The Jezebel myth, the story of the sexual fetish behind Black womanhood

This article is the third, and last, in the series of ‘The Black Female Trope’. In this series, I reflect on the three stereotypes Black women have historically been reduced to: Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire. The series is inspired by the research of Melissa V. Harris-Perry and her book Sister Citizen. Find the first article here, and the second one here.

bony, the code word for Black in porn sites, was the second most searched phrase in the United States according to the site PornHub in 2018. Porn categories “latina”, “ebony”, and “interracial” were viewed significantly more often in the US than in the rest of the world. That same year, “Black girl, White guy” was the most searched term in the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Isn’t this ironic, considering the historic racism in the country and those states specifically? Not if you look closer.

During the time of slavery, the hyper-sexuality myth and fetish associated to Black women served to justify their exploitation, and the brutality exercised on them by White men. It has since then served as a means of racial and gender control towards them, until today.

In my previous articles I reflected on two stereotypes about Black women: the Mammy, a devoted and submissive White people’s caretaker; and the Sapphire, also known as the angry Black woman. They are both harmful stereotypes, and they both serve the interests of anyone other than the ones who bear them. This article is about the third stereotype that researchers of the Black females experience have found to be a recurrent one: the Jezebel, or the sexually insatiable Black woman.

Photo by Tobe Mokolo on Unsplash

Black women’s fertility was a slave holder’s business model

Black women being portrayed as lusty and sexually available is probably the oldest of the stereotypes. Just like the Mammy and the Sapphire, this myth also holds its origin in the plantations and in the slavery era. And, just like the other stereotypes, the danger of this myth still lives today.

Southern slaveholder societies in the US operated under a Victorian social and moral code. This meant that it was a society in which gender roles determine social participation and defined moral rules. According to this code, women were expected to be chaste, pure, innocent, weak, and thus in need of protection. If this principle was to be applied to all women, then Black women should also be assisted and protected like their White counterparts, and not exploited as they actually were in reality. Of course, this principle was not profitable. Thus, the sexist narrative of modest and fragile femininity was not applied to Black women. Another set of rules was required for dealing with women who were not white.

Slave owners could sleep better at night if they told themselves that their monstrous crimes were not such, which could only be so if the people whose rights they violated were not actually human. That is why they started portraying of Black women as animals and aggressive. This was an intentional and strategic move to justify their brutality. The Jezebel myth of Black women being promiscuous and insatiable was a way of reconciling their inhuman treatment towards them, such as: being banned from legal marriage, forced nudity during public slave auctions, and lack of protection from sexual violence.

Thomas Jefferson argued that “the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species” (sic), was a sign of Black women’s animalistic nature.

There was also an economic purpose behind this myth. Black women’s alleged promiscuity created the image of the “insatiable breeder”. This was a clear economic advantage for a slaveholder society that profited from Black women’s fertility. Children born from enslaved people were property of the enslaver. The Jezebel myth helped justify the sexual exploitation they were victims of.

‘Science’ was also used as another way of justifying the sexual violence towards Black women. Black women’s bodies were portrayed as amorphous and animalistic. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote that based on his “scientific” observations, White women were superior to Black women. He argued that “the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species” (sic), was a sign of Black women’s animalistic nature. Stories like the one from Sarah Baartman show a vivid example of how Black women’s bodies were disrespected to reinforce the myth that Black women’s bodies were ape-like and were supposed to mate with orangutans.

Sarah Baartman was a South African woman from the Khoikhoi ethnic group who during the nineteenth century was brought to Europe to work as a circus attraction. Due to her large buttocks and labia, she was exhibited in London’s Piccadilly Circus. Even after her death in 1815 at the age of 26, her remains continued to be exhibited in Paris museum of Man. Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, editor of Representation and Black Womanhood, wrote: “She has become the landscape upon which multiple narratives of exploitation and suffering within black womanhood have been enacted”.

Photo by Science Photo Library

Baartman’s genitalia and buttocks were used as scientific evidence that Black women were not civilised, and should be placed closer to animals than to humans. Society used Baartman’s experience to define all Black women and to avoid offering them the possibility of a more accurate definition of their own identities. Black femininity was defined by others, against Black women. These are the roots to the Jezebel myth and the lie behind Black women’s hyper-sexuality.

How to cope? Either deny it or embrace it.

Escaping from this myth is not easy for Black women. Normal expressions of femininity such as wearing make up, dating, or wearing revealing clothing are perceived as expressions of sexual availability and lust. Any of these actions can be misinterpreted by others as a way to reinforce the Jezebel myth.

How do you cope with this stereotype then? How do you stand straight in this crooked room? According to Harris-Perry there have been two main ways Black women have responded to this myth. They have either adopted ‘the politics of respectability’; or have embraced and lived by the stereotype reinforcing this one-dimensional representation of Black womanhood.

Melissa V. Harris-Perry calls the “politics of respectability” to the way Black women counter existing prejudice of them being lascivious. Respectability implies that Black women tend to show themselves and their sexuality in a narrowly defined, repressively, and rigid way. This is the image of what Toni Morrison in her book The Bluest Eye called the “‘good Christian coloured woman’. The woman whose reputation was spotless, and who tended to her family, who didn’t drink or smoke or run around”. This rigidity is so embedded in the Black community and in the Black female experience that it can play against themselves. Harris-Perry mentions that “such rigidity can leave little room for complicated realities”. They don’t take into account that Black women are more likely to be single parents, to never marry, to be the sole breadwinner in the house, or to be widowed young.

“Being black in America is a constant awareness that others view one as a problem”
W.E.B. Du Bois

Another way to cope with this myth is to embrace it. This is why you see Black women in hip-hop videos playing the Jezebel part. Hip-hop has used the image of the Jezebel as a way to portray Black women in modern days: over-sexualised, and one-dimensional. Hip-hop videos degrade Black women’s images and reinforce the stereotypes. The fact that the music industry is mainly run by white men is not an isolated fact here. This means that the same people who invented the Jezebel myth four hundred years ago, are the ones profiting from and spreading it today. Black women embracing these images are not displaying empowerment, instead they show how Black sisters tilt and adapt to fit in a room that is crooked by design.

In recent years female hip-hop artists like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B have made Jezebel their signature look and voice. But hip-hop still does not offer Black women the opportunity to tell their stories. Songs like the recent controversial “WAP” by Cardi B reinforce the “bitch” and “ho” stories that we have heard for four hundred years. It may appear as empowering for those who support the artist arguing that in this case it is Black women who are owning their sexuality. However, the video still displays the exaggerated sexual organs that made Sarah Baartman a circus freak two hundred years ago. These videos and lyrics do not do anything to bring more Black female talent to an industry that is male-dominated, and in which talented Black females are scarce. The reason behind their lack of representation can actually be the stereotype they are put in, the crooked room.

It goes beyond hip-hop. The emergence of sexualised images of women that boomed with the ‘sexual revolution’ of the twentieth century did not have the same effect on Blacks as it had on Whites. For White women, who by Victorian rules were seen as weak and needy, having sexualised images meant a backlash to their growing political platform. But, for Black women, this image of themselves was not a new one. Already for a couple of centuries, they had already been portrayed as lewd. The stereotype was confirming a long history of Black women being seen as over-sexualised.

There is a third way to cope, or better, to react to the Jezebel stereotype: shame.

Racial shaming has had a significant impact on Black women

“Blackness in America is marked by shame” asserts Harris-Perry. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois had already argued that “being black in America is a constant awareness that others view one as a problem”. Race, and being Black in particular, is seen as a proxy associated to different forms of inequality: crime, poverty, segregation, slavery, and more. Blackness is normally on the losing side of these problems, and therefore associated with the cause. African descendent people have to live in a reality in which their own existence is stigmatised. They learn to be ashamed of the most basic aspect of their identity, their race. But, what is shame? And why are Black women ashamed?

Shame is a social construct. It does not exist in isolation. We feel ashamed because of how we think people see us, and due to the response we associate to an external audience. Shame is attached to our sense of self. When we feel ashamed we do not attach that feeling only to a particular action, but we make a judgement of our own identity based on that feeling. Shame creates a reaction. It can make us want to withdraw, be submissive, or appease others.

In order to understand how Black women react to shame, it is important to first reflect on how Black women are perceived. In this case, and as we have seen in this series of articles, there are three main perceptions: a submissive care-taker, an angry irrational woman, or a lusty promiscuous person. None of these stereotypes conform to a socially acceptable norm. As a group, Black women are more vulnerable to shame because of the stigmatised social circumstances they are more prone to be in. Again, due to the fact that race is used as a proxy for inequality. Harris-Perris found that Black women are more likely to be: poor, unmarried, single-mothers, overweight, undereducated, and underemployed. Black women are aware of these stereotypes and know that their identities and circumstances render them “socially unacceptable”. Their feeling of shame is a response to this social rejection.

Stereotypes like the Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel are another form of how racial stereotypes are used as a narrative to justify oppression, and serve as tools for inequality.

Another form to respond to this social rejection is to try to conform to social norms. This starts by suppressing racial characteristics that are most noticeable, by for example straightening your hair. This is a way to align with what is socially acceptable, which uses whiteness as default.

A third coping mechanism is to differentiate themselves from their group, and to emphasise this differentiation in both how they behave and what they say: I am smart and well mannered, they are stupid and loud.

Rather than rejecting their blackness, some others choose to retreat into their community, and reduce the exposure to any potential social shaming. This coping mechanism, although understandable, neither helps Black women, nor does it move society forward.

Shame is not to be underestimated. It is a feeling that arises from Black women not being able to see how “crooked” the room is. They struggle to see themselves as attractive because of their skin colour and hair texture, while it is racial shaming which is the cause behind these feelings. I’m personally having an existential dilemma right now: I want to carry my hair natural, while dealing with the shame of feeling less attractive or professional. It has been an important decision for me as a Black woman. A first step to stand straight in the crooked room.

There is no one-dimensional version of Black womanhood. It is varied, subjective, and loaded with history. The oppression and resistance Black women have historically undergone has shaped the experience they have today, and the way they see themselves. Stereotypes like the Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel are another form of how racial stereotypes are used as a narrative to justify oppression. They play a harmful and significant role in racial inequality. Not only because of the feelings they generate in Black women, but also because social policies have been made using these stereotypes as justification, ignoring the realities in which Black women live. It is time for the Black female narrative to be told by its own actrices.

Reading Harris-Perry’s book was an inspiring and empowering eye-opening experience to me. It taught me more about where some of my feelings of shame and insecurity come from. It also taught me to recognise the crooked room for what it is. I am not yet able to stand straight in it. Sometimes I think I stand, and sometimes I just tilt and bend myself to fit. But as Viola Davis puts it: “our entire life has been a protest”. So I am committed to keep trying.

I write about my learnings and experience regarding race, female empowerment, representation and leadership.

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