Racist Caricature of The Day: The Jezebel

Content Note:  The subject matter in this post contains images, words, and phrases of a racist nature, some of which may be graphic.

Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people). This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner. One such racist caricature is The Jezebel:

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.

K. Sue Jewell (1993), a contemporary sociologist, conceptualized the Jezebel as a tragic mulatto – “thin lips, long straight hair, slender nose, thin figure and fair complexion”(p. 46). This conceptualization is too narrow. It is true that the “tragic mulatto” and “Jezebel” share the reputation of being sexually seductive, and both are antithetical to the desexualized Mammy caricature; nevertheless, it is a mistake to assume that only, or even mainly, fair-complexioned black women were sexually objectified by the larger American society. From the early 1630s to the present, black American women of all shades have been portrayed as hypersexual “bad-black-girls.”

Jewell’s conceptualization is based on a kernel of historical truth. Many of the slavery-era blacks sold into prostitution were mulattoes. Also, freeborn light-skinned black women sometimes became the willing concubines of wealthy white southerners. This system, called placage, involved a formal arrangement for the white suitor/customer to financially support the black woman and her children in exchange for her long-term sexual services. The white men often met the black women at “Quadroon Balls,” a genteel sex market.

The belief that blacks are sexually lewd predates the institution of slavery in America. European travelers to Africa found scantily clad natives. This semi nudity was misinterpreted as lewdness. White Europeans, locked into the racial ethnocentrism of the 17th century, saw African polygamy and tribal dances as proof of the African’s uncontrolled sexual lust. Europeans were fascinated by African sexuality. William Bosman described the black women on the coast of Guinea as “fiery” and “warm” and “so much hotter than the men.”3William Smith described African women as “hot constitution’d Ladies” who “are continually contriving stratagems how to gain a lover”(White, 1999, p. 29). The genesis of anti-black sexual archetypes emerged from the writings of these and other Europeans: the black male as brute and potential rapist; the black woman, as Jezebel whore.

The English colonists accepted the Elizabethan image of “the lusty Moor,” and used this and similar stereotypes to justify enslaving blacks. In part, this was accomplished by arguing that blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and animal-like sexually. Whites used racist and sexist ideologies to argue that they alone were civilized and rational, whereas blacks, and other people of color, were barbaric and deserved to be subjugated.

The Jezebel stereotype was used during slavery as a rationalization for sexual relations between white men and black women, especially sexual unions involving slavers and slaves. The Jezebel was depicted as a black woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. She was not satisfied with black men. The slavery-era Jezebel, it was claimed, desired sexual relations with white men; therefore, white men did not have to rape black women. James Redpath (1859), an abolitionist no less, wrote that slave women were “gratified by the criminal advances of Saxons”(p. 141). This view is contradicted by Frederick Douglass (1968), the abolitionist and former slave, who claimed that the “slave woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master”(p. 60). Douglass’s account is consistent with the accounts of other former slaves. Henry Bibb’s (1849) master forced a young slave to be his son’s concubine (pp. 98-99); later, Bibb and his wife were sold to a Kentucky trader who forced Bibb’s wife into prostitution(pp . 112-116).

Slave women were property; therefore, legally they could not be raped. Often slavers would offer gifts or promises of reduced labor if the slave women would consent to sexual relations, and there were instances where the slaver and slave shared sexual attraction; however, “the rape of a female slave was probably the most common form of interracial sex”(D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988, p. 102). A slave woman explained, “When he make me follow him into de bush, what use me to tell him no? He have strength to make me”(p. 101). At the same time, black men convicted of raping white women were usually castrated, hanged, or both (Winthrop, 1961, p. 157 and n44).

People make decisions based on the options they have and the options that they perceive. The objective realities of slavery and the slaves’ subjective interpretations of the institution both led female slaves to engage “voluntarily” in sexual unions with whites, especially slavers, their sons, and their overseers. A slave who refused the sexual advances of her slaver risked being sold, beaten, raped, and having her “husband” or children sold. Many slave women conceded to sexual relations with whites, thereby reinforcing the belief that black women were lustful and available.

The idea that black women were naturally and inevitably sexually promiscuous was reinforced by several features of the slavery institution. Slaves, whether on the auction block or offered privately for sale, were often stripped naked and physically examined. In theory, this was done to insure that they were healthy, able to reproduce, and, equally important, to look for whipping scars – the presence of which implied that the slave was rebellious. In practice, the stripping and touching of slaves had a sexually exploitative,5sometimes sadistic function. Nakedness, especially among women in the 18th and 19th centuries, implied lack of civility, morality, and sexual restraint even when the nakedness was forced. Slaves, of both sexes and all ages, often wore few clothes or clothes so ragged that their legs, thighs, and chests were exposed. Conversely, whites, especially women, wore clothing over most of their bodies. The contrast between the clothing reinforced the beliefs that white women were civilized, modest, and sexually pure, whereas black women were uncivilized, immodest, and sexually aberrant.

Black slave women were also frequently pregnant. The institution of slavery depended on black women to supply future slaves. By every method imaginable, slave women were “encouraged” to reproduce. Some slavers, for example, offered a new pig for each child born to a slave family, a new dress to the slave woman for each surviving infant, or no work on Saturdays to black women who produced six children (Rawick, 1972, p. 228; Gutman, 1976, p. 77). Young black girls were encouraged to have sex as “anticipatory socialization” for their later status as “breeders.” When they did reproduce, their fecundity was seen as proof of their insatiable sexual appetites. Deborah Gray White, a modern historian, wrote:

Major periodicals carried articles detailing optimal conditions under which bonded women were known to reproduce, and the merits of a particular “breeder” were often the topic of parlor or dinner table conversations. The fact that something so personal and private became a matter of public discussion prompted one ex-slave to declare that “women wasn’t nothing but cattle.” Once reproduction became a topic of public conversation, so did the slave woman’s sexual activities.(White, 1999, p. 31)

The Jezebel stereotype is contradicted by several historical facts. Although black women, especially those with brown or tan skin and “European features,” were sometimes forced into prostitution for white men, “slaves had no prostitution and very little venereal disease within their communities”(D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988, p. 98). Slaves rarely chose spouses from among their blood relatives. Slavers often encouraged, and sometimes mandated, sexual promiscuity among their slaves; nevertheless, most slaves sought long-term, monogamous relationships. Slaves “married” when allowed, and adultery was frowned upon in most black “communities.” During Reconstruction “slaves eagerly legitimated their unions, holding mass-marriage ceremonies and individual weddings”(p. 104).

Unfortunately for black women, Emancipation and Reconstruction did not stop their sexual victimization. From the end of the Civil War to the mid-1960s, no Southern white male was convicted of raping or attempting to rape a black woman; yet, the crime was common(White, 1999, p. 188). Black women, especially in the South or border states, had little legal recourse when raped by white men, and many black women were reluctant to report their sexual victimization by black men for fear that the black men would be lynched (p. 189).

(Dr. David Pilgrim discusses the 20th Century portrayal of the Jezebel, including Hollywood depictions during the ‘Blacksploitation’ era, in the rest of this article, which you can find here)

Tomorrow will see the conclusion of this series, with the final racist caricature, and I’m sure everyone can guess which one that will be.

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Racist Caricature of The Day: The Jezebel
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