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11/25/08 4:25 PM
Perhaps she remembers
her great-great grandmother
who wanted to protest
but only rolled her eyes
and willed herself not to scream
when the white man
mounted her from behind.
The portrayal of Black women as lascivious by nature is an
enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with
this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive,
alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd.
Historically, White women, as a category, were portrayed
as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even
sexual purity, but Black women were often portrayed as
innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of
Black women is signified by the name Jezebel.
K. Sue Jewell, a contemporary sociologist, conceptualized the Jezebel as a tragic mulatto – "thin
lips, long straight hair, slender nose, thin figure and fair complexion."
This conceptualization is
too narrow. It is true that the "tragic mulatto" and "Jezebel" share the reputation of being sexually
seductive, and both are antithetical to the desexualized "Mammy" caricature; nevertheless, it is a
mistake to assume that only, or even mainly, fair-complexioned Black women were sexually
objectified by the larger American society. From the early 1630s to the present, Black American
women of all shades have been portrayed as hypersexual "bad-black-girls."
Jewell's conceptualization is based on a kernel of historical truth. Many of the slavery-era Blacks
sold into prostitution were mulattoes. Also, freeborn light-skinned Black women sometimes
became the willing concubines of wealthy White southerners. This system, called placage,
involved a formal arrangement for the White suitor/customer to financially support the Black
woman and her children in exchange for her long-term sexual services. The White men often
met the Black women at "Quadroon Balls," a genteel sex market.
The belief that Blacks are sexually lewd predates the institution of
slavery in America. European travelers to Africa found scantily
clad natives. This semi nudity was misinterpreted as lewdness.
White Europeans, locked into the racial ethnocentrism of the 17th
century, saw African polygamy and tribal dances as proof of the
African's uncontrolled sexual lust. Europeans were fascinated by
African sexuality. William Bosman described the Black women on
the coast of Guinea as "fiery" and "warm" and "so much hotter than
William Smith described African women as "hot
constitution'd Ladies" who "are continually contriving stratagems
how to gain a lover."
The genesis of anti-Black sexual arch types
emerged from the writings of these and other Europeans: the
Black male as brute and potential rapist; the Black woman, as