Happy Jamaican Independence Day!
6th August 2018 is the 56th anniversary of the Independence of Jamaica from the control of the British Empire, yet the two countries are still closely aligned after over half a century of Independence because of people like me.
I am English, a child of the 1960s, born in the West Country and still possessing the tones that identify my speech as a country brogue. That is just one of the nationality identifiers written on my body. The other is the colour of my skin – which I have grown to realise – marks me as the ‘other’ according to the widely accepted view of what an English person looks like, despite the fact that this is, and always has been, my home: the only one I know. This latter view systematically excludes me from and conflicts with the place and space where I was born and raised.
This view is also one of the reasons why I acknowledge Jamaican Independence Day each year, it is an attempt to place myself somewhere in the world, to find acceptance and celebration of my being, or if not mine, at least that of my parents who were both born in Jamaica, but died here in England – their home for most of their lives but where they never settled, and from where they could never escape their isolation: they lived in an island on an island.
Why is independence important? It is related to a sense of identity and national pride. Jamaica was independent before Spanish and British immigration into the Caribbean region. Prior to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in what was eventually known as the British West Indies on 5th May 1494, the land was inhabited by the indigenous Arawaks – also called Tainos – who had migrated from South America over 2,500 years previously and had named the island Xaymaca, which meant “land of wood and water”.
It is from this island that my parents – whose ancestors have roots in countries as varied as Africa, India, Scotland and Wales – continued the familial tradition of global migration and travelled to England. The Motto of Jamaica is ‘Out of many, one people’ – this was chosen to reflect the unity and diversity of the Jamaican people who were an amalgam of nationalities, cultures and religions. I believe that my parents also believed this about being British, however the reality is that the identity of Black British Caribbeans is always linked to their ancestral ‘home land’ as they have never fully been accepted in the UK as English. The rise of the carnival in Britain was a response to the need to retain a cultural identity and remember the familial roots of existence in the face of widespread racial attacks in the UK in the late 1950s.
Black British people from the Caribbean, and in this specific investigation people with Jamaican connections in Britain, are perpetually seen as the strangers within, whose identity is projected onto them from without. Before I was born I was designated an alien in my own home, hence my need to celebrate … something and have roots somewhere in this world. The search for belonging continues.
When my parents, and other Jamaicans, travelled to England in the 1950s they came as British citizens, that was their main identity. They were proud of their connection to the ‘mother country’. However, in 1958 the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward and Windward Islands, formed the West Indies Federation (a political union that existed from 03 January 1958 to 31 May 1962) with the express intention of becoming independent from Britain as a single state; this was a move to distance themselves from the imperial past. Although this particular union was unsuccessful, Jamaica obtained individual independence on the 6th of August 1962, and from that date the Government of the UK had no responsibility for the government of Jamaica. (Other commonwealth countries such as Uganda, and Trinidad and Tobago also gained their independence from British colonial rule in 1962, with more countries gaining independence in the same decade.)
The British response to the rise in Commonwealth independence and an increase in migration was led by the Conservative Home Secretary Richard ‘Rab’ Bultler, who in 1960 was instrumental in legal changes to the rights of migrants when he pressed for legislation that became the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act; this introduced immigration control to the majority of Commonwealth passport holders. In this legal instrument Jamaicans (and other Commonwealth citizens) were no longer viewed as migrating British citizens, but as ‘aliens’.
My parents arrived in England as British in the 1950s, after I was born in Wiltshire in the early 1960s they were reclassified as ‘aliens’ in their own homes; and thereafter the desire to belong somewhere was difficult to attain hence the celebration of anything related to an island over four thousands miles away that when I was growing up seemed more like home than anywhere I have lived for my entire life.
So, Happy Jamaican Independence Day! Why does it matter to me and other Black British people with Jamaican links? Jamaica is a home from home, that is not really my home – I never even visited the island until the middle of my third decade, but we all need to belong somewhere, somewhere to call home, somewhere to be accepted … however tenuous the link in the global diaspora.
Marjorie Morgan explores the importance of spaces dedicated to LGBT people of colour in a society where white heterosexuality is deemed the norm.
Black UK Pride, an organisation that started in 2006, was created to raise the awareness around the experiences of UK’s Black LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community and promote equality and inclusion.
The founders of UK Black Pride (UKBP), started the annual celebration after a minibus social outing morphed into a day trip of three coaches of people to Southend-on-Sea in 2005.
Image via Out News
The experience of (People of Colour) PoC in the national and global LGBT communities is not the same as that of white people; this is one of the reasons that UKBP co-founder Phyll Opoku-Gyimah publicly rejected her MBE in 2016 when she stated that she continues to “actively resist, colonialism and its toxic legacy in the Commonwealth, where… LGBTQ+ people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws… that were put in place by British imperialists.”
“I have frequently been refer to as exotic when in fact I was born and bred in the Wiltshire countryside”
PoC are viewed as “other” in the mainstream British LGBT communities. I have frequently been referred to as “exotic” by white LGBT people when in fact I am a child of the 1960s, born and bred in the depths of the Wiltshire countryside, where reading National Geographic, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Reader’s Digest were the most exotic events I experienced.
Culturally, I was raised to be aware of the dominant white British society, whilst still being cognisant of the Caribbean heritage of my Jamaican migrant parents. I was brought up to accept and understand the diversity of different cultures, yet without the overt celebration of those differences. This lesson remained with me into adulthood. It was one of the reasons why I was an invisible lesbian until my late thirties.
I kept my sexuality invisible for personal safety reasons, and to remain a member of social and religious communities. Once I was out, those communities excluded me. Seeking a new home I navigated to LGBT communities, both online and geographically. I was surprised and disappointed by the racism I encountered.
Stonewall research, released 28 June 2018, shows that over half of all Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people report everyday discrimination or poor treatment within their local LGBT network because of their ethnicity.
PoC, who are also LGBT, go to these communities seeking a place of belonging and safety, sometimes when they are rejected in their racial communities—in 2010 the acceptance figures of homosexuality in the white UK population was 88 per cent, while it was 42 per cent among the Black and Asian British respondents.
“UK acceptance figures of homosexuality in the white population was 88 per cent, while it was 42 per cent among the Black and Asian population”
For me, being a member of any mainstream LGBT group is a constant reminder that as a Black woman my everyday experiences of the world are different to those of different sexualities and genders.
White heterosexual men, in a patriarchal society, are the most visible people, followed by white heterosexual women. Then, there are the homosexual white people of all genders, who are more visible that Black men and Black women. Homosexual PoC are the most invisible group of people in this set of categories.
As personal experience has taught me, LGBT communities are not any more homogeneous than other sections of society; discrimination and marginalisation exist everywhere, hence the need for UKBP. It is a group which subverts the normative relationships between sex, gender and ethnicity and it proudly uses public space to display this.
“UKBP is a place where even I, an English Black, lesbian woman over 50 could well be the new normal”
UKBP is a socially revolutionary organisation because it represents a difference to the mainstream pride events which focus on white, gay men and that are often unsafe spaces for PoC. UKBP demonstrates that converging and diverging yields positive results of community building, support and signposting the normality of being a homosexual PoC in Britain.
UKBP is a place where even I, an English Black, lesbian woman over 50 could well be the new normal. Visibly, at least.
‘Casual’ racism is not entertainment
After a long day I decided to relax in the late evening with film, something light and entertaining, maybe even a comedy or a drama. So I flicked through the menu of films on offer and read the accompanying descriptions of new films from my streaming provider. My attention was arrested when I saw one film described thus: a young boy “gets lessons in the American way … However, with a disapproving father and casual racism, it’s tough to make it in the Land of the Free.” Hold up. There’s so much wrong with this description but I’ll start here: “Casual racism”?
When is racism ever casual?
Isn’t racism just racism? Like the behaviour of the KKK and white supremacists? Overt, obvious, plain for all to see.
Apparently, it has become trendy to refer to racist microaggressions as casual racism or everyday racism. They are used as humorous interactions and in familiar settings. However, I repeat, there is nothing casual about racism.
Here’s a handy guide to microaggressions that are accepted in some places as ‘just a joke’ or normal behaviour:
You didn’t sound Black / you speak so well / you have great diction.
No matter how you form this, it is not a compliment.
Where do you really come from?
Translation: you’re not white so you don’t belong here. Another option would be to ask the question you really want to know: “What is your cultural heritage or background?”.
Oh, you have a chip on your shoulder.
Because you express your dissatisfaction at racism and unfair treatment you may be pathologised as ‘the angry Black person’.
But, I don’t see colour, I see … you.
Theoretically wanting to see only the humanity in a person is wonderful, but not realistic or practical. Not seeing colour is only possible if you are colour blind.
It’s a joke! Don’t get offended.
I can’t say your name, it’s too … difficult.
You mean like Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Rachmanioff, Puccini, Mendelssohn, Salieri, and Bach?
I have Black, Asian friends, I’m not racist.
I’m not racist but … (then the racist statement)
People like you …
What? What aspect of my personality are you referring to?
I’d rather not live / sit / travel near a Muslim / Hindu / Rastafarian
You’re really pretty … for a Black / Chinese (insert colour or nationality here) person
You’re so … exotic!
I’ve had ex-partners refer to me as exotic. As yet all my research skills have failed to find anything exotic about life in the county of Wiltshire. Maybe it was just their white privilege showing …
That’s reverse racism!
This statement is often used by people who are reluctant to acknowledge racism to minority groups, yet as soon as policies are introduced to reduce the inequality in society this trump card is pulled out as white people (generally) get affronted and defensive.
This type of discrimination aka ‘casual racism’ normalises racial stereotypes and emboldens bullies by offering them everyday validation of their views, this in turn perpetuates societal discrimination. Presenting people of colour as different (code word for inferior in this context) entrenches the problem – even amongst people who consider themselves enlightened and liberal.
Language is filled with antiquated references to ethnicities and race: e.g. the phrase “Indian giver” that is used to denote a person who gives and then takes back a gift, whilst in fact the saying arose because gift giving between Native Americans and European colonisers of the Americas was based on cultural misunderstandings. It is time to question the use of these phrases and to refuse to use them or accept them in conversations.
‘But I don’t mean any harm’ and ‘I haven’t got a racist bone in my body’ are regular responses that I have heard when I question people on their phraseology. The comeback is usually ‘I didn’t intend to offend’ – but you did. What you said and did was offensive. What are you going to do about it now?
Not many people react well to being called a racist, because a racist is someone who belongs to a far right group like the KKK, Britain First, or the National Front, aren’t they? Someone being overtly violent and discriminatory, surely? They’re not a regular person having a laugh and joke with words and common phrases, are they?
How did those phrases become common? They are part of the systemic and often institutional forms of oppression that are the backbone of many societies. They need to be questioned. For example, the ONS census data categories for ethnic group and nationality still does not have a category for Black English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish, whereas you can be white and English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, Irish, Gypsy, Irish Traveller, any other white background.
I’ve always wondered if ‘Black’ is also a nationality as well as a political term.
It is systems like this that portray white as right, as standard, that are the root of the problem. ‘White is right’ is the concept that white English / European / American culture is always right, pre-eminent, ‘normal’ and the standard by which the ‘other’ is judged: this is an Eurocentric world view. This is where racist terminology has its roots.
Just a final note to the unwitting performer of ‘casual’ racism – racism is never casual to the person you are discriminating against. Never. The racist words and behaviour has a direct impact on people’s lives every day. Racism is not a joke.
Neither is sexism, or homophobia.
Mostly people do not like to be identified a racist. The usually react with either guilt or anger. Professor Robin DiAngelo said, “If you call me a murderer, I’ll just laugh, because I’m not a murderer. But if you call me a racist, I’ll lose my s***. … ‘It’s like the N-word for white people.” Really? Why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism? A case of white fragility or white privilege? It appears that most conversations about racism are started by POC. This needs to change.
Here is a Harvard test to check implicit bias. Just in case you’re not sure where you stand. We need to call out ‘casual racism’.
All I wanted to do was watch a film.
I do this every day, I walk the local streets, I drive and often take taxis, buses, trains and airplanes to destinations all around the world – I travel while Black.
I chose not to notice it at first, wishing that it was an aberration of my mind, but it’s not: I have an (in)visible label stuck to me that identifies me as different – my skin. But it’s not only my skin, it is also my hair – especially when I had dreadlocks.
Driving around the UK as me (I cannot change myself, you see) is problematic for others, especially the police. Here is a typical example – sadly non-fiction – that occurred more than once, imagine me (late 90s) dressed in my Burberry coat, with my Samsonite briefcase next to me on the passenger seat, driving my brand new VW Golf GTi. I am on my way home from the local train station, after working in London for the day as a computer consultant. As I near my home I am pulled over by the police for … for nothing, it transpires, apart from driving while Black.
“Can I help you, officer?”
I am tired of the stops but used to them. The weariness is evident in my voice.
“I stopped you …”
“I stopped you to see what you are doing in this area?”
“Pardon?” Although I am well used to this type of enquiry I have no desire to make things easy for people who approach me with discrimination plans clearly shining from their foreheads.
“What are you doing in this area?”
This has to be one of my favourite questions from police officers, especially as this is a public road, and as far as I am aware apartheid pass laws have not been implemented in Oxfordshire, or any other part of the UK. I really can’t wait to see where this scenario will lead.
“I’m going home.”
“Where do you live?”
“Why do you want to know that?
“I’m trying to ascertain what you are doing in this area?”
“Is there something wrong?”
“I’m not sure, I’m asking the questions.”
“Are you stopping all vehicles or just me?” I say this as other cars, my neighbours in fact, drive pass without hinderance.
“Please confirm where you live.”
“For what reason? Why have you stopped me and why do you want to know where I live?”
“Just answer the questions!” The irritation level is spiking in the police officer because I do not roll over and show my belly.
I exhale a deep sigh and say, “I live just around the corner … do you want to come and see?”
“Whose vehicle is this?
“Oh. Do you have the papers?”
“Alright then. Carry on.”
“So what did you stop me for?”
“You can go now.”
Long days sandwiched by ignorance do not make a tasty mental snack.
First the skin: this is a passport to discrimination from ignorant beings. The negativities encountered when in one’s own private vehicle are contrasted when in public. Having black skin proves useful when on crowded buses to trains because the seat next to me, or opposite me is always the last one to be occupied, gingerly, by some desperate passenger who has scoured the whole of the transport for an alternative. Some people choose to stand for the entire journey rather than sit next to me. I still point out the vacant seat, and sometimes they respond saying, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not going far.” They may still be standing when I leave the seat and alight at my destination, or they suddenly change their mind about sitting when another seat, elsewhere in the carriage, becomes free.
I’ll replace my bag on the chair and carry on. Comfortable with space around me. Uncomfortable with the ignorance or hatred around me – from people who do not know me at all.
However, it does feel like I have a communicable disease when there is a quarantine-like space around me. I am not contagious, but they think they can get something undesirable from coming in close contact with me. It saddens me more than it amuses me.
I am a signifier to people – they appear to have applied value to my blackness and my cultural appearance. To them my dreadlocks mean I am a drug-dealer and always in possession of vast quantities of marijuana or, at the very least knowledge of where to readily get some if my ‘personal supply’ has run out. This is pure ignorance as I have never smoked or taken drugs in my life. My dreadlocks are the best way of maintaining my hair as well as a connection to the culture of my fore-bearers. This became a regular occurrence, so much so that I had to start making a joke out of it because my frustration at the frequency of the inquiries was mounting as much as my hair grew.
If a conversation was started, it usually contained the ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” in the dialogue.
“I live in Abingdon, Oxfordshire”
“No, I mean where are you from.”
“No, I mean where are you from.”
“Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the West Country.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where do you come from.”
“I told you. The only other detail I can give you is graphic – my mother’s vag…..”
“You don’t get me … “
(I understand them completely but I’m not entertaining this vague question again.)
“What precisely do you want to know?”
“What nationality are you?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. I was born in Wiltshire. I’m English.”
“Can’t you just answer the question …”
“If you ask the question you really want the answer to, then I will answer it, if I can. What do you want to know?”
“What are your parents?”
“This is silly.”
“Yes, you’re right. It is silly.”
“You can’t be British. You’re Black!”
“I am British, in fact I’m English. The same way a person born in Wales is Welsh, and a person born in Scotland is Scottish, and a person born in Ireland is Irish. I’m English, but like so many people I sometimes say I’m British. My parents are British, too.”
“How can your parents be British? They’re black too, right?”
“Yes, they are British citizens.”
“But where are they from? They’re not from here, are they?”
“No, they’re not from Oxfordshire, our family home is in Wiltshire. That’s where we’re from. But I see the question you want to ask is what’s our family heritage. Is that right?”
“Yes, where are you from?”
“My parents came to England from Jamaica in the Caribbean. But our family heritage goes back further. My name is Morgan, a Welsh name, my maternal name is Sutherland, a Scottish name, and my genetic roots are also from West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. So, the answer to ‘Where am I from?’ is all over the world. I guess my family has roots everywhere, a bit like the Queen who has German ancestry: in 1917 they changed their family name from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ to sound less German – especially as the country was at war with Germany. Did you know that Queen Victoria’s first language was German? But she also learnt to speak English? She married her German cousin, Albert and they both tried to assimilate into the country where they lived: England. In fact, Queen Victoria became more Scottish the longer she lived.”
“Oh. I didn’t know some of that.”
“Because I am constantly asked that question based on, I suppose, the colour of my skin, and the style of my hair, I like to share facts about where people are from. Especially people who are seen as quintessentially English as the British Royal Family, who are seen as being as English as fish and chips, or a cup of tea. So where are you from?”
“Where’s here? Where are your parents and grandparents from?”
“My parents are from here as well, I think. I don’t know about my grandparents.”
“Maybe you should have more answers before you ask so many questions.”
So, I continue to travel whilst Black armed with answers that people often do not expect and I wonder how long will it be until I can just travel and declare, “I’m English,” to any enquiries about where I’m from; to have that accepted without being grilled about the ten generations that preceded me would be a lovely journey down the road, across town, on holiday or just across the back fence.
I’m English and I’m Black. It’s not unusual.
Marjorie H Morgan © 2018
I now have very short natural hair. Before this current hair choice I had long dreadlocs for over two decades.
It seems like a long time ago now, but I also recall having perms and enduring the long and painful process of having my hair straightened. When I was a child in the 1960s and 70s I remember my mother using the hot comb to straighten her own and my eldest sisters’ hair: it’s a smell you never forget, it’s a process that is as permanent in memory as the burn from the hot comb if anyone moved unexpectedly.
As a child of a migrant family from the Caribbean I was inadvertently taught that in the UK my family’s natural hair was synonymous with ‘bad hair’ and straightened hair was associated with ‘good hair’. This definition was linked to the pressure of time, the ease of maintenance, the access to hair care products, and the shame that was attached to natural African type hair (now categorised as type 4C).
It was through this familial introduction, and the few negative images available in books and posters of the time, that my initial ingrained concept of beauty was created. To me natural hair was associated with negative stereotypes of being unkempt, unprofessional and rough.
Black women in the UK have a complicated relationship with their hair. For decades weaves, wigs and hair extensions have been used for flexibility and ease of maintenance, while natural hair was seen and used as a political statement from the early 1960s: social assumptions were made from visual appearance.
It was almost Hobson’s choice: conform or confront. Either way women have historically been confined with societal hair selections.
Is the desire to change the behaviour and appearance of our hair and skin based on internalised racism which has its roots locked in the nineteenth century?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated, “Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.”
Relaxed and processed hair has become an integral part of Black British society, so this may seem like a frivolous question, but it is a serious enquiry: is your hairstyle killing you?
Black women have historically had a long association with Black hair care and community, many people will remember sitting at their mother’s feet while getting their hair plaited or styled for school. As community extended the hairdressing salons became sacred Black female spaces, in the same way as barber shops act for the male sections of society. There is both community and big business in hair care.
The first Black millionaire in the US was Madam C J Walker (aka Sarah Breedlove) who amassed her wealth through the creation of hair care products, including the first hair straightening formula, in 1905. Black hair care has remained a multi-million pound section of industry for over a century. It is reported that Black women make up to 80% of the total hair product sales in the UK, and Black women spend six times more on cosmetics than their white counterparts. In 2014 Black women in the UK spent £5.25 billion on hair care products, and crème relaxers accounted for 21% of that figure.
In the US, records show that Black consumers spend nine times more on hair and beauty products than their white contemporaries. The 2018 Nielsen report shows that nearly 86% of hair and beauty products sold in the USA were purchased by minority ethnic groups.
A recent study, relating to the effects on general health of the chemicals in hair care products was published online on 25 April 2018 in the Environmental Research Journal by Dr Jessica Helm et al. This study concludes that “Hair products used by Black women and children contained multiple chemicals associated with endocrine disruption and asthma.” Fragrances, phthalates and parabens are some of the products prevalent in Black hair care and beauty products; parabens have been proven to be carcinogenic, and related to breast cancer and infertility. Previous research in the USA has shown that black women have higher urinary levels of phthalates and parabens than their white counterparts and conclude that the use of skin lighteners and hair relaxers may be contributing factors in the recorded health disparities between the two groups of women.
The full list of products tested in the Silent Spring Institute study can be found here. It was discovered that 80% of the tested products contain high levels of chemicals that ‘disrupt’ the endocrine system, which regulates reproduction, metabolism and affects almost every organ and cell in the body; 84% of the “detected chemicals were not listed on the product label” and the highest number of parabens were found in hair lotions. It must be noted that not all chemicals in hair products are dangerous or damaging to health, what is primarily important to understand is the way the products are used and the frequency of use; there are products available without any of the harmful chemicals highlighted in the Silent Springs study.
The Environmental Research Journal report recommended that personal care products should have improved labelling so that women can make better personal health and beauty choices.
The information in this report suggests that the use of chemicals in Black hair care is dangerously impacting women’s health as the parabens-rich products interfere with natural hormone production. Tola Okagwu, a hair coach, discussed the Silent Springs study with Dr Jessica Helm in an interview by BBC World News. Tola Okagwu has almost a decade of history assisting others to improve the health of their hair, she is also an author of books on the subject. Dr. Jessica Helm concluded that her opinion, after examining the study findings, was that it is best to use caution and reduce exposure to products that cause harm to health. The endocrine disrupting chemicals identified in Dr Helm’s report, have been shown to be associated with increased occurrences of uterine fibroids, infertility, early puberty, and cancer in Black females.
What is the future of the African hair industry if the majority of chemical products are abandoned? #TeamNatural #NaturalHair are two contemporary social media hasttags that are aligned with the growth of natural hair product companies such as Modie Hair Care and Afro Deity. Natural hair care is not unusual, and if the demand for the associated products increases the market will respond. As noted earlier over £5 billion pounds a year is already expended in the Black hair care industry, much of this could be redirected to healthier hair care options for natural hair.
After due consideration of the results of this most recent study I find myself again asking if it is time for more Black British women to consider ditching the use of unregulated and dangerous chemicals on their hair and embrace their natural locs and other hairstyles?
It seems like the healthy option, the real Hobson’s choice.
by Marjorie H Morgan © 2018
Since the 15th century – in the Americas and the colonised world – the Black female body has been seen as a product to be used to produce more products in the same image; this has some parallels with the Black African tradition where the Black female body was viewed as a source of social success and family wealth, the commonality between these two views is patriarchy.
Objectification of the Black female body renders the black woman a commodity that others can enact their will upon, e.g. rage, lust, anger, disgust, desire. Therefore Black women need to regain control of the image that they project of their own bodies. Beyoncé is one Black woman who appears to be controlling the representation and reflection of her concept of the Black female body.
During her performances Beyoncé often uses her body in a sexualised manner as a signifier of her own feminism. Her stage and public appearances contest the whiteness of mainstream feminism,
although Dr bell hooks, a black academic feminist, described Beyoncé as a ‘terrorist’ who potentially harms black girls with her sexualised performances (2014).
After the release of Lemonade (2017) hooks also suggested that Beyoncé used that opportunity to exploit “images of Black female bodies” in a way that was neither “radical nor revolutionary” and that it glamorised the gendered dichotomy and “glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction.”
Black female bodies have historically had repeated collisions with masculinity, power, and whiteness; these bodies constantly exhibit strength beyond the imposed theories as they continue to disrupt the masculine narrative of superiority, because without them Black life does not continue.
When Black bodies were viewed as products they were also categorised as sexual and economic property where the sexuality and reproduction were strictly controlled; in this manner they are systematically dehumanised and positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. A prime example of this occurred in 1814 when Sara (aka Sarah or Saartjie) Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, was displayed in a cage, and objectified as a deviant savage who was an inferior being. Baartman was described has having “abnormal sexuality and genitalia”.
Sara Baartman was in fact a Khoikhoi woman – an aboriginal South African – who became a domestic servant to Dutch coloniser Pieter Willem Cezar in Cape Town, South Africa, before she was employed by English ship surgeon William Dunlop and Cezar’s brother Hendrik.
Apparently Sara Baartman signed a contract on 29 October 1810 with the terms stipulating that she would be a domestic servant in England and Ireland for Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar in addition to being exhibited for entertainment purposes. The contract allegedly stated that Baartman would receive a portion of the earnings and would also be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. However, after four years in England Baartman was sold to Reaux, a showman in France, who showcased her alongside his animals.
Baartman died in France in 1815 after being exhibited and studied as a science specimen by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Baartman was used to emphasise the theory that Black Africans were hyper sexual and less human than Europeans. It was through this initial commodification process that black bodies were positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. As Iman Cooper (2015) says essentially “the humanity of the black body was ruptured into an object to be bought and sold, in order to satisfy the economic desires of the white slave owners.”
Baartman is symbolic because her Black African female body was used as imagery to represent, reflect and affect the nascent European held opinions of ‘savage sexuality and racial inferiority’ of the time. The physical presence of Black bodies in the world is undeniable, however the concept of racism made the power and self-agency of those bodies incomprehensible and refutable in the eyes of white colonisers, but the black body has always remained self-defining and disruptive to global theories of cultural being.
This originally European social conceptualisation of the black body has remained widely unchallenged by mainstream society, especially in media outlets that are controlled by heteronormative white men. Therein femininity is also codified as Christian, white, docile, chase and pure, while Black women’s religious characteristics are not viewed in the same way as their white counterparts they have historically been viewed as uncontrolled, loud, wild, lewd and evil. Both black and white female bodies have been regulated according to the diametrically opposed assumptions held about each other, largely based on the overriding global standard rooted in racism.
With the exception of talk show hosts such as American Oprah Winfrey and British Trisha Goddard, Black women on television have mainly been represented as “crude stereotypes of exotic animalistic hypersexuality (black women) … or sexual submissiveness (Asian women)” – this is often represented as lacking in ‘feminine’ behaviour. Sexualised women are also frequently depicted as working class – all is dependent on the ‘viewer’s’ gaze. In this instance who is the viewer? Male, white, middle class.
Black women performers like Beyoncé often use their bodies as a means to reclaim and contest the control of the image of the Black female body from their personal perspective: powerful, sexual, self-regulating.
Who is right, Beyoncé or bell hooks? Can’t they both be correct? Black women have a right to control their own image and decide on the sexualisation of their individual bodies – that is their agency and feminist right of self determination.
Bodies will always be sexualised and objectified by the gaze of the ‘other’ be it the gaze of a man or another woman (Black or white). Therefore Black women are justified in deciding their own degree of visual sexualisation according to the pervading and overarching social mores, nevertheless I do not believe sexualisation can be ignored or viewed in isolation without considering the history of objectification and sexualisation of the female body, specifically the Black female body.
As Nora Chipaumire suggested in 2014, the Black female body can acknowledge her own power and presence, and negotiate the way others look at it or see it in her own way, on her own terms.
Black female bodies are engaging in the freedom of expression as their own subjects, they are no longer mere objects.