Last week, one of my friends, a young black man, posted a Facebook status that asked, “Black men: what is your favorite (non physical) thing about black women?” I clicked the comments expecting to find everything but constructive answers to that question.
Predictably, the first few responses were a mix of confusion and annoyance: “Why are you asking this question?” “Why are you only asking black men?” “Would it be okay if we asked the same question about white women?” “Why does everything have to be about race?”
When I set out to write this column, I wanted to make sure that I shared about different aspects of womanhood. One inescapable aspect of my womanhood is that I’m black, which made it hard to see a status meant as an encouragement to women like me dissolve into mockery and anger. It was clear to me that the people commenting did not understand why black womanhood needs affirming. Certainly, there are times and places to affirm all women, and anyone may do so, but a black man affirming non-physical attributes of black women is a special thing. And history tells us why.
It’s not that I don’t understand the origin of these questions. I do. If you’ve never been black in America or taken the time to learn about that experience, there are some important details that you might have glossed over in history class.
Though, I’m not talking about “ethnic gnosticism” (a phrase coined by a pastor I know fairly well . . . hi, Dad), “a secret knowledge that only ethnic minorities can possess.” No, the knowledge is free and anyone with an active mind and an empathetic heart has the freedom to attain it. Unfortunately, a lot of the comments on my friend’s status stemmed from ignorance. And I don’t throw that word around lightly.
For me, “ignorance” immediately conjures up an image of condescension and cattiness from the sayer. The truth is I’m ignorant of a lot of things, like the customs of southeast Asia, the nuances of Hinduism, and the intricacies of Australia’s history. But when it comes to matters of race, the label of “ignorance” is stigmatized. All of us want to be seen as self-aware and well-educated when it comes to race, but many times we also demand simple answers and broad categories.
And these two desires war with one another.
The More You Know
Our nation has a history that resists simplicity, especially when it comes to the ways it quite literally commodified black bodies via the slave trade. America placed a number value not only on the labor black people could provide but also on their forms. Black men and women were seen as property.
In The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, Joel McDurmon points out that, as far back as the late seventeenth century, legislation protected white masters who fathered children with their slaves. Under British Common Law, the child of the master took on the master’s status (free), which meant that the master was obligated to that child in the same way he was to a “fully white” child. In America, the child took on the mother’s status (slave), leaving no inducement for a father to own any responsibility toward his offspring.
Once slavery was abolished, this stigma did not immediately disappear.
Free black women stepped into a society that had busied itself shaping a set of Victorian values while they were hard at work in the fields. Femininity had been defined in their absence. Purity became the female stronghold, but black women were not considered pure, as Sara Moslener documents in Virgin Nation. Like their black male counterparts they were overly sexualized, but rather than being thought of as predatorial they were seen as animalistic prey.
In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson points out the irony that a black man could be lynched for looking at a white woman, whereas white men suffered little stigma for bedding a black woman, provided he wasn’t trying to marry her. According to Danielle L. McGuire in her book At the Dark End of the Street, a popular saying arose amidst the sexual abuse experienced by black women in the south: “No white man wanted to die before bedding a black woman.”
Times have changed, undoubtedly. I am not claiming to have gone through the same harrowing life as my ancestors. Nor am I claiming that the majority of my white brothers and sisters in the Lord systematically assent to the lies of these narratives—not by a long shot. But our mindsets are touched by this history, and unearthing the social backdrops that have shaped us will help renew our minds.
I know well the history of sexualizing and devaluing black women in this country because I’ve heard its remnants in words spoken directly to me.
As a young woman, I often felt “other” when it came to conversations about purity and worth, particularly when people would make comments about how hard it would be for me to find a white husband—because black men weren’t really “solid”—who “wouldn’t mind” marrying a black woman. They praised what an exceptional prospect I was “for a black woman.” One of the first guys I ever liked gave me a long list of things he’d never done “with a black girl.”
When I describe the historical context for these kinds of remarks, I often receive a pat answer in response: “We’re all one race—the human race. Color doesn’t matter.” I understand that answer. It seems so simple, so biblical! After all, there is neither Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28), and race is a social construct, not an anthropological one.
But we live social constructs so we have to do the hard work of understanding them before we can simply dismiss them. Instead of saying, “Race is just a social construct,” we might say, instead, “Let’s be honest about how this social construct has shaped a lot of your life. Let’s combat those thoughts with biblical truth. Let’s affirm the heritage God gave you on purpose. Let’s sit in an uncomfortable moment for a bit longer than a pat answer allows.”
What I Love about Black Women
My friend’s status sought to uplift a group of women society has often overlooked. Eventually, black men began responding to the question with positive comments about black women, some of them even acknowledging that, often, they were less than supportive of their black sisters in Christ. Changing the narrative that has so often described black women as worthless, oversexualized, loud-mouthed, and angry, they praised black women as strong, loyal, and fiercely protective.
Generalizations? Absolutely. This timid black girl will be the first to tell you that my perceived “strength” is sometimes just a mask for my brokenness. But each of those words—strong, loyal, protective—has a connection to the history that has shaped us.
When we talk about womanhood—when we talk about stereotypes—I want to remind you, every once in a while, how those stereotypes have uniquely shaped me as a black woman. When I do, I’m not “making everything about race.” Rest assured, I want to make everything about Jesus.
But part of my testimony means retelling the ways that his love is healing what our society has rent asunder. It’s part of my story. And we’re all about storytelling here.
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