Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture

Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture

by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders

Traces the evolution of the black female body in the American imagination
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Traces the evolution of the black female body in the American imagination

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University of Michigan Press
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The Black Female Body in American Culture


Copyright © 2002 University of Michigan
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ISBN: 978-0-472-06707-7

Chapter One

The Body Politic

Black Female Sexuality and the Nineteenth-Century Euro-American Imagination

Any account of the nineteenth-century preoccupation with seeing and narrating the body needs to think about a long tradition of European fascination with the bodies of other cultures—particularly, women's bodies from cultures considered exotic or primitive, which are used to define an alluring or menacing other of Western "civilized" sexuality.

—Peter Brooks, "Gauguin's Tahitian Body"

In one of the earliest Black feminist analyses of European constructions of African female sexuality and its impact on the sexual history of the United States, Barbara Omolade makes this assertion:

The sexual history of the United States began at the historical moment when European men met African women in the "heart of darkness"—Mother Africa. They faced each other as conqueror and conquered: African women captives were considered the sexual property of the European conquerors.

I began my introduction to the section entitled "The Body Politic: Sexuality, Violence, and Reproduction" in Words of Fire with a provocative quotation by literary critic Hortense Spillers that underscores the paucity of analyses of Black female sexuality, including by Black women scholars themselves: "Black women are the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb. Their sexual experiences are depicted, but not often by them." Spillers's essay, the first scholarly treatise on the silences surrounding Black female sexuality, was written over a decade ago, as was Barbara Omolade's "Hearts of Darkness," which focuses on the sexual treatment of African American women, especially during slavery.

Despite the importance of discussions of the sexual history of the West, the subject of Black female sexuality has been marginalized in the new discourse on the female body, which illuminates important aspects of that history. Since the work of Omolade and Spillers, a small but growing number of essays—including Hazel Carby's " 'On the Threshold of Woman's Era': Lynching, Empire, and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory"; Lorraine O'Grady's "Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity"; Evelynn Hammonds's "Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality" and "Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence"—all provide important correctives to the invisibility of Black women in the considerable corpus of work on the cultural body or the body politic, which constitutes some of the most exciting new work within feminist theoretical discourse at the present time.

I want to begin this chapter, which provides an overview of Euro-American representations of Black female sexuality, particularly during the nineteenth century, with a quotation from art historian Lorraine O'Grady, who analyzes one of the most visible and frequently studied images of a Black woman in European art, Édouard Manet's Olympia (see fig. 1), which was painted in 1862–63.

The female body in the West is not a unitary sign. Rather, like a coin, it has an obverse and a reverse: on the one side, it is white; on the other, not-white or, prototypically, black. The two bodies cannot be separated, nor can one body be understood in isolation from the other in the West's metaphoric construction of "woman." White is what woman is; not-white (and the stereotypes not-white gather in) is what she had better not be. Even in an allegedly postmodern era, the not-white woman as well as the not-white man are symbolically and even theoretically excluded from sexual difference.

Here O'Grady captures Western constructions of womanhood that represent Black women and white women as polar opposites. Racial difference is marked in profound ways through the construction of gendered differences between Black and white womanhood, especially with respect to their sexuality.

Equally compelling but less well known (and largely ignored by art critics) is a provocative painting (see fig. 2) by Marie-Guilhelmine Benois, Portrait d'une négresse (Portrait of a Negress), which is believed to be the first painting by a European female of a Black woman. It appears on the cover of volume 4 of Hugh Honour's Image of the Black in Western Art, in which it is alluded to as "the most beautiful portrait of a black woman ever painted." This image of a presumably African servant woman with her chest partially bare and a breast exposed, though sensitively rendered, is nevertheless suggestive of the connection in the European mind during the nineteenth century between Black womanhood and sexuality. The obligatory headdress and partial nudity mark her as different from civilized white womanhood. The whiteness of the cloth that drapes her contrasts sharply with the blackness of her body and calls attention to her "otherness" in the realm of the physical and social as well. This association of Black womanhood with hypersexuality, which her partial nudity underscores, was to persist in the Euro-American imagination long after slavery and colonialism had ended.

The work of feminist historian of science Evelynn Hammonds is instructive because she analyzes the history of the discourse on Black female sexuality, which, she argues, has clustered around three themes:

the construction of the black female as the embodiment of sex and the attendant invisibility of black women as the unvoiced, unseen—everything that is not white ... the resistance of black women both to negative stereotypes of their sexuality and to the material effects of those stereotypes on black women's lives ... [and] finally, the evolution of a "culture of dissemblance" and a "politics of silence" by Black women on the issue of their sexuality.

In order to understand these cultural constructions of Black women's sexuality, it is instructive to revisit the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Europeans entered the vast continent of Africa and encountered a people they saw as radically different from themselves. What were the English explorers' first impressions of Africans? It was historian Winthrop Jordan, in his classic study White over Black, who attempted to answer these questions: What happened when one of the fairest-skinned nations suddenly came face to face with one of the darkest-skinned peoples on earth? What attitudes did they form about these Black bodies whom they confronted? Perhaps Africans' most startling characteristics, which Europeans spent inordinate amounts of time trying to explain, were their dark skin and their nudity, which would be laden with intense racial/sexual meanings for hundreds of years. Their most salient attributes were savagery, bestiality, lecherousness, and being uncivilized.

One of the most bizarre chronicles in the annals of European racism, which has received considerable attention by scholars and writers over the past decade, occurred during the occupation of the Dutch-founded Cape Colony in southern Africa by the British. For my purposes here, it is useful to consider the cultural context in which this incredible saga took place. In the early years of the nineteenth century, a succession of Europeans visited and described this region's indigenous inhabitants. Before the arrival of the British, however, little was known about the San, Khoikhoi, and Xhosa, who were erroneously and pejoratively renamed Bushmen, Hottentots, and Kafirs. Travelers' tales revealed their peculiar physical attributes, which were intended to disassociate them from the human species. The males were said to have only one testicle and the females a large vaginal flap called a tablier and a fatty enlargement of the buttocks called steatopygia. Their language, composed mainly of clicks, sounded like animal noises rather than human speech to ethnocentric Europeans. Their consumption of raw meat put them in the category of beasts and savages, as well. They were relegated to the lowest place on the scale of human life in the great chain of being, only one rung above the ape.

During an era (1880 and following) of "scientific" theorizing about hierarchies among human species, differences among the races, and the development of physical anthropology and ethnology, it was necessary for Europeans to "explain" the nature of Africans, whom they saw as racially inferior and profoundly different from themselves—in skin color, hair texture, body type, sexual behavior, religious practices, dress, language, and values. After Cape Colony was lost, people from southern Africa were literally taken back to England to be viewed as living ethnographic specimens.

Saartjie ("little Sarah" in Afrikaans) Baartman, a South African woman born in 1790, was exhibited with an animal trainer in 1810 as the infamous "Hottentot Venus" in and around London and Paris for over five years. (See figures 3–4.) She emerged from a cage on a raised platform, was presented as an animal to the European community, and was touted as having "the kind of shape which is most admired by her countrymen." She was gazed at, heckled, objectified, caricatured, and dehumanized (see figs.). Eventually she was taken to Paris in 1814; had she escaped the curiosity of the "great" comparative anatomist Georges Leopold Cuvier (1769–1832), she may never have become "immortalized." He examined her "scientifically," especially her genitalia and buttocks to prove that "Hottentots" were in fact inherently different from other human beings, a separate species. He also commissioned several artists attached to the Jardin du Roi to portray her, and after her death in 1815 at the age of twenty-five, he dissected her and preserved her genitalia under a bell jar in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris (see fig. 5).

In his detailed report on her, Cuvier asserts that he had "never seen a human head more resembling a monkey's than hers" and that she moved like a monkey as well. Her genitalia, which he presented first to the Academie Royale de Medecine, were later moved to the Musée de l'Homme for the general public to see. Because of his prominence, his writings on Baartman came to be regarded in scientific circles as an authentic description of the African woman more generically. His focus on her genitalia reinforced the European connection between lasciviousness, sexuality, and animal passion among Africans in general, but particularly among African women. In England, on the other hand, it appears that she was remembered primarily as "an intensely ugly figure, distorted beyond all European notions of beauty." This example also underscores a recurring theme in the "body dramas" that Black women experience. Being Black and female is characterized by the private being made public, which subverts conventional notions about the need to hide and render invisible women's sexuality and private parts. There is nothing sacred about Black women's bodies, in other words. They are not off-limits, untouchable, or unseeable. What happened to Baartman is an extreme example of what a critic of Paul Gauguin's Tahitian women identifies as a long history of European obsession with the female bodies of the exoticized Other, which the quote that precedes this chapter captures (see fig. 8). The Black female also came to serve as an icon for Black sexuality in general throughout the nineteenth century, as Sander Gilman cogently argues in his influential work.

In a European world characterized by racial mythologizing and rabid racism, the widespread association between Africans and apes reached absurd proportions in the dehumanization and defeminization of Africans in narratives about the "fact" that apes were in fact copulating with them. By asserting a sexual link between Black women and apes, moreover, Europeans marked this group of women as lewd, lascivious, and savage—the antithesis of virtuous, European women. In his study of white attitudes toward Blacks from 1550 to 1812, Winthrop Jordan analyzes this preoccupation with Black female sexuality on the part of white males.

By calling the Negro woman passionate they were offering the best possible justification for their own passions. Not only did the Negro woman's warmth constitute a logical explanation for the white man's infidelity, but, much more important, it helped shift responsibility from himself to her. If she was that lascivious—well, a man could scarcely be blamed for succumbing against overwhelming odds. Further reinforcement for this picture of the Negro woman came from the ancient association of hot climates with sexual activity.

Of course, these arguments also emerged to ease white male guilt about the enslavement and oppression of Africans, but such rationalizations, when aimed specifically at Black women, manifested themselves in two distinct and paradoxical stereotypes—they were disgustingly lustful (Jezebel, according to historian Deborah Gray White) but exceptionally unfeminine. They were alluring but unattractive; they attracted and repelled at the same time.

The profit motive and the insatiable desire for cheap labor during slavery in the New World reinforced the images of African women as beasts of burden, workhorses, and hypersexual. This argument was used to rationalize their involuntary roles as workers and producers of slave children. Their bodies were literally to be used in the fields from sunup to sundown, exploited to fulfill white men's lust and to give birth to slave children who would keep the plantation system afloat.

At the center of the debate about Black women during this period of slavery and its aftermath in the United States, in particular, were arguments about their moral character, which can be seen as an outgrowth of, among other factors, the general preoccupation with women's moral nature on the part of Victorian society. The most persistent theme in the writings of North American white men was the devaluation or defeminization of Black women, which was ironic given the high valuation of American women generally during this time. The notion of woman as saint or virtuous lady in the minds of white men could not have applied to Black women, however, given the need to justify slavery. In fact, the Black woman was devalued not only because of her supposed racial traits but also because she departed from whites' conception of the True Woman—which is indicative of the degree to which prevailing notions about race and gender interacted in the minds of whites (male and female) and resulted in a particular set of attitudes about Black women. Whites felt that notions about the "ideal woman" did not apply to Black women because the circumstances of slavery had prevented them from developing qualities that other women possessed and from devoting their lives to wifehood and motherhood, the proper roles for women. A contemporary historian has commented on this phenomenon:

Femininity and domesticity were not held sacred by slave owners. Such amenities were outlawed by a system of forced labor, where men, women, and children were considered agricultural machinery, valued primarily for their muscle, endurance, and productive capability.... Aside from procreation, black women were assigned few exclusively female roles. Wifely service remained rudimentary.... Motherhood might be reduced to giving birth, interrupting work in the field to nurse the infant, and ... cooking frugal meals for the young.... The slave master felt few compunctions to model the black family after the cult of domesticity.

Additionally, the "devaluation of Black womanhood" is traceable to the sexual exploitation of Black women during slavery. Moreover, the Black woman's allegedly innate racial traits (promiscuity, filthiness, vulgarity, lewdness, indecency, ugliness) tended to cancel out those uniquely feminine traits that white women were assumed to possess (modesty, purity, chastity, beauty).

These constructions of the sexuality of slave women underscore the tenacity of earlier images of African women. With the penetration of Europeans into sub-Saharan Africa during the fifteenth century, memoirs of travelers characterized African women as grotesque, dangerous creatures who engaged in "deviant" sexual behavior. This included incest with fathers. One even reported having seen them deliver more than seven babies at a time. The most persistent attitude, however, was that they were savage and bestial. The violation of the bodies of enslaved African women resulted from such perceptions. They were branded for identification on the shores of West Africa, were raped during the Middle Passage, and were forced to engage in sex and beaten in the fields of slave plantations. Their experiences on slave ships were different than those of African men. They were placed on the quarter deck, not in the hold, where the men were forced and bound. While their incarceration was not as horrible on one level, because they were not packed like sardines or shackled, as was the case with men, they were vulnerable to the sexual exploitation of crew members, who were not discouraged from molesting them. On the auction block, their bodies were exposed, handled, even poked to determine their strength and capacity for childbearing. One auctioneer introduced a slave woman this way: "Show your neck, Betsey. There's a breast for you; good for a round dozen before she's done child-bearing." In order to protect her unborn slave child during beatings, a hole was dug in the ground and the pregnant slave woman was forced to lie prostrate and receive her whipping with her stomach tucked away beyond the reach of the lash.


Excerpted from SKIN DEEP, SPIRIT STRONG Copyright © 2002 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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