The Modern Black Woman and Politics of Respectability

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by Kosisochukwu Nnebe

A first reaction

We had just finished installing my piece when two women walked in. The only other occupants of the exhibition room were the artists, curators and technicians, so when the women entered, it became obvious from the perplexity written across both their faces that they had no prior knowledge of the event. The smaller of the two, slowly freeing herself from the confines of her winter wear, headed straight to my installation, stopping only when she stood directly in front of it.

I watched anxiously from across the room; trying my best to read the slightest lift of an eyebrow, tilt of the head or tug of the lip. My heart lifted when her lips suddenly curled into a small smile.

“I love it”, she said, turning back to beckon her friend toward the piece.

“It shows all the different kinds of black women! I can relate to all of them”, she continued, voice rising as her excitement became more apparent.

Her subsequent silence came as a surprise and I watched as her gaze trailed over to the third sheet of Plexiglas. In my mind’s eye I retraced the lines that I had painted onto that piece, recreating the image:  a black woman standing with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, a lace top baring her midriff, shorts riding high on her waist and a pair of black converse on her feet. She took a few steps closer, going around the piece to stand right in front of the fictional character that I had created – a character that nonetheless represented one aspect of me.

“I hate that woman.”

My heart skipped a beat and I waited with baited breath for her next words. Her eyes were still fixated on the painting as the curator made her way to the woman’s  side.

“That woman is ruining it for us!” she said, voice getting louder as her frustration and anger towards this one, singular representation of black womanhood rose.

Pointing at the other three women depicted in the installation she continued: “Those three women I can identify with – they are respectable; they are queens. That third woman isn’t. I hate her. She’s all you see in the media. She ruins it for us.”

And all at once, I realized that I had been right to include this woman in my installation, to include her in my understanding of the modern black woman.

The black female body

As a black woman, I struggle to reclaim the image of my body. I may have reconstructed,
re-envisioned and reinterpreted it, but in the eyes of another, those attempts fall to pieces and my body takes on a different meaning. In a fashion that dates back to colonialism, slavery and past and present ethnographic exhibitions, our bodies take on contrasting roles as tools of both our oppression and our liberation.

I remember the feeling of bubbling frustration, of rising bile and disgust as I first heard, and later researched, the story of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus: a Khoisan woman who found herself exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe. The Hottentot Venus’ story is one in which the black woman’s “strange” and “grotesque” body marks her as “other”, as outside the boundaries of perfection, progress and modernity. Her large behind, and her exaggerated genitals were seen as proof of her animalistic sexuality and constructed as antithetical to the purity of the European woman.

There was an element of the installation that I had debated whether or not to include for which I had already bought the canvas and sketched out the outline: a black woman posing in the nude, self-assured and proud.  By including her in the installation, I wanted to highlight that the modern black woman has reclaimed her body. It is hers and no one else’s.

My family didn’t see it in the same way.  Profuse and winding explanations were required before I could get them to understand my message. The black female body is one that is not easily interpreted. In need for advice, I called up a friend who told me what I already knew: “ If it were a white woman, you could easily find it in a doctor's office, but to have a painting of a naked black woman... that's a different story. It's not seen the same way”.

This, I later came to realize, consisted of a process of “unmirroring”.  Black feminist artist and theorist Lorraine O’Grady writes “To name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves. For some of us, this will not be easy. So long unmirrored, we may have forgotten how we look”.  Carla Williams, a black photographer specializing in nude self-portraits, would come to describe this same phenomenon. In selecting her portraits for exhibition, as her body became subject to “unmirroring”, Williams came to realize that “my body could never be simply formal, or emotional, or personal. Most viewers would always see a black body regardless of my intent”.

In her article, “The Batty Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body”, Janell Hobson explains the significance of the “batty” as a liberatory and unashamed view of the body.  An exploration of the batty as a site of resistance and decolonization is a sharp contrast from its use as a way to reinforce shame. For a dancehall dancer for example, the disapproval of her rear end incites her to “shove it all the more, as a defiant gesture that dares to claim the black female batty as visible, pronounced, sexy and beautiful”.  And so the batty, in addition to the black female body, is used to defy a historical tradition that has served to degrade it.  However, intent oftentimes becomes lost as a black woman’s body becomes subject to misinterpretation and mislabeling.

In the same way, I, as an artist, yearn to reclaim the black female body – to extricate it from a narrative that labels it “grotesque”, “hypersexualized”, “strange” or “lascivious” and rather, present it as the work of art that I believe it to be. In the words of Hobson, “The creation of a black feminist aesthetic must challenge dominant culture’s discourse of the black body grotesque and articulate a black liberation discourse on the black body beautiful”.

That I decided not to include the element speaks louder than my words. I am still struggling with the process of “unmirroring”, whereby my vision of the black woman’s sexuality and body remains clouded by the viewers predispositions towards it.
The queen and the hoe

To engage with the white supremacist structure in which they were situated, some black women engaged in the creation of positive spaces wherein they could develop performative strategies for safety. For example, in the antebellum south, the kitchen became a space within the hostile space of the “big house, wherein black female slaves could articulate and teach such rhetorical strategies. As described by Patricia Hills Collins, safe spaces were constructed to “dispel the false and negative stereotypes of black femininity”, but were also “social spaces where black women [could] speak freely”.

These spaces were re-imagined during the era of black “club women” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They provided protection from violence and abuse, as black women came to perform “the good woman”, participating in a cult of “true” womanhood mediated around 4 cardinal values: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.

The performance of the black “lady” was in many ways a defense against a more dominant characterization of the black body and sexuality as “lascivious” and “grotesque” and thus entailed an adherence to rigorous moral values. A “tucking” in of their “too large behinds” located them within the boundaries of respectability, whereas any behavior that called deliberate attention to their anatomy was seen as encouraging the labeling of their bodies as “deviant”.

This creation of a safe-space resulted in an exclusion of women who step outside the boundaries of the construction of black femininity, as the black “lady” is defined in opposition to the hypersexualized Jezebel. In other words, a dichotomy was created between “queen” and “hoe”.

And so, the safe-space finds itself interlinked with the concept of shame. Those who do not perform acceptable femininity are punished for their deviations through exclusion, thus reinforcing the normative practices of black femininity. In the words of black female scholar Shanara Reid-Brinkley, “If black women may choose only between the subjectivity of the black queen or the whore, they will find themselves trapped in an identity that depends upon the negation of other black women”.

The women who have decided to challenge the racist, patriarchal and classist society in which they find themselves, by embracing their sexuality and desiring that their body be seen, who like any other individual may make mistakes, but also push against the boundaries of society, should not be shamed. To shame these women, to reject them from such safe-spaces created for protection, is to ultimately justify any violence committed against them.

A faulty system and a lack of narratives 

“She ruins it for us.”

Those are strong, meaningful words. Those are hurtful words. Those are words that make me realize the extent to which the system has succeeded in creating a rift between us, in drawing at the threads that unite us and leaving us to stare at each other from across an ever-widening schism—knowing how to build a bridge but not necessarily willing to do so.

We have become our own enemies. As melodramatic and hyperbolic as this statement may first appear, this woman’s reaction to my decision to include a black woman with a cigarette held between tinted lips, a crop-top riding up her abdomen and shorts hitched up high on her thighs is telling. The image is one we are well accustomed to. It is constantly shown on the media, be it in music videos or on reality television. It is a dominant image that follows black women – clinging to their heels like a shadow, changing shape and size depending on the context, but impossible to shake off.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2010 offered the thesis that black women are socially invisible. The study had two conclusions: first, black women are more likely than black men or white men and white women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation; second, comments made by black women are more likely to go unheard when made to a largely white audience. Both experiments also highlighted that for many of the participants, black women are seen as relatively interchangeable. This means that as black women, dealing with the double burden of race and gender, we have to fight twice as hard to stand out and have our individual and unique voices heard.

What this should highlight is the fact that our enemy is not the black woman performing her own version of black female sexuality, but rather the system that denies a place for our own narrative in the media. One image is chosen among many, and is used to perpetuate a stereotype that then goes on to affect an entire group. In this way, the stereotyping of all members of a group based on a selection of assumed negative characteristics becomes a characteristic of the manner in which racism operates.

That my decision to include within my own safe-space a woman whose shadow looms over black women could elicit such a reaction is surprising. It is a reaction that is conducive to the feeling of shame that is already so rampant among black women, that isolates them and breaks them down. In her book, “Sister Citizen”, Melissa Harris-Perry explains how “racial shaming is deployed to enforce hierarchy, sustain inequality, and create scapegoats”.

Harris-Perry is a woman I admire greatly and even more so after “Black Female Voices”, her public dialogue with bell hooks. During the question period, one woman took the microphone to recount her experience with the mental impact of being shamed by other black women for having multiple children with different fathers. Harris-Perry, in a very symbolic moment,  left her seat on-stage and stepped down to wrap her arms around this woman who bore the scars not only of racism, but also of shame enforced on her by women who were meant to be her sisters. This act of shaming, as Harris-Perry went on to say, “is the most dangerous thing in marginalized communities”. In shaming women because of their deviations from certain boundaries of constructed black femininity, we are in effect justifying any violence committed against them;
we are leaving them to fend for themselves.

Rather than putting down one voice, one representation of black womanhood, we should challenge a system that does not give our respective voices credence. Black women are complex – we are daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, single parents, CEOS, artists, writers, academics, performers, scientists, journalists, singers, dancers, and the list goes on. We need a plethora of different narratives that reflect the multitude of identities that are no less black, no less feminine, and no less worthy of respect and protection than any other. We need to challenge this system that will only let one voice be heard, that will turn us against one another, that will use us as a tool for our own oppression.

We’re getting there.

I remember the feeling of joy and excitement I experienced upon first watching The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae. Finally, someone who understood me, someone who knew that black girls could be funny, creative and (most importantly) awkward! We loved the show – we loved it so much that the system took notice and HBO offered Issa Rae a chance to have her own television show. And we can’t forget about Scandal starring Kerry Washington, a beautiful, educated black woman, as a former White House Communications Director for the President of the US who has now started her own crisis management firm.  We need to celebrate these narratives and push for the breakthrough of many more.

With my installation, I wanted to redefine my own subjective definition of the modern black woman: a woman who is complex, multifaceted, and capable of making choices based not on the desires of others, but solely on her own. In doing so, I created my own safe-space and included within it all the dynamic and diverse identities with which I, as a Nigerian-Canadian woman, identify. The women who are represented in my installation have every right to exist, have every right to be protected, have every right to be respected and have every right to be represented. I am each and every one of these women, and to reject one would be a negation of my complexity as an individual.

As a friend once told me, astutely and with no hesitation “Beyoncé is not the problem. The problem is that we only get Beyoncé”.

It is time for us to challenge the system rather than create scapegoats.

Nigerian-Canadian Artist Kosisochukwu Nnebe’s latest project which is currently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as part of their Black History Month program, focuses on the identity of the modern black woman.

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