Recent movies 12 Years a Slave, Django, and the Birth of a Nation center Black men protagonists and include Black women in supporting roles as mother, spouse, or child. Historian Deborah Gray White wrote Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South because most accounts of slavery tend to focus on Black men. I recently read the book because I wanted to understand the foundation for Black women’s labor in the United States. I found that this book provided historical evidence of the controlling images such as the Jezebel.
Ar’n’t I a Woman explains how society reinforces a racialized binary of womanhood meant to bolster a sense of superiority among white women through the denigration of Black women. Society held the (white) Victorian lady of the mid-nineteenth century as the ideal standard and saw the (Black) Jezebel as its counterimage. Europeans told jokes and wrote poetry about the ‘negro wench,’ further developing the imagery in their accounts of Africa as they traveled to the continent to purchase slaves. Their accounts of Black women conflated the cultural practices of dress such as semi-nudity with promiscuity. Furthermore, they claimed African cultural traditions showcased profane rather than sacred practices.
Another reason the Jezebel trope persisted had to do with the way slaveowners and traders used Black women’s bodies as a form of reproductive technology in order to generate free labor. Black women’s children, born into enslavement, often resulted from arrangements on the part of slave traders or owners whether through rape, arranged marriages, or the use of incentives like more food for pregnant women. Left exposed on the auction block, Black women’s bodies symbolized only their reproductive capacity.
The Jezebel imagery characterizes Black women as hypersexual and undesirable due to the taboo around interracial coupling as well as a fear of an increasingly mixed-race population. White men freely purchased light-skinned Black women as prostitutes or concubines in a practice known as ‘the Fancy Trade.’ Others forced themselves onto enslaved Black women or coerced them into becoming mistresses by promising them or their children freedom. While the Jezebel trope claimed the promiscuity of Black women led them to pursue sex with white men, few Black women had full agency when it came to their sex lives.