Ain’t I a Woman: The Historic Attack on African-American Women

Dr. Julianne Malveaux
Dr. Julianne Malveaux

by Dr. Julianne Malveaux
The stupidly foul and racist comedienne Roseanne Barr is as insignificant as a single drop of rain in a thunderstorm and so, on one hand, she deserves to be upbraided, to have lost her television show, and to be written down in the halls of ignominy. At the same time her description of former White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett as the spawn of “Muslim Brotherhood & planet of the apes”, is unfortunately consistent with our nation’s history of dehumanizing and defeminizing African American women.

When a people are systematically dehumanized, they can be treated as lesser, inferior beings. When people are compared to monkeys, apes, gorillas, they are being described as less evolved than other human beings, as people who deserve less. When this extends to women, we are both dehumanized and defeminized. In other words, Black women do not have to be treated with the same respect as other women. We can be violated, treated as people (things) to be toyed with. This is why so many Black women could be violated by white men who, for sport, would “go get a n—r gal”, pull her from the side of the road, and gang rape her. That’s what happened to the young mother, Recy Taylor, in 1944. The men who violated her paid no price. That’s what happened to Betty Jean Owens, the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) undergraduate who was abducted from a car (at gunpoint) and repeatedly raped by four white men. Atypically, these men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. One of the men was paroled and tracked down and killed a woman named Betty Jean Robinson Houston, mistaking her for Betty Jean Owens.

How could white “men” so brutally violate a woman, authorize their defense to argue that “she wanted it”, and expect to get away with it? They were granted permission by a history that made Black women seem something less than human. It’s the same history that allowed Clay County, West Virginia public official Pamela Taylor, to describe First Lady Michelle Obama as “an ape in heels”. It was the same history that allowed the same Roseanne to compare Susan Rice, national security advisor and former ambassador to the UN to “a big man with swinging ape balls” in a 2013 tweet. It was the same history that empowered a New York Post cartoonist to depict President Obama as a monkey; the same history that had a spate of elected officials refer to the President of the United States as a monkey. These folks include Mayor Patrick Rushing of Airway Heights, Washington, and Dan Johnson, a 2016 controversial state candidate in Louisville, Kentucky, and others. And when people in the United States feel free to demonize Black folks, then this dehumanizing goes global. During the Obama presidency, there were several instances of Putin allies referring to our President as a monkey, and a North Korean defense commission described President Obama as a “monkey in a tropical habitat.”

Of course, when these people are called on their nonsense, they claim they aren’t racist. Or they say they were joking. I want someone to explain what is even mildly chuckle-inducing about calling a Black woman an ape? Or explain why these monkey comparisons aren’t racist. So the decency-challenged Clay County official says she wasn’t talking about Michelle Obama’s race when she called her “an ape in heels”. She was just talking about her looks! What, pray tell, is the difference?

The monkey comparisons are especially hurtful to Black women and to our girls, particularly because we are the antithesis of the so-called “feminine ideal” of svelte, blonde, and blue-eyed. Serena Williams, the far more accomplished tennis player than the Russian Maria Sharapova, has never garnered the fawning tribute to her looks, and indeed has sometimes been demeaned with animalistic comparisons. Sharapova has just five Grand Slam titles; Serena has a near-record breaking 23. But at the time of Sharapova’s suspension from professional tennis in 2015, she had garnered more endorsement dollars than Serena. And I’ll never forget the cringe-worthy Nike “I Feel Pretty” Sharapova campaign in 2010, when Sharapova look-alikes infested the US Open, trumpeting their “blonde beauty”. Imagine the impact such a campaign might have had on the self-esteem of Black girls if “pretty and strong” were the mantra for Serena. Perhaps it flies in the face of American history to describe a Black woman as pretty, the feminine ideal. That’s why so many feel they can liken us to monkeys.

Where are the women of #MeToo when these attacks come at Black women? Although ABC is to be commended for kicking Roseanne to the curb so swiftly after her offensive tweets were publicized, I am disappointed that the women of #MeToo couldn’t lift their voices to object to the defeminization of Black women. The disdain that made Roseanne feel free to attempt to dehumanize Valerie Jarrett, is the same disdain that allows Black women to be so easily violated in the workplace and the worldspace. If white women want Black women as allies, more of them must speak up when we are disgracefully, but historically, demeaned. This is really not about Roseanne. It’s about the ways history has shaped the way many view African American women.

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