This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.
For centuries, the black identity has been silence just as the black queers are being in the present day. Identity being a psychological and cultural process by which we freely construct and express our sense of self. During colonialism and slavery, women were even more subjected to the perverse theory of the white world. Dominated by the heterosexual, white hegemony, the black female body suffered from an inability to vocalize their inner pains.
The female body in the West is not a unitary sign. Rather, like a coin, it has an obverse and a reverse: on the one side, it is white; on the other, not-white or, prototypically, black. The two bodies cannot be separated, nor can one body be understood in isolation from the other in the West’s metaphoric construction of “woman” (Hammonds 1).
Essentially “woman” is objective, in the sense that there is no definitive identifiable race. However, the white Western world has customized the meaning of “woman” to mean the white woman. Similarly, the “Cult of Domesticity” defined what “true womanhood” was. “True womanhood” was subjective to the white woman for the simple fact that black woman had no control over their own bodies.
The best example of the black female body being void of a voice is the infamous Hot-Ten-Tot, otherwise known as Sara Baartman. Not until recently, was Baartman allotted the respect to be seen as a human being. Originally from South Africa, the young woman was brought to Europe and used as a statue. She was a representation of blackness and the sexual deviance of the black woman. Sadly, Baartman dies at the young age of twenty-five. Once she passed, her body parts were put on display. Physically – genitals and butt – were used as evidence of mental traits – sexual immorality – and sexual availability. Hegemonic society was trying to create excuses as to why the white man was sexually assaulting and abusing the black woman. During the slavery the black woman was raped, bore children by men whom she may not have wanted, especially by her white master, and was subjected to having her children sold away from her. These left a black woman with no rights to her own body. The white slave owner, who usually also had a white wife, was openly known to having a black mistress. Adultery. He was cheating on his wife. The excuses were to blame the black “woman” and to dehumanize her and all black people. Sara Baartman was the symbol used to uphold the actions of the white man. For years her body has been kept separated from her family. Not until recently, were her remains returned to her family back in South Africa; however, supposedly some remnants were lost. This shows that Baartman was never respected, and perhaps, still is not respected.
Writer and author, Toni Morrison, identifies blackness as a representational trope that signals difference. Morrison questions how blackness is used for white people, non-blacks in general, to explore sexuality, shame, and difference. From an overall view, blackness appears to be fungible and the white imagination is subjectively determined by race. In literary works, as well as in reality, blackness makes possible the formation of the white identity. Morrison critiques the white imagination in ways deeper than just admitting that the black identity makes possible the formation of the white identity. This is true because race is a social construct created by the white race. In addition, blackness creates a fantasy world in which whiteness can safely be explored. White supremacy seems valid when blackness becomes submissive and dehumanized. The first motion picture was Birth of a Nation, which is when American identity is formed against blackness. Playing in the Dark, written by Morrison identifies Africanism and how black characters are made to almost be caricatures. “Black characters in classic American novels, she maintains, have been as marginalized as their real-life counterparts” (Steiner). The black identity stands as a backbone for white identity, but is like a ghost, ignored.
The black identity is deeply rooted throughout history. Ideally, the black identity was created by white hegemonic society. Without whiteness, there is no blackness. Blackness hence was formulated by whiteness. In Africa, European nations came in and colonized the land and formed territories. Already, slavery was established, but then escalated when The New World was found. African people were captured and enslaved and forced to work in the Americas. A stolen identity and culture was robbed from these African-American people. Alas, literature, especially literary works written by white writers, exploits the black identity. In America, blackness has always been associated with “evilness.” Darkness represents all that is bad. Historically, being black was what you didn’t want to be. African Americans who were fair skinned and had features that resembled that of a Caucasian, sometimes chose to racially pass for white in order to live freely. Even within the black community, blackness is discriminated based on the spectrum of blackness. The whole notion of light-skinned versus dark-skinned fundamentally was generated when the slaved master would produce offspring with one of his female slaves. The child would be lighter than the rest and would often be treated better. “House slaves” were often reduced to less laborious tasks and were of the lighter complexion, creating jealousy amongst the other black enslaved persons. Nonetheless, all of these ideologies stem from the white creators. Literature only further propagates these theories.
Not all literary works come forth and distinguish a character as being a particular race. Yet, when described, physically one can denote the race that is being talked about. “I could go further and note that even when race is mentioned it is a limited notion devoid of complexities. Sometimes it is reduced to biology and other times referred to as a social construction” (Hammonds 2). Factual evidence upholds the logistics of the white and black body. There is no question that physically there are differences, and not just in skin complexions. At the same time, with the mixing of races, combinations have been created to create similarities between the modern day black American and the white American. But society doesn’t care. Still color blinds all else and common sense goes out the window.
Returning to the issue of black identity, literary works fail to validate the black identity as a realistic subject matter. Blackness is the root of all life. Supposedly people originate from Africa. America was built on the blood and sweat of enslaved Africans. Without blackness, whiteness cannot and does not exist. Hegemonic society is ignorant to the reality of how it was truly established. Morrison says it best in her critique of white American literature. Literature, we must note, holds some societal fact whether it is nonfiction or fiction. Nonfiction is bias and is written in the perspective of a sole person from his/her point of view and “true” in his/her eyes. Fiction is a fantasy world that the majority wishes were somewhat true. The majority being the hegemonic society, which consists of the white, heterosexual, man.
The black “shadow” has, paradoxically, allowed white culture to face its fear of freedom, Ms. Morrison continues. Though Pilgrim, colonist, immigrant and refugee embraced America for its promise of freedom, they were nevertheless terrified at the prospect of becoming failures and outcasts, engulfed by a boundless, untamable nature. It was not surprising, then, that writers explored American identity in the most anxiety-ridden genre of literature — the romance. There they could fill in the romance’s “power of blackness,” as Melville called it, with the figure of the slave, whose lack of freedom and whose blackness confirmed his contrast to the master. Africanism, the culture’s construction of black slavery, stood, therefore, not only for the “not-free” but also for the “not-me” (Steiner).
The black identity has been sculpted into a lens to make the white identity appear to be valuable. Morrison critiques literature simply because literature has a huge impact on the mindsets of society. Propaganda is often formatted in writing and pictures. Literature creates a bias or false reality that mainstream society finds fascinating. Romanticizing slavery and portraying the black body as being hypersexual creates a barbaric image of the black identity and authenticates the white identity. Morrison reveals a need to take back the voice of the black identity. Personal narratives from the black experience are necessary in reconstructing the black identity for the black body. Reclaiming the right of self-worth is essential in gaining respect.
With a false reality that tries to erase, or forget history, and a falsified fantasy, the black identity has been white-washed and forced to endure years of pain and suffering. The black community must salvage the black identity from those trying to destroy it. “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” (Hammonds 8). The black community is ignorant to their own worth. Black on black crime is so ramped that it is causing other races to question our value. Killing one another, in the eyes of the “not-black”, almost justifies them killing and devaluing the black body. Our complexions should not matter in the scope of the prejudices we all receive for being black. Black is black. Black Nationalism is what all black Americans need to reserve. A pride for being part of a community of such leadership. As a unity, black people must unite and see themselves and all that they have achieved. A rich history and characteristics of strength, survival, and faith compose the black identity. Silence is how the black community has been forced to become, but with the changing of times, the black community needs to arise and recognize who they are individually and as a whole. The black identity is important and is worth more value than people give it credit.