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

Dorothy Roberts

Contemporary American black women have two choices when it comes to expressing their sexuality: they can accept the dominant values that delight in placing black female bodies on display, or they can turn in the opposite direction and submit to the requirements of respectability that conceal sexual abuse and silence sexual desire. There is the role model of Jezebel, and that of Mammy. This dual straitjacket dates back to the sexual violation of enslaved women and girls that began early in our history as a nation, and the slaveholding mythology that legitimized such violation. The ideology of slavery painted black women as licentious in order to excuse white sexual abuse, and as animalistic to explain their enforced subjugation. In response, after Emancipation the black community developed an ideal of womanhood that depended on asexuality for respectability. These extremes have left a gaping void in the cultural terms needed for black women to freely and publicly define their own sexual identities today. Filling this void requires overthrowing racist sexual stereotypes and changing the unjust social policies, institutions, and conditions that reinforce them.