– Alison Bowerman, staff
Traditionally, when we think about black history month we think about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice and more recently, Barack Obama. Their great achievements and the oppression they have overcome will never be forgotten. Black History Month is a time to celebrate the successes of the African Americans who have encountered and over come so much racism, violence, and hate crimes.
Though less positive, black history month still needs to focus on the racist stereotyping we encounter daily in the media. For instance, the wonderful and talented actress Halle Berry is often praised for being the first African American woman to receive an academy award for best actress. While the praise she received is well deserved, it’s important to look at the role she played in the film. She was a poor widow who has just lost her son and she initiates a strictly sexual relationship with Hank, Billy Bob Thornton’s character. Her character initiates the sexual encounter asking him to “make her feel good.”
This representation of the African American woman is not uncommon and is often seen in any situation where a famous actress or musician is given recognition in terms of their talent. It appears as though African American women can only be taken seriously if they abide by the rules created by society and remain as a stereotype of a highly sexualized, jezebel woman.
Since this is black history month, Halle Berry’s role in Monster’s Ball leads me to a small history lesson in African American women as European settlers perceived them. Upon arriving in Africa, their lack of clothing, and body exposure was interpreted as something of a sexual statement. Although this was a common part of African culture and had nothing to do with an increased sex drive, the stereotype of black woman as jezebels began.
From there, the stereotype was increasingly portrayed because their white owners often raped slave women. Since the women were simply property, this was not considered rape, and slave-owners continued to be exempt from criminal charges long after the American Civil War ended.
This image is still apparent in popular music videos. Women in rap or hip-hop videos are often described as ‘walking bling.’ They are portrayed as sexual beings and as nothing more than an object. African American women in these videos often wear barely any clothing, dance provocatively and are the subject of sexually exploitive lyrics. An example of this can be found in Snoop Dog’s video Wet, where he is outnumbered by African American women dancing provocatively with camera shots dismembering them and reducing them to merely body parts for men to enjoy. The song’s lyrics include such lines as, “Can you, can you get me up like I’m late for class? So I can give it to you rough like a first draft.” So what comes to mind when you see scantily-clad women portrayed as sexual objects belonging to men without emotional ties? I don’t think it’s hard to see the connection to the jezebel stereotype.
These images effectively pigeon-hole African American women. They limit these women’s exposure to positive role models who are active members of society. The media needs to address this problem in order to advance the African American rights within society. We need to acknowledge African American women as more than just big booties. We need to praise them for being strong, successful women, and focus less on the hyper sexualized images seen in the media.