The sexuality of Black women is an important topic for Black feminism. From the politics of respectabilityto the politics of pleasure, Black women have developed a number of strategies to navigate the pathologizing of Black women’s sexuality.
Historian Evelyn Hammonds documents the progression of the controlling images of Black womanhood throughout history in her piece1 “[Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality (http://sites.middlebury.edu/soan191/files/2013/08/HammondsTowardGeneology.pdf).” Hammonds points to three sets of issues in regard to Black womens sexuality from the 19th century to present:
- The society creates a social construct of Black and White womanhood in binary opposition.
- Black womens sexual behavior is simultaneously invisible, visible, hyper visible and pathologized in dominant discourse.
- While Black women do try to resist controlling images they face several barriers to the experience of full autonomy.
The Politics of Silence
Hammonds notes that Black feminists describe Black women’s sexuality as an absence. Described in metaphors of speechlessness, space, or vision where Black womens bodies are already colonized.
The metaphor of absence arises during “Pray You Catch Me,” the opening number of Beyoncés Lemonade.In a subdued, almost fatigued voice, the songstress attempts to make visible the absence of her spouse. Acting covertly, she voices her discontent with the secrecy, telling her lover “I pray you catch me listening.”
Hammonds offers three themes in the history of Black womens sexuality:
1. The social construction of Black womanhood embodied as sex and everything that is not White
2. The resistance of Black women against negative stereotypes and its material effect
3. The creation of a culture of dissemblance and politics of silence on the topic of sexuality.
Sarah Bartmaan and the Making of the Jezebel.
During 19th century, black women depicted as prostitutes through the image of Hottentot woman most notably Sarah Bartmaan aka “Hottentot Venus.” Europeans depicted African womens bodies as primitive and endowed with primitive sexual appetites. These beliefs had real consequences. As anxiety about sexually transmitted disease increased, these women were labeled as source of corruption and disease.
Hammonds also points out that the negative construction of Black women’s sexuality questioned Black women’s entitlement to citizenship. This belief linked racial difference to sexual difference and maintained white male supremacy during the colonial era. Black women thus were characterized as the always sexually available Black woman. According to Hammonds, scientific racism was partly to blame.
Ideologically, these sciences reflected European males’ fear of difference in the period of colonialism, and their consequent need to control and regulate the sexuality of those rendered ‘other.’ (95).
Sexual stereotypes helped justify lynching of Black men and rape of Black women. Additionally, Black women lacked social, political, and legal rights on the basis racial differences were biologically distinct.
How Middle Class Black Women Changed the Story
Toward the end of 19th century society placed black and White womens sexuality in opposition through Victorian sexual ideology and state practices of repression. While White women were portrayed as pure and de-sexed, Black women were immoral, pathological embodiments of sex itself. Thus a politics of respectability and sexual control pitted White purity against the alleged promiscuity of Black women and helped mark boundaries around the cult of true womanhood.
Black women reformers responded to increasing exploitation and abuse of Black women with strategies to counter negative stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality. During the Reconstruction era, political rights of black men linked to perceptions of their sexual agency. Increased lynchings in 20th century suggests this continued to be a problem post-slavery.
Black women reformers started to promote public silence on sexuality in twentieth century. This “politics of silence” helped black women protect their inner lives in what historian Darlene Clark Hine describes as a culture of dissemblance. This left people with the impression of a very moral black woman demanded more respect, justice, and opportunity for all black women. Unfortunately, its weaknesses meant that it did not end stereotyping of Black women as middle-class black women policed working-class Black women for deviating from Victorian womanhood. They saw any deviant behavior as a threat to the race as a whole. Due to the circumstances of this history of sexual violence and exploitation, Black women have lost the ability to articulate their sexuality.
- Published in 1997,this historical analysis was the first of its kind. ↩