Originally, I thought I could do Melissa Harris-Perry’s work, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, enough justice by covering it in two posts. I was mistaken. It will take at least four. In the first post, I commented on the notion of the “crooked room.” Briefly, it is the social phenomenon wherein Black women are placed in a proverbial room that employs imagery which is askew and distorted. Via social messaging and conditioning, these women often find themselves at a crossroads where they must decide which image of themselves they will believe and therefore, embody. In some instances, the women will contort, bend, or tilt themselves to line up with the pretentious imaging around them, hence, the concept of the crooked room.
As a light-hearted introduction to this theory, I used a slanted image we are all used to: Beyoncé. Her blond tresses, matté veneer, and stylized figure has become a trope of Black female beauty. Though some disagree that she is a victim of the crooked room, it is easy to assess her pictoral changes over time and the embodiment of “re-touching” that has added to this narrative. Her sexed up, some might say digitally-enhanced, image, which draws focus to her backside, “full” figured curves, and aesthetic beauty lend themselves to the first character introduced in Sister Citizen: the Jezebel.
According to Harris-Perry, the Jezebel ideal originated when Southern slaveowners needed a reason to legitimize the forced nakedness, physical “commoditization,” and coerced sexual relations between them and their female slaves. In order to justify the rape and dehumanization of these women, they had to be depicted as wanton, over-sexed, whorish, and seductive. How were these poor slaveowners to deny these big breasted, chiseled bodied, and perpetually available Black women whose sole desire was to sleep with them? These women were cast as animalistic in nature. Sexual prowess was just a Black woman’s natural instinct toward physical gratification. Disgusting right?
We have all come to know the Jezebel. And, whether we love or hate her, she is more familiar to us than we’d like to admit. Even married women like myself are faced with the Jezebel stereotype. I have been married for almost seven years. My husband and I are what many would call traditional. We were college sweethearts and married two weeks after graduating from undergrad. I became pregnant within 9 months of marrying and my son was born about six months after our first anniversary. And, although I followed all the “rules” about what a woman should do, expect, and be like when planning a family, I have often been stereotyped as a sexually lascivious, over-sexed vixen. I dated the same man all through college but remember being repeatedly referred to as “sexual” because I promoted safe sex practices for my peers.
Even when I was not sexually active myself, I was clumped into the group of “fast” girls, “hoes,” “runners,” and the like because of a pair of tight jeans or a revealing top. When I became pregnant, I was often questioned about exactly how long I had been married. You know, because everyone needed to check and see if I had had a shotgun wedding. And, when we moved up the date a year, because we wanted to be husband and wife sooner rather than later, we were pummeled with concerns that we were hiding a bun in the oven.
I, even in all my traditionalism, was deemed a Jezebel. A young, easily attained sex object with a focus on my physique and sexual prowess rather than my intellect. Mind you, I had never carried below a 3.5 GPA and attended college at the sixth highest ranked engineering school in the nation at the time. So, my other characteristics were obviusly not in question when these assertions of my true nature were made. This is the fallacy of crooked room stereotyping. Information in direct discord with these stereotypes is oft overlooked in favor of exaggerated attention on facets of a person’s character or physique that might, instead, align with perceived stereotypical notions.
Nowadays, this stereotype’s insidious nature manifests itself in movies, hip hop culture, rap music, entertainment, and politics. How many movies have you seen where there’s that hoey Black girlfriend? She just can’t help herself right? Everytime she tries to stop laying up with guys, she falls victim to her true nature again. And, as soon as she denies her natural propensity toward whorishness, ratchetness, and trick-itude, she magically finds “Mr. Right.” Cool how that works hunh? When a Black woman does this, it is her nature. But, when White women do the same, what is it called? Hooking up. Interesting right? Hooking up sounds minimal, trivial, and inconsequential. It is a term near and dear to many a college or high school student. But, the stigma associated with Black women “hooking up” is no where near as small or remote.
Take the politics of reproduction for example. The Jezebel is the chick with the multiple kids out of wedlock from several fathers. She has the welfare status, the loser boyfriends, and the general lack of appeal outside of her physical frame. She might be called the “baby mama,” the “round the way girl,” the “pretty young thang,” the “side chick,” the “dime piece,” and just flat out, the “hoe.”
This Black woman is caricatured over and over and over again. So much so, that she has become the face of abortion and reproduction policy. Harris-Perry notes that “the depiction of black women as sexually insatiable breeders suit[ed] a slaveholding society that profit[ed] from black women’s fertility.” Therefore, the natural evolution toward controlling the wayward reproduction of Jezebel women seemed totally legitimate. Today’s “welfare hoe” is yesterday’s slave reproduction machine. Both are/were Jezebels. But they serve/d two wholly different purposes. The old Jezebel made more slaves and made it okay for White slaveowners to force them into sexual intercourse. The new Jezebel sucks money out of the government just to satiate her uncontrollable need for sexual appeasement and subsequent unwanted childbearing. Exclude the fact that Black women do not make up the bulk of welfare recipients. Instead, Whites are the majority in this respect. It is the imaginations of those in the crooked room that propagate the illusory notion of the Jezebel. And they are doing a great job at it.
Who is blamed for out of wedlock babies? Black women. Who is shouldered with the weight of managing single parent homes? Black women. Who is forced to be all things for all people at all times? Black women. And, this is when the Jezebel grows up, puts on her big girl panties, and turns into the Mammy…
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