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Black Women’s Identity: Stereotypes, Respectability and Passionlessness (1890-1930)

Impact des stéréotypes dans l’identité des femmes noires des années 1890 à 1930 : respectabilité et absence de passion
Mahassen Mgadmi
p. 40-55

Résumé

Etant amenées à subir à la fois une discrimination raciale et sexuelle, les femmes noires ont été particulièrement victimes de stéréotypes raciaux perpétrés par les Blancs et qui ont, pendant longtemps, sous-tendu leur image. Les distorsions des femmes noires, qui trouvent racine dans l’esclavage, en femmes fortes dominatrices, dépravées, séductrices et en Jézabels aux mœurs légères, ont exacerbé leur stigmatisation. L’analyse des travaux de femmes noires, écrivains et celle des stratégies employées par les intellectuels noirs entre 1890 et 1930 pour faire évoluer les perceptions négatives des Afro-américaines, a permis de déterminer la façon dont les stéréotypes dominants des femmes noires ont façonné leurs identités. En fait, les tentatives des réformistes noirs d’atténuer ces stéréotypes ont conduit à placer les femmes noires au cœur de la réforme. Les luttes pour le respect, la survie, la responsabilité et l’élévation raciale ont accordé une importance exagérée à la respectabilité et à l’absence de désir. Dans ce sens, les réformistes ont remodelé la « mauvaise » image de la femme noire (femme autonome, jouant un rôle centrale dans la famille, travaillant en dehors de chez elle, et sexuellement libre) en une « bonne image » se conformant à l’idéal patriarcal d’une société blanche.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

littérature, histoire, société, États-Unis
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Texte intégral

  • 1  “Myths do signify subjective, perceptual reality, constituting metaphorical representations of how (...)
  • 2 Ibid., 7.
  • 3  My focus on the mammy, the Jezebel, and the tragic mulatta rather than the domineering matriarch i (...)

1Being part of two marginalized groups historically deemed inferior, Black females figured in a distinctive way different from either Black men or White women. They were ascribed peculiar derogatory images that were the legacy of a long-lived racism and sexism. Myths1 perpetuated by Whites and long underpinning the image of Blacks might contain common elements for Black females and males as their experiences were two sides of the same coin and influenced each other. However, standing on the nexus of American race and sex ideologies, Black women were doubly discredited. Racial and discriminatory representations of Black womanhood which had roots in the antebellum era evolved according to Patricia Morton around four central figures: the “inept domestic servant” (the mammy), the domineering matriarch, the sex object (the Jezebel), and the tragic mulatto.2 Drawing on some works by Black female writers and Blacks’ racial uplift strategy between the 1890s and the 1930s, this article delineates the distorted conceptualization of Black women, and the way it molded their identities. It will primarily map out three of these images namely the mammy, the Jezebel, and the tragic mulatto.3

  • 4   P. Morton, op. cit., 36.

2The bipolar conceptualization of Black and White womanhood assigned Black women all the negative traits of disgrace whereas White women were attributed all the idealized aspects of “true womanhood”, such as piety, deference, domesticity, passionlessness, chastity, cleanness and fragility. Conversely, Black women were conceived and pictured as primitive, lustful, seductive, physically strong, domineering, unwomanly and dirty. There was a breadth of stereotypical perceptions of Black women, which placed them outside the enclave of delicacy, femininity, respectability and virtue. As Patricia Morton suggests, “all except Mammy had profoundly derogatory, dehumanizing characterization.”4

Black women’s enslavement and the construction of stereotypes

  • 5 W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Damnation of Women”, Darkwater:Voices from within the Veil, New York: Harcou (...)
  • 6  Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, New York: Norton, 199 (...)
  • 7  D. G. White, op. cit., 60.

3In fact, the old slave mammy or “Aunt Jemima” figure pervaded a body of writings about Black womanhood. She was generally dark-skinned, strong-bodied, thick-lipped, obese and ugly. Being the favorite servant, the skilled cook or the most devoted housekeeper she incarnated the perfect mother in the house capable of nurturing White children and at the same time looking after her children and sustaining her family. She was “the all-mother figure”5 and “mother earth”, a “superwoman” stronger than her man and less feminine than other women.6 Thanks to her devotion and loyalty to her masters and mistresses as well as her skills, she was more elevated in status than those working in the fields and more likely than her fellows to progress and therefore rise in standing. She was also depicted as asexualized and defeminized because of her old age, her physical strength and her obesity. This placed her “beyond the pale of the carnal, above the taint of Jezebel.”7

  • 8  This cultural uplift theory that pervaded the Progressive Era in the USA foregrounded women’s resp (...)
  • 9  P. Morton, op. cit., 10.
  • 10  On the idea of the mammy being an epitome of racial harmony during slavery, see Earl E. Thorpe’s T (...)
  • 11  P. Morton, op. cit., 35.
  • 12 Ibid., 103.

4Her conceptualization as an ideal slave and mother, her domesticity, her virtue, and her defeminized image were in tune with the Victorian ideals of womanhood and thus fashioned her idealized image. She was a good example for the “cultural uplift” theory.8 Furthermore, the mammy’s masculinization highlighted the ultrafemininity of her mistress. Her work was also substantial to the “Lady ideal,” the social prestige of Southern White families, and to the “South’s romanticization of slavery as an extended White-Black family.”9 As perceived by some Southern Black historians,10 the mammy embodied the romanticized interrelated experience between Blacks and Whites, which in turn provided the “stamp of historical legitimation”11for slavery and segregation. This view, which romanticized slavery and harmonized the Black-White relationship in the antebellum era, provided a vindication of slavery. Besides, the mammy was criticized by her people for giving much more care to White children than to her own and expending her energy on White people. For this reason, the mammy figure has been given little space in most American historiography. She was scarcely present and, on the rare occasions when she did appear, considered “dismissively”.12 The myth of the plantation mammy seemed to contradict the allegations of the sexual exploitation of female house slaves, and exaggerated the maternal instincts of women who, ironically, could be separated from their children by sale at any time. The mammy was designed to convey the impression that all was well in the plantation South. Practicing what comparative sociologist Orlando Patterson described in Slavery and Social Death (1982) as the “human technique of camouflaging a relation by defining it as the opposite of what it really is,” slaveholders attempted to lull themselves and the nation asleep with the myth of the Black woman’s perennial power.

  • 13  D. G. White, op. cit., 29.
  • 14  Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape, London: Penguin Books, 1975.

5Despite the desexualized image projected onto the mammy, which contradicted that of the Jezebel, both figures simultaneously underpinned the American mind. Unlike the mammy, the Jezebel was a middle-aged or young woman governed by her libido and “matters of the flesh”.13 She was deemed a hypersexual woman with unlimited bestial passions. Besides, her sexual greed was counterposed by White men with the idolized passionlessness of “true women,” which incited the White-on-Black sexual abuse and thus the jealousy and resentment of White women. In this light, we clearly see that the dichotomization of women into the Madonna and the harlot brought into play the old myths of rape that “a virtuous woman either cannot get raped or does not get into situations that leave her open to assault.”14 Thereby, it accentuated the immorality of Black women and made them responsible for their own rape and sexual coercion. Indeed, from the very beginning of their enslavement, Black women were vulnerable to sexual assault, rationalized by the mythified idea that they were insatiable Jezebels.

  • 15  P. Morton, op. cit., 36.
  • 16  For more information on Black women’s culture of dissemblance, see Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and t (...)

6 The stereotypical representation that went hand in hand with the jezebel image was that of the seductress. Black women, particularly light-skinned ones, who could pass for Whites sometimes, were in White women’s opinion able to “overpower the White man’s will to resist [their] allure.”15 It was widely believed, by White women especially, that Black women during slavery drew on their sexual relationships with their White masters to gain freedom for themselves and for their offspring in addition to other privileges inaccessible to their counterparts. As a result, many White women believed that Black females tried to infatuate White men and were therefore inviting sexual attack. For fear of being blamed for their victimization, Black women were thereupon silent or rather silenced about such assaults and “dissemblance” defined much of their public life. This was one of the many reasons that left such crimes unreported, thus unnoticed.16 What is more, it was claimed that, as a mother, this woman would socialize her offspring in depravity and licentiousness. As a result, increasing promiscuity, sexual diseases, moral decline and crime would lead to the degeneracy of the Black race and ultimately its extinction.

  • 17  For more details see D. G. White, op. cit., 29.
  • 18 Ibid., 31.

7However, the portraiture of Black women as licentious Jezebels finds roots in the environmental and cultural differences between the Anglo Saxons and the Africans and bonding enslavement conditions. In fact, English slave traders mistook the traditions and customs of these communities. Polygamy was for them a sign of hypersexuality and sexual greed, the “seminudity” of African women (due to hot climate) meant lewdness, and dances were regarded as a hysterical plunging into unconsciousness.17 Later, on the plantations, these views were sustained by the conditions under which bondswomen lived. Work assignments structured female slaves’ lives. Owing to their poverty and the rough work in the fields, these women could by no means be dressed “adequately”.18 Thereby, they were mistaken as immoral and lascivious. Besides, Black female bodies were often publicly displayed when being whipped by their masters or bought and sold by slave traders. Likewise, since slavery rested on the procreative capacities of Black female slaves, their bodies, their fecundity and their sexuality were subject of public discussion. Even their rape and sexual assault by their masters, justified by their “inherent” promiscuity, were seen as a means of increasing birth rates and thus the labor force on the plantations.

  • 19  In Transcending the Talented Tenth(New York: Routledge, 1997), Joy James examines African American (...)
  • 20  Franklin E. Frazier,Black Bourgeoisie, New York: Collier Books, 1962, 112. Frazier argues that the (...)

8Whether as a depraved or an elevated mulatto, a mammy or a Jezebel, a bondswoman or a free woman, the image of the Black woman was conditioned by Whites’ patriarchal values. More strikingly, while trying to display the dehumanizing legacy of slavery and to mitigate the blemishes of Blacks in order to advance their own people, many Black scholars (such as Edward Franklin Frazier, Booker T Washington, members of The American Negro Academy or “The Talented Tenth”, Du Bois, Alexander Crummcil, Bess Beatty, William Wells Brown, Alexander Crummell, and George Washington Williams) too often enhanced negative stereotypes about Black women.19 In their emphasis on domesticity, monogamy, sexual restraint and passionlessness, “respectable” clothes, and in short patriarchal values of “true womanhood”, these Black scholars seemed prominently governed by views and interpretations that resonated with Whites’. In this view, they reshaped the “bad” image of Black women (autonomous, having a central role in the family, working outside the house, sexually free) into a “good” feminine picture conforming to White society’s patriarchal ideals. Hence, they underestimated their own values and ideals and admitted their cultural inferiority. It was what Frazier labelled the “inferiority complex” so well exhibited by the Black bourgeoisie.20

  • 21  D. G. White, op. cit., 46.

9If Black men’s psychological masculinity was undoubtedly restored and their images were improved, Black females remained pictured in a negative light. Most Black-authored historiography treated stereotyping as “gender-neutral” and therefore the persistent vitality of racist myths and stereotypes about Black women did not fade away. Indeed, Southerners did not abandon the Jezebel image or its rationalization, because it was equally “convenient and utilitarian”21 in that it served White men, for instance, to deny or account for their rape of Black women. Even the asexualized mammy was not immune from sexual coercion and rape. On the contrary, as slaves or as free domestic servants, Black females’ proximity to their White masters made them more likely to be sexually harassed or raped. One result of interracial rape was miscegenation and the emergence of the mulattoes.

  • 22  Also called the “one Black ancestor rule”, the “traceable amount rule,” and the “hypo-descent rule (...)
  • 23  F. James Davis, Who Is Black?: One Nation’s Definition, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Universit (...)
  • 24  Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, an Autobiography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993 [1940), 11.
  • 25  P. Morton, op. cit., 21. Brownmiller also analyzes the “pollution” of the White race (op. cit., 16 (...)
  • 26 For more explanation of this idea, see George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: T (...)
  • 27  P. Morton, op. cit., 21.

10Lydia Maria Child introduced the literary character that we call the tragic mulattain two short stories: The Quadroons (1842) and Slavery’s Pleasant Homes (1843). She portrayed her as the offspring of a White slaveholder and his Black female slave. This mulatta’s life was tragic as she was ignorant of both her mother’s race and her own, believing herself to be White and free. Her father died, her "Negro blood" was discovered, she was deserted by her White lover, and died a victim of slavery and White male violence. Despite his/her mixed Black and White ancestry the mulatto was considered Black in the light of the pervasive “one-drop rule” or the “Black drop rule”22 which held that “a single drop of ‘Black blood’” made a person a Black.23 One’s classification as Black was accordingly predicated on the minutest trace of Black descent. As late as 1940, Langston Hughes noted in his essay The Big Sea, that the word “Negro” was used “to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins.”24 More strikingly, due to White Americans’ anxiety about the “Negroization”, the Blackening, or in Morton’s words “the infection and pollution”25 of White society, the mulatto was perceived as the product of a “sin” committed by either Blacks or Whites and miscegenation was considered the greatest of all sins.26 She/he was also frequently portrayed as the offspring of an unnatural relationship. All these factors were contributory to the emergence of the image of “the tragic mulatto,” who figured as an unstable, dangerous person who desired sex with White people because of his/her mixed blood.27

  • 28  Nella Larsen, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), London: Serpent’s Tail, 2001, 47.
  • 29 Ibid., 134.
  • 30 Ibid., 8.

11The mulatto woman’s inability to belong to either world is well reflected by Helga Crane, the heroine of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928). Her continuous quest for happiness and “her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination”28 incites her restlessness and fragmentation. Helga Crane’s “dissatisfaction and asphyxiation”29 haunts her and inhibits her feeling of being at home and with her own people. Her double consciousness and identity iprevents her from belonging to either society for both were equally complicated and rigid in their ramifications. She felt that “if you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’.”30

  • 31  The idea of “Negro pathology” was at the heart of Blacks’ cultural inferiority. See Scott Cummings (...)
  • 32  G. Frederickson, op. cit., 294.
  • 33 Ibid., 294.

12Being “whitish” and regarded thus as more beautiful than full-blooded Black women, many mulattas were also during slavery sold for the exclusive purpose of prostitution and concubinage. The mulatta’s imagery was hereby conspicuously dichotomized between “good” and “bad”, between the elevated “whitish”, beautiful, refined, and hence capable of progress and the seductive Jezebel who was reminiscent of the debasement and the suffering of Blacks. Thence, she was deemed the personification of Blacks’ “pathology”31 and moral decline on which racial segregation rested. Blacks’ association of miscegenation with “Black degradation and lack of opportunity” ignited their “need for racial purity and social separation” that could feed their racial pride.32 Additionally, a belief that “most race mixing occurred between White men and lower-class Negro women who had not had a chance to develop middle-class standards of sexual purity,”33 helped enhance the perception of the mulatto as the epitome of Blacks’ disgrace and stigmatization, called forth cultural stereotypes regarding the lewdness and depravity of Black females, and therefore held these women responsible for their people’s degradation. Hence, the mulatta grew to despise her descent, her family and herself. This resulted in her damaged and damaging psyche, eminently drawn in David Pilgrim’s summary of the literary and cinematic portrayal of the mulatta:

  • 34  David Pilgrim, “The Tragic Mulatto Myth,” Ferris State University, Nov. 2000. <http://www.ferris.e (...)

[L]iterary and cinematic portrayals of the tragic mulatto emphasized her personal pathologies: self-hatred, depression, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and suicide attempts being the most common. If light enough to “pass” as White, she did, but passing led to deeper self-loathing. She pitied or despised Blacks and the “Blackness” in herself; she hated or feared Whites yet desperately sought their approval. In a race-based society, the tragic mulatto found peace only in death.34

  • 35  Therefore, White society made a distinction between the docile full-blooded Black or the “sambo” f (...)
  • 36  Jane Campbell, “Rediscovery,” Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, 1992, 5, <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did (...)

13Being living proof that the color line had been crossed and being conceived as degenerate because of the mixture of blood responsible for their criminality and aggressiveness, mullatoes were loathed by White society.35 Nevertheless, while the mulatta could escape her Blackness in the cloak of her light skin and beauty and pass for White, everything would fall apart once her Black lineage was disclosed. In Pauline Hopkins’ Contending Forces (1900) for instance, the heroine Sappho, (she is a blond and blue-eyed mulatto), views her own beauty as “a curse rather than a blessing because it underscores racist assumptions that she is a sex object.”36

Respectability and Black women’s stereotyping

  • 37  On respectability during the Progressive Era, see Victoria V. Wolcott, Harris Paisley, Ann Du Cill (...)
  • 38  Victoria W. Wolcott,Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit, Chapel Hi (...)
  • 39   Noliwe M. Rooks, “To Make a Lady Black and Bid Her Sing: Clothes, Class, and Color,” Ladies’ Page (...)
  • 40  V. Wolcott, op. cit., 13-48; H. Carby, op. cit., 331; D. Hine, op. cit., 345.

14Although the demeaning stereotypical perception of Black women was pivoted on White middle-class patriarchal ideals, Black women’s efforts to counter these stereotypes and shatter their negative image were paradoxically molded according to the very values that condemned, enslaved and degraded them. Indeed, the debate and discourse about respectability within the Black community which pervaded the Progressive Era37 and substantially affected Black activism of that time was at the heart of a whole strategy to “uplift” Black Americans. Moreover, respectability discourse was consistently a gendered one. The Black reformists’ strategy of racial advancement placed an exaggerated importance on Black female deference. Hereby, Black females strived to abide by the canons of respectability which rested from about the 1890s to the 1920s on “bourgeois values of thrift, sexual restraint, cleanliness and hard work.”38 Therefore, many Black women took courses in domestic service at training schools, such as the National Training School, and many others participated in domestic training programs in order to ameliorate their standards of cleanliness and orderliness. Black women’s magazines advertised fashionable and respectable clothes.39 Female ideologues and activists published articles in African American periodicals and delivered lectures nationwide preaching female respectability. Such institutions for racial reform as the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the Second Baptist Church and the Detroit Study Club were actively instrumental in these reform tactics.40

  • 41  See Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Black Feminists and Du Bois: Respectability, Protection, and beyond”, (...)
  • 42  Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent:The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, (...)
  • 43  Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Mind That Burns in Each Body: Women, Rape, and Racial Violence”, in Pow (...)
  • 44  See Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987 and D (...)

15For African American leaders and intellectuals, the politics of respectability first emerged as a way to counter the negative stereotypes of Black Americans as lazy, stupid and immoral, as well as the racist discourses of the nineteenth century. Paradoxically, this tactic also reflected an acceptance and internalization of such representations by attempting to reform the behavior of individuals and erasing structural forms of oppression such as racism, sexism and poverty.41 According to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the politics of respectability “equated non-conformity with the cause of racial inequality and injustice. The conservative and moralistic dimension tended to privatize racial discrimination thus rendering it outside the authority of government regulation.”42 The aim was thus to instill dignity and self-respect while also challenging negative, stereotypical images of African Americans. However, it did not recognize the power of racism and left little room for those who chose not to conform. Being concerned with presenting positive images of Black life, African American intellectuals and scholars found themselves caught up with narrow representations of Black women. As Black women were denied the privileges of femininity and protection from violence, Black intellectuals and activists developed a discourse of protection. Jacqueline Dowd Hall used the term, “rhetoric of protection” to describe the discourses of a pure and protected White womanhood in the American South which was “reflective of a power struggle between men [, for] the right of the southern lady to protection pre- supposed her obligation to obey.”43 Black male desire to “protect” Black women was reflective of the power struggle between Black and White men and Black men and Black women.44 The promise of protection has a long history in Black politics but is not without a cost. As a matter of fact, protection assumes a stance of victimization on the part of those who need to be protected.

  • 45 V. Wolcott, op. cit., 36.
  • 46  See Angela Y. Davies, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Bil (...)
  • 47 V. Wolcott, op. cit., 7.
  • 48  D. Hine, op. cit.

16Besides, in order to rise in status through the creation of a respectable identity, middle-class Black female reformists or in Wolcott’s words, “guardians of bourgeois respectability,”45 policed the working class women’s behaviors and attacked Black women who did not uphold the standards of respectable womanhood such as blues singers, gamblers, prostitutes and performers. Blues singers’ lyrics were redolent with sexual images, which conflicted with this “respectable” identity.46 Endeavors to dismantle these distorted images resonated with White middle class ideals of domesticity, chastity and sexual restraint. In addition, owing to differences in the cultural, political and social context Black working-class women’s views and understanding of respectability during the Progressive Era were sometimes different from those of Black middle-class women’s. For example, whereas working-class women might have found it preferable to leave domestic service, in order to escape sexual harassment in private homes and to focus on long-term goals for their daughters, middle-class Black women were more concerned with better working conditions and pay. Despite divergences, however, racial uplift transcended class differences and respectability received support from both working- and middle-class women and therefore “chastity, domesticity and racial pride shaped the childhood and early education of Black women from different class backgrounds.”47 In this regard, since perpetuating “sexual purity” was central to reform work, Black women across classes embraced a new sexual identity of passionlessness. While for working-class women this attitude was a shield against sexual harassment and rape, it was for middle-class women a tool to appeal to Whites and gain status. For this reason, Black women adhered to a cult of secrecy. Even when sexually abused and harassed, they remained silent.48 In addition to its being a protective cloak, silence was also a kind of denial of Black women’s own sexuality, which underpinned their claims to moral superiority. This is conspicuously articulated in most of the Black female literary works of that time, such as in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted (1893), Pauline Hopkins’ Contending Forces (1899) and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928).

  • 49  A. Du Cille, op. cit., 31.
  • 50 Ibid., 42.

17Members of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Black female literati deployed social, political and literary conventions of their time in order to promote the ideology of racial progress built on female deference and passionlessness. Thus, novelists such as Hopkins and Harper created virtuous, often light-skinned mulatta heroines “whose sexual purity reigned on the printed page as a rebuttal to the racist imaging of Black women as morally loose and readily accessible.”49 In Contending Forces, for instance, Hopkins’s advocacy of passionlessness is clearly displayed in her main character, Sappho whose adherence to the sexual standards of her time makes her hide her experience of incestuous rape, deny her own son and adopt a new sexual identity. Therefore, her escape is an attempt to bury her shameful past that can be a blemish on the whole Black community. Sappho’s deliberate silence and silencing of her past is thence due to her “acceptance of traditional standards of virtue.”50

  • 51  H. Carby,  op. cit., 332.
  • 52  James Christmann, “Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigm in Frances E. W. Harp (...)

18In Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted, Frances Harper’s attractive heroine, Iola, refuses affairs with various masters in order to remain pure and chaste, and therefore marriageable. This is definitely her strategy for being empowered in a society imaging all Black women’s sexuality as “primitive and exotic”.51 Harper tried, like many of her contemporaries, “to portray post-war Black society and construct a fin-de-siècle blueprint for the future of the race.”52 Iola’s sexual purity and restraint, dictated by a social and a political purpose, are instrumental in her elevation and that of her Black race to which Iola like Harper is committed.

  • 53  Kimberly Monda, “Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’,” African American (...)
  • 54  N. Larsen, op. cit., 87.
  • 55 Ibid., 89.

19Likewise, inNella Larsen’s Quicksand, Helga’s (the mulatta heroine) represses her sexuality, and her sexlessness is a means to dispute White stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality. Furthermore, the sacrifice of her emotions and sexual desires makes her leave racist America for Denmark where she “channels her unacknowledged sexuality into the pleasures of consumeristic purchasing and self-display as the wealthy Dahls dress her in gorgeous clothes and show off her ‘exotic’ beauty to their friends.”53 Again, in Denmark, Helga’s refusal of Axel Olsen’s marriage proposal displays her resistance to the distorted image projected onto Black females as primitive, savage, hot-blooded and exotic – the very forces that entail Helga’s denial and self-sacrifice of her own desires. In addition, Helga’s rejection of the proposal echoes her disapproval of the portrait Axel has painted of her. His portraiture of Helga as a female of “the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa”, but “with the soul of a prostitute” selling herself to “the highest buyer”54 is for Helga not the true picture of her but of a “some disgusting sensual creature with her features”.55

20In short, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction, as Carby asserts:

  • 56  H. Carby, op. cit., 332.

Black female sexuality was displaced onto the terrain of the political responsibility of the Black woman. The duty of the Black heroine toward the Black community was made coterminous with her desire as a woman, a desire which was expressed as a dedication to uplift the race.56

21In fact, the fictional displacement of Black women’s sexuality and their passionlessness mirror the new identity they forged as a protective cloak against the demeaning images – licentious Jezebels, seductive and dangerous mulattas – they had been given. The new identity was also a means to mitigate the blemished perception of Backs that was due largely to Black females’ negative portrayal. Hereby Black women’s responsibility towards their community and their commitment to racial uplift fashioned their behaviors, attitudes, with their identity.

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Bibliographie

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CHRISTMANN James, “Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigm in Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy,” African American Review, Vol. 34, (2000): 5-18.
DOI : 10.2307/2901181

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CLEAVER Eldridge, Soul on Ice, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
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Notes

1  “Myths do signify subjective, perceptual reality, constituting metaphorical representations of how the world is perceived based upon experience and emotion. Myths and stereotypes are sometimes used by scholars interchangeably, both being pictures in the mind, while one mystifies reality the other simplifies it”, Patricia Morton, Disfigured Images: The Historical Assault on Afro-American Women, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1991, xv.

2 Ibid., 7.

3  My focus on the mammy, the Jezebel, and the tragic mulatta rather than the domineering matriarch is explained by the theme of this study which is respectability and passionlessness.

4   P. Morton, op. cit., 36.

5 W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Damnation of Women”, Darkwater:Voices from within the Veil, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1920, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15210/15210-h/15210-h.htm>, last visited 24 April 2008.

6  Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, New York: Norton, 1999, 29.

7  D. G. White, op. cit., 60.

8  This cultural uplift theory that pervaded the Progressive Era in the USA foregrounded women’s respectability that was hinged on domesticity, virtue, and sexual restraint. For further information, see Kevin K. Gaines, “Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century”, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 63, No. 2 (May 1997), 443-444.

9  P. Morton, op. cit., 10.

10  On the idea of the mammy being an epitome of racial harmony during slavery, see Earl E. Thorpe’s The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans, Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1970. Besides, on the idea the mammy being the “traitor” of her people, see Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul onIce, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

11  P. Morton, op. cit., 35.

12 Ibid., 103.

13  D. G. White, op. cit., 29.

14  Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape, London: Penguin Books, 1975.

15  P. Morton, op. cit., 36.

16  For more information on Black women’s culture of dissemblance, see Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” in Vicki L Ruiz & Ellen Carol Du Bois (eds.), Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S.  Women’s History, New York: Routledge, 1994, 342-347.

17  For more details see D. G. White, op. cit., 29.

18 Ibid., 31.

19  In Transcending the Talented Tenth(New York: Routledge, 1997), Joy James examines African American intellectual responses to racism and the role of elitism, sexism and anti-radicalism in Black leadership politics throughout history. She begins with Du Bois’ construction of “The Talented Tenth” as an elite leadership of race managers and she analyzes the lives and works of radical women in the anti-lynching crusades, the civil rights and Black liberation movements.

20  Franklin E. Frazier,Black Bourgeoisie, New York: Collier Books, 1962, 112. Frazier argues that the Black bourgeoisie’s attempt to conform to the Whites’ mores, in order to escape cultural mark of inferiority, set them apart from the masses.

21  D. G. White, op. cit., 46.

22  Also called the “one Black ancestor rule”, the “traceable amount rule,” and the “hypo-descent rule.”

23  F. James Davis, Who Is Black?: One Nation’s Definition, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991, 5.

24  Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, an Autobiography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993 [1940), 11.

25  P. Morton, op. cit., 21. Brownmiller also analyzes the “pollution” of the White race (op. cit., 163-4).

26 For more explanation of this idea, see George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny 1817-1914, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1987, 277.

27  P. Morton, op. cit., 21.

28  Nella Larsen, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), London: Serpent’s Tail, 2001, 47.

29 Ibid., 134.

30 Ibid., 8.

31  The idea of “Negro pathology” was at the heart of Blacks’ cultural inferiority. See Scott Cummings & Robert Carrere, “Black Culture, Negroes, and Colored People: Racial Image and Self-Esteem among Black Adolescents”, Phylon Vol. 36, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1975), Clark Atlanta University, 238-248.

32  G. Frederickson, op. cit., 294.

33 Ibid., 294.

34  David Pilgrim, “The Tragic Mulatto Myth,” Ferris State University, Nov. 2000. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mulatto>, last visited 25 May 2008.

35  Therefore, White society made a distinction between the docile full-blooded Black or the “sambo” figure and the savage and rapist mulatto. The mulatto’s danger stemmed from his ambition, a character he got from his White blood, and Black descent responsible for his hypersexuality. For more details on this view see G. Frederickson, op. cit, 271-282.  

36  Jane Campbell, “Rediscovery,” Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, 1992, 5, <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did==59633011&sid=f&Fmt= 3&clientld=12901&RQT=309&VName=PQ>, last visited 25 May 2008.

37  On respectability during the Progressive Era, see Victoria V. Wolcott, Harris Paisley, Ann Du Cille and Hazel V. Carby.

38  Victoria W. Wolcott,Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit, Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, 38.

39   Noliwe M. Rooks, “To Make a Lady Black and Bid Her Sing: Clothes, Class, and Color,” Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture That Made Them, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004, 47-63.

40  V. Wolcott, op. cit., 13-48; H. Carby, op. cit., 331; D. Hine, op. cit., 345.

41  See Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Black Feminists and Du Bois: Respectability, Protection, and beyond”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 568 (March 2000), Sage Publications, 28- 40.

42  Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent:The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, 203.

43  Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Mind That Burns in Each Body: Women, Rape, and Racial Violence”, in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson (eds.), New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983, 335.

44  See Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987 and Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves,1894-1994, New York: W. W. Norton, 1999, who offer analyses of the protection dilemma.

45 V. Wolcott, op. cit., 36.

46  See Angela Y. Davies, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

47 V. Wolcott, op. cit., 7.

48  D. Hine, op. cit.

49  A. Du Cille, op. cit., 31.

50 Ibid., 42.

51  H. Carby,  op. cit., 332.

52  James Christmann, “Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigm in Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy,” African American Review, Vol. 34, (2000), 5.

53  Kimberly Monda, “Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’,” African American Review, Vol. 31, (1997), 23-39  <http://www.questia.com/googleScholar.qst?docId=5000458702>, last visited June 2008.

54  N. Larsen, op. cit., 87.

55 Ibid., 89.

56  H. Carby, op. cit., 332.

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Mahassen Mgadmi, « Black Women’s Identity: Stereotypes, Respectability and Passionlessness (1890-1930) », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VII – n°1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2009, consulté le 18 avril 2014. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/806 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.806

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Mahassen Mgadmi

Mahassen Mgadmi enseigne l’anglais la civilisation américaine et les études culturelles à l’Institut Supérieur d’Etudes Appliquées (Higher Institute for Applied Studies in Humanities) à Gafsa, en Tunisie. Elle est doctorante et ses recherches portent principalement sur les femmes afro-américaines.

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