The impact of slavery on the sexuality of African-American women has been largely overlooked for many years. In addition, the negative manner in which African-American Women are portrayed in the media has been a topic of debate in recent years.
The purpose of this discussion is to explore how the experience of slavery shaped the development of African-American women’s sexual identity and self-esteem. In addition, we will examine how the larger American public views and portrays black women in the media.
How the experience of slavery shaped the development of African-American women’s sexual identity and self-esteem
How slavery impacted the Family Unit
The Slavery in America is one of the most heinous events in history.
What many fail to realize is that the experience of slavery has fashioned the way that African-American women view their sexuality and body image. Before we can fully understand the impact that slavery had on African-American Women, we must understand what slavery did to the African-American family structure as a whole.
One impact of slavery was the breakdown of the traditional family unit. Many look at the problem of single African-American mothers as a new phenomenon but the fact of the matter is that there has been a disproportionate amount of single African-American mothers since the 19th century. An article entitled “Slavery and the Black Family” explains that it is difficult to even define what a family was during slavery. The article asserts, man, woman, and child might live together at the moment they are counted, but it is not clear that they are a family in any meaningful social sense. The man may have begat the child, but in what sense was he a father and a husband? He had no exclusive sexual claim on the mother, he could not provide for her materially, and he had no right to prevent a slave sale from ending their union or from wrenching their child from them. Even Gutman’s own statistics suggest that many slave children were raised in single-mother families. In 1865-66, Gutman found that between 21 and 28% of all black households containing children were headed by an unmarried mother. After slavery ended, Gutman’s 1880 census data shows that in urban areas such as Mobile and Richmond, around one-fourth of all African-American families were headed by females. Many of these women described themselves as widows, but many claimed that status only to avoid the criticism that was attached to being unmarried… (Wilson)
The article also points out that the institution of slavery kept black men from being fathers or husband. (Wilson) A black male slave could not give the mother of his children security, a name, a status or an identity.
The article points out that “The male slave was placed in an impossible situation, “one bound to reduce him to a state of chronic jealousy and insecurity about women…And even if he managed somehow to overcome these legal barriers, he often had to live apart from the mother of his child.” (Wilson)
Slavery and Sexuality
Now that we understand more about the way that slavery impacted African-American women’s sexuality. One of the major issues that arose out of slavery was the disproportion of African-American men to African-American women. It is reported that in 1850 the proportion of Black men to Black Women between the ages of 20 to 29 was 857/1000. (Wilson) By the time slavery was abolished in 1870 the ratio was 866/1000. (Wilson) Many historians and sociologists believe that this disproportion meant that some black women would simply not marry or have uncommitted sexual relationships. (Wilson)
Additionally, during slavery many male slaves would have to travel to other cities to work or they were sold to other owners. (Wilson) The author of “Slavery and the Black Family” asserts that this created an environment that “made men sexually more predatory and women sexually more casual.” (Wilson) This casual attitude towards sex still exists today and as we can see that this mentality was created by the systemic functioning of slavery.
Another issue that arose out of slavery was the rape of female slaves by those who transported slaves and subsequently slave owners. Indeed, the rape of slaves began during the middle passage and in some cases before the slave even left the shores of Africa. An article from The Birmingham-Pittsburg Traveler points out that the crews on the slave ships were allowed free access to the female slaves and were encouraged to exploit them sexually. (“The Matrix of Domination…”) In fact, the constant raping of women was used as a weapon to create submission among all the slaves. (“The Matrix of Domination…”) The article asserts that rape kept the female slaves helpless and left male slaves powerless to protect them. The crews also felt that this type of intimidation would keep the slaves from staging an insurrection. (“The Matrix of Domination…”) The article quotes Angela Davis saying, the institutionalized pattern of rape, as it entered the framework of the slaver, provided the means to destroy the women’s will to resist and, by corollary, to demoralize their men. A curious irony of this tactic, Davis points out, is that despite slaveowners’ attempt to render women unequal to their male counterparts by increasing the intensity of their brutality – for they were not only raped but whipped and mutilated as well – the oppression was still equally distributed over both males and females. This indeed rendered black women’s positions equal within the slave community and formed the groundwork upon which their resistance to slavery occurred with a passion equal to their men’s.”(“The Matrix of Domination…”)
There is absolutely no doubt that the sexual exploitation that occurred during the middle passage still has an effect upon African-American women today even though we are a few generations removed for the actual event. It seems that many African-American women view their sexuality as something that they have no control over — this could easily be attributed to the sexual exploitation of women before and during slavery.
Of course many of the sexual exploits that occurred during the middle passage also occurred on the plantation. Quite often slave owners or their male sons would rape female slaves. The slaves were totally helpless in this situation because they were considered “property” and they didn’t have any legal rights. The abolitionist Harriet Martineau and Frederick Douglass asserted that,
Every man who resides on his plantation may have his harem, and has every inducement of custom, and of pecuniary gain, to tempt him to the common practice.”(63) Martineau ultimately believed that all harms of slavery arose from the master’s desire to possess the sexuality of female slaves.(64) Frederick Douglass likewise pleaded with his old master to prevent overseers from raping his sisters.(65) This issue was not merely the concern of a few abolitionists; even the art and poetry of the time demonstrate concern with slave rape.(66) In fact, by the late 1850’s many abolitionists were arguing that rape of slaves should be a crime.(Kaytal)
As you can see the sexual exploitation of female slaves has contributed greatly to the sexuality of African-American Women. Rape and Slavery had the effect of dehumanizing black women. This dehumanization has created subsequent generations of black women who view themselves as worthless victims. This feeling of worthlessness has translated into a life of promiscuity for generations of African-American Women.
Slavery and Body Image
Although slaves suffered great sexual exploitation during slavery, African-American Women have a more positive body image than do their Caucasian counterparts. Much of this is due to the fact that as a result of the treatment the slaves received they wanted and were able to create a culture that was/is separate and apart from European culture. As a result African-Americans tend to have a different standard of beauty than Caucasian people. (Molloy)
For instance, an article in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research explains that African-American Women believe the African-American men prefer full figured women. (Molloy) As a result Black women tend to not be as self-conscious about their weight as Caucasian women. Additionally, the article points out that there are variations concerning body image within the African-American Community. (Molloy)The article asserts that African-Americans that identify more with the middle class culture are more succpetible to poor self-esteem and body image. (Molloy) The article entitled, “Body Image and Self-Esteem: A Comparison of African-American and Caucasian Women” explains,
Racial identity and identification with the dominant middle class culture may explain the variation within groups of African-American and white women. As Pyant and Yanico (1991) stated, racial identity attitudes can predict self-esteem, well-being, and depression in female African-Americans. To the extent that African-American women identify more with their racial/ethnic culture than with the dominant culture and to the extent that they interact mostly with other African-Americans, they may be “protected” from white norms regarding body styles. (Molloy)
For instance studies have found that African America women form lower socioeconomic backgrounds are usually heavier but do not have poor self-esteem or a poor body image. (Molloy) The study found that African-American Women and Caucasian women have a different perception of what overweight means. The study found that African-American Women are quite often around people that are overweight which changes the perception of what overweight people look like. (Molloy)
Another article entitled, “Denying Diversity: Perceptions of Beauty and Social Comparison Processes among Latina, Black, and White Women,” explains further the perception of body image that is projected by African-American Women. This particular article points to research that suggest that the African-American view of beauty is not only found in the way that a person looks but also in their personality. (Poran) The article describes the results of a study involving Black teenage girls and White teenage girls. This study found that,
Using an ethnographic method they found striking differences between African-American and European-American girls’ conceptions and experiences of beauty. European-American adolescents’ conceptions of beauty were much more rigid, fixed, and uniform than those of African-Americans, who were much more flexible and fluid in their notions of beauty. The African-American girls’ perceptions of beauty focused on personality traits and a personal sense of style, rather than a certain “look.” Over 63% of the African-American girls in the study believed that beauty meant having the right “attitude” and personality. In addition, the African-American participants were much more likely to be satisfied with their weight and appearance than were European-American participants: 70% of the African-American participants were satisfied with their weight, whereas 90% of the European participants were dissatisfied.(Poran)
The article also points to studies that suggest that the support that African-American women received from their community and other African-American community contributes to feeling of good self-esteem. Likewise, the compliments and feedback that fuller figured African-American Women received for their community and family members aids African-Americans in excepting their bodies and self-esteem. (Poran)Additionally the studies also found that African-American girls had more support from their peers than their white counterparts. (Poran)
All of this evidence suggests that slavery definitely impacted body image and the self-esteem of African-American females. The segregated conditions of slavery contributed to the development of a strong Black community. This community exists in parts (based on the region of the country) and as a whole entity within America. The African-American culture is vitally important to the Black woman’s perception of self and the boy image that she has.
African-American Women in the Media
African-American Women are often betrayed in a negative manner by the media. She has often been viewed as being the mammy, domineering, rude and abrasive. An article in the Western Journal of Black studies explains that,
Black women are perceived negatively in this country. Media portrayals depicting black women as being unattractive, overhearing, loud, evil, spiteful and sexually promiscuous have successfully dominated the American psyche, making it extremely difficult for black women to develop and/or maintain positive self-concepts or respect from others.”(Hamlet)
In this present day and age the negative portrayals of black women in the media still exists. The ironic thing is that many of these negative portrayals are propagated by the so called “Black Shows.” Some of these shows have domineering characters or characters that appear to be intellectually inferior. On the other hand, some of these negative images are being balanced by more positive images of Black women.
Black women in the media not only pertain to television shows and the movies but also to magazines and other forms of print media. An article entitled, “Colorism of Black Women in News Editorial Photos,” asserts that African-American models are less desirable to the media than Caucasian models. The article explains, “Most media studies that investigate the colorism phenomenon have focused on advertising content and have concluded that typically Eurocentric-looking black models are more popular than typically Afrocentric-looking black models.” (Fears)
The author of the article suggests that this favoritism has been created by colorism. Colorism is the process by which people choose to only like Blacks that have light skin and more European features and tend to reject individuals with dark skinned with more Afro centric features. (Fears) Colorism and the Black woman are portrayed in a myriad of ways including the news media and advertisement campaigns. The article suggest that, “black women have been portrayed in advertisements mainly in one of two character extremes — the gifted black woman, for example, seen as a singer or dancer; or as the dependable, faithful mother who usually is obese, matronly, and always serving her family in one or more domestic roles.” (Fears)
Various studies also suggest that African-American Women that are seen in advertising campaigns usually have lighter complexions and European features. (Fears) They also suggest that when a black man and woman are in an advertisement together, the woman is always lighter than the man. (Fears)Dark skin on an African-American woman tends to be perceived as less attractive. (Fears)
Indeed the media has portrayed African-American women in a very negative light. Most often the manner in which African-American women are betrayed is based on the stereo types that people believe are true. Although some strides have been made in the elimination of these stereo types in the media, there is still a need to improve the image of the African-American’ women in the media.
Conclusion and discussion
The purpose of this discussion was to explore how the experience of slavery shaped the development of African-American women’s sexual identity and self-esteem. We found that slavery created a society in which men were promiscuous with their sexuality and women became more casual with their sexuality. In addition, we found that the constant rape of women during and after the middle passage attributed greatly to notions of sexuality among African-American Women.
Our investigation also asserted that the self-esteem of African-American women is higher than that of Caucasion women. Our investigation found that the systemic nature of slavery created an environment in which African-American slave created strong bonds and even stronger communities. These strong communities have created a strong sense of self and beauty amongst African-American women. We also pointed out that African-Americans teenage girls get more peer support than do their white counterparts.
Finally, we examined how the larger American public views and portrays black women in the media. Our investigation asserts that many African-American women are portrayed in a negative light on television. We also found that colorism is a major issue in the world of advertising.
Our research explains that most ads contain more women who are light skinned with European features as opposed to containing dark skinned women who have afro centric features. Lastly we concluded that the manner in which Black women are portrayed on television must be changed.
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