published in The Times Literary Supplement, JANUARY 2, 2018. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/intimate-injustice-black-girls-williams/
“Five Day Forecast” by Lorna Simpson, 1991
© Tate, London 2017
Silenced and objectified: black women in the US
Some years ago I attended a play about the race riots in Los Angeles in 1992. The event, sponsored by the Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue, was followed by an open discussion among actors, producers and a broader than usual audience. What I remember most is an older black woman volunteering that a white man sitting next to her had just asked for her view on a particular matter. Most importantly, he had asked in a way that made her feel that he honestly wanted to know. “In my entire life,” she said, “I have never had a white man ask what I was thinking about anything at all.” Her pleased surprise resonated with many other women of colour in the audience who recognized themselves in her experience: age, gender and racial dynamics combined in a peculiarly potent vector of social anxiety. The topic of women being silenced, sexualized, bullied, or ignored has been in the news a great deal recently. There has been an unprecedented outpouring of testimonials from women describing their own experiences at home, in the boardroom, on television and in government. Further pockets of debate are concerned with whether white women speak over black women, whether black men talk over black women, or whether minorities have any voice at all. Lack of civility is underwritten by broad habits of courtesy that dictate whose voices count; which bodies are or are not capable of speech, witnessing, forming an opinion. Who speaks to whom? Who is spoken of? Whom do we horrify into silence? In the US, such questions are intimately tied to the longue durée of race, slavery, practices of colonial disregard, and the struggle for Civil Rights. And among the voices most insistently suppressed, written off, and written out are those of black women and girls.
“Long portrayed as a masculine endeavor, the African American struggle for progress often found expression through an unlikely literary figure: the black girl.” So runs the premiss of Nazera Sadiq Wright’s Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century. It is arresting in its pithiness: the “unlikeliness” of black girls in political struggle, in literary figuration, in the geography of childhood or adolescence. That purported lack is suggestive – being “unlikely” is also about being unliked, and so generally hidden or ignored. Assertion by such a one may be seen as unsettling, wrong, or at best surprising. Shatema Threadcraft’s Intimate Justice: The black female body and the body politic takes up a similar theme, exploring “the ways in which the black female body . . . [has] been constrained and diminished within the American body politic”. If forced breeding was the norm for black women in slavery, she says, forced sterilization and eugenics programmes to reduce the black birth rate became prominent features of public policy in the century that followed. If the white feminist movement was largely about leaving the cloister of the domestic sphere for employment in an erstwhile man’s world, black feminism’s goal has been more about access to private spheres of shelter from public exploitation.
The tension between intimate feelings and imposed stereotypes is foremost in both Wright’s and Threadcraft’s books. Together, their research draws on nearly 200 years of mostly under-attended literature to help us make sense of enduring polarities in aesthetic, moral and legal judgements. A study by Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, too recent to have been addressed in either book, is a case in point. Researchers found that African American girls are viewed as generally “less innocent” than their white peers – a bias that begins when they are as young as five years old. (Black boys face similar prejudices but not until they are nine or ten.) Compared to girls of other races, black girls are perceived to warrant less patience, protection and support; they are also thought to be prematurely knowledgeable about a range of adult topics, particularly sex. This leads to their being less mentored, more harshly disciplined, and more frequently criminalized. The authors refer to “adultification”, a process by which children are not accorded the realities of inexperience and impressionability. If “the Negro” has been relentlessly figured as childish, not so actual black children.
Black Girlhood unpacks the historical assumptions behind such figuration, cultivated during slavery, and considers the sometimes reactionary efforts to reverse established tropes in the years after Emancipation. “Conduct manuals”, designed to redeem wayward black girls, proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One such handbook was entitled Floyd’s Flowers: Or, Duty and Beauty for Colored Children, written in 1905 by Silas Floyd, a black minister whose ambition was to instruct young ladies in the arts of refinement. The “types” into which he divided his flowers described labels by which black girls are, Wright argues, judged to this day: the obedient Christian, the prematurely knowing girl, the self-respecting working girl, the educated girl, the uplifter of the race, the don’t-care girl, the loud girl. Anxious instruction took place against the backdrop of a larger society that degraded black femininity and deemed it incorrigible. Deborah Gray White’s classic study, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female slaves in the plantation South (1999), describes the most powerful antebellum typologies as the Jezebel, the Mammy and the “sassy” ball-buster (who later morphed into Sapphire, the gold-digging, emasculating “angry black woman” of a wife in the black-faced radio comedy, Amos ’n’ Andy).
One might add to this list “the lying girl” – a figuration that crops up repeatedly in forensic scenarios. Consider the case of Rachel Jeantel. During the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida vigilante who shot dead Trayvon Martin, the prosecution called to the stand the nineteen-year-old Jeantel, who had been on the phone with Martin until moments before he was shot. As Eric Deggins wrote in the Tampa Bay Times:
[Jeantel’s] difficulty in carrying herself the way mainstream pundits and legal experts expected was painfully apparent. She mumbled. She spoke in a jumble of words and phrases that other attorneys and even the mostly-white jury couldn’t understand. She had to admit dictating a letter she once claimed she wrote, which was sent to Martin’s mother describing what she heard during the night of his death. That admission came in the most painful way: Jeantel confessed she couldn’t read cursive writing.
Jeantel first met Martin in the second grade. They had reconnected only a few weeks before his death, when he had called because he remembered her birthday. Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing Martin’s family, later revealed that Jeantel particularly valued Martin’s friendship because he was one of the few people who never teased her about her weight or dark skin. That side of Martin was concealed in the courtroom as Zimmerman’s defence team built a picture of the pair as “thugs”. In the media as well as on cross-examination, Jeantel was not merely mocked but demonized as an ugly, combative liar, out to crucify an innocent man. Writing in Salon magazine, Brittney Cooper observed that “These kinds of terms – combat, aggression, anger – stalk black women, especially black women who are dark-skinned and plus-sized like Rachel . . . . [I]t became easy for the white male defence attorney to treat [her] as the one who needed to be regulated”.
Distrust of black witnesses dates back to one of slavery’s most intractable premisses – that a slave’s word is incredible. It was a logical corollary of Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney’s premiss in the infamous case of Dred Scott vs Sandford (1857), that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit . . . . bought and sold and treated as ordinary articles of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it”. (As the legal historian Ariela Gross wrote in Double Character: Slavery and mastery in the ante-bellum southern courtroom, 2000, “honor thrives best with a dishonored class”; and the honour at stake was that of white men who increased their stock of slaves by routinely raping their women.)
Imagining black females as incapable of credible testimony has far-reaching consequences. In the US, African Americans represent 17 per cent of all girls enrolled in public schools, yet they are 43 per cent of those suspended, expelled, or arrested by school police. In wider society, the rate at which black girls and women are disciplined, arrested, or criminalized is rocketing. According to the historian Andrea Ritchie, writing in the New York Times last year, “from 1980 to 2014, the rate of growth in the number of women in prison outpaced that of men by more than 50 percent (and black women continue to be incarcerated at twice the rate of white women)”. And yet the statistics do not give a full picture of the complex odds and petty cruelties behind such numbers. A study, Unlocking Opportunities for African American Girls: A call to action for educational equity, published by the national Women’s Law Center in 2014, discusses the case of Erica DeRamus who, in 2010, “went to her prom in a knee-length strapless dress which her Oxford, Alabama school said violated its dress code because it was too short and too revealing ‘up top’”. The school offered DeRamus and others accused of violating the dress code the choice of being “paddled” or suspended; she chose suspension, feeling herself “too old to be paddled”.
It is worth emphasizing how much this refusal was itself a complicated act of resistance. Alabama is one of nineteen states where public schools may use corporal punishment to discipline students, mostly by wooden paddle. (The Washington Post reported that in one Florida high school, students in woodwork classes actually make the paddles themselves, according to specifications: “16 inches long, 5 inches wide, and half an inch thick and made of ash wood”.) Each local school board determines the conditions but the policy at Alabama’s Alexander City School is typical: “three licks administered to a student’s buttocks”. If this seems a peculiar, erotically charged antidote to alleged immodesty, it captures the tensions between prurience, prudery and punishment that a history of manipulating slave bodies has seared into the American psyche. Elsewhere, Ritchie describes another case: “In 2015 Charneshia Corley was pulled out of her car at a gas station after a police officer claimed he smelled marijuana during a traffic stop. Two female officers then forced her legs apart and probed her vagina in full view of passers-by”. In light of two other incidents of this nature, the Texas Legislature passed a Bill banning cavity searches during traffic stops without a warrant. Yet, while regulations vary by state, it is still legal to obtain a warrant for vaginal inspection for minor misdemeanours. In Arrested Justice: Black women, violence, and America’s prison nation (2012), Beth Richie, Director of the Institute of Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois, has documented numerous cases in which routine police investigations have turned into sexual assault.
Driving the recent increase in the number of juvenile arrests is the militarization of American public schools, particularly, although not exclusively, in poor black neighbourhoods. In many schools, police officers outnumber guidance counsellors or nurses. The so-called school-to-prison pipeline tends to criminalize behaviour that is at worst sullen or prankish, and the Children’s Defense Fund reports that 927 American children are hit by school officials on an average day. One recent incident was caught on video when a sixteen-year-old African American student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina silently refused to hand over her mobile phone when asked by the teacher. She was a quiet girl, new to the school, recently orphaned by the death of her mother and placed in foster care. She was, indisputably, in a dour mood that day, although nearly all media accounts left out any mention of why that might be. A school police officer lifted up her chair and slammed her to the ground; he seized her arm and flung her across the classroom before kneeling on top of her, handcuffing and arresting her. The girl’s arm was broken, and she suffered carpet burns to her face and abrasions to her ribs and neck. Although the officer was later fired, the sheriff’s office said the girl bore at least some responsibility because she “started it” and had also “resisted arrest”. Niya Kenny, a classmate who called for the officer to stop and for her classmates to record what was going on – “I was . . . crying like a baby” – was also arrested and charged with “disturbing school”.
Anyone who lives in the US for any length of time learns certain habits of regard when it comes to black girls. Tropes span lifetimes – they are ubiquitous and malleable. Reflecting on her time in the White House, Michelle Obama spoke of not only having broken a glass ceiling as the first black First Lady but of having to survive the falling shards: “The shards that cut me the deepest were the ones that were intended to cut”. So, too, her daughters were vilified in the right-wing press as over-educated Jezebels or prematurely knowing Topsys. Sasha and Malia were rarely accepted as representative of American teenagers: indeed, Malia’s wearing of a T-shirt with a peace symbol on it during the G8 talks of 2009 drove commentators on the conservative website Free Republic to call her – then eleven – “a typical street whore”. (This and many other slurs were, after some delay, removed by moderators.) When, in 2016, she was accepted into Harvard, disparagement on the Fox News website alone called her a “parasite”, “mudslime” and a “Ni@@er”. By the same token, as reported by the Washington Post in 2014, when Sasha, then thirteen, failed to smile enough during the annual White House Turkey Pardon, she became the don’t-care girl, chastized by the Republican staffer Elizabeth Lauten (who later resigned) for not showing any “class” and advised to comport herself “like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar”.
In the US, the average age at which girls enter sex work is between twelve and fourteen: many are treated as criminals, and a disproportionate number of those prosecuted for prostitution or for loitering with intent are African American. In a study conducted in 2012 by Los Angeles County, 92 per cent of the youth identified as trafficked sex workers by the County Probation Department were African American. Insofar as the very structure of prosecution treats these children as agents rather than victims, this disparity is one of the most glaring consequences of the adultification described in the Georgetown report. The Revd Silas Floyd’s stern attempts to add lady-like nuance find modern echoes in national black sororities, such as Alpha Kappa Alpha, and middle-class women’s clubs such as Jack and Jill, founded in 1938 to provide exemplary social opportunities for young black people, and still going strong. Then there are venerable church ladies like Coretta Scott King, faithfully promoting sincere but sometimes suffocating ideals of respectability. (These are worlds well documented in Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A memoir, in which the author deconstructs the anxieties of her own upper-middle-class black upbringing.)
In Intimate Justice, Threadcraft notes that one counter to all this lay in the political resistance of “blues women” such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith: “the black feminist blues tradition included models of autonomous, sexually aware black womanhood and celebrated undomesticated and even non-heterosexually oriented black female sexuality”. Given the strict ideals of respectability imposed on black girls and women, it is, she says, no surprise that Beyoncé’s album Lemonade “found such widespread yet very particular popularity – among black women, it spoke to the heart. Not since Billie Holiday has there been such an explicit artistic acknowledgement of black female inner suffering, vulnerability, imperfection”. Featured in the album’s video is an array of black women and girls who have been publicly disrespected, from Serena Williams to Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. As Zandria Robinson put it in Rolling Stone: “We are to be seen, they say, not just watched and consumed”. Perhaps more compelling than the music, these images brim with emotion beyond all propriety or convention.
The failure to cherish the black female body is a problem in many other theatres of intimacy, including just plain neighbourliness. Years ago, I volunteered in New York’s community gardening programme. Since I had few other skills in horticulture, my job was weeding, for which I was joined by two young African American girls who objected to the enterprise. They described the task as “hateful”. “Why?” I asked, to which one retorted: “Why shouldn’t weeds have a right to grow too?” The other observed: “I’m more like a weed. I don’t like all these perfect flowers”. It is a striking simile. At only eight or nine years old, these children’s sense of being uprooted or less tended ran deep. It reminded me of the psychologist Kenneth Clarke’s experiment in the 1950s, in which he presented a black doll and a white doll to children and asked them which they liked better, and then which they resembled more. Almost all preferred the white doll, and when pressed about which doll resembled them, one child pointed to the black doll and reported “that’s a nigger. I’m a nigger”. (Clarke’s study became the foundation for formally ending Jim Crow laws, cited in the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the case of Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, when racial segregation in public schools was deemed unconstitutional. ) The girls in the garden, however, displayed a resistance beyond mere recognition of their own stigmatization. To them, weeds had a right to be celebrated.
In the US, the notion of childhood as a garden of sweetness is pretty much a whites-only preserve. “It’s time to create language that values justice over innocence”, wrote Robin Bernstein responding to the Georgetown study in a New York Times editorial; “The most important question we can ask about children may not be whether they are inherently innocent. Instead: Are they hungry? Do they have adequate health care? Are they free from police brutality? Are they threatened by a poisoned and volatile environment? Are they growing up in a securely democratic nation?” And, as Threadcraft puts it, any theory of corrective justice must acknowledge that our sexual, reproductive and caretaking capacities are not natural – that they, too, require resources, protection, and support as well as social contexts in which they can be developed and exercised – and that black intimate capacities have been profoundly diminished under racial domination in ways that theories of corrective racial justice must explicitly address.
White bodily integrity sits atop all hierarchies of power in the US, governing with a somatic force that underwrites persistent segregation and anti-miscegenation. As Saidiya Hartman noted in her study Scenes of Subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth century America (1997), the “emphasis on blood, sexuality and commingling” has given rise to a nominally liberal yet exclusionary state in which “sentiment sanctions black subordination because affinity and desire ultimately eclipse equality”.
The aesthetic devaluing of black femininity is reflected to some degree in statistics about black/non-black intermarriage in the US – as of 2010, 8.5 per cent of married black men and 3.9 per cent of married black women had a white spouse. (Compare this with British rates, as reported by the Economist in 2014: “a Labour Force Survey reveals that 48% of black Caribbean men and 34% of black Caribbean women in couples are with partners of a different ethnic group – with higher proportions still among younger cohorts. Black Caribbean children under ten years old are outnumbered two-to-one by children who are a mixture of white and black Caribbean”.) Continuing segregation in neighbourhoods and schools is one reason for such low American rates, as well as status issues, but the underlying taboo is manifested in the degree of anger at the children of such unions: a recent advertisement for Cheerios, in which a little girl touted the benefits of a healthy breakfast to her white mother and black father, was met with sufficient outrage for the company to shut down its website.
There is a joke in some indigenous communities that a typical Native American family is composed of mother, father, three children and an anthropologist. There is a concomitantly cruel one about African American families: no mother, no father, kids who shouldn’t have been born, and a bleeding-heart social worker. The image empties all humanity from the black family, whose very existence is figured by absence. We tend to see less of those who do not conform and so invisibility on top of invisibility makes the project of cohering as political subjects – as citizens – difficult. Part of what is missing is a broader social lens through which to translate the code-switching and plays of identity that black girls and women have always deployed as inventive agents. These are the tricks of the trade, as my grandmother put it, allowing black girls not only to move in hostile landscapes but sometimes to thrive by sailing under the limbo pole of unkindest cut.
Consider again the range of girls hidden in the shadows: the runaway girl, the exploited girl, the despairing girl, the fear-of-embarrassing-others girl, the walking-disappointment girl, the yearning girl, the alone girl, the brilliant girl, the contented girl, the hopeful girl. Because of Norman Rockwell’s portrait “The Problem We All Live With” (1964), six-year-old Ruby Bridges became a visual symbol of strength, grace and determination; in 1960, she (and she alone) had integrated the William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans – amid a riot of spit, spite and rotten tomatoes. But it is unclear whether we have yet recognized the scarring isolation and trauma that Bridges must have suffered, along with Linda and Cheryl Brown, the sisters on whose behalf the litigation in Brown vs Board of Education was fought. Not to mention the uncounted other children who continue to integrate into white landscapes, often by themselves – for American schools are, according to a report from 2013 by the Economic Policy Institute, more segregated today than they were during the Civil Rights movement. We know these children for their strength but not for their internal battles. Quiet action is, of course, not inaction. The collective cultural suppression of black girls’ complex emotional and intellectual lives has been accomplished by crude ideologies that diminish the cognitive capacities of us all. Yet it is tempting to draw too simple a contrast: the violence waged against black masculinity is public, physical and deadly, while that against black femininity is domesticated, psychic, a test of strength and endurance. While acknowledging the intersection of race and gender in that truism, it must also be held in mind that blackness itself operates to erase awareness of intimate, individual processes. Kevin Quashie in The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond resistance in black culture (2012), observes:
black subjectivity exists for its social and political meaningfulness rather than as a marker of the human individuality of the person who is black. As an identity, blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race or racism, or about America, or violence and struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness. The determination to see blackness only through a social public lens, as if there were no inner life, is racist.
Not that this should be understood as an exclusively white practice of thought, for it “creeps into the consciousness of the black subject” in what Quashie critiques as “the imperative to represent”. The tension between public stereotypes and felt experience exists in both black males and females, but if, as the theorist Aimee Meredith Cox states in Shapeshifters: Black girls and the choreography of citizenship (2015), black girls are “illegible” at a moment when black boys garner more concern, there is little point in “placing black youth in discursive predicaments where they must compete for space at the bottom”.
Consider another way in which the black girl can be glossed. In December 2016, the then President-elect Donald Trump went to Mobile, Alabama, as part of a victory tour. His welcome at the airport was quite the show: Senator (now Attorney General) Jeff Sessions met him on the tarmac amid a flotilla of girls attired in full antebellum ballroom regalia – frou-frou gowns in Easter egg colours, with hoop skirts and large frilled hats. They were the Azelea Trail Maids, local high school seniors chosen every year since 1951 to act as “ambassadors” for the city of Mobile. It is considered an honour to be selected, and it would not be unfair to suppose that the wedding-cake frippery is meant to suggest the flower of Southern girlhood, the romance of debutante cotillions, the languidness of steamboats on the Mississippi and the plantation politics of Gone with the Wind, as well as impenetrably layered maidenhood.
On close inspection of the scene, which was splashed across the front pages of most major American newspapers at the time, one could see that at least one of the maids, smiling shyly from beneath the shade of a lavender sun bonnet, was black. I was startled by a figure that immediately brought to mind a twinning doll – a common nineteenth-century toy with two heads, whose torsos met in the middle, with a long skirt. Held vertically, the skirt would fall and obscure the other end: flipped one way, it became a white doll; turned the other, a black doll was revealed. In Racial Innocence: Performing American childhood from slavery to civil rights (2011), Robin Bernstein observed that “the doll’s fusion of black and white referred to racial mixing, sex and rape in the plantation system. African American women, the most likely creators of this doll form stitched politically volatile ideas into the children’s toy and thereby made these ideas appear innocent”. Here, it was as though one doll had been accidentally on purpose turned upside down. Most of Mobile’s city officials defended the costumes – as well as the gender politics – as representing the new, integrated Alabama.
It was an interesting gesture – to take an iconic image of white womanhood and insert a brown face or two – but if the aim was to “fix” the old and project the new, it failed. Instead of speaking to the question of present-day equality for black women or girls, it sought to enfold them in revisionist ideologies. To me, the great-great-granddaughter of the offspring-made-property of plantation masters, the literal attempt to dress up historical atrocity is painful; when those gowns were in fashion, black girls were owned, bestialized and impregnated for profit. Here was a project that, first, sanitized history by resurrecting the dead from all sides of a conflict and, second, draped them in costumes representing the more morally indefensible side – with the implicit caption “See how far we’ve come!” This was Confederate sentimentality disguised as colour blindness.
“Isn’t inclusion what you wanted?” “You’re the one debasing this happy cotillion with foul intention!” Such discourse is often deployed to displace responsibility for racial distrust: there is talk of blacks “playing the race card”, or defensive posturing whereby white attempts to accommodate black people are deemed proleptically futile, and sure to be met with ingratitude. Bernstein describes romanticization of the sort witnessed in Alabama as framing, “not only the ability to remember while appearing to forget, but even more powerfully, the production of racial memory through the performance of forgetting”. What choices for self-figuration does this circular folly suggest to black girls and women? A conventionally “pretty” picture captures the spirit of a whole system predicated on certain figures being ornamental, spoken for and styled, for better or for worse, by others. In The Law Is a White Dog: How legal rituals make and unmake persons (2011), the anthropologist Colin Dayan describes the “afterlife of ostracism” as “disposability”, or the phenomenon of “incessantly dying in new ways”. It is an elegant way of tracing the bottom line: how does anyone survive having been marked with the trope of un-life? Is there a path to vivacity from being captured and captioned as the object of others’ beliefs?
Nazera Sadiq Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (256pp. University of Illinois Press. $95. 978 0 252 04057 3; paperback, $28. 978 0 252 08204 7)
Shatema Threadcraft, Intimate Justice: The black female body and the body politic (224pp. Oxford University Press. £29.99; US $39.95. 978 0 19 025163 5)
Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1999)
Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia González, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood”, Center on Poverty and Inequality (2017; http://www.law.georgetown.edu/academics/centers-institutes/poverty-inequality/upload/girlhood-interrupted.pdf)
Andrea Ritchie, Invisible No More: Police violence against black women and women of color (352pp. Beacon. £17.99 US $21. 978 0 8070 8898 2)
Richard Rothstein, “For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since: Education and the unfinished march,” (2013; Economic Policy Institute; http://www.epi.org/files/2013/Unfinished-March-School-Segregation.pdf)