Everybody’s talking about it…. at least women of color. I’ve read the posts, yet thus far have passed up actually watching the Fox News video in which Michelle Obama is referred to as Obama’s “baby mama.” The women linked to above have done a stellar job in noting the offensiveness in this yet one more reminder that black women in this country have a place….and it is not in the halls of power. This is not the first time nor will it be the last that Mrs. Obama (who just a couple of weeks ago was an elitist, right? oh, and an unpatriotic one at that) will have her name and image dragged tarnished.
Not the first time for her, not the first time for black women in this country by a long shot. Anxious Black Woman discusses the parallel between contemporary fascination with/revulsion of the female black body and the Hottentot Venus:
“The original Hottentot Venus image was created at a time when England was colonizing Africa, when the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, and when there was a crucial need to crush the revolutionary spirit among slaves in the Americas (in the wake of the Haitian slave revolt). It was absolutely essential to create an image that suggested that Africans – by the very nature of their bodily existence – were sexual savages with debased morals and animalistic urges, who were therefore deserving of slavery and colonization. African women, in particular, were viewed as deserving to be raped and to be bred to support the slave labor economy.”
Read the whole piece.
It is not surprising that part of the continuing signification of black women’s images are connected to motherhood and sexuality. Our bodies are read almost exclusively through these lenses, yet they are not Hallmark card images of misty-eyed motherhood.
In 2007 New York Times article (membership signup required) reported on a recent, alarming rise in infant mortality in the south. The front-page piece focused on poor black mothers in Mississippi and was accompanied by several photos. The photos and examples within the body of the text boiled down to several ‘facts:’ very young black women are pumping out dozens of babies who fail to thrive; these women are often obese to the point of being grotesque; they don’t have morals, and they are not smart enough or caring enough to take care of their many children because these children frequently die. Infant mortality in a particular segment of the community is on the rise. Almost as an incidental aside, mention is made of limited access to prenatal care in the state, with one doctor noting, “… programs take money, and Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation.” Yet the bulk of the article’s text places the blame on the behaviors of the mothers themselves, such as the remarks of another doctor who is an obstetrician at a private clinic:
Another major problem, Dr. Marley said, is that some women arrive in labor having had little or no prenatal care. “I don’t think there’s a lack of providers or facilities,” he said. “Some women just don’t have the get up and go.”
Fifteen years earlier, almost to the day, another newspaper riffed on poor black women. This time an op-ed piece by Ellen Goodman expressed a similar sentiment as the above referenced article regarding “some women”. On April 16, 1992 the Boston Globe published Goodman’s piece, entitled “Welfare Mothers with an Attitude.” The column argued the need to teach middle class values to welfare mothers, and was accompanied by a graphic drawing illustrating several black figures grabbing for cash; an Afro-coiffed woman placed in the center of the graphic held a baby who was also depicted as reaching for cash. The dollars in question, as Goodman elaborated in the column, were welfare benefits. Goodman chastises the women for their supposed sense of entitlement to perpetual and ever increasing welfare benefits. The column and accompanying graphic worked together to fortify the myth that the face of a welfare recipient is an immoral black women who in turn teaches her children to be immoral; and that “we” need to teach “them” some values.
The message in Mississippi and Massachusetts, points in between and beyond: black women’s bodies need to be controlled, lest they bankrupt the state and spread their contagion to the rest of the nation. The imperative to control, to subjugate the bodies of black women, of course is not new. It is at least as old as the arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas and the perpetuation of that system; with the bodies of girls and women in particular subjected not only to enforced labor, but also to the forced sexual demands of their captors/owners and subsequently the role of breeders of the next generation of bodies not owned by themselves. The fact of these bodies being so horrifically mistreated hinged upon the justification of them being something other than human.
Michelle Obama, of course, is not a welfare mother.
Yet she is a black woman and therefore, need not be treated with respect.
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