I remember my 8th-grade history class, learning about the slave trade from my white Canadian, History teacher. I have a very vivid memory of going to her apartment with a small group from her class to watch Amistad and the discussion that followed.
I’ve always had such a strong desire to know more about my history, to learn about what my ancestors experienced over those 400 hundred years, and how they survived such a horrific experience. My teacher at the time lent me a book that outlined the slave trade in great detail. I poured over photos of ships and saw how black folks were packed, stacked, yoked, and shackled. The outbreaks of dysentery and despair felt from months on those ships. I read the diaries of ship and plantation owners, their description, perceptions, and thoughts of the black body. It became clear to me, the virtual impossibility of claiming body sovereignty when we were considered the property of the white man.
In Dorothy Roberts’ “Killing the Black Body- Race Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty” she outlines the centuries-long desire to control black bodies, using flawed ideas about what both our minds and bodies were capable of. There was first, the deeply held belief that uncontrolled black reproduction was inherently dangerous which ultimately helped to form the roots of reproductive disease in black communities. These Internalized ideologies inform self-perception, long after living on slave plantations.
Shame, Sexuality & Motherhood
A set of stereotypes and caricatures were created to justify enslavement and control black bodies.
She was considered inherently vulgar, lacking the virtues of the pure, chaste, and innocent Victorian white woman. She represented contrast. Lascivious and governed by her uncontrollable desire, immoral and inciting uncontrolled sexual desire in white men in particular.
Much of this was internalized, resulting in sexual repression, guilt, and extreme religious piousness which ultimately creates blocks in creative expression and connection to sexual energy.
She was a black woman who worked with white families as a caregiver. She was loyal, maternal, and submissive. She represented the idealized black woman, completely sanitized of sexuality, often foregoing the needs of her family for that of her white owners. She was the devoted nurturer who would give without expectation of return or reciprocity.
Today we see how challenging it is for many black folks to embrace the concept of self-care, viewing it as selfish. This has resulted in detrimental effects. Ignoring signals from the body to rest, and restore. In Caribbean culture, the Mammy caricature is still perpetuated. Many folks of a certain economic class grow up with live-in helpers who care for their families. My Great Aunt was a live-in helper until her retirement in her 80s. By that point, she had cared for the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of her employers.
The Sapphire (Modern day “Angry Black Woman”)
This person was often depicted as domineering, aggressive, self-directed, emasculating, abusive, and overbearing. The internalization of this caricature is perhaps one of the most damaging to both black culture and reproductive health. The Sapphire caricature has created deep resentment and chasms in relationships in black families and the idea that the complete embodiment of this as the only means by which the black voice can be heard. Similarly, it is also presented in contrast to the mammy caricature with limited capacity to ask for help, carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.
The identification and acknowledgment of these caricatures is the starting point of healing. Can we notice the internalized expression? Do we note how we embody any of these in its extreme? What parts can we reclaim and transform to create balance?
Credits: Killing the Black Body -Race Reproduction and the meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts
Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia