If you’ve heard “bed wench,” it’s undoubtedly been used to disparage Black women. So what does the term mean? In her 2018 book When Rape Was Legal, sociologist Rachel A. Feinstein offers the following description:
“Wench” creates and perpetuates a stereotype of black women as promiscuous, legitimating rape and sexual coercion against them by denying the possibility of their sexual victimization.
– Feinstein (2018:75)
Merriam-Webster defined a wench as “a young woman or girl,” but it may also apply to a “female servant” or describe women and girls with little social power. However, when deployed against Black women, it also invokes another meaning: “a vulgar or promiscuous woman: a female prostitute.” Indeed, as a verb, the word wench refers to the action of sexual relations with women society characterizes as vulgar or promiscuous.
In several of the citations I browsed on Google Scholar, I noticed two patterns of historical use for the term “negro wench.” It appeared in advertisements to described Black women and girls who had fled slavery. I also came across the phrase in studies like Feinstein’s that analyzed historical documents of divorce proceedings between white heterosexual couples during this time period. According to Feinstein, white women filing for divorce would point to their husbands’ adultery with Black women, completely disregarding the power dynamics that rendered this specific breach of marriage vows an act of sexual violence against enslaved Black women. As Feinstein claims, the connotation of wench, especially in the United States, has always been to belittle Black women’s oppression.
The context in which I encounter the phrase “bed wench” directed at Black women explicitly evokes the sexual exploitation of Black women by white men, although in ways that seek to graft contemporary interracial relationships onto the historical terrain. For example, actress Jodie Turner-Smith said that she has received similar abuses from social media users since partnering with actor Joshua Jackson. Surprisingly, however, it is often appears to be Black people behind accounts that describe Black women in interracial relationships in these terms.
Historically, the phrase “bed wench,” described Black women enslaved by white men for sexual purposes. As Broomhilda von Shaft, Kerry Washington portrayed such a character in the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. The use of the term against Black women partnered with white men in today’s society is meant to characterize their relationships as illegitimate on the basis of the sexual racism that informs the legal framework of marriage in the U.S. Unfortunately, the logic of this argument would also render marriages between Black men and women illegimate due to their formerly enslaved status. Furthermore, LGBTQ marriages are entirely ineligible in the colonial era logics that birthed the concept of the “negro bed wench.” However, that’s a topic for a different essay.
Blackface Minstresly and the Wench Caricature
Seeing the phrase circulate so often on social media made me curious about the specific history of the term as it relates to Black women. How had a slavery era term emerged in contemporary discourse? Historian Katrina Thompson Moore provides key insights about its history in a 2021 article for The Journal of American Culture titled “The Wench: Black Women in the Antebellum Minstrel Show and Popular Culture.”
I recently wrote about Matthew D. Morrison’s work on the ways blackface minstrelsy perpetuated stereotypes like the “zip coon” and “Jim Crow” and shaped the popular music industry. In the article, he briefly mentions an 1842 song named “Miss Lucy Long.” Researching this song further on Google Scholar led me to Moore’s work.
According to Moore, the “Miss Lucy Long,” wench caricature reflected the anxieties of working-class white men in the industrialized North and their desire to have control over women. Through blackface, cross-dressing, and female impersonation, white men used minstresly to mock women who fail to meet their standards of likeability and desirability. In addition to these on stage performances, this anti-Black misogynistic trope also got circulated in skits, music, and advertisements during the 19th century.
Moore explains that the wench caricature encompasses a range of disingenuous portrayals of Black women, but her article focuses on two in particular: the yaller gal wench and the grotesque wench. The contrasts and similarities between these tropes reflect the distinct histories that shape Black womanhood from the past to the present.
The Yaller Gal Wench
Moore describes the yaller gal wench as typically a lighter skinned or mixed race Black women. She had physical appeal due to the association of skin color with value as associated with the fancy trade. During the fancy trade, Black women were advertised to white men by skin tone (e.g. “quadroon” or “mulatto”). Thus, her Blackness made her not only a property, but also a commodity, whose underlying whiteness epitomized beauty and desirability to white men. Ultimately, the trope represented Black southern women produced by the rape of Black women by white men as having an innate sexual desire for them, due in part to the Jezebel controlling image.
In popular cultural depictions of this caricature of the time, the yaller gal wench represented either a potential lover or an exchangeable commodity, dependent on her behavior. Yaller gal songs in general referenced romantic relationships, separations, betrayal, death, or even being sold on the auction block, but the titular character always possessed some moral flaw. In the “Miss Lucy Long,” song, for example, the narrator depicts himself as both a white slave owner and a Black husband, threatening to enslave her if she failed to meet his standards as a wife.
Moore asserts that this archetype became a staple of U.S. popular entertainment due to the taboo about interracial relationships. Over time, the sexual enticement and flirtation with audiences associated with the yaller gal blackface minstrel show became integral to the burlesque performances of Black and white women. Indeed, burlesque shows like The Octoroons and The Creole Show involved light skinned Black women performing music and dance on stage.
The Grotesque Wench
The grotesque wench trope portrayed Black women as unattractive and abnormal, and so deserving of humiliation, abuse, and sexual violence. Moore explains this myth portrayed Black women as having “large extremities” such as thick lips in contrast to fragile, petite white women who need protection. During the 19th century, it reflected white anxieties about Black women as a threat to white supremacy by projecting onto their bodies through music, minstrel performances, and other visual culture such as advertisements, circus displays, and cartoons:
The nineteenth-century rise of grotesque wench caricature on the theater stage—depicting Black women as ugly, inhumane, and possessing overly large physical features—correlates with the popular display of actual Black women showcased on stages, in museums, literature, and throughout popular culture in the United States and Europe.
– Moore (2021:327)
Moore mentions Saartjie Baartman, whose body was displayed as a spectacle throughout 19th century Europe. While Baartman was subject to public displays and scientific investigation, white men used the trope of the grotesque wench in minstrelsy and “coon songs” to excuse violence against Black women. This stereotype also linked Black women to masculinity and unattractiveness to attacks for supposed wrongdoings.
Moore argues that even if blackface minstrelsy is no longer popular, the wench stereotype lives on in images and labels that link Black women with vulgarity and hypersexualization. Ultimately, the wench stereotype continues affects Black women’s lives via popular entertainment and visual culture.