Sapphire: The Myth of the Angry Black Woman

On September 18, 2014, television critic Alessandra Stanley stepped into it (‘it’ being a big steaming pile of stereotypical, racist, sexist dung).  Her article for The New York Times opens with the following:

When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”

Her article went on to compliment Rhimes for changing the landscape of network television. Stanely clearly thought she was heaping praise upon Rhimes’ new show ‘How To Get Away With Murder’. Unfortunately for her, she was met with a great deal of scorn and criticism, some of which came from Shonda Rhimes herself (as well as Salon, Slate, and Gawker):

The criticism centers around a stereotype of black women called the ‘Angry Black Woman’ (ABW). According to Deborah Smith Pegues, the image of the ABW brings to mind the ” the unfriendly checker at the supermarket, the unhelpful postal worker, the surly retail clerk, the co-worker with the chip on her shoulder who finds racism under every rock, among many figures from daily life.”  Pegues writes:

As I’ve researched and written on the subject of anger over the past year, I’ve come to fully embrace the concept that anger is indeed a secondary emotion. And, as I’ve learned the painful history of some of the bitter, intolerant, and demanding black women in my circle of observation, I have not found that a single one of them is inherently angry.

Many have experienced a myriad of primary emotions that often underlie their negative behavior. Such behavior has caused society to undeservingly label black females in general as angry.  These primary emotions are the reality for far too many black women, and they stem from the type of initial slight that the character Hanna Young experienced. They include  feeling disrespected, disappointed, denigrated, rejected, betrayed, taken for granted, abused, manipulated, discriminated against, unsupported, and numerous other painful events that lead to hurtful feelings.

In a 2012 interview with NPR, actor and comedian D.L. Hughley deployed the trope of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ (Hughely shows off his sexism in other ways too, making the article problematic on multiple levels):

MARTIN: OK. But then to go on and in many parts of the book have some very harsh things to say about black women – African-American women.

HUGHLEY: Like what do you think is harsh?

MARTIN: I have to ask, you don’t think that’s a contradiction? Well, this argument that you’re saying that….

HUGHLEY: I don’t – I think my life has been a contradiction.

MARTIN: …black women is – the only black woman you could be married to is your wife.

HUGHLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: Because…

HUGHLEY: Because…

MARTIN: …black women are so messed up? I mean what – or because she’s so great?

I mean I’m sure she’s great but…

HUGHLEY: Well, in her ability to kind of tolerate my – it’s her ability to tolerate me, A) and B) I’ve never met an angrier group of people. Like black women are angry just in general. Angry all the time. My assessment, out of, just in my judgment, you either are in charge or they’re in charge, so there’s no kind of day that you get to rest(ph).

No less than the fact resistant, misinformation spewing, reality challenged FOX News has weighed in on the ABW.  During the lead-up to the 2008 United States Presidential Election, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas had this to say about Michelle Obama:

THOMAS: I want to pick up on something that Jane said about the angry black woman. Look at the image of angry black women on television. Politically you have Maxine Waters of California, liberal Democrat. She’s always angry every time she gets on television. Cynthia McKinney, another angry black woman. And who are the black women you see on the local news at night in cities all over the country. They’re usually angry about something. They’ve had a son who has been shot in a drive-by shooting. They are angry at Bush. So you don’t really have a profile of non-angry black women.

As one of the most high profile African-American women in the country, if not the world, First Lady Michelle Obama has been characterized as an ABW many times (see here, here, and here)

There are many people out there who don’t understand what’s wrong with the ABW.  Prior to writing this post, even I was largely ignorant of the trope. I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know its history. This is one of the many ways that I, as a man, am privileged.  When I read that black women were pissed that she employed this stereotype, my first reaction was “Ok, this is a problem. I need to understand why”, which led to this post. Now that I see that there is a problem, and I see examples of the problem, I need to understand why it’s a problem.  For that, I need a little scholarly history. Thanks to Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at Ferris State Univerity, I have a much better idea of the history behind the ‘Angry Black Woman’, which is rooted in the Sapphire Caricature:

The Sapphire Caricature portrays black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing. This is the Angry Black Woman (ABW) popularized in the cinema and on television. She is tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men for offenses ranging from being unemployed to sexually pursuing white women. She is a shrill nagger with irrational states of anger and indignation and is often mean-spirited and abusive. Although African American men are her primary targets, she has venom for anyone who insults or disrespects her. The Sapphire’s desire to dominate and her hyper-sensitivity to injustices make her a perpetual complainer, but she does not criticize to improve things; rather, she criticizes because she is unendingly bitter and wishes that unhappiness on others. The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.

[…]

It was not until the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show that the characterization of African American women as domineering, aggressive, and emasculating shrews became popularly associated with the name Sapphire. The show was conceived by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white actors who portrayed the characters Amos Jones and Andy Brown by mimicking and mocking black behavior and dialect. At its best, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a situational comedy; at its worse, it was an auditory minstrel show. The show, with a mostly-white cast, aired on the radio from 1928 to 1960, with intermittent interruptions. The television version of the show, with network television’s first all-black cast, aired on CBS from 1951-53, with syndicated reruns from 1954 to 1966. It was removed, in large part, through the efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the civil rights movement. Both as a radio show3 and television show, Amos ‘n’ Andy was extremely popular, and this was unfortunate for African Americans because it popularized racial caricatures of blacks. Americans learned that blacks were comical, not as actors but as a race.

Amos ‘n Andytold stories about the everyday foibles of the members of the Mystic Knights of the Sea, a black fraternal lodge. The lead characters were Amos Jones, a Harlem taxi driver and his gullible friend, Andy Brown. Starring in a nontitle lead role was the character George “Kingfish” Stevens, the leader of the lodge. Many of the stories revolved around Kingfish, a get-rich-quick schemer and a con artist who avoided work, and, when possible, took financial advantage of the ignorance and naivete of Andy and others (see, for example, this clip from the episode Kingfish Sells a Lot). Kingfish was the prototypical Coon, a lazy, easily confused, chronically unemployed, financially inept buffoon given to malapropisms. Kingfish was married to Sapphire Stevens who regularly berated him as a failure.

Kingfish represented the worst in racial stereotyping; there was little redemptive about the character. His ignorance was highlighted by his nonsensical misuse of words, for example, “”I deny the allegation, Your Honor, and I resents the alligator,” or “I’se regusted.” Kingfish was not a good thinker or speaker. Even worse, he was a crook without scruples. He was too lazy to work and not above exploiting his wife and friends.

In other words, he was a television embodiment of some of the unforgiving ideas that many Americans had about black men. Other characters, including Lightnin,’ a Stepin Fetchit-like character on the show, had jobs and were honest, but Kingfish’s worthlessness justified Sapphire’s harsh critique of his life. It must be noted, that Sapphire Stevens directed her disgust at her husband; hers was not the generalized anger that is today associated with angry black women.

Dr. Pilgrim writes that the ABW is a stereotype; a stock character that exists to belittle and demean black men who are or are perceived to be lazy, ignorant, or flawed.  Pointing to situational comedies (sitcoms) on television from the 70s through today, Pilgrim shows that characters such as Aunt Esther (Sanford & Son), Willona Woods (Good Times), Florence Johnston (The Jeffersons), Pam James (Martin), and Rochelle (Everybody Hates Chris) were all stock, Sapphire characters.  It’s not hard to see why so many people in the public, whether FOX News columnists, Hollywood stars, or New York Times writers have fallen for the myth of the ‘Angry Black Woman’.  The myth is bound up in presentations of African-Americans in the media, especially television, the ubiquity of which affected how millions of Americans perceived black women. It’s not hard to see how such a stereotype could become ingrained in Americans, which Dr. Pilgrim discusses:

The portrayal of black women as angry Sapphires permeates this culture. A Google search of Angry Black Women or ABW will demonstrate how pervasive this caricature has become. She lives in most movies with an all-black or predominantly black cast. For example, there is Terri, cussing and insulting the “manhood” of black men in Barbershop (Brown, Teitel, Tillman & Story, 2002) and its sequel, Barbershop 2 (Gartner, Teitel, Tillman & Sullivan, 2004). There is the augmentative Angela in Why Did I Get Married (Cannon & Perry, 2007). There is clip art of an angry black woman atwww.clipartof.com/details/clipart/16467.html. The clip art description reads, “Royalty-free people clipart picture image of an angry african american woman in a purple dress and heels, standing with her arms crossed and tapping her foot with a stern expression on her face. She could be mad at her child, a colleague or husband.” There are stock pictures of angry black women, such as those at www.inmagine.com/bld108/bld108498-photo. There are books devoted to angry black women, for example, The Angry Black Woman’s Guide to Life (Millner, Burt-Murray, & Miller, 2004), and Web sites such as http://angryblackbitch.blogspot.com/where you can buy Angry Black Bitch cups, shirts, pillows, tile coasters, aprons, mouse pads, and Teddy Bears. There is even a pseudo-malady called, “Angry Black Woman Syndrome.”

Dr. Pilgrim also touches upon how Michelle Obama is viewed in the eyes of the public.  In her case, she challenges multiple racial stereotypes of African-American women:  she’s not the Jezebel, nor the Tragic Mulatto, nor the Sapphire.

Michelle Obama challenges the scripts that many Americans have for African American women. She is the antithesis of the Mammy caricature. The traditional portrayal of Mammy looked something like this: an obedient, loyal domestic servant, who cared more for the family members of her employer than she did for her own family; overweight and desexualized; and, most important to the portrait: not a threat to the social order. Michelle Obama is a Harvard-trained attorney, a conscientious mother, physically attractive, and she critiques and challenges the culture. She also does not fit the Jezebel image or its modern variant: the butt-shaking Hoogie Mama — though FOX News tried to imply this when they referred to her in text as Senator Obama’s “Baby Mama.” Michelle Obama is not a Tragic Mulatto; she is a dark-skinned woman actively involved in civil rights and community activism. The so-called Tragic Mulatto was ashamed of her African heritage; Michelle Obama embraces her African American heritage and expresses her dissatisfaction with racial injustice.

The fact that Michelle Obama transcends all the stereotype scripts of African-American women is exactly the reason why the myth of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ is just that: a myth.  No women is always angry. They’re not all anything. You cannot boil anyone down to one emotion.  In fact, in this midst of experiencing one emotion, it often happens that another emotion rises (and sometimes the two conflict). I’d love to ask D.L. Hughley if his wife is literally angry all the time. I’d love to know if she is incapable of showing any other emotion, such as love, hate, sorrow, happiness or envy.  I wouldn’t ask for myself, bc I’m fairly certain she does display a range of emotions and feelings. I’d ask to make the point to him that his wife is complex human being who will not fit into the racist box labeled ‘Sapphire’.  She, like all black women (indeed, like all humans) are not all angry.  They’re human beings and trying to constrain them into stereotypical molds does nothing more than attempt to silence them by claiming on the one hand that they’re always angry while on the other, dismissing them because of their perceived anger. People need to stop clinging to stereotypical myths about black women and recognize that they are fully human, with a range of emotions; and while anger is one of those emotions, there is no such thing as the ‘Angry Black Woman’.

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Sapphire: The Myth of the Angry Black Woman
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