The Body Politic: Black Women's Journey to Reclaim Our Bodies and Selves

by Anna Gibson

The idea of ownership over female bodies and personal labor is as old as history itself. From ancient Sumerian practices of the execution of women who commit adultery to modern day instances of female circumcision in Africa, women’s bodies have been used as a commodity. Black women in particular, especially during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, have had to relinquish autonomy over their bodies time and time again.

Slavery presented a number of tragedies, especially regarding the terrifying conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. Canadian born author Lawrence Hill details a number of atrocities in his critically acclaimed book The Book of Negroes. In it, Hill follows the life of one Aminata, a slave who eventually uses her talents to escape to the North and work with the abolitionists. Along the way, Aminata has to endure physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Though Hill’s book is fiction, The Book of Negroes was based off of research from a number of ship manifests, interviews, antebellum documents and more.

Of course, one can find no shortage of information on the subjugation of black women’s bodies. During the Transatlantic slave trade, the story of Sarah Baartman, also known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ could be considered one of the earliest examples of objectification of the black female body found in historical manuscripts.

She was kidnapped from her village in South Africa in 1810 and later sold to a Dutch trader, who carried her from England to France to be put on display. She was eventually sold to one George Curvier for science experiments. After her death, she was summarily dissected and studied. Her body was then displayed in a French museum, until March 2, 2002 where her remains were shipped back to Guinea, and laid to rest.

We can find modern day Hottentot Venus and Aminata figures everywhere, from modern day media scandals on TV to instances of abuse in hip hop. A few years ago, Nelly’s music video for the “Tip Drill” single caused a serious uproar with what is known as the infamous credit card swipe, in which he swipes a credit card between a woman’s buttocks.

We can also see instances of objectification and loss of autonomy most notably in the continued use of black female bodies in the context of sexual assault and victim blaming. During slavery, rape of female slaves was justified by painting them as ‘temptresses’ and ‘seductresses’ of their slave masters. This Jezebel archetype can even be found today within mainstream media and is often espoused by black men who seem to actively rally against black girls.

Young black girls, though just a vulnerable as any other youth, often fall prey to victim blaming for ‘attracting the attention’ of older men. They are accused of being ‘fast’ when in truth a grown man shouldn’t feel any romantic attraction to anyone under 18 years of age.

The most heavily cited example of this can be found in the different allegations against R. Kelly, who came under fire again a few years ago after a journalist dug up more information about his predatory advances toward high school students. In a candid interview with Jessica Hopper of The Village Voice, Jim DeRogatis came forward with a number of accusations, even going so far as to say that Kelly would prowl high schools in search of girls to take with him to shows. Even after DeRogatis’s interview, a number of black men and women blamed the girls he picked up, even questioning why they never came forward with their story sooner.

Despite misrepresentations of black women’s bodies, the image of black women in the media is slowly beginning to improve. We have icons such as Lupita N’yongo reminding us that black is beautiful, and Viola Davis bringing fire in How to Get Away with Murder. Laverne Cox offers us an alternative definition of womanhood in Orange is the New Black, providing both representation of transgender identity and using her platform as an actress to promote the rights of transgender individuals. Given that the trans community has to deal with higher rates of discrimination and police brutality, this platform is definitely needed.

Other notable examples of black women taking back ownership of their bodies can be seen in Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ video, where she both remixes an old classic, and flaunts her sexuality for everyone to see, including Drake.

Sexuality isn’t the only thing that black women are taking back. We’re also redefining and revealing layers of ourselves never before openly revealed in the black community—namely, black hair.

Fashion Police commentator Guiliana Rancic’s recently made an off-color comment at this years Academy Awards about Zendaya Coleman’s hair. This brought about instant backlash, including a thoughtful response from Coleman, causing Rancic to apologize. It would seem that black women are no longer taking slights about our identity. This is exceedingly important.

There are numerous stories regarding our personal space being invaded by people that want to touch our hair. I can personally attest to strange and outright hostile stares in my direction whenever I wear my hair in a ‘fro. Considering society seems to be telling us on a number of different levels that our natural hair is unacceptable, we need to be diligent that the media reflects that we’re proud of one of the most defining aspects of our identity.

The hit ABC show How to Get Away with Murder continues this trend with the infamous second episode that shows Annalise Keating (played by the exemplary Viola Davis) taking off her wig and showing her kinky hair. Throughout the series, she repeatedly sheds the Superwoman stereotype, and we can see who Annalise Keating is in her fullness.

All and all, while we certainly have a long way to go, shifting our perceptions in the media could help others see us within the full spectrum of our black womanhood. It can also remind our brothers and sisters of the power we have over our own bodies and beauty. 

These scars run deep, and only through careful introspection and open dialogue about our wounds can we begin to heal ourselves and our relationships with one another.

Photo: Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a regular contributor to For Harriet. She is a Buddhist and student at Wayne State University in Detroit who’s passionate about illuminating the stories of the marginalized. You can find her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa, or on Facebook where she’s hiding under the name Introspective Inquiries.

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