Wednesday, March 02, 2005

RE: "petite" black female bodies, dialectical limitations in the white media

Elizabeth Hutchinson said:
I too noticed that all the women spoken of were described as 'nice', 'petite', 'small', and even 'articulate' though it was either relevant or suprising information about them. This was frusterating and somewhat insulting, and the commitment by women who they spoke about was not made clear though their descriptions...
I disagree with Elizabeth. I think this tactics was one of the few viable responses or counternarratives in the form of a thesis that could be presented in the space of white public discourse in the 60's.

As Shana Davis pointed out in our Feb 14 discussion, black women in South Africa were regarded as not threatening by white supremacist institutions because they engaged in domestic work (a point also supported by Kalpana Hiralal in "We Shall Resist", p.1, and Charles Payne in "I've got the Light of Freedom, p.269 ) and depended upon employment in the white neighborhoods. And precisely because of this, women had an upper hand at organizing rallies (Payne, 166) and constituted key supporters for male organizers (think of Ntsiki Biko holding the baby with Steve Biko's manuscripts in his paƱales in "Cry Freedom").

But black women are imagined by whites as non threatening because they are considered as docile/dependent upon white economic structures. The first response from the white propaganda machinery in the face of women-led activism would be to portray her as threatening. When single self-sustaining mothers in northern Germany and England were accused of witchcraft during the 17th century, they were physically imagined as menacing (not merely "old and wrinkled", but fiercesome . Rodney Needham, "Synthetic Images" in RItual and Belief, p.285-87 and "The Syphilitic Shock", Stanislav Andreski, p.388) I think that the "non threatening" imagination of whites imposed upon the figure of the black female prior to the civil rights era would also involve a degree of conceived physicality of this non-threateningness, translated into small bodies and short height. Once their roles as activists come to the fore, I think, is when the discoursive antithesis surrouding the black female body is developed - 6 feet tall, musclesome, and so forth (as described by the speakers)

When this kind of rhetoric develops over the public realm (recall that Mr. Hickman said "there were posters all around with this Angela Davis with a large muscle build", etc. I would guess radios also played a part in this) you have the option of denying it with a thesis, to push for a "non-threatening image", or you can argue that the "threatening" image is a desirable aspect. Elizabeth, Sam and others crticize the speakers for not opting for the second option. The civil rights activists pushed for the thesis, that black women are as inoffensive and essentialistically "womanly" as white women, as a strategy (Payne, 6)

You can also argue that the framework in which the whole discussion about whether black women are threatening or not is constructed to give an essentialized view of black women one way or the other, and try to devise discourses that escape the binary dialectical split. You could, as Elizabeth and Rachel insinuate, push forward the claim that black women are fine being "large", "strong" and "loud-spoken", and fuck you if you have a problem with that. But I don't think navigating the white public discourse is as easy as that, because if you say in a press release "black women are strong and loudspoken and they fight alongside with our male civil rights activists", the media might cut out what white editors cannot understand/conceive and print "black women such as Angela Davis are dangerous, even the black males admit it" or something of that order.

Tricia Rose points out that in the midst of a blatantly sexist business practices, lyrics and producer-singer relationship in the Hip Hop industry (Black Noise, p.8),
MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Sister Souljah, and Yo-Yo refused to criticize their male colleages - not necessarily because they did not find the lyrics [of 2Live Crew] offensive, but because they were acutely aware of the dominant discursive context within which their responses would be reproduced. Cognizant that they were being constructed in the mainstream press as a progressive response to regressive male rappers, these female rappers felt that they were being used as a political baton to beat male rappers over the head, rather than being affirmed as women who could open up public dialogue to interrogate sexism and its effects on young black women. (p.149-50) [italics mine]
I don't see this as a compromise to be reached with male sexism on the basis of a shared racial background, but as a political tool gripped by black women rappers ready to use it when and where they wish to use it, but not to the mercy of a white media. In a sense, it is the women rappers who have the power to protect their male colleagues from being hammered down.

I also question the role of white women who may or may not share dimensions of class and race with fellow black women activists trying to speak on their behalf against strategically essentialized traits/behaviors (Rose, 44; Aman, 280)

So, I think the tactics adopted by the organizers in the 60's in combating the portrayal of the black women leadership by the media as aggressive, large bodies and so forth as a dialectical limitation imposed from above by the frame of public debate, which reveals a large deal about both white and black sexism of the times. But the tactics adopted by civil rights leaders as a response to the antithesis seems as effective as it goes.