It is no secret that slavery ushered in an era that denigrated, exploited and dehumanized black women. They were sold, raped, beaten, brutalized, and stripped of their humanity. While these dynamics are crucial to understanding black women’s exploitation today, the economics of black female sexuality remains most striking.
Only the relatively recent thrust of feminist politics has brought women into the discourse of economic productivity. Typically, the fiscal significance of black women has been woefully overlooked. However, it didn’t escape the profiteering eyes of the slave-owners, who always traded their female property for higher prices than their male counterparts. A female slave represented an ongoing labor supply once her owner could ‘breed’ her. However, when slavery ended capitalism didn’t die with it, and a new market for black female flesh had to be created.
Intrinsically intertwined with economic exploitation of black women is the objectification and denigration of their bodies and sexuality. In the nineteenth century, the sentiments of race commentators such as William Wright and Josiah Nott reigned supreme in the characterization of black women. Wright states, in reference to mixed-race women, “Most of the women are public prostitutes to the Europeans, and private ones to the negroes,” while Nott invites readers to consider, “the African wench, with her black and odorous skin, woolly head and animal features.”
Unable to be quite so openly offensive in the twentieth century, it fell into the hands of the media to perpetuate the image of the degenerate black female as the mammy, the whore and the tragic mulatto. As esteemed film historian, Donald Bogle, notes, these characters have been recreated, transformed and repackaged throughout the history of film.
Familiar images of the sexless, strong black woman and the “ho” are just rehashings of the same old themes of the neutered or sexually deviant black woman, who, as distinguished feminist sociologist Dr. Hill Collins explains in her ground-breaking book “Black Sexual Politics,” can again, be exploited and disrespected. Her body is for sale in music videos and films, and she continues to be devalued and undervalued in the workplace.