Sexual Violence and Black Women/Girls #2

The WGN show “Underground” has thankfully not had too many cringe moments. The show follows seven runaway slaves (the Macon 7) hoping to get to freedom via Harriet Tubman’s famous underground railroad.

The show is interesting and seems committed to telling the harsh realities of black folks under slavery/white supremacy. I only have a couple of beefs with the show. The insistence on incorporating modern music into the story line. I don’t like being emotionally swayed by a heartwarming slave spiritual, only to have it rudely interrupted with a song about popping bottles. John Legend please stop looking to Django for musical inspiration.

My other issue with the show is the relationship between plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) and house slave Ernestine (Amirah Vann).

I can’t remember which episode, either two or three, Ernestine is naked in the wine cellar calling to “master” Macon. He enters the room, strips down, and watches as Ernestine pours wine all over herself. They kiss passionately. In a later episode, Ernestine refuses to have “relations” with Macon in the house. He demands that she does, but apologizes like a kid after she gives him the evil eye.

I hate when shows/movies depict “relationships” between a slave owner and his slave lover as if they are equals. While it may seem Ernestine has some kind of power over Macon, in the end she is still his slave. When you are a slave, it is never consensual sex. You have no true say over your life, no matter how many “rewards”are heaped upon you.

10 Horrifying Facts about the Sexual Exploitation of Enslaved Black Women http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/11/05/10-horrifying-facts-about-the-sexual-exploitation-of-enslaved-black-women-you-may-not-know/

Ernestine touches on this one night as she drunkenly laments her situation. She actually envies the field slaves. “They are worked from sun up to sun down, but they are able to go home to loved ones/be with their own kind.” She says. “Here, I can never be. And after a while you start becoming like them (white folks).”

What is not talked enough in mainstream feminism’s fight against rape culture, is that the foundation of rape culture came out of slavery. Well, it started with the initial exploitation of Native/Indigenous women. But it was heightened with the legally sanctioned sexual abuse of black women.  Black women’s bodies were considered property to be done with as one wanted.

Slave women never had any say in the matter. It’s important to remember this.

Ernestine-Amirah-Vann-standing-at-the-sideboard-800x533
Photo from: nerdreactor.com

SAAM #1: Rape Culture

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).  This week I will be dedicating the blog to this important issue…

“The month of April has been designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the United States. The goal of SAAM is to raise public awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence. By working together and pooling our resources during the month of April, we can highlight sexual violence as a major public health, human rights and social justice issue and reinforce the need for prevention efforts.” —http://www.nsvrc.org/saam/what-is-saam

In order  to successfully prevent sexual violence in our communities, we  have to acknowledge that we live in a Rape Culture. It’s noted that “in feminism, rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society,[1] and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape.” For example, when Rick Ross made a casual reference to date rape in his song “U.O.E.N.O” (Put molly all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it.) He was rightfully clowned and called out for using this lyric.

Of course, it isn’t just rappers/entertainers who normalize rape in our culture.  It also isn’t a new phenomenon. It can be argued that rape culture has its roots in slavery.   In order to justify the rapes/sexual assaults on black women’s bodies (to keep the slave trade business intact), black women were horribly stereotyped:

“The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel.1 ” http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel.htm

The young slave woman who has come to symbolize the normalization of abuse on black women’s bodies is Saartjie Baartman. Baartman is often known by the racist term “Hottentot Venus:” 

“Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman was born in 1789* at the Gamtoos river in what is now known as the Eastern Cape. She belonged to the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi. Sara grew up on a colonial farm where her family most probably worked as servants. Her mother died when she was aged two and her father, who was a cattle driver, died when she reached adolescence. Sara married a Khoikhoi man who was a drummer and they had one child together who died shortly after birth. Due to colonial expansion, the Dutch came into conflict with the Khoikhoi. As a result people were gradually absorbed into the labour system. When she was sixteen years old Sara’s fiancé was murdered by Dutch colonists. Soon after, she was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time that she was given the name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara.”http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman

I had the misfortune of watching the film “Black Venus.” It’s supposed to be based on the life of Baartman. I felt the film was really a white man’s story, not Baartman’s. She barely has any lines in the film. I also felt ill at ease that the black actress in the film was really being mistreated. However, I did think the film gave some insight into the horrifying ways Baartman was treated on a daily basis. It is a thin line of trying to show the reality of her life, but not being exploitative about it. The director failed. Hopefully, someday the fullness of  Saartjie Baartman‘s life will be told.

While I also had some of the same issues with  “12 Years a Slave,” I thought the film did at least show the hatefulness of white supremacy and the beginnings of rape culture:

“Although the kidnapped freedman Northup is the main character, the film also does an excellent job of exposing the gendered sexual violence at the very foundation of enslavement. Patsy isn’t the only victim of rape culture, either. In their brief scenes Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye)—both objects of the affection of their masters—intimate a complex interplay between sexual coersion and agency in a corrupt system that gives them zero options. “The Accused,”* the 1988 Jodie Foster film, dramatized victim-blaming in gang rape. “12 Years a Slave” crystalizes in images and in sound what it is to be owned and exploited.” http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/10/i_saw_12_years_a.html

Recently, a friend told me that true liberation can not come about until black women are allowed to give voice to the sexual violence they have experienced in their lives. I agree. Anti-rape activists need to acknowledge that this country was built/continues to be built off the abuse/ sexual assaults on black girls/women, in order to truly dismantle rape culture.

Photo from: http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/10/i_saw_12_years_a.html
Photo from: http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/10/i_saw_12_years_a.html