Few white Americans are in tune with what African American women have faced in North America. In this book we seek to have readers seriously consider how black women live, dream, suffer, succeed, and prosper in a still racist United States. Examining a large number of individual and focus-group interviews with African American women and men, most of whom are middle class, we explore their experiences in creating lives and communities in environments of continuing racial hostility and discrimination. We examine the impact of this persisting racism on African American individuals, families, and communities.
In these interviews we observe not only the racial trials and tribulations of African Americans but also their hopes, dreams, aspirations, successes, and achievements. Drawing on strong collective traditions and memories, most work hard to build and maintain their immediate families, extended kin networks, local organizations, and communities. In this book we examine black women’s daily experiences using an intensive bottom-up approach. We give the participants the space to voice their own explanations of events and issues in the context of describing their own daily lives.
In the chapters that follow we examine how African American women are physically, morally, and spiritually stigmatized by a dominant culture determined to preserve for white men and women most that is of great value: the affluent life, the “highest” morals, the “beautiful” people, the power and privilege. Our analysis exposes the seamy side of a whitewashed society that labels black
women as deviants and misfits. We show how the stigmatization of black women has many ramifications, including individual and family costs. We illustrate what the patterns of discrimination are for African Americans seeking to achieve the American dream.
In addition, we show how they view the larger issues around being black in a white society and how they and their families fight and contend with the constant acid rain of racism that pervades their daily lives. We do not concentrate only on problems and barriers, for we show how black Americans fight back, how they contend and cope with racial obstacles put in their path by white Americans, and how they create psyches, families, and communities that are home, places of meaning and memory that give one a respite from the presence and machinations of white Americans. We show how imposed situations of discrimination shape mightily a group’s heritage and create the need for an oppositional culture, for an effective means of survival, resistance, and community creation.
One pioneering researcher, Philomena Essed, interviewed black women in Holland and the United States and noted that these women’s accounts of racial discrimination (including “gendered racism”) entailed distinctive systems of knowledge that are critical for fighting against and coping with racism in their daily rounds.1
In their commentaries our respondents demonstrate a major store of knowledge about U.S. society, one rarely drawn on or recognized by the surrounding white society. In the chapters that follow the black reader will see much that is familiar and reinforcing. There may be few surprises. In contrast, the nonblack reader is offered a window into a brave and new world, a world with different and perplexing experiences, deep racial interpretations, profound understandings, and much creative genius.
In this chapter we provide an introduction to issues covered in detail in later chapters. We assess the character of harsh representations of black women, then examine briefly the character of the racial-sexual harassment and discrimination faced every day by black women. After taking into account the consequences of this racism for black children and families, we look at racism in the workplace and its impact. After noting the character of female beauty in this white-dominated society, we assess briefly the role of collective memories and legacies in the ways that African American women contend with the racial oppression that intrudes on their lives.
Social Science Literature
As a group middle-class black women are well educated. They are likely to be engaged in a white-collar occupation. They are attorneys, physicians, dentists, journalists, corporate executives, college professors, private and public administrators, engineers, lawyers and judges, architects, business owners, school counselors, executive secretaries, social workers, and computer and other scientists.2
They are likely to be wives and mothers, and they are probably active in church and community groups. In sum, they are achievers and are role models and reference figures for others, including young people.
Surprisingly, in-depth social scientific studies dealing centrally and thoroughly with the voices and experiences of these heroic women are still relatively few. Most assessments seem to be relatively short analyses placed in journal articles or in edited anthologies, or they take the form of personal memoirs or general essays. Some field research studies of black women focus on the poor or those dealing with the social welfare system. Rare are contemporary studies of middle-class African American women, those whose persisting experiences with discrimination, despite their educational and occupational achievements, provide strong evidence of the central play of discrimination in the lives of contemporary African Americans. A few studies are exploratory and helpful but offer only a beginning to understanding the lives of African American women. For example, Essed’s pioneering analysis in the early 1980s involved a comparison of the lives of fourteen Surinamese Dutch women and eleven African American women; she examined some of their experiences with racism.3
A mid-1980s study of five black women by sociologist Kesho Yvonne Scott explored in interesting detail some of their important “habits of surviving.”4
Given this relative neglect in social science scholarship, it is not surprising that contemporary black women are often misrepresented, mischaracterized, and misrecognized in public and private discourse. Indeed, they are burdened with a negative reputation shaped in part by social science publications since at least the early nineteenth century. The negative characterization of black women as domineering matriarchs or exotic sexual objects was created, and is still perpetuated, by white (usually white male) social scientists, and even by a few black male
social scientists trained by them. These include John Dollard, E. Franklin Frazier, Daniel P. Moynihan, and Charles Murray, to mention only a few. In his still controversial 1950s book, Black Bourgeoisie
, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier asserted:
In the South the middle-class Negro male is not only prevented from playing a masculine role, but generally he must let Negro women assume leadership in any show of militancy. This reacts upon his status in the home where the tradition of female dominance, which is widely established among Negroes, has tended to assign a subordinate role to the male. In fact, in middle-class families, especially if the husband has risen in social status through his own efforts and married a member of an “old” family or a “society” woman, the husband is likely to play a pitiful role. … Yet the conservative and conventional middle-class husband presents a pathetic picture. He often sits at home alone, impotent physically and socially, and complains that his wife has gone crazy about poker and “society” and constantly demands money for gambling and expenditures which he can not afford.5
Frazier, an African American, continues in this negative vein, attributing the black woman’s obsession with gambling to poor character and fascination with matters of the flesh.6
Citing Frazier’s work, the prominent white social scientist (and U.S. senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan has periodically pointed to the black woman as key player in a “tangle of pathology” in the black community. This is an excerpt from his famous report The Negro Family:
“In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male, and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.”7
This long tradition of scholarship is in effect a strong assault on the character and lives of black women and men. In discussing African American families, then or more recently in the 1990s, Moynihan makes little mention of the reality of racial discrimination. From his and similar analyses African American families have mostly themselves to blame for their circumstances. There is no in-depth analysis of the impact of
nearly four hundred years of white oppression—including persisting and large-scale discrimination—on African Americans and their families. By white racism we mean the socially organized set of attitudes, ideas, and practices that deny African Americans (and other people of color) many of the opportunities, freedoms, and rewards that U.S. society has to offer white Americans.
Recently, a lecture by a white male scholar at a historically white university revealed how the academic tradition of negativism in regard to the character of black Americans in general, and black women in particular, still prevails, though often in subtle ways evident only to a careful observer. This lecturer was critical of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve and of the so-called IQ tests used to label African Americans and other people of color as unintelligent. However, this lecturer apparently had difficulty coming up with an example of African American intelligence. The lecturer cited only the example of Josephine Baker, a light-skinned African American woman, whom he praised for her brilliant use of an alternative intelligence as manifested in her creative and provocative dancing. The lecturer emphasized that Baker had once saluted hanging portraits of white men, one by one, using a lower-body movement, and he demonstrated Baker’s style by thrusting his lower body forward to give the audience the flavor of Baker’s “genius.” In this example a black woman’s intelligence was linked to her sexuality. The image of blackness as sexual and primitive was, doubtless unintentionally, probably reinforced in the minds of the mostly white audience.
Grotesque White Stereotypes: “Jezebel” and “Sapphire”
In both the scholarly literature and in public and media discussion, images of hypersexuality and overbearingness often merge to symbolize the black woman. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, in her pioneering book Black Feminist Thought
, delineated the historical images of African American women. One common portrayal is that of the domineering matriarch (“Sapphire”), an emasculator who is strong, unfeminine, and rebellious. In this distorted imagery the matriarch is disliked by black men who refuse or hesitate to marry her. But when chance is such that she weds, she rules so rigorously that her husband finally moves out. He condemns her to a life alone and,
where there are children, transforms her into a displaced and destitute single head of household. Another common portrayal is the hot, exotic, and insatiable sexual player (“Jezebel”) who is especially attracted to white men.8
These are very old images. Kim Marie Vaz has shown how these negative stereotypes had first developed in Spain by the sixteenth century and were exported to the Americas by seafarers and colonists.9
In The Myth of Aunt Jemima
, Diane Roberts notes how blackness has long been “loaded with sexuality.” In the 1700s and 1800s African women and men were depicted by Europeans, in books and on maps, as naked and with exaggerated sexual organs. “The white world drew the black woman’s body as excessive and flagrantly sexual, quite different from the emerging ideology of purity and modesty which defined the white woman’s body,” says Roberts.10
Moreover, several scholars have recently tracked these negative myths in U.S. literature and mass media. Elizabeth Freydberg has shown how in the twentieth century the immoral-sexual (Jezebel) and dominant-matriarch (Sapphire) stereotypes of African American women moved from white-authored novels and other literature to many films.11
Mary Young has made the point that these stereotypes of black women are recycled and revamped periodically by the mass media, as in the recurring portraits of black female Sapphires on television.12
Recent movies continue this tradition. In a review of a film about black women, Waiting to Exhale
, the humanities scholar bell hooks has noted that the film is “so simplistic and denigrating to black women that we should be outraged to be told that it is ‘for us.’”13
In the film several black women are viewed as friends linked in an important network, yet they are mostly portrayed as centered in their sexuality or in female dominance. All but one of the black men in the movie is negatively portrayed. This film was produced by a white studio and based on a novel by Terry McMillan, a black female author. The white producers did not choose from novels by black writers that are more accurate and complex in their presentations of black women. It seems likely that this studio would not
have made a similar movie centered principally on harsh and narrow stereotypes of white women.
Though on the surface somewhat inconsistent, the Jezebel and Sapphire images of black women frequently coexist in the same white minds. In some white accounts, allegedly ignored by black men and desperate for male satisfaction, the black female turns to white men
for companionship denied to her by black men. Some whites assume that associating with white men enhances a black woman’s racial-gender position, because socially devalued black-woman attributes are counterbalanced or positively reduced by the addition of the more valued white-man attributes.
An example of this Jezebel image can be seen in the comment of one male writer about the inclusion of African American women in a men’s magazine: “So, Black women have been elevated from the status of whore to ‘Playmate.’ Now white boys can put them in Playboy
without damaging the magazine’s respectability too much.”14
Jezebel was attractive but “voluptuary, with all the tawdry arts of a wanton woman.”15
In early Christian writings she is described as overbearing, with a powerful character, a plotter, lascivious wife, and lover of personal adornment. Sinful, amoral, proud, and unashamed—in sum, a detested woman, she was thrown out of a window and devoured by dogs. Hers was a harsh but merited punishment.16
One can see how, particularly in a society whose white leaders often claim it is Christian, the representing of black women as Jezebels affects popular racial-gender thinking in ways that can justify very harsh treatment.
At other times, the black woman is represented as Sapphira (Sapphire), a Hebrew name meaning jewel.17
In European and Euro-American thinking the cultural devaluation of a black woman’s beauty as “ugly,” usually accompanied by glorification of a white woman’s beauty, appears inconsistent with this ancient name of Sapphira. Nonetheless, scrutiny of the modern whitewashed image of a black Sapphire as a matriarchal, domineering character suggests the dominant group’s racist thinking. Though she may or may not be physically attractive, the black Sapphire, like the black Jezebel, is for whites a distinctive “sinner.” Rather than exotic beauty, however, it is Sapphire’s matriarchal dominance that is the white concern.18
Sapphire and Jezebel, stereotypes commonly associated with black women, trigger for many whites images of immorality, divine outrage, and earned punishment. Especially with their biblical names, these anti-black-female symbols are powerful, for they depict African American women as violator...