The Historical Stereotypes of Black Women
Since slavery, the Black female body has been perceived as a threat and has been treated accordingly.
The prominent stereotypes of Black women that have grown stronger over time portray Black women as needing to be policed and surveilled.
In sum, these historical tropes have been used as justification for the control of Black women. But, these tropes are not a thing of the past, here we’ll look at the evolution of these stereotypes to benefit mainstream America over time.
While these narratives often shape societal understandings of Black women, Black women have and continue to resist in a multitude of ways.
Whether that be through activism, literature, music, or merely standing in what has been deemed as the Black grotesque, Black women are not silent about their lived experiences.
Lived experiences that are far more complex and real than the confines of tropes like the Mammy, the Jezebel, the Welfare Queen, and the Matriarch.
The Historical Roots of Stereotypes of Black Women
These four tropes, rooted in slavery, have served to reinforce and warrant the ways Black women are policed.
Going back to antebellum times, Black women were both hypersexualized and degendered.
Degendered as she was forced to perform traditional male roles as a slave. Degendered in that she was deemed to be outside of conventional ideals of femininity and womanhood that her white counterparts were privileged to embody.
In times of slavery, the Black woman was viewed as a commodity by her slaveholder.
Reduced to a commodity, a mode of profit, the Black woman wasn’t only denied her femininity and womanhood but denied her humanity.
Thomas Jefferson frankly captures this idea as he said, “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. what she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”
Valued for their reproductive abilities, slaveholders understood Black women as breeders rather than mothers, hence birthing animalistic perceptions of Black women.
In 1851 at a Women’s Rights Convention, Truth delivered her powerful speech, Ain’t I A Woman. During the speech she states,
Sojourner Truth’s poignant speech so clearly captures the hardships she faced as a Black woman denied access to womanhood and all that access entails. And, sadly, the fight for this right to humanity would continue.
As perceptions of Black women did evolve over time, it seemed that they changed to maintain the color line, and historical tropes that found their inception in slavery would reinvent themselves in contemporary time to maintain the Black woman’s subjugation.
Dated But Ever Present Stereotypes of Black Women
The trope of the Mammy represented the Black slave in the kitchen of her slaveholder.
Here, she is imagined to assume the responsibilities of the house with a grateful smile and a comforting hand.
The image of the Mammy served interests of mainstream white America, by portraying the Black woman as content, even happy, with her subjugation.
The Mammy attends to and nurtures white children of the house, happily fulfilling the needs of her “loving, white family.” In doing so, the trade-off is that she forsakes her own children.
In this stereotype of Black women, she is seen as the supporter and nurturer, but not as a mother.
As the Mammy, Black women are denied motherhood since they are still only a breeder and exist within the confines of a white fantasy of slavery. She’s not able to tend to her hold children, and thus cannot be a mother. The Mammy is assexualized and degendered in her depiction as the household servant.
On the other hand, the Jezebel is the hypersexed Black woman.
The Jezebel is not to be trusted: sly and seductive, she lured men to her bed and into her trap.
During slavery, her perceived promiscuity was not only justification for forced reproductive labor, but also an excuse for the sexual violence that she faced from slaveholders.
The logic being, since the Black Jezebel is promiscuous and always wants sex –she can’t be raped.
And, any repercussions that might have come from sexual violence (biracial children as evidence of a slaveholder’s raping of Black women, and infidelity to his wife) were seen to be at the fault of the Jezebel, the temptress.
Thus, she was feared by white women that she might seduce their husbands. Through no fault of her own, the Jezebel was slut-shamed. Shamed and punished for the hypersexual gaze through which white society viewed her.
Through hypersexualization, Black women were further denied access to ideals of femininity.
As white women were seen as the epitome of “self-respect, self-control, and modesty-even sexual purity…black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of the black woman is signified by the name Jezebel.”
The Jezebel and The Sexualization of Black Bodies
Baartman was exploited for her body, put on display in the most inhumane of ways: like an animal in a zoo. Her body became the site of objectification, voyeuristic gazes of white supremacy, and disturbing sexual pathologizing.
Baartman’s curves served as both the purpose and justification of the hypersexualization and exploitation of her body.
As is today, Black women and girls are automatically seen as “sexy” and accessible, calling for their bodies to be policed and violated in racialized ways. Curvy bodies that are simply existing are viewed under a sexual gaze, a gaze which sees certain body shapes as an invitation, or a statement of one’s promiscuity.
Sexualizing Young Black Girls
Such thinking denies young Black girls innocence and childhood, as the sexualization of Black women begins at a young age. With this understanding, Black girls and women are viewed as always, already sexual.
As a young girl, not more than seven, I remember meeting one of my mother’s friends for the first time. After meeting me, she told my mother, “Oh she’s beautiful… You’re going to have to put a chastity belt on her.”
A clear example of the Jezebel trope at play in modern times. I was unable to wear specific shorts like other girls, leggings, or other types of clothing as a way to desexualize my already, always sexualized body.
The sexualization of Black girls being one part of the adultification bias, that Black girls often face.
From The Historical to Contemporary: The Matriarch, The Welfare Queen
Moving into contemporary times, stereotypes of Black women as the Mammy and the Jezebel actively remain. As stated, the sexualization of Black women starts at a young age, and this practice is well alive today. As far as the Mammy, Big Momma from Big Momma’s House provides a very obvious 21st-century portrayal of the Mammy caricature.
But, as cultures, laws, and practices have changed, cultural understandings of these tropes have evolved as well. Stereotypes of the Black woman as the Matriarch and Welfare Queen, both have historical roots but are still at play today.
While the Mammy is the subordinate, nurturer in the white household. The Matriarch is the mother figure in Black homes. The Matriarch represents the Black woman who is the head of her own house, but she represents the “failed mammy,” a bad mother.
In 1965, the U.S. Department of Labor released The Moynihan Report: The Negro Family, The Case For National Action, which stated: “The greatest threat to the black community is woman-headed households.”
They also go on to argue that Black Matriarchy represents women who failed to fulfill their traditional “womanly” duties. Ultimately arguing that single Black women and their children present a problem to society.
Ultimately arguing that single Black women and their children present a problem to society. The Matriarch spends too much time away from home, and thus her children are misbehaved and threats to society.
Matriarch figures are characterized as unfeminine, and aggressive. They emasculate their partners and thus are deservedly single. Tyler Perry’s Madea is a prime example of the Matriarch.
The Welfare Queen
While the Matriarch is characterized by aggression, the Welfare Queen is not quite assertive enough. The Welfare Queen, a mother of many, is not capable of providing for her children on her own and depends on government financial assistance.
Refusing to work, she imparts poor morals on her children and is seen as a threat to the economic stability of society. All in all, this Black motherhood signifies degeneracy.
In her book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins describes the Welfare Queen, as “an updated version of the breeder woman image created during slavery, this image provides an ideological justification for efforts to harness Black women’s fertility to the needs of a changing political economy.”
(Emphasis my own.)
These stereotypes of Black women have been around for centuries, but are still deeply ingrained in today’s perceptions of Black femininity, and work to inform interactions and reactions both with and to Black women.
The perceived need to control Black women was birthed with the slaveholder’s inception of the Black woman as a breeder and continue to assert and justify itself in new ways today.
How Are These Representations Mobilized?
These tropes foster perceptions of Black women as both hypersexualized and degendered under common understandings of womanhood and femininity.
Through this reading of Black womanhood, there is no humanity attached to the Black female body. And, with this, heightened importance is placed on the surveillance and policing of the “dangerous, sly, scamming, seductive” Black woman.
Policing that runs deep, and governs over our hair to our clothes, from our speech to our movements.
The condemnation of Black motherhood starkly contrasts that of ideals of womanhood, which most often include maternity as a source of fulfillment and achievement.
The narrative of The Welfare Queen offers insight into how these tropes are produced and reproduced.
Stories like the “The Original Welfare Queen” were sensationalized and received substantial media attention. The Original Welfare Queen refers to Chicago woman, Linda Taylor, who Ronald Reagan felt obligated to center in his speeches as he advocated for government cutbacks on welfare.
Taylor was reported to have 80 aliases in her pursuit of government assistance, but fraud may have been the least of her crimes. Despite possible murders and kidnappings, Reagan spoke only of her misuse of government assistance and used Taylor to coin the name “welfare queen.”
While horrifying, these stories are not representative of the majority of mothers who are struggling to provide for themselves and their families. Yet, these stories are propagandized to paint an intentional picture of the unfit Black mother.
The language surrounding both Black women and their experiences in these instances is deliberate and particular.
As Ange-Marie Hancock argues, a politics of disgust is used to characterize Black women as bad, manipulative mothers.
Rather than being understood as a widowed mother on social security, we know her as the Welfare Queen. . Rather than receiving an entitlement, like a corporation might, she receives assistance.
Stigmatizing stories of poor Black mothers took center stage during welfare reform, and Hancock argues these stories were used to end “welfare as we know it” by using a language of disgust. Employing a politics of disgust was used to villainize Black women, and enact policy changes to keep these “sneaky, scamming” Black women in line.
Tropes vs. Reality
Astonishing how powerful rumors are in justifying social control, isn’t it? A control that’s enacted through laws and policies, as well as beliefs and opinions.
The media’s sensationalization and maintaining of these four stereotypes of Black women work to silence their true, lived experiences.
By reporting news and events that serve these stereotypes, creating characters for Black women in film and TV that embody these tropes, and only magnifying the voices of those who adhere to these stereotypes of Black women, these ideals of Black femininity are deeply ingrained within the minds of greater society.
While the oppression and violence that Black men face is often highly publicized and politicized, the similar experiences that Black women and girls face often go under-reported. The death of Eric Garner received national attention. Protesters gathered all over the nation chanting “I can’t breathe” in hopes of exposing injustice.
While, Rosann Miller, a pregnant Black woman of eight months, was placed in a chokehold by the police. Yet, her story was left with very little media attention and no national support.
Just like the invisiblized experience of Sandra Antor, a woman pulled over and brutalized by a South Carolina state trooper, all captured on video, only a few years after Rodney King’s beating.
The hyperfocus of national attention is on stories that sell, and stories that fit cultural narratives–whether that be in the news or television. This narrow representation diverts attention away from the realities Black women face, which includes violence.
The control over the Black body pervades past the structural and community level and permeates to an individual basis. Between these four stereotypes of Black women, identifying with one stereotype might warrant more scrutiny than embodying another.
For instance, the Mammy is far more respected than the Welfare Queen in mainstream white society. Being aware of this, a Black woman may carefully choose how she presents herself. Thus, these tropes work to control and discriminate between the racial performances of Black women. Privileging some performances over others, and providing the lens through which Black women’s behavior is constantly critiqued.
A Black woman with locs, for instance, is far more likely to be stopped at airport security for further inspection than a Black woman with lightened and straightened hair.
In my own experience, I’ve had TSA search my hair that was piled and styled on my head, held up by a scarf. Who knows what they thought they’d find as their gloved fingers poked and prodded down to my scalp, but my hair performed a version of Blackness that was understood as needing to be surveilled. Thus, implicating such a performance of Blackness was dangerous or threatening.
Attempting To Break Free But Only Tightening the Chains
When dealing with these tropes and stereotypical representations of Black women, some believe that adhering to a politics of respectability is the best way to dismantle these oppressive structures.
Under respectability politics, it’s essential to avoid any behavior that could be associated with negative depictions of Black people, or in this case, Black women. E.g., don’t wear clothes that are too tight, be sure to speak “properly,” always be polite, ignore the microaggressions, the list goes on.
But, what’s funny, is you can do “everything right,” and still “not do it right,” and there are huge problematic implications of what society defines as “right behavior.”
For instance, when I’ve been told, “I speak so eloquently,” it leads me first to question what did they think I would talk like? And, furthermore, it reveals that they believe “proper English,” belongs to white people. AND, that if you don’t speak a certain way, then you have nothing of value to say, or essentially you’re uneducated.
But, more importantly, in trying to avoid stereotypes via respectability politics, Black women fall into yet another box and are confined by societal determinants and expectations of what is and is not acceptable behavior for Black people.
The Master's Tools
One infamous spectacle embodying respectability politics unfolded when Sister Shahrazad Ali spoke on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show.
On the show, Sister Shahrazad proceeds to critique Black women based on class and their relationship to men. Sister Shahrazad judges the Black woman, accusing her of emasculating her men and being undeserving of trust as she is a “rat behaving like a dog, and purring like a cat.”
Attempting to portray herself in a positive view, one who doesn’t engage in such behaviors, Sister Shahrazad draws on the tropes of the Matriarch and the Jezebel to shame other Black women.
As author Junot Díaz once asked,
The same systems which tyrannize Sister Shahrazad as a Black woman, she uses to tyrannize others in order to gain some form of social capital through respectability politics.
Audre Lorde famously wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
And, it is true here, as Sister Shahrazad shares ideas to a mostly white audience who laughs while she speaks. Trying to gain respect, she has become a spectacle.
Being Free of The Tropes
There is no single way to avoid these stereotypes and tropes, other than to simply be.
The complex nature of existence cannot be defined by any stereotype, and the more that these lived experiences are represented truthfully, the more we complicate and evaluate our understanding of Black women.
For me, I find power in the Black grotesque. In being utterly, and ultimately me, when it’s safe to do so. As I am who I am, when I can be, I’m aware that my behavior or “performance of Blackness” is up to the interpretation of the interpreter. But, there is personal gratification in refusing to bend.
On a larger scale, however, Audre Lorde seems to have simply put the answer that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but then what tools do we need? Where do these tools come from, and where should they be utilized?