There are three main stereotypes that white Americans have had about black women for hundreds of years: Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire. Whites have read the behaviour of black women through these stock images (along with some lesser ones):
Mammy is the Aunt Jemima black woman. She is fat, almost a mother earth figure, but she has no sex appeal. She is happy with her life of faithful service to white people. She smiles and laughs. Maybe too much. She has a good heart but she is not particularly bright or even all that trustworthy. In the 1960s the matriarch stereotype took her place, which in turn gave rise to the welfare queen in the 1970s.
Jezebel, named after an evil queen in the Bible, is a loose woman who wants sex all the time. She’s gotta have it. Yet at the same time she uses sex to draw men in to get what she wants. Sometimes it is money. Sometimes it is to destroy them. Hip hop videos and Halle Berry’s in “Monster’s Ball” push this image of black women. Angela Bassett refused the part in “Monster’s Ball” for just this reason.
Sapphire, named after a character in “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, always seems to have her hands on her hipswhile she is running her mouth – putting down her man, making everything into a fight, never taking anything lying down. She is an overbearing, hard and undesirable woman who drives men away – and so winds up alone. Think of Tichina Arnold’s character Pam in “Martin”. Michelle Obama comes dangerously close to being read this way.
Mammy was the main stereotype till the 1950s. Jezebel has been the main one in Hollywood films since the 1970s. Sex sells.
A study done in 1993 on white American university students showed that nearly all of them saw black women as Sapphires to some degree. It seems to be common among black men too. I am guilty of it myself, which is why I write this.
These stereotypes are not a well-meaning but unsuccessful attempt to understand black women. They are an attempt to excuse the behaviour of white people – and black men – towards black women.
A clear example of this is when black men bring up the Sapphire stereotype as an excuse to date and marry white women.
These stereotypes inform us that black women are happy to do the dirty work (Mammy), do not mind having sex and children without a wedding ring (Jezebel) and complain too much (Sapphire). And if so many of them find themselves bringing up their children without a man, it is their own fault (Sapphire).
The power of having Oprah and Claire Huxtable on television is that they cut right across these stereotypes and weaken them. (The older I get the more I understand Bill Cosby.)
The danger of hip hop is that it strengthens the idea that black women are nothing but “bitches” and “hoes” – Sapphires and Jezebels.
- More on the stereotypes:
- Jim Crow
- Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia – priceless
- black women
- Shirley Q. Liquor
- Race in America
- hip hop
- Michelle Obama