Dorothy Roberts, professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the plenary lecture at Luther College’s 10th annual Black History Conference last week. She spoke about how stereotypical ideas of black women’s sexuality are related to public policy. Above, Roberts refers to artist Betye Saar’s assemblage, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) – an effort to transform the racist stereotype of “Aunt Jemima” into a statement of political and social protest. (Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond)
"Changing how we see images is clearly one way to change the world." -- Bell Hooks
"Sexual ethics ... also should address the inequitable social conditions
that influence peoples' sexuality and relationships." -- Dorothy Roberts
A conference is born
When Sheila Radford-Hill, executive director of Luther College's Diversity Center, organized the first Black History Conference at Luther, she did so with the intention of helping "our community understand how we benefit from understanding the experiences and contributions of African-descended people to the U.S. and the world."
That was 10 years ago; and, in reflecting on the past decade, Radford-Hill considers herself "blessed ... to have introduced Luther and the Decorah community to significant scholarship and research done by and about the experiences of people of African descent in America."
Among the "great memories" of that decade, Radford-Hill recalls, are "New Orleans artist, Richard Thomas; Mary Williams, gospel artist, and her powerful rendidtion of 'How I got Ovah'; the jazz orchestra and dance department collaboration to honor Katherine Dunham; Nneena Freelon and her tribute to Duke Ellington; and Michelle Alexander and her thoughtful talk on the mass incarceration of African-Americans."
"Finally," she says, is this year's keynote presenter - "Dorothy Roberts and her provocative conversational lecture about cultural representations of black women ... a wonderful introduction to a topic that was explored in a sophisticated and artistic way during this year's conference."
Dorothy Roberts, an acclaimed scholar of race and gender whose groundbreaking work in law and public policy focuses on contemporary issues in health, social justice and bioethics, introduced this year's conference with a provocative discussion of how cultural representations of black female bodies have, since the era of slavery, served to reinforce systems that continue to oppress women of color in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Roberts said a legacy of slavery is a dichotomous and contradictory model of black female sexuality -- represented via racist stereotypes like "Mammy," "Aunt Jemima" and "pickaninnies," for example, in popular culture. Either "oversexed Jezebel" or "asexual Mammy," the dichotomy "reverberates in pervasive displays of black women's bodies in the media, at the same time as black women's desires are silenced," she said.
"White slaveholders talked about black women as members of an animal-like race that could be legally treated as property, allowing for 'unrestrained sexual access and control,'" she said. "There was no restraint by either law or social custom. Enslaved girls were forced to have early sexual experiences with white slaveholders, and with enslaved men."
At the same time, and related to slavery's identification of black female sexuality with licentiousness, a profound silence developed historically about black women's sexual experiences - "a silencing of even of talking about black women's sexuality as something that's healthy and positive," she said.
Slavery also put black women's bodies on display, in contrast to Victorian standards of female propriety and "purity," she said.
1960s: Stereotypes evolve
In the 1960s, negative stereotypes -- and their impact on public policy -- evolved, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan - a U.S. senator, sociologist and policy-maker - among others, introduced the construction of a "black matriarch" as a way of blaming black women for the "demise of the black family," Roberts said.
Racist stereotypes and myths about black women as "welfare queens" and "crack mothers" were inextricably connected to welfare and prison policies, she added -- with black mothers overrepresented in both foster care and prison systems.
Overcoming the dichotomy
Roberts described ways to overcome dichotomous representations of black female sexuality and the accompanying paradox by which black women's bodies are paraded and their voices silenced.
"We need to speak out, organize and invent new paradigms," she said, "and move toward our own sexual liberation and ethics."
Most important, Roberts insisted the negative effects of cultural stereotypes have to be addressed at the level of public policy.
"I cannot emphasize this enough," she said. "In order to subvert racist sexual stereotypes, it is necessary to address unjust social policies and institutions that have influence on cultural norms, ideas and attitudes."
Novian Whitsitt, chair of Africana Studies at Luther, said panel discussions held throughout the conference built on Roberts' lecture - which, he said, "highlighted how stereotypical ideas about black women's sexuality impact public policies surrounding foster care, health care and the criminal justice system" ... and "confirmed the need for social awareness about the harmful images of black women."
Radford-Hill couldn't have been more pleased with this year's conference.
"The presenters and artists who participated are accomplished individuals from a range of backgrounds and experiences who are grappling with significant issues facing black communities and American cultural norms," she said.
Now she's looking ahead, to the conference's second decade.
"I hope that the conference will continue to attract scholars from around the country and that students and young academics will continue to be inspired by the opportunity for conversation outside the classroom on rich and relevant social and ethical topics."