African-American and African-Caribbean women have faced sexual exploitation during the times of slavery that became imprinted on their psyche and identity. Black women’s sexuality, burdened by the prevailing racism and sexism in the society, was often misunderstood, exploited and violated in the past and it often still is today. In terms of self-esteem, the erroneous representations of black women’s sexuality and the historical reality of rape become challenging elements in the discussion of African-American and African-Caribbean women’s identity as they become depicted by their writing.
3.1. Harriet Jacobs: Sexual Victimization of Black Mothers
Life under slavery for black women in terms of sexuality as it is connected to human reproduction and motherhood becomes one of the most important themes in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Hers and Prince’s slave narratives prove Angelyn Mitchell’s assertion that “[the] violation and exploitation of the enslaved Black woman’s sexuality are among the most pervasive themes in African American history” true (Mitchell 23). Jacobs identifies the reason for such situation to be the principles and interests of the white patriarchal society. As Mitchell maintains, “for the enslaved African American woman, matters of sexuality generally equaled matters of fecundity as White enslavers commodified and exploited the Black women’s reproductive abilities. Thus, a discussion of the enslaved Black woman’s sexuality is incomplete without a discussion of her disjunctive experience of motherhood” (25). Jacobs’s narrative describes the ways in which slaveholders solidified their power over the slaves – by increasing the slave numbers by the means of abusing black women. Black women were subject to sexual exploitation and white masters took advantage of their position to force their way, as Brent tells us: “He told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his” (Jacobs 18). The helplessness of black women to protect themselves from sexual misuse is particularly stressed in Jacob’s narrative. Linda Brent learns an important lesson of her life when witnessing how another black woman is sold away because “she had forgotten that it was a crime for a slave to tell who was the father of her child” (Jacobs 13).
The enslaved woman’s sexuality did not belong to her and nor did her life, it was her white master who claimed absolute control over both. However, for Linda Brent, her sexuality provided a source of rebellion against her master. In her accounts, Jacobs’s narrator describes the most desperate act in her life when, in hope of escaping the threat of rape by her master, she used the thing he wanted the most against him in a “calculated” (Yellin xxx) maneuver and became pregnant with another man. Several times in her book, Jacobs pleads with the reader to understand her use of sexuality as both an instrument of “revenge” against her master and as a tool to gain freedom: “I knew nothing would enrage Dr. Flint so much as to know that I favored another. [...] I thought he would revenge himself by selling me, and I was sure my friend, Mr. Sands, would buy me” (Jacobs 55). As an example of such action, Linda Brant’s rejection to give herself to her master amounted to keeping her sense of worth: “I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me” (Jacobs 54). While Linda Brent pleads with the readers for forgiveness for her actions, Jean Fagan Yellin in the Introduction to the Incidents writes in Brent’s apology that “the sexual standards mandated for free women were not relevant to women held in slavery” (xiv) and thus denounces racism for impressing and motivating an adverse behavior by whites and blacks.
In Jacobs’s narrative, the malicious circumstances of racial subordination under which the communal role of African women “as the conservator and transmitter of the general culture” (Mitchell 26) become transformed in order to “eradicate all traces of the enslaved woman’s self” (Mitchell 26). By suppressing and overruling the black woman’s role as a mother, the primary role she played in the African society, her identity was suddenly questioned and diminished. Calculated mechanism of oppression, the manipulation of an enslaved woman through her motherhood is described by Brent. The position of a slave mother was serving the materialistic objectives of the ruling class in America. Linda Brent, herself a mother of two slave children fathered by a white man, faced a complicated task of fighting for her children’s freedom and well-being. At any time, the baby could be taken away from the slave mother and sold away, without her being able to stop it or otherwise do anything about it. This is proved when she comments on a New Year’s Day, the hiring day when slaves are being moved to different places:
to the slave mother New Year’s day comes laden with peculiar sorrow. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood, but she has mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies. (Jacobs 16)
The Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself describes how extremely hard it was for a slave mother to surrender to the idea that her child was a slave, too. Jacobs describes this fact as a dark cloud hanging over her enjoyment. It was her baby, because she carried it and gave birth to it, but it never really belonged to her. This sense of powerlessness explained how the principle of motherhood was undermined during slavery.
3.2. Mary Prince: When Slavery Tears Children from their Mothers’ Arms
In Mary Prince’s narrative, there is no allusion to black women’s sexuality or instance of sexual relations. This might be attributed to the religious character of Prince as well as the abolitionist group that stood at the creation of the narrative. Prince’s narrative gives the impression that any sexually-tinted event is obscured in the same way as the account of bathing her master: “He had an ugly fashion of stripping himself quite naked, and ordering me then to wash him in a tub of water. This was worse to me than all the licks” (Prince 13). Even though Prince does not treat sexuality in the same way Jacobs does, similarities can be found when speaking about the difficult role of enslaved mothers and their lack of control over the destinies of their children.
Prince describes the sorrow it meant for a mother and a child to be parted in such manner: “I cannot bear to think of that day, it is too much. It recalls the great grief that filled my heart [...] whilst listening to the pitiful words of my poor mother, weeping for the loss of her children” (3). The powerless condition of black mothers, whose destinies were subject to the slaveholder’s will, are also revealed: “Mothers could only weep and mourn over their children; they could not save them from cruel masters – from the whip, the rope, and the cowskin” (Prince 9). In the slaveholder’s view that was governed by the economic and profitable reasons, Prince is torn away from her mother and sold by her master in order to “raise money to marry” (Prince 3). When “telling [her] own sorrows, [she] cannot pass by those of [her] fellow-slaves, for when [she thinks] of [her] own, [she] remembers theirs” (Prince 12). Prince alludes here to the collective fate of slave mothers, and, like Jacobs, calls for change of their situation.
3.3. Toni Morrison: Black Babies Counteracting White Baby Dolls
The concept of sexuality plays a weighty role in The Bluest Eye when the reader acknowledges that Pecola was raped by her own father. The concept of rape is not connected to motherhood in the same sense as it was with Jacobs and Prince. However, the history of black people’s subjugation and unequal standing imprints itself on their inner lives, including sexuality. Pecola’s father’s childhood experience when he was watched by white men during his first sexual encounter stigmatizes his approach to women. The rape of his daughter is depicted as the only act of love he is capable of. However, the surrounding society understands his act in terms of degenerative perversity.
While the main characters are girls growing up, their sexual selves are still being formed. At one point of the novel, the reader can witness the turning point from a girl into a woman when Pecola starts “ministratin” (Morrison 19) and turning from a girl into a mother. Black woman’s motherhood is depicted as a very important event for the black woman herself. Pauline Breedlove remembers the feelings of love when she gave birth to her children and describes how her difficult life situation changed her attitude towards her children: “I loved them and all, I guess, but maybe it was having no money, or maybe it was Cholly, but they sure worried the life out of me. Sometimes I’d catch myself hollering at them and beating them, and I’d feel sorry for them, but I couldn’t seem to stop” (Morrison 96). Pauline has to deal with racist stereotypical opinions about black women’s childbirth, contradicting a Doctor’s saying that “these here women you don’t have any trouble with. They deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses” by asserting that “I hurt just like them white women” (Morrison 97).
In Claudia’s view, motherhood is something she is still too young for. By rejecting to pretend to be a mother of the white doll, Claudia refuses to succumb to the white standardized values: “The big, the special, the loving gift was always a big, blue-eyed BabyDoll. [...] I was bemused by the thing itself, and the way it looked. [...] I had no interest in babies or the concept of motherhood. [...] I was physically revolted by and secretly frightened of those round moronic eyes, the pancake face, and orangeworms hair” (Morrison 13). When the notice spreads about Pecola’s unwanted motherhood, Claudia and Frieda feel the urge for showing their concern and pity: “I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live – just to counteract images of whiteness impersonated by Shirley Temples and Maureen Peals” (Morrison 149). In this assertion we can again read a new beginning, a seed of a completely new approach to the racial and sexist injustices that dominate the black community.
3.4. Jamaica Kincaid: Sex as the Means of Self-Assertion
In Lucy’s uncompromising resolution to take the world only in her own terms, she applies the same approach to her understanding of sexuality. “Conscious of the unfairness of traditional gender relationships, aware of the exploitative nature of sexual practices” (Paravisini-Gerbert 140), Lucy asserts her own sexuality, wants to become equal to men in taking advantage of and pleasure from her sexual relationships. Her rebelliousness in the approach to sex, contrasts her mother’s prudence and adoption of more gentle manners that she tried to implement in her daughter, leads Lucy to deny her mother’s views and reverse them in her own way: “I did not care being a virgin and had long been looking forward to the day when I could rid myself of that status” (Kincaid 82-83). She reveals that her autonomous existence brings her new experiences: “I had not known that such pleasure could exist and, what was more, be available to me” (Kincaid 113).
3.5. Alice Walker: What Slavery Established, Pornography Conserves
Contemplation of African-American women’s sexuality and the prevailing public image of black women as related to the porn industry becomes a distressing fact of life for the main character of Walker’s “Coming Apart.” This story exemplifies the unflattering implications that principles of white beauty, racism, and sexist distribution of power have on black women’s identities and attitudes towards themselves. Black women’s self-esteem and self-understanding is stressed in the story as the affirmation of black women emancipation. Walker compares the porn industry and its exploitation of stereotypical assumptions about black women to the institution of slavery: “For centuries, the black woman has served as the primary pornographic ‘outlet’ for white men in Europe and America” (Walker, “Coming Apart” 169) She also stresses the importance of seeing this phenomenon in its historical context: “We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners” (Walker, “Coming Apart” 169). In her story, Walker creates a character that is not willing to surrender to these attitudes and opposes them with the help of black feminist texts in her own way, by introducing these womanist thinkers to her husband in order to make him understand her concerns.
“A Fable,” which was the title of this short story when published in Ms. Magazine, functions as a moralistic story teaching us a lesson that leads to the improvement or alteration of a situation. Walker holds that pornography involving racist attitudes needs to be confronted by the black community as a whole and that it requires strong women to be able to speak and address their concerns instead of just swimming with the tide. Wrongful and racist assumptions of black woman’s sexuality need to be openly addressed, in order to be challenged and changed. She appeals to the African-American women community and calls for their awareness in this sphere.
Portrayal of Beauty and Self-Esteem
The imposition of white standards of beauty on the African-American and African-Caribbean women and the accompanying prejudice about black women’s supposed inferiority have been the most pervasive themes in their writing, and can be noted in many of the analyzed works. Beauty in African-American and African-Caribbean women’s writing is directly connected to the idea of racial identity because of the black and white distinction between bad and good. Women in these works are trying to struggle against the wrong representations associated to them because of the color of their skin. Loving blackness as hooks put it is concerned with the concept of beauty as it reflects a person’s self-esteem.
4.1. Harriet Jacobs: The Greatest Curse of Beauty
Harriet Jacobs does not pay much attention to the idea of beauty because the topic seems irrelevant in the light of the more pressing condition of African-American women’s racial subjugation and sexual exploitation. However, in Jacobs’s view, the concept of beauty is considered as an additional burden. The hardships in the life of a slave woman increased with her white mistress’s jealousy and unjust bias for something that was wrongly considered the initiative of the black woman instead of the white man’s abuse of power. So if a slave woman was considered beautiful, it made her life even harder. “If God bestowed beauty upon her” (28), is considered the greatest curse for a black woman in Jacob’s view. Physical attractiveness makes the African-American women more vulnerable to the sexually-tainted ill-treatment by their white masters. Jacobs further analyzes beauty as being undesirable for black women: “That, which commands admiration in white women only hastens the degradation of the female slave” (28). Knowing about all the implications coming from her status of a black girl under slavery, Jacobs’s narrator soon discovers the ill-meant proposals of her white master and explains “Dr. Flint’s attraction to her as his favorite female slave” (Lester). When Linda Brent, herself a mulatto, is chosen by her master to become his concubine, a supposedly privileged position that was guarded for lighter skinned women (Pilgrim), we can read this as a sign of Brent’s own beauty, however she never admits it. Linda Brent could be characterized as a very humble person when she says: “What was there to save me from the usual fate of slave girls? Many more beautiful and more intelligent than I had experienced a similar fate, or a far worse one” (Jacobs 60). It is understandable that there were preoccupations in the life of a slave woman that transcended the importance of physical attractiveness, a quality “informed by ideals of white supremacy” and “a tool of patriarchy” (Hunter 178). These preoccupations in question are concerned with the black women’s self-esteem and their struggle against being “subject to the will of another” (Jacobs 55). In this sense, Brent is depicted as a courageous and relentless personality, not afraid of facing her destiny.
The sense of self-realization in the life of Harriet Jacobs’s alter-ego, Linda Brent, is strong, for she is portrayed as an agent in her own life. In her account, Jacobs’s narrator does not characterize herself as a mere passive female victim but rather asserts her unwillingness to let her life be governed by others. Angelyn Mitchell reminds us about Linda Brent’s “ability to renegotiate the socially constructed boundaries of institutions and experiences forces upon her” (23) that becomes the decisive part of her identity. Mitchell also to claims that “if the enslaved woman did not realize or acknowledge her own selfhood, she could not value her personhood; therefore, she was less likely to rebel against her enslavers” (26). In this sense, it has been crucial for black women to grasp their destinies and assert their identities, and to start their struggle for freedom by rediscovering their new selves.
The fact that Linda Brent is capable of overcoming the fear of being caught as a fugitive slave, and escaping her tyrannous master proves her ability to hold control over her life. And her capacity of writing a book that would pioneer the genre of women’s slave narratives also speaks in favor to her assertion of self. According to Valerie Smith, Jacobs “seized authority over her literary restraints in much the same way that she seized power in life” (qtd. in Mitchell 27). Serving the purposes of abolition, she wants to bring charges against the white patriarchy for its sexual tyranny over black women like herself.
4.2. Mary Prince: When Slavery Undermines Black Woman’s Self
While in Jacobs’s narratives beauty becomes an additional burden for the woman of color because it makes her more vulnerable to sexual abuse by white men, Prince does not mention it at all. The reason for this might be Prince’s high piety and belief in God, concept that also guide her self-esteem. It is with the Moravian Church that she finds comfort and finds out how to pray for the forgiveness of her sins.
The same as Jacobs, Prince is not depicted as a submissive obeying slave: “I defended myself, for I thought it was high time to do so” (Prince 13). Unable to acquire her freedom until her advanced age, Prince describes how she tried to purchase it: “I did not sit still idling during the absence of my owners; for I wanted, by all honest means, to earn money to buy my freedom” (16). In the search for happiness in her life, Prince decides to marry a widower, Daniel Jones, a former black slave who had managed to purchase his freedom. However, she claims she did not find contentment in her marriage, “owing to [her] being slave” (Prince 18). Her master and mistress Wood became furious when they found out and Mary was to endure a severe beating with a horsewhip. The absurdity of this beating is commented on by Prince: “I thought it very hard to be whipped [...] for getting a husband” (18). Prince’s account of the inability to claim control over her life and destiny can be compared to Jacobs’ dedication to the same topic. The two slave narratives, despite of coming from different regions, specify freedom as being the theme of major importance for women of color. In their testimonial relation on the lives of enslaved women, both authors articulate the struggle to assert their womanhood. By doing what they do – writing about black women’s concerns and identities object to extreme subjugation – Jacobs and Prince indicate a new beginning and a direction in which numerous women authors of African origin will go: being able to speak for oneself equates existing in the eyes of others.
Both authors appeal to the reading public, and their aspiration is to contribute to the causes of abolitionist movements. While Jacobs addresses white female abolitionists of the North and appeals of their own position as mothers, Mary Prince’s discourse is directed to religious abolitionist groups in London. Both narratives stress the importance of racial solidarity and the narrators speak with community voice rather than for their own melioration, and they want to illuminate the condition of slavery to help people understand its evils and irrationality.
4.3. Toni Morrison: Advocating Black is Beautiful
The three main girl characters of The Bluest Eye are confronted with racial prejudice that makes them believe in their own inferiority. They come to the decision that: “Beauty [is] not simply something to behold; it [is] something one could do” (Morrison 167). The call for agency in the African-American community’s struggle for black beauty, both physical and moral, is one of the central themes in Morrison’s novel. No matter what the core nature of this beautiful-ugly dichotomy is, – moral, racist or sexist – it seems almost inherited and leaves no possibility for alteration unless the effort comes from the African-Americans themselves. Written in the period of the 1960s’ growing assertion of racial beauty, this book includes the implications of “the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze” (Morrison 168). The outside gaze conceptualizes Maureen Peal, Shirley Temple and blond baby-dolls as beauty standards. Appearance becomes very important for neglected black girls who listen to adults speaking about and indicating what real loveliness and cuteness is. Their self-esteem is directly connected to the concepts of beauty and color, and neither of the categories promotes the realities of black women.
In the novel, a kind of agreement is visible in regard to what is considered beautiful. Claudia, the narrator, confesses her hatred towards Shirley Temple and other white girls because they get the attention of all the adults, white and black: “All the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. ‘Here,’ they said, ‘this is beautiful, and if you are on this day worthy you may have it. [...] I could not love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable” (Morrison 14). Claudia’s refusal to accept the prevailing opinion on what is beautiful provides an important indication of rebellion. It can be read as the beginning of a new era, when black people understand the need for embracing their own self-identity. To see the contradiction clearly means to alter the way of thinking, a path towards a change, even though a solitary one. Claudia’s sister and Pecola belong to the majority of black girls who dream to resemble white images of popular culture stars that abound everywhere they look: “Frieda and [Pecola] had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was” (Morrison 13). Having adopted the images of white feminine beauty, the two girls’ denial of self contributes to their alienation from the reality and leads to Pecola’s madness.
In Morrison’s novel, ugliness is attributed to poverty and blackness, as in the case of the Breedloves. The family features, as described in the book can be contrasted with the description of a doll to demonstrate the two opposing extremes on the beauty scale:
They were poor and black [...] their ugliness was unique. No one could have convinced them that they were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly. [...] Their eyes, the small eyes set closely together under narrow foreheads. The low irregular hairlines, [...], heavy eyebrows which nearly met. Keen but crooked nosed, with insolent nostrils. [...] You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. (Morrison 28)
This description represents all the physiognomic characteristics stereotypically attributed to the black race. It is, however, the feeling of being an outcast of the society and remote from the white standards of beauty and attractiveness that confirms this kind of conviction in them. Having inherited the feeling of inferiority from her parents, Pecola is brought up with “a fear of growing up, fear of other people, fear of life” (Morrison 100). bell hooks also addresses this destructive conviction in black people’s minds that disconnects them from the reality: “Like Pecola, [...], black folks turn away from reality because the pain of awareness is so great” (hooks, Black Looks 6). The Breedloves’ case is a good example of internalized racism that results from the “traumatic experience of social powerlessness and devalued racial identity [that] prevents the African American community from joining together and truthfully evaluating the similarity of their circumstances” (Vickroy), rather than resembling the culture that is imposed by the white hegemony. This kind of attitude does not afford the socially-disadvantaged black people the opportunity to change their situation, which they believe is given to them. The restriction comes from this inner assurance that they are less worthy than the others, a notion that has been imposed on them since their presence in the United States.
The devastating effect of white supremacist beau-ideals on the women of color is personified in the character of Pecola’s mother, Pauline Breedlove. Confronted with glamorous images of white actresses, Morrison observes the destructiveness of the concept of beauty: “In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. [...] She was never able, [...], to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one absorbed in full from the silver screen” (Morrison 95). As Abdellafit Khayati points out, these extreme cases of coping with a “severe assimilatory pressure” prove the “violent Sameness” of all scale of cultural products – cups, candies, movies, and event school primers – that does not admit black women and causes self-denying reactions. Black women of the period are depicted in The Bluest Eye as having internalized “assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze” (Fanon 210). In other words, as Vickroy puts it, Pauline and Pecola “like the rest of the black community, has internalized the pervasive standard of whiteness.” In a similar way as her mother, Pecola comes to the conviction that she is worthless the way she looks and unless she alters her ugliness, she will remain ignored and despised by the teachers and classmates at school. She finds the only possible solution in acquiring some of the white features: “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that [...] if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different” (Morrison 34). Not only does Pecola wish her own good, but her desire for blue eyes wants to change the society and its injustices towards the black people in general: “If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too” (Morrison 34).
The wish to alter her looks and the rejection of her image that Pecola holds is contrasted with a more positive attitude to themselves in Claudia who intends to stand up to the racist ideas of beauty and ugliness. Claudia and her sister Frieda reflect on the injustices of racism and finally find pride in being who they are. When the three girl protagonists of the book enter into a quarrel with Maureen, a new white girl in the neighborhood, and she begins shouting racist insults at them: “I am cute! And you are ugly! Black and ugly black e mos” (Morrison 56), they start to question the importance of being considered cute or ugly. This experience gives them a reason to contemplate their hatred for white dolls, child actresses icons such as Shirley Temple and girls like Maureen, who is adored and praised for her pretty looks by everybody, children and adults, whites and blacks:
If she was cute – and if anything could be believed, she was – then we were not. And what did that mean? We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser [...] Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that out sensed released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness [...]The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us. (Morrison 58-59)
The Thing that Claudia as the narrator of The Bluest Eye tells us about is racism and the dominant cultural stereotypes that cause that “unconsciously the black person distrusts what is black in him/herself, and desires what belongs to the white person” (Fanon 194).
In her childhood, Pecola’s was not given much attention from the adults: “Adults do not talk to us – they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information” (Morrison 5). They do not know love and interest and even when they catch cold, “[their] illness is treated with contempt” (Morrison 6). As opposed to the white children, cherished by all the adults, the black little girls, from whose perspective the book is written, have to bear disinterest. “Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves” (Morrison 150). In comparison to Pecola, Claudia’s parents provide her with the necessary background for constructing her self-esteem. After Pecola is raped by her father, the lack of preoccupation in other people makes Claudia and Frieda to understand the need to “counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (Morrison 149). So the only people who care about her and the baby becomes them.
Claudia is thus represented as a character that urges the self-assertion of black women’s dreams and the realization of their black and beautiful identities. In contrast to Pecola, who by eating Mary Janecandy, wrapped in a paper with a picture of a blonde white girl whose eyes Pecola adores, tries to take possession of the looks she is dreaming of, Claudia is more attentive to the necessity of change that should originate with the black women themselves. For Pecola, self-realization and satisfaction comes from the idea of consuming a candy with a pretty white girl’s face on it: “To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (Morrison 38). However, Claudia is aware of how the consumer culture suppresses her real African-American self and of the damaging consequences that yielding to it might have.