The Paradox of Silence and Display: Sexual Violation of Enslaved Women and Contemporary Contradictions in Black Female Sexuality

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Book Chapter

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In this essay, I seek to understand the paradox of silence and display that characterizes contemporary black female sexuality by examining its relationship to the sexual violation of enslaved women and girls. I argue that slavery’s identification of black female sexuality with licentiousness and black female acceptability with asexuality led to silencing the subjective sexual experiences of black women even while the media are full of images of black women flaunting their bodies in sexual displays. In what follows, I first describe the legally sanctioned sexual exploitation of black women and girls during slavery and the degrading mythology that supported it. The dichotomy between the mythical Jezebel, which portrayed black female sexuality as inherently depraved, and the Mammy, which portrayed black female respectability as necessarily asexual, is the source of the paradox of silence and display. I then elaborate this paradox by discussing displays of black women’s sexuality in contemporary U.S. culture, especially rap music videos, as well as the ways in which black women are encouraged to be silent about their sexual desires, pleasures, and decisions. In particular, after Emancipation, black elite women created a “politics of respectability” that emphasized chastity as a key means of erasing the sexual stigma inherited from slavery. Thus, black women’s subjective sexual experiences have been silenced by stereotypes that excused and enabled whites’ sexual abuse of enslaved women as well as by black communities’ attempts to contest these stereotypes. I then contend that the extremes of promiscuity and asexuality have left a gaping void in the cultural terms needed for black women to freely and publicly define their own sexual identities. Although black women have historically struggled to create alternative sexual ethics, both through their artistic expression and social activism, their impact has been limited by slavery’s legacy. Although white women are also affected by racism and sexism, they are not seen as inherently licentious; U.S. culture therefore gives them greater leeway to explore sexual expression while remaining socially respectable. I move on to discuss examples of black women’s use of the arts to fill this cultural void. I conclude that challenging the paradox of silence and display in black female sexuality requires subverting racist sexual stereotypes as well as changing unjust social policies, institutions, and conditions that reinforce them and that deny black women the cultural and material resources needed to promote their own sexual identities and ethics.

Publication Title

Beyond Slavery: Overcoming its Religious and Sexual Legacies

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