When does a black woman's body become her own?

by Mariam Williams

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I recently finished reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Published in 1861, the autobiographical narrative of Harriet A. Jacobs is considered by scholars to be the preeminent narrative by a black woman before the Civil War, and the most representative account of black women's lives in bondage. I marked my copy of Jacobs's narrative with underlines, asterisks, circles, exclamation points, commentary and highlights, and most of them appear in the sections related to purity, respectability and choice -- a relationship I see playing out for black women personally and politically in the 21st century.

Despite the fact that someone else owned her body, could do as he pleased with it and could beat, jail or sell her for reporting rape to another slave (her only recourse, given that black people couldn't charge white people with a crime), sexual purity was expected of Jacobs. She understood that she was required to follow the rules slavery imposed upon her, but she wanted to follow the rules of Christian womanhood. Jacobs considered virginity a badge of honor. She asked her master for permission to marry a free black man. He denied it. Jacobs estimated her master had fathered eleven of his own slaves; maintaining her chastity was the one way she could live above him. It was also a way to show that black people were not base creatures who had to be controlled and who deserved to be enslaved. So when she decided to escape her owner's sexual harassment and abuse by choosing a white partner and having his baby, she lost her self-respect, felt she had embarrassed her family and her race and thought she had lost her worthiness to be free.

You may ask for freedom only if you live above reproach. That was the message to enslaved black people in the antebellum era. Freedom could never be an expectation, but a hope, an aspiration. It was something others possessed without measurement of their worth as individuals or as a people, but that blacks had to petition for, and that they had only a chance of achieving if their character was above that of the people who withheld freedom from them. The hypocrisy was unfair but was the standard.

Some African-American civil rights leaders and intellectuals believe that is still the standard black people should be meeting today. Earlier this month, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture hosted a debate on respectability politics. Harvard Law School professor Dr. Randall Kennedy, a champion of respectability politics, defined the term as "acting in a way, comporting yourself in a way, speaking in a way that will inspire your followers, that will win converts, that will refrain from alienating potential allies. I mean acting in a way that people typically act, or should act, when they are trying to accomplish something politically." 

In a 2015 cover story for Harper's Magazine, Kennedy provided a history of respectability politics in the 20th century, but Jacobs's narrative reminded me that the idea goes back much further than that, and that it was and is especially complicated for black women. Jacobs devotes hundreds of words to begging middle and upper class white women, her target audience, to forgive her sexual sin and understand the extent to which slavery restricted her choices. She contends that she slept with her white partner "with deliberate calculation," but also acknowledges that she felt some tenderness towards him. Notions of desire, arousal and pleasure would have been too impolite to acknowledge in a woman's 19th century autobiography, but in this age of supposed sexual freedom, I imagine how trapped Jacobs would have felt experiencing those feelings as an enslaved woman: knowing that she had no claim to her own body, nevertheless trying to protect it, all the while accepting that her every action would be applied to the entire race and either support the case for or endanger black freedom. What could she do?

I live in an era in which black people still fight for freedom and equity, and in which some still believe perfect comportment will garner the results we want. I live at a time when black women exalt Beyoncé for celebrating her sexuality with the partner of her choice, and books like The Wait -- a Christian self-help book that promotes celibacy and is targeted to single, African American adults -- make the NYT Bestseller List. This is the time when former Oklahoma City Police Department Officer Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty of multiple counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed against impoverished black women who he knew feared that no one would believe them. Now is when his 13th victim, a 57-year-old grandmother who didn't live in the neighborhood Holtzclaw targeted, was the first to press charges. She said, "I was innocent and he just picked the wrong lady to stop that night." She was the right lady to be believed.

I'm not famous, so I don't expect my sexual behavior to have an impact on today's black freedom movement. But I do think black women today continue to be strung along a purity-respectability-Jezebel triangle that doesn't allow us the freedom we deserve. When does a black woman's body become her own?

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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