Black History Month: What’s slavery and sex got to do with it?

12 Feb


February is one of my favorite months. Not only is the pall of winter on the wane whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow, but it is Black History Month and Valentine;s Day’s month, both of which I enjoy enormously.

In this month many people, especially in the South where I live, turn their thoughts to black history, which necessarily means turning their thoughts to the systemic, historic and in some cases on-going oppression of black folks in America. Do I like it because I want to wallow in self-pity or make white people feel guilty? No, that’s not it. I like it because it helps explain a lot about how we got to where we currently are and it helps illuminate what we need to do to get somewhere better. When I say we I mean all Americans, not just black Americans. Racism hurts everyone whether they realize it or not. If nothing else it keeps us from discovering some of the marvelous people we share this great country with who do not look like us. And that is a shame and a loss. I could fill several pages with names and descriptions of white folks I am glad I have had or do have in my life. And a smaller number of names of Latinos and American Indians and Asian-Americans, mainly because I have not been exposed to those populations as long.

Black History Month gives Americans a chance to understand some fundamental things that have been told to them for generations but that they have either refused to understand and grasp or have been incapable of understanding and grasping. The first thing that needs to be understood is the past is never the past. Slavery is not over in so many ways I can only hit a couple in this missive.

First, the concept that African Americans are not as smart as white people was carefully honed by the pro-slavery writers of the 18th and 19th century. This mission was further picked up by racists, some of whom probably believed it to be true more than James Henry Hammond and the other earlier defenders of slavery. The “Birth of a Nation” film, while revered as a fabulous example of cinema art, is a prime example of the continuing vilification of blacks in general and black men in particular.

After slavery black men had much more difficulty finding work, even though their former masters in the South and fellow citizens in the North knew of their skill sets. In order to justify not hiring black men they were mythically sexualized to be unable to control themselves around white women. Just in case that did not scare white men from employing them, they were also mythically said to have enormous penises. What woman black, white or green would not want to have sex with a black man who was rampantly sexual and hung like a horse? They had to be kept in their place and away from the white women at all cost!

Since men in that era ( and sadly far too many in our era) believe women are for sale, only going after men with money, one of the best ways to keep black men, despite their bestial desires and spectacular equipment, away from white women was to keep them poor. Societal norms at the time did not permit white women to have sex for pleasure and certainly not to have sex with black men for pleasure. By keeping the black men poor the white men could guarantee, or hope to guarantee that white women would stay away from them. So, portray them as stupid, which means the only the thing the white woman could be interested in is his body, portray him as bestial, which means if she is virtuous she will not want to have to have sex with him all the time like an animal and portray him as poor ( the only truth, which was manipulated by the white men) so that he will be viewed as an unsuitable mate for a decent relationship.

Think that is all in the past? Read ” Picking Cotton” the story of a black man who spent decades in jail after being wrongly identified as the man who raped a white woman.  Although the man eventually found to actually be the culprit was, in fact, black also, the book examines a lot of the issues around sex and black men that were formed and popularized during slavery.

The slaver owners had to have some moral basis for their ownership of other humans. Like some of our pseudo Christians today who are racist to the core, they claimed to be good folks who follow the teachings of the Bible. They tried everything they could from the story of Ham and his descendants to verses taken out of context that seemed to support the idea of slavery.  The fact that before American slavery no system of human bondage was based on race was considered a detail I guess.

So, it became incumbent on the slave owner to have the black people declared not quite human. They were not as smart as, not as moral as and not as Godly as the white people, therefore, they deserved to be carriers of water and choppers of wood. It was good for them and all they were capable of doing. Men were writing this drivel that had blacks making furniture, building houses, planting crops–the slaves often knew way more about agriculture than their owners, keeping the books, and in some cases running entire plantations in the Piedmont while their owners lived on the coast and only dropped in a couple of times a year.They knew black people were not stupid, they just put that out there to justify their own immoral behavior.

So, they said we were stupid and hyper sexual. That last part sounds like wishful thinking to me. We all know that white men took black mistresses or preyed upon them sexually depending on your beliefs and their treatment of the women. The Quadroon Balls and Octaroon Balls of New Orleans have certainly been documented. The state of black women in the South depended on several things besides her appearance, of course.  Her owner or purchaser might consider the situation a kind of caliph/concubine more classical relationship, in which case he kept her in style and everyone knew about it but ignored it.  One white wife of a plantation owner wrote ,” There is nothing so free in the South as a white man and a black woman.” While I suspect there was more than a little jealously and bitterness in that statement; one could see how a wife who was expected to be available for sex mainly for procreation and was expected as many plantation wives were, to work side by side with the slaves and keep many, many issues in the air at the same time to keep the plantation running, could bear some animus towards the usually younger, many times prettier and almost all the time better treated black woman in her husband’s life.

That is not to imply it was an easy life for the black woman, it was a hard life for any woman of the time, but the fun often seemed to be more on the side of what the man had, or attempted to have with the black woman. In addition, there was the slight chance that the white wife would be replaced more formally by the black woman. It happened. Some white men choose to flee to the Caribbean or Europe in order to marry and live with their black lovers. Some of them simply ejected the white wife and moved the black woman into her place. These last examples are fewer and farther between, the vitriolic pro-slavery writer I mentioned earlier, James Henry Hamond, once the Governor of South Carolina, being a prominent example of that occurring.

Today, we continue to only have two images of black women, a hold over from slavery. We are either promiscuous sex-kittens ( see any Rap music video) or we are big-breasted Mammies. See virtually any movie, radio or television show from 1920-2012. We still buy Aunt Jemima syrup. Where are the images of white women from the 19th century? Betty Crocker does not have on a hoop skirt. And straightening Aunt Jemima’s hair and putting her in pearls does not negate AUNT JEMIMA!!

The movie getting ready to clean up at the Oscars, The Help could have been written by abolitionists in the 19th century, only the women would have been chattel slaves instead of economic ones. See how much we cling to our stereotypes? How comfy we are seeing black women as servants? Of course, as a feminist I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons we are so happy to see any woman in a subservient position is that some of us of who have that other chromosome like the idea of someone in an apron waiting on  them. But that is a topic for another blog entitled , “Why men want to marry their mothers, with one notable difference in the relationship.” Stay tuned!

Happy Black History Month!



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