The History of the "Sexploitation" of the Black Woman
The degrading images of Black women were cemented in American culture centuries previous to the first rapper uttering their first words into a microphone. The English colonists accepted the Elizabethan image of "the lusty Moor," (Moor being Elizabethan for Black) and used this and similar stereotypes to justify enslaving Blacks. In part, this was accomplished by arguing that Blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and with a bestial sexuality. The hypersexualized stereotype of Black women was used during slavery as a rationalization for sexual relations between White men and Black women, especially sexual unions involving masters and slaves. The Black woman was depicted as a woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. She was not satisfied with Black men. It was claimed that the female slave desired sexual relations with White men; therefore, White men did not have to rape Black women. James Redpath, who was of all things an abolitionist, wrote that slave women were "gratified by the criminal advances of Saxons." This view is contradicted by Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and former slave, who claimed that the "slave woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master." Douglass's account is consistent with the accounts of other former slaves. In Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Bibb tells of how his master forced a young slave to be his son's concubine; later, Bibb and his wife were sold to a Kentucky trader who forced Bibb's wife into prostitution.
Slave women were property; therefore, legally they could not be raped. Often slavers would offer gifts or promises of reduced labor if the slave women would consent to sexual relations. Nevertheless, as John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman state in Intimate Matters: A Sexual History of Sexuality In America, "the rape of a female slave was probably the most common form of interracial sex" during that time.
The idea that Black women were naturally and unavoidably sexually immoral was reinforced by several features of the slavery institution. Slaves, whether on the auction block or offered privately for sale, were often stripped naked and physically examined. In premise, this was done to ensure that they were healthy, able to reproduce, and, equally important, to look for whipping scars - the presence of which implied that the slave was rebellious. In practice, the stripping and touching of slaves had a sexually exploitative, sometimes sadistic function. Nakedness, especially among women in the 18th and 19th centuries, implied lack of civility, morality, and sexual restraint even when the nakedness was forced. Slaves, of both sexes and all ages, often wore few clothes or clothes so ragged that their legs, thighs, and chests were exposed. Conversely, Whites, especially women, wore clothing over most of their bodies. The contrast between the clothing reinforced the belief that White women were civilized, modest, and sexually pure, whereas Black women were crude, immodest, and sexually deviant.
Black slave women were also frequently pregnant. The institution of slavery depended on Black women to supply future slaves. By every method imaginable, slave women were "encouraged" to reproduce. Deborah Gray White, in Ar'n't I a Woman?, speaks of major periodicals carrying articles detailing optimal conditions under which bonded women were known to reproduce, and the merits of a particular "breeder" were often the topic of parlor or dinner table conversations. Gray White goes on to say "the fact that something so personal and private became a matter of public discussion prompted one ex-slave to declare that ‘women wasn't nothing but cattle.' Once reproduction became a topic of public conversation, so did the slave woman's sexual activities."
The portrayal of Black women as sexually promiscuous began in slavery, extended through the Jim Crow period, and continues today. Although the Mammy distortion was the dominant popular cultural image of Black women from slavery to the 1950s, the depiction of Black women as sexually licentious was common in American material culture. There was practically no item that was considered out-of-bounds in depicting the Black woman as immodest and lacking in sexual restraint as ordinary articles such as ashtrays, postcards, sheet music, fishing lures, drinking glasses, featured scantily-clad Black women. For example, a metal nutcracker, from the 1930's, depicts a topless Black woman. The nut is placed under her skirt, in her crotch, and crushed. Were sexually explicit items such as these made in the image of white women? Yes. However, they were never mainstreamed like the objects that caricatured Black women. The seamy novelty objects depicting white women were sold on the down-low, the QT and always hush-hush. An analysis of these racist items also reveals that Black female children were sexually objectified. Black girls, with the faces of pre-teenagers, were drawn with adult sized buttocks, which were exposed. They were naked, scantily clad, or hiding seductively behind towels, blankets, trees, or other objects.
As we enter the late 60's and early 70's the vestiges of the old Mammy and Picaninny caricatures were replaced with the supersexualized female (as well as male) protagonists and heroines - often in the form of prostitutes or women using sex as a means to the greater end of achieving a vendetta. These films are now referred to as "blaxploitation" movies. These movies were supposedly steeped in the Black experience. However, many were produced and directed by Whites. Author and film historian Daniel J. Leab in his narrative, Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, wrote: "Whites packaged, financed, and sold these films, and they received the bulk of the big money." The world depicted in blaxploitation movies included corrupt police and politicians, pimps, drug dealers, violent criminals, prostitutes, and whores. In the main, these movies were low-budget, formulaic interpretations of Black life by White producers, directors, and distributors. Black actors and actresses, many unable to find work in mainstream movies, found work in blaxploitation movies. Black patrons supported these movies because they showed Blacks fighting the "White establishment," resisting the "pigs" (police), in control of their fate and sexual beings.
There are compelling parallels between this period and where we find ourselves today in regard to sexist hip-hop. Parallels such as the erroneous perceptions that certain images were and are indeed steeped in the true Black experience: who controlled and controls the production and distribution of the "black" product; the preeminence of distorted sexual roles; and who disproportionately benefits, financially, from this destructive typecasting. It is a painful reality that the lack of real opportunities can sometimes tempt us to be co-facilitators in our own cultural demise, as we engage in endeavors that aid in the buttressing and reinforcement of pernicious and racist stereotypes.
One of our strengths as Black people (contrary to popular opinion) is our ability to engage in deep and insightful self-critique - and in that spirit we must take responsibility for our role in this. Toni Morrison, in addressing the dynamics of racial and gender internalized oppression in her novel The Bluest Eye, stated that it was "as though some mysterious all-knowing master had said, ‘You are ugly people.' . . . [a]nd they (Black folk) took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it. And we as Black people (male & female), have now taken ownership, or taken it in our hands as it were, this deplorable legacy and have worn this disgraceful and destructive garment proudly; and we have indeed gone about the world with it. We in the Black community who have consumed, purchased and repeated the words and images; we, Black male and female exploiters of Black sexuality, who have participated in this dishonor are like the Laodecians who were rebuked by Christ because they were convinced that they were rich and increased with goods and had need of nothing without understanding; without realizing that they were blind, wretched, miserable and naked. And like Esau, we have gave up our God-given birthright that entitled us to something better, for a mess of pottage; for husks that satiate us for only a little while; with nothing to show for the bitter and foolish trade but pain, regret and longing."
Seeing that her womb supplied the steady flow of slaves that facilitated the accumulation of wealth for plantation owners and the various industries in this country (rice, cotton, tobacco and sugar to name a few), America was built, in large part, on the sexual exploitation of the Black woman. With the coffers of the major corporations that own the record labels and the music video networks, bursting from the profits of this new millennium's minstrel show, it is a malicious irony of epic and tragic proportions that we have now come full circle.