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BLACK VENUS AND JEZEBEL SLUTS
Writing Race, Sex, and Gender in Religion and Culture
"Dirty nigger!" Or simply, "Look, a Negro!" I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects. Sealed into that crushing objecthood, I turned beseechingly to others. Their attention was a liberation, running over my body suddenly abraded into nonbeing, endowing me once more with an agility that I had thought lost, and by taking me out of the world, restoring me to it. But just as I reached the other side, I stumbled, and the movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye. I was indignant; I demanded an explanation. Nothing happened. I burst apart. Now the fragments have been put together again by another self.
— Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
The energetic editing of black female identity at times moves so effortlessly between religion and culture that one hardly notices signification. From black venus to jezebel sluts to "ain't loyal" hos, black women are miswritten into religious and cultural history as sites of ultimate human and sexual deviation. While not always explicit, the ideology on black female sexual savagery and immorality runs rampant. For the white-hat signifying sort in black religion and culture, "promiscuous," "loose," or "fast" serve as code and often in service to some mixture of respectability, holiness, racial uplift, and patriarchal right. Regardless of word choice, the signification means to differentiate between "good" and "bad," highlight racial and gender difference, and construct hierarchy between white and black people and black men and black women. It means to station black womanhood in a museum of otherness, freakery, exoticism, inferiority, and gazing — white, black, patriarchal, and otherwise — in front of an audience of normative bodies and interpretations.
Significant to critically intervening on the racist, sexist, and classist flow of signifying meanings in religion and culture is a genealogical mapping of re/presentation. The intention is not to locate or secure the racialized representational arche here, however. It is to create a framework for interpreting the development of the discourse on black womanhood using key theorizations on race and gender — both the critical and the unreflected. It is to provide a starting point for framing misnaming, and to name the lineage between specific racialized and gendered representations. Withal, it is to give critical historical context to those moments where black venus/jezebel/ho discourse and religious discourse merge. Moreover, it is to begin thinking about avenues toward disruption. Going forward, this chapter theorizes the discourse on black womanhood, moving between critical theorists and critical history, medieval Europe and colonial America, and black venus and jezebel. The latter entails a turn toward North American slavery and its impact on black women's and girls' identities. I conclude with a brief shift toward twentieth-century media and mediation, and the Black Church's complicity in keeping jezebel alive.
From Black Venus to Jezebel: Theorizing the Discourse on Black Womanhood
In Black Skin, White Masks (1967), French philosopher Frantz Fanon articulates the process of becoming black under the gaze of white/European eyes. "Becoming" marks the beginning of black bondage to racial overdetermination — a "fact of blackness," to which Fanon argues there is no ontological resistance. "Becoming" is not meant to convey the beginning of being. Nor does it pinpoint a racial representational genesis. What it notes is the transnational political project of making African diasporic folk over, imagining them as objects not subjects, renaming, dismembering, restoring, and weaving them "out into" another self — structurally and from without. It records the beginning of being for others — of being fixed in the white imagination after coming into the world already "imbued with the will to find a meaning in things" and to "attain to the source of the world." It speaks of moving from Being to nonbeing to new being as one is eaten up by the words, movements, attitudes, and glances from others. And it grounds the construction of blackness as dirty, as thing, as fragmented, as predetermined, and as crushing within white audacity and anxiety, to which black individuals and collectives respond with indignation.
Drawing on Fanon's facts of blackness, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, in Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French (1999), posits that white French male "writers of the canon" created a crushing objecthood that denotes a peculiar kind of dissection and remaking that is specifically raced and gendered. Though Fanon's facts of blackness are invaluable for theorizing the "black" that precedes "woman," "women," or "womanhood," his theorizations on "the negro" and especially "the woman of colour" fall short. The latter he notes as bound by the desire for white acceptance and the ideas that others have of her. Be that as (troubling) it may, Fanon's theory on crushing objecthood is vital for Sharpley-Whiting's theorizing on the trope "black venus." Black venus, not to be mistaken with (white) venus (both of which stem from mythology), epitomizes sexual savagery, whereas white venus is interpreted as the goddess of love and fertility in classical Roman mythology. White venus generally signifies normative beauty, desirability, and whiteness. When dipped in black, literally, as black is a noun, verb, and an adjective, the latter of which relates to the noun and means to modify it, venus becomes blackened and therefore revised.
Black venus, as written into history, is an interpretive grid for fantasying and theorizing about black femininity and sexuality. Sharpley-Whiting argues that though she serves as a signifier of authentic black female difference, what she reveals are hidden French obsessions, fantasies, and primal fears about black female sexuality. In fact, a close reading of French canonical writers presents a bizarre preoccupation with, or really, an occupation of, black female flesh. The trope is encapsulated in Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus. Baartman was a Khoisan South African woman exhibited by an animal trainer in and around Paris and London from 1810 to 1815. Beginning when she was nineteen, she was exhibited in a cage wearing a nudelike costume. She was the icon of racial inferiority, black female sexual difference, and white curiosity. Upon her sudden demise at the age of twenty-four, Baartman was "immortalized" by French zoologist and anatomist Georges Léopold Cuvier, who examined, dissected, and ultimately displayed her vagina, buttocks, and a caste of her corpse at the Musée de l'Homme, Paris, where they remained until August 9, 2002.
Though Cuvier was not the first European to obsess over and rewrite a black woman's body, he holds a distinctive place in the discourse on black womanhood. His "findings," which married science, sex, sexism, and racism on black women's bodies, were published in The Natural History of Mammals, and reduced Baartman to a repulsively alluring pile of excess, a "titillating curiosity, a collage of buttocks and anatomy." Merging black femaleness with pathology and prostitution, Cuvier enclosed a master text on black female otherness and white normalcy within the cast of Baartman's body. His findings "carried on in fervor well into the twentieth century," informing a range of racist and sexist studies, theories, research, and writings on not only racial, biological, moral, historical, and intellectual difference but also on black female sexual difference and black femininity, specifically. Concomitantly, these discourses shaped relations and institutions. Sharpley-Whiting posits, "Desire for knowledge, and thus mastery of blacks and women, led to the creation of racist-sexist ideologies, images (sexual savages and prostitutes), and institutions (slavery and motherhood) to produce and sustain the illusion of realism, of absolute truth, thereby effecting mastery of otherness." Baartman and black venus, coiled together, became the object of European freakery, fascination, and scientific research concerning black female sexuality for centuries to come, shaping even colonization, North American slavery, ideas around innate black female promiscuity, and laws around black women and girls and rape.
Though Baartman was not the first to embody black venus in the European imagination, she concretizes her existence by unwillingly providing a body, a collage of flesh or corporeal fragmentation of sorts, for overriding and revisioning a sanguinary landscape for play, inquiry, and faux truth. She is the proof of black female sexual difference, which Cuvier locates in the color of flesh, the shape of the buttocks, and a conjured "link" between Europeans and animals. She, without knowledge, intent, or consent, validates and corroborates black venus. Yet black venus Baartman is not. She is not even Baartman, for her given and preferred name is unknown. What is known is that she, a sacred subject, came into being long before science claimed her, cracked her open/apart, and hammered her back together. She is certainly more than the sexualized script we are left with.
Sharpley-Whiting notes that one of the first sexualized narratives projected onto black women is by medieval French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard in his Les Lettres completes d'Abélard et d'Héloïse, which articulate his tragic love affair with his beloved Héloïse, an Ethiopian, of the Song of Songs. Abelard's Lettres reduce Héloïse to sex, confining her to his bedchamber while noting her blackness as simultaneously less agreeable, abnormal, and desirable. These kinds of inscriptions are also found in the travelogues of twelfth-century Jewish explorer Benjamin of Tudela. While exploring Africa, Tudela writes of those encountered in southern Egypt, "There is a people there ... who, like animals, eat of the herbs that grow on the banks of the Nile and in the fields. They go about naked and have not the intelligence of ordinary men. They cohabit with their sisters and anyone they can find. They are taken as slaves and sold in Egypt and neighboring countries. ... These sons of Ham are Black slaves." For Tudela the black is primal, hypersexed, and cursed. Though he places emphasis on African men, the inclusion of "their sisters" denotes corresponding sexual pathology between African men and women.
The shift from medieval fetishizing to early modern scientifiction in Europe and North America is significant. While personal journals, letters, and travelogues were often deployed as datum advising scientific hypotheses, the insignia of scientific validation corroborated by systematic study, observation, experimentation, and findings, endorsed and helped institutionalize a pervading and flourishing ideological structure. Science reconfigured racial and sexual re/presentation and fantasy as truth. Simultaneously, it provided cover for white obsession with and fear of black sexuality while offering a façade of moral and intellectual superiority. The production of scientific racist and sexist spin influenced (and continues to inspire) a duplicitous transnational reading of black flesh. Accordingly, modernity's fixations on race and gender were neither benign nor isolated. They were powerful mediated propaganda that ordered both white and black life.
In his essay "A New Division of the Earth, According to the Different Species or Races of Men That Inhabit It" (1684), François Bernier, a French physician and explorer, organized human beings based on physical characteristics into four to five different types, moving from white/European to black/African, with black being the lowest ranked. Drawing on Bernier's essay, German philosopher Immanuel Kant, hoping to account for permanent hereditary characteristics, namely skin color, invested the concept of race with science, giving it legitimacy. Kant is credited with being the first to define race in 1775 in his essay "Of the Different Human Races," though the idea of racial difference had been in circulation at least five centuries prior. It is imperative to note that though Kant merges race and science, this conflation is distinct from that of Cuvier forty years later, as Cuvier's analysis is particularly raced and gendered. Additionally, though Kant writes about race, black women are not central to his work in the way they are for Cuvier. Nor were Kant's writings on race placed on display in any national museum or held up as proof of black female otherness in a premier scientific journal during his day.
Yet Kant's writings on race matter. In his essay "Of the Beautiful and Sublime" (1764), he articulates the following about the nature of blackness: "The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above trifling ... not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praise worthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world."
Kant's projection on "the Negroes of Africa" as unfeeling and so "trifling" by nature that they are forever cast in the shadows of whites and whiteness, requiring eternal white approval, recognition, and tutelage, notes an interpretation of mental capacity as distinguishable by biological difference, namely color, with whites representing superior gifts. This idea is further explicated in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), which foregrounds biological and moral differences. He writes,
The real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one race or the other race. To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of color. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature. ... And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expression of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reins in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by the preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. ... Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race.
Kant's and Jefferson's notes on biological, mental, and moral differences merge discourses on color difference with those on racial difference, infusing taken-for-granted socially constructed racial discourse with a biological standing in nature that collectively privileges whiteness and, more specifically, white masculinity, and fixes black bodies under and against whiteness/white bodies and black women's bodies under and against everyone. These moves, from fetishization to biological, mental, and moral diagnosis and prescription, left black women and girls especially vulnerable to classificatory revisioning and violence.
Jefferson's turn to "the fine mixtures of red and white, the expression of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one" calls attention to specific distinctions between white and black women, with white women (the fine mixtures of red/rouge/rosy cheeks and white flesh) being naturally preferable over and against those with the "immovable veil of black." Both white and black women take up space in Jefferson's notes as expressions of male passion. To him, they are the embodiment and extension of white male needs and the performance and breath of his inclinations. They are responsive, not active. However, one denotes "elegant symmetry of form," judgment and natural preference for white men, while the other does not do any choosing or judging. Rather, she, with the "immovable veil of black," is chosen, purchased, and used — by "Oran-ootan" black slaves and white men. Let Jefferson tell it, she does not even respond. She willingly takes life as it comes to her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jezebel Unhinged"
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Table of ContentsProlegomenon. "Hoeism or Whatever": Black Girls and the Sable Letter "B" vii Acknowledgments xix Introduction. "A Thousand Details, Anecdotes, Stories": Mining the Discourse on Black Womanhood 1 1. Black Venus and Jezebel Sluts: Writing Race, Sex, and Gender in Religion and Culture 13 2. "These Hos Ain't Loyal": White Perversions, Black Possessions 34 3. Theologizing Jezebel: Womanist Central Criticism, a Divine Intervention 59 4. "Changing the Letter": Toward a Black Feminist Study of Religion 82 5. The Black Church, the Black Lady, and Jezebel: The Cultural Production of Feminine-ism 108 6. Whose "Woman" Is This?: Reading Bishop T. D. Jakes's Woman, Thou Art Loosed! 130 7. Tyler Perry's New Revival: Black Sexual Politics, Black Popular Religion, and an American Icon 169 Epilogue. Dangerous Machinations: Black Feminists Taught Us 201 Notes 211 Bibliography 243 Index 251
What People are Saying About This
“A compelling feminist brew of wit and razor-like criticism on black popular culture, black religion, and the black church. Tamura Lomax takes on topics fraught with gendered land mine of complicity, icons considered untouchable, sites deemed sacrosanct, and scenes that are undoubtedly profane.”
“Jezebel Unhinged is an ambitious and provocative work that breaks new conceptual, theoretical, and political ground within black feminist studies. Creating a theoretical space that might be thought of as black feminist religious thought, it establishes Tamura Lomax as an important critical voice.”