on plants and animals to ensure their suitability as pets. For animals the goal of domestication is manageability and control, a state that can be accomplished through selective breeding or, for some male animals, by castration. A similar process may have affected the historical treatment of African-Americans. Since dominant groups have generally refrained from trying to breed humans in the same way that they breed animals, the pervasiveness of rape and lynching suggests that these practices may have contributed to mechanisms of population control. While not widespread, in some slave settings selective breeding and, if that failed, rape were used to produce slaves of a certain genetic heritage. In an 1858 slave narrative, James Roberts recounts the plantation of Maryland planter Calvin Smith, a man who kept 50-60 “head of women” for reproductive purposes. Only whites were permitted access to these women in order to ensure that 20-25 racially mixed children were born annually. Roberts also tells of a second planter who competed with Smith in breeding mulattos, a group that at that time brought higher prices, the “same as men strive to raise the most stock of any kind, cows, sheep, horses, etc.” (Weisbord 1975, 27). For Black men, lynching was frequently accompanied by castration. Again, the parallels to techniques used to domesticate animals, or at least serve as a warning to those Black men who remained alive, is striking.
Black women continue to deal with this legacy of the sexual violence visited on African-Americans generally and with our history as collective rape victims. One effect lies in the treatment of rape victims. Such women are twice victimized, first by the actual rape, in this case the collective rape under slavery. But they are victimized again by family members, community residents, and social institutions such as criminal justice systems which somehow believe that rape victims are responsible for their own victimization. Even though current statistics indicate that Black women are more likely to be victimized than white women, Black women are less likely to report their rapes, less likely to have their cases come to trial, less likely to have their trials result in convictions, and, most disturbing, less likely to seek counseling and other support services. Existing evidence suggests that African-American women are aware of their lack of protection and that they resist rapists more than other groups (Bart and O’Brien 1985).
Another significant effect of this legacy of sexual violence concerns Black women’s absence from antirape movements. Angela Davis argues, “if black women are conspicuously absent from the ranks of the anti-rape movement today, it is, in large part, their way of protesting the movement’s posture of indifference toward the frame-up rape charge as an incitement to racist aggression” (1978, 25). But this absence fosters Black women’s silence concerning a troubling issue: the fact that most Black women are raped by Black men. While the historical legacy of the triad of pornography, prostitution, and the institutionalized rape of Black women may have created the larger social context within which all African-Americans reside, the unfortunate current reality is that many Black men have internalized the controlling images of the sex/gender hierarchy and condone either Black women’s rape by other Black men or their own behavior as rapists. Far too many African-American women live with the untenable position of putting up with abusive Black men in defense of an elusive Black unity.
The historical legacy of Black women’s treatment in pornography, prostitution, and rape forms the institutional backdrop for a range of interpersonal relationships that Black women currently have with Black men, whites, and one another. Without principled coalitions with other groups, African-American women may not be able to effect lasting change on the social structural level of social institutions. But the first step to forming such coalitions is examining exactly how these institutions harness power as energy for their own use by invading both relationships among individuals and individual consciousness itself. Thus understanding the contemporary dynamics of the sexual politics of Black womanhood in order to empower African-American women requires investigating how social structural factors infuse the private domain of Black women’s relationships.
1. French philosopher Michel Foucault makes a similar point: “I believe that the political significance of the problem of sex is due to the fact that sex is located at the point of intersection of the discipline of the body and the control of the population”(1980, 125). The erotic is something felt, a power than is embodied. Controlling sexuality harnesses that power for the needs of larger, hierarchical systems by controlling the body and hence the population.
2. Offering a similar argument about the relationship between race and masculinity, Paul Hoch (1979) suggests that the ideal white man is a hero who upholds honor. But inside lurks a “Black beast” of violence and sexuality, traits that the white hero deflects onto men of color.
3. Any group can be made into pets. Consider Tuan’s (1984) discussion of the role that young Black boys played as exotic ornaments for wealthy white women in the 1500s to the early 1800s in England. Unlike other male servants, the boys were the favorite attendants of noble ladies and gained entry into their mistresses’ drawing rooms, bedchambers, and theater boxes. Boys were often given fancy collars with padlocks to wear. “As they did with their pet dogs and monkeys, the ladies grew genuinely fond of their black boys” (p. 142). In addition, Nancy White’s analysis in Chapter 5 of the differences between how white and Black women are treated by white men uses this victim/pet metaphor (Gwaltney 1980, 148).
4. See Hoch’s (1979) discussion of the roots of the white hero, black beast myth in Eurocentric thought. Hoch contends that white masculinity is based on the interracial competition for women. To become a “man,” the white, godlike hero must prove himself victorious over the dark “beast” and win possession of the “white goddess.” Through numerous examples Hoch suggests that this explanatory myth underlies Western myth, poetry, and literature. One example describing how Black men were depicted during the witch hunts is revealing. Hoch notes, “the Devil was often depicted as a lascivious black male with cloven hoofs, a tail, and a huge penis capable of super-masculine exertion-an archetypal leering “black beast from below” (1979, 44).
“The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood”. In: Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 163-180.
Copyright (c) 1990. From BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT by Patricia Hill Collins.