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3.5: Cultural and Political Representation

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    • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick & Teresa Hodges
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    Black Women’s Representation

    The sections on "Black Women’s Representation" and "Images and Stereotypes of Black Women in the Media" comes from author, Hodges (2014).

    Race has consequences because physical bodies have been constructed to be valued differently. Representations of race, especially skin color, have come to signify meaning and ultimately mark such associations with a race. For these reasons, portrayals of racial representations cannot be ignored. Some scholars question the relevance of cultural representation to struggles of the conditions faced by Blacks, but others posit that cultural representation still does have an impact on addressing these struggles and also reflect the conditions faced by Blacks.

    Lisa Collins (2002) points out that Black women were rarely seen in American and European art history, and that the depictions that did exist of Black women were ones in which “nineteenth-century visual culture consistently linked the Black female figure with slave, sexual, and service economies” as a reflection of the history of enslavement of Black women” (Collins, p. 103). Further, Patricia Hill Collins’ “5 Controlling Images of Black Women” (1999) summarizes mainstream representations that perpetuate particular notions of Black womanhood. Patricia Hill Collins distinguished controlling images of Black women: “the “Mammy” (p.72), the “Matriarch” (p.74), the “Welfare Mother” (p.78), the “Black Lady” (p.81) and the “Jezebel/hoochie” (p.81).

    Images and Stereotypes of Black Women in the Media

    The Mammy, a faithfully obedient and domestic servant, is considered more “desirable” to whites because of what she is meant to model for Black behavior and Black status, especially towards whites (Hill Collins, 1999, p. 72). It is possible that the Mammy also serves to appease the white imagination to visually see Black subordination and desexualization. In the case of the Matriarch, Hill Collins describes this image as a single working mother who is blamed for the lack of achievement (i.e., academic) of her children due to her working outside of the home, and thus were “failed mammies” (p. 75). Davidson (2010) points out the catch-22 in that Black women who assume the primary role as head of household usually are still judged by the false belief that women should be in the home. In such a case, the proverbial cards are ‘always stacked against’ Black women. If they stay home, their children starve, but if they work, they are absent from their children’s lives. In both cases, they are accused of being uncaring mothers’ (Davidson, 2010, p. 197). Hill Collins points out that the controlling image of the Matriarch seeks to remove the blame of “negative phenomena plaguing the black community” away from structural inequities and instead directly places blame on an alleged cultural deficiency of Blacks, and especially Black single mothers (Collins, 1999, p. 76).

    mammy figurines of Black women maids wearing red and white dresses and headscarfs
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Mammy dolls." (CC BY 2.0; Joel Kramer via Flickr)

    For the Welfare Mother image, Hill Collins says, “African Americans [are] racially stereotyped as being lazy by blaming Black welfare mothers for failing to pass on the work ethic. Moreover, the welfare mother has no male authority to assist her” (Collins, 1999, p. 79). This stereotype and blame coincides with the image of the Matriarch but also favors heteronormativity (p. 79) and also ignores the fact that for a long time after welfare began, Black women were not able to receive welfare.

    The fourth image, the Black lady, is a “modern day mammy” that is a “middle class professional” that works so hard she doesn’t have “time for a man” (p. 81). This image is used as an example of “unfair ‘reverse racism’ ” towards whites because she works in jobs that whites consider themselves to be more deserving of, but the supposed disadvantage of her blackness is pointed to as the reason for obtaining her position (p. 81).

    Finally, the Jezebel or hoochie is portrayed as a sexually aggressive female that occupies a “deviant” position in sexuality due to her hypersexuality, which Hill Collins points to in mainstream rap videos (p. 84). That and homosexuality is pointed to as emasculating men due to being seen as emulating the hypersexuality of Black men (p. 84).

    Other scholars speak of controlling images that include Hill Collins' labels or a variation of them. For example, Wallace-Sanders (2002) states

    Black women have historically been represented as hypersexual, ignorant, and violent female ‘Negro beasts,’ in addition to many other denigrating types including the long-suffering desexualized Mammy, the primitive Topsy, the exotic Jezebel, and the evil, emasculating Sapphire. These well-known stereotypes are of pathologized bodies that are specifically Black and female, and they are also found in literature and in media images from the news to contemporary music (p. 3).

    Lisa Collins’ (2002) summarization of these representations supports Patricia Hill Collins’ “Controlling Images of Black Women” and captures the perpetuation of particular notions of Black womanhood.

    But regardless of which summary of images is more encompassing, all of these images have been used to dictate discourse and policy, for example, on reproduction with the ad on a New York City billboard which stated “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb” on AIDS (Gray, 2005, 85) and on pregnancy (p. 88). Gray further adds that the representation of Blacks, for example, can be used for or against causes, such as justification for colorblindness or as part of “campaigns…against affirmative action” (p. 186). In these ways, Black visibility is often used for harm and thus supports why the negotiation of representation is still important to struggles of equity. For more about reproductive justice, see Chapter 8, section 8.4: "Intersectionality and Reproductive Justice - Part I."

    Classic Film and Literature

    The famous movie Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 but was filmed in 1991. Described as: African American family heirloom, a gorgeously impressionistic history of the Gullah people set on the South Carolina Sea Islands at the turn of the century… The story focuses primarily on the women of the extended Peazant family of luxuriant Ibo Landing, a black community descended from the slaves who worked the indigo, rice and cotton plantations before emancipation. Isolated from the mainland, the Peazants have preserved many of the traditions, beliefs and language of their West African ancestors. All that stands to be lost, however, as the Gullah clan prepares to migrate from this paradise to the industrialized North. Only the matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day), an 88-year-old mystic, insists on remaining behind with the old souls and her "scraps of memories (Kempley, 1992).

    It is an important film, being the first film directed by a Black woman, Julie Dash, to get a wide release. It helped inspire Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album that features scenes and imagery reminiscent of Dash's film, and even the director of Lemonade speaks to the influence of Daughters of the Dust. It visually captures collectivity, with many of the scenes having at least two or more people, often a group of them. “The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States” (Gullah history). While this film shows collective identities, especially one that is present post-slavery, the collective wisdom portrayed in this film is also evident. The oldest ones and the youngest ones are seen as the “most important members of the family” as one points out in the film. This reflects cycles of knowledge and life that start with the old and are maintained with the young. In Daughters of the Dust, a scene where the children are being taught by one of the adults shows how learning is passed on to the younger generations and how that is important to their community. This scene and many others that show collectivity in the film don’t always have dialogue and are sometimes shown in snippets, rotating through different video clips such as some in the group dancing together or taking a photo together, and with music in the background.

    It is interesting that although collectivity is huge in this film, and the connections between the oldest and youngest are present, there is still conflict between Nana (the eldest) and some of the other adults just because Nana wants to stay in the South Carolina Sea Islands. One of the characters, Unborn child, mentions that Nana asked for help, and she (unborn child) came in time. This shows that not only do children learn from elders, but the children also help the elders as well. Further by the end of the film, it is the adults, minus a few including Yellow Mary and the woman who ran off with the Native American man that left the note at the beginning, who feel it is time to move on yet Nana at the end says that she will be remembered by the adults.

    Sidebar: Comparison

    This article titled "Beyoncé vs Daughters of the Dust: How an American indie classic inspired Lemonade" discusses direct comparisons between Dash's Daughters of the Dust and Beyonce's Lemonade. It includes images, clips, and Black Feminist history.

    Black Liberation

    protest with marchers carrying flag that says Black Lives Matter
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): "Black Lives Matter Flag - Minneapolis MayDay Parade 2017." (CC BY 2.0; Tony Webster via Flickr)

    Alicia Garza (2014) writes,

    I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements (Garza, 2014).

    Black Lives Matter is intentional about focusing on Black lives as they are disregarded and made inferior. Garza further emphasizes that BLM is a movement founded by queer Black women and that there is purpose in that. She writes,

    When you design an event / campaign / et cetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice. It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions. Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy (Garza, 2014).

    For more about Black Lives Matter see Chapter 11 on Social Movements.

    African American Policy Forum

    “Founded in 1996, The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) is an innovative think tank that connects academics, activists and policy-makers to promote efforts to dismantle structural inequality” (AAPF). They center intersectionality while advocating for marginalized identities. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the critical legal scholar who coined the word “intersectionality”, co-founded the forum and serves as Executive Director alongside co-founder Dr. Luke Charles Harris who serves as Deputy Director. #SayHerName draws attention to Black girls and women who are victims of police violence, specifically from “racist police violence.” They highlight how Black girls and women are also impacted and not just Black men. #TruthBeTold is a campaign to bring banned books to the public and also galvanize Black voters for what was the 2022 midterm elections. There are more initiatives.

    Black Girls Code

    Black Girls Code is an organization that was founded to help promote equity in STEM, especially amongst Black girls and girls of color. They provide workshops that help teach girls how to code or do computer programming through fun, accessible, and culturally relevant pedagogies. From learning coding through Black joy, creating art, through video games, and more, Black Girls Code is a popular company in the tech world that has chapters and partnerships throughout the country.

    Black Feminism

    Black feminism has a long history, even if not named as such. Since slavery, Black women have fought for their human rights and dignity. Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells were two women who fought for intersectional frameworks long before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term. Sojourner Truth was an enslaved woman who was famously known for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, where she compares the treatment by men of her as a Black woman compared to the treatment of men towards white women. Intersectionality, especially as discussed below, is central to understanding Black women’s experiences and struggles. Not only is intersectionality important in identifying compounding and intersecting oppressions, but many Black women support the idea that intersectionality is the key to understanding power dynamics in everything from relations between people to impacts within larger institutions.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, Black women found themselves marginalized amidst the movements for Black power and liberation. The Combahee River Collective was a group of women, including prominent Black lesbians, who articulated demands for recognition and power within the Black community. These demands included inclusion for sexual orientation and gender with race. Black feminists, or what many call womanists to distinguish themselves from white feminists, galvanized along with other women of color movements. For more about Combahee see Chapter 8, section 8.2 on "Women and Trans Women of Color of 1960s - 80s Liberation Movements." Black women were prominent figures in the Black Panther Party, for example, but still experienced gendered oppression even within the Party. Angela Davis wrote Women, Race, and Class to show the intersections between gender, race, and class. She writes, “Racism and sexism frequently converge—and the condition of white women workers is often tied to the oppressive predicament of women of color. Thus the wages received by white women domestics have always been fixed by the racist criteria to calculate the wages of Black women servants.” (Davis, 1983, p. 94). For more about this see Chapter 11, section 11.4 on the Domestic Workers labor movement.

    Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith co-edited All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave and published in 1982. Speaking of Black Womenʻs Studies, Hull and Smith (1982) write, “Only a feminist, pro-woman perspective that acknowledges the reality of sexual oppression in the lives of Black women, as well as the oppression of race and class, will make Black women’s studies the transformer of consciousness it needs to be” (p. xxi). They are calling to center Black women’s oppression in women’s studies and feminism in general due to the multiple marginalization and multiple oppression of Black women.

    Audre Lorde (1984 then 2000) wrote, “In a society where good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. Within this society, that group is made up of Black and Third World people, working-class people, older people, and women” (p. 114). I begin with this quotation because she starts her essay on “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” with this quotation and it emphasizes difference. This is about who is seen as different and therefore treated as less than. In her writing, Lorde especially discusses Black women, and generally that we treat difference in one of three ways: “ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate” (p. 115). Understanding the power of difference is perhaps our key to liberation, including for Black women.

    bell hooks wrote Feminism is for Everybody and stipulated that if one isn’t putting equity at the forefront and considering race/gender/class disparities as central to the cause of feminism then one isn’t really for feminism. She points out, “...we could only become sisters in struggle by confronting the ways women – through sex, class, and race – dominated and exploited other women, and created a political platform that would address these differences” (hooks, 2000, p. 3). She further discusses how embracing white supremacy within the feminist movement is not feminism (p. 4), how turning our back on working-class women supports the patriarchy and is not feminism (p. 5), and even being anti-abortion is not feminism (p. 6). In this way, she warns that “lifestyle feminism” removes “politics” and attempts to claim it as feminism for all.

    Sidebar: Black Womanism

    Black womanism is a particular term that some use to separate Black feminists from white feminists. This article "A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: The Womanist Movement" shows a little about the history, images, and a video about Black womanism.

    There are many ways to demonstrate and promote Black liberation and these are just some of the ways. One of the most pressing ideas about Black liberation, as seen through Black women, is how we are not free unless the most marginalized are free. In our struggle to address inequities and uplift the Black community, we must remember that even historically, our power in numbers can help overcome efforts to divide the collective spirit. Blackness, as a community, has endured for generations, and that is a testament to the strength of our legacy.