Sapphires and the Enervation of Black American Women (Updated!)


In a recent interview a researcher asked me if the blogosphere provided a safe space where I could find my voice as a Black Muslim woman. My answer was ambivalent, although there have been supportive comments, I have often felt attacked and alienated on my own blog. I have resorted to heavily policing the comment section in order to foster healthy and thoughtful discussions on sensitive issues. Still, the internet, and the blogosphere in particular has allowed for a widening discourse on gender, race, and Islam. Some discussions are productive, while others are counterproductive if not destructive.

In the past, I have written about the battle of the sexes. And I have tried to commit myself to level of civil discussion as I critically engage with issues that reflect my anti-racist anti-sexist commitments. On of the most unnverving discourses in the blogosphere involves gendered racism especially the gendered racism that reifies stereotypes about Black women. Gendered racism is an insidious form of racism that targets only one gender of a particular racial group (i.e. all if not most Black women have attitudes, white women are easy, Black men are thugs, Asian women are submissive, or Asian men are asexual). The dominant society can generate these stereotypes or they may arise from intraracially (i.e. the colorism in the Black community). I’ve seen gendered racism perpetuated in the Muslim blogosphere with Black American men and women bashing each other. A number of non-Black Muslims have chimed in on the discussion to either challenge or reify stereotypes.

Recently, I was surprised to see a blog exchange where a prominent Black American Muslim blogger argued that most professional and educated black American women were materialistic, bossy, and “too independent.” I was saddened to read these statements and their subsequent defense because they reaffirm the pervasiveness of negative stereotypes aganst Black women as perpetuated by Black Muslim men. The blogger argued in the comment section that thousands of professional and educated Black men feel the same way. There may not be a scientific survey to assess whether this is the dominant view of Black men, especially those who are in relationships and are married to Black men. But I do find that certain themes and tropes, seem to dominate. What becomes more troubling is when this is folded into Islam, where women’s voices are marginalized if not heard at all. In many ways my blog provides a forum to show how these issues are a real problem within both the Muslim American and Black American communities. Either through women and men providing personal narrative and observations or anonymous commenters who spew their anti-Black, anti-woman, or anti-Black American woman vitriol reinforce my belief that there is a general antipathy towards Black women. I provide these as an example:

black women are what you might call a lost woman and a weak woman
her problem is she has been trained to think like racist white america but the difference is white people atach(sic) their vAlue(sic) to
themselves while black women attach
value tomaterials(sic) titles and money
she cant(sic) seperate(sic) her personal life from these things.black women
in their current state of mind will
never on a large scale ever be a
good mate for anyone especially a
american black man the white male
has ingrained to(sic) much poison into her she is therefore a walking curse the bases(sic) of her problems is she hates herself and she has been taught to hate black men she is in
a useless struggle to be a woman
to a white man notice in all her
conversations is the pursuit of
men of other races this is what they want to do they just using
problems with black men as an excuse.

Another:

Non-Muslim professional African American men are not opting out on Black women… Just AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN. These brothers will marry Caribbean, Afro latina, or anything but African American sisters. The problem is the attitude they feel they get from Black women in this country. I frankly understand the point. As a Black professional I find dealing with many professional African American women to be a pain because of the 10 pound chip on their shoulders. I was talking to a group of lawyers, Black and white, they all agreed on one thing: There was nothing worse than having to deal with a Black female judge in the courtroom. The feeling was UNIVERSAL. The annoying neck rolling sass, which is more refined with the addition of university degrees basically turns EVERYONE OFF. So frankly.. I have little sympathy for these women.

Sadly, a number of Black Muslim men express negative attitudes towards Black Muslim women for being “too independent,” bossy, and in power struggles with their mates. Black Muslim women have not yet been able to overcome negative stereotypes attached to their womanhood. Lori Tribett writes, Author Patricia Morton noted that the pervasive misappropriation of negative images of African- American womanhood, among other factors, makes it clear that “[African]- American women have been assigned a hell of a history to live down.” Black women today, and Black Muslim women in particular are struggling to define their own identities and reclaim what it means to be woman and feminine. I was recently reminded of this when reading Jamillah Karim’s account of a conversation between a Etitrean, Pakistani, and Black woman. The Black American woman stated that she had a right to define define herself and feel feminine. [1] Her attempts to find an autonomous space to feel fully woman reminded me of my own struggles for self definitions. In my lecture on Muslim women’s spirituality, I explored some concepts of femininity, and in recent conversations with other black women, we have discussed the construction and undermining of Black women’s feminitiy. One blogger exploring femininity writes:

Now of course this is not to say that a Black woman or any woman of color can not be seen as sexy or attractive. Of course she can. Black women have always been sexualized. That’s never been the question. It’s our ability to be truly feminine, meaning truly valued and revered as wholesome, noble and beautiful that’s been up for intepretation. Black women are always cast as sexy, alluring and sexually available, but rarely is a Black woman put on a pedestal as a true “lady”.[2]

The author goes on to say that we should do away with concepts of feminity or at least be open to accept different modalities of womanliness and broaden our notions of beauty. But to me, this quote is powerful and it speaks a lot about the psychological trauma 400 years of slavery and anti-Black racism has weiled in the consciousness of our women. Slavery is dehumanizing, no one doubts that. What bothers me is that some of the most unthoughtful comments have blamed Black women and their so-called notorious attitudes for robbing Black men of their sense of chilvalry ( which is an ideal manliness), without taking into consideration the broader social and historical forces that have undermined Black men’s agency and sense of self and dignity. Now that the institutional racism has gave way, we turn inward as a community and look to root at the cause. Drawing on the Moynihan report conducted in the 1960s argued that assertive, intelligent, and independent Black women undermined the well being of Black men. Basically these traits emasculated Black men. Many Black men have bought into this. I argue that there are two racial tropes that dominate the discourse on Black womanhood in the Black Muslim community, the sexually promiscuous Jezebel and the emasculating Sapphire. Morton desribes the stereotypes as follows:

1) the “sex object,” also known as the “Jezebel”; 2) the “tragic mulatto”–neither White nor Black; 3) the “comical domestic servant,” also known as “Aunt Jemima”; and 4) the masculinized, domineering matriarch commonly referred to as “Mammy” or the “Sapphire” image. Among the most commonly depicted images of African-American womanhood is the image of the promiscuous “temptress” known as Jezebel. The new generation of rappers, through their X-rated lyrics and fashions, breathe new life into Jezebel, a mythical caricature and distorted representation of African-American womanhood.[2]

Marilyn Tarbrough and Crystal Bennett write:

in the stereotype of Sapphire, African American women are portrayed as evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful. In other words, Sapphire is everything that Mammy is not. “The Sapphire image has no specific physical features other than the fact that her complexion is usually brown or dark brown.” Unlike other images that symbolize African American women, Sapphire necessitates the presence of an African American male. The African American male and female are engaged in an ongoing verbal duel. Sapphire was created to battle the corrupt African American male whose “lack of integrity, and use of cunning and trickery provides her with an opportunity to emasculate him through her use of verbal put-downs.”[3]

Abagond describes Saaphire as follows:

Sapphire, named after a character in “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, always seems to have her hands on her hips while 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. Think of Tichina Arnold’s character Pam in “Martin”.[4]

Sapphire can come in various shades, although she is most likely to be clearly phenotypically Black. And now, the modern day Sapphire is an amalgamation of Jezebel and the emasculating matriarchal mammy. She comes withe a degree and massive issues about her hair being touched even so much that it effects her ability to be intimate with a partner. Now this all ties together because I’m interested in perceptions of womanhood within Islam. These are all negative perceptions of womanhood, that in many ways deny Black women’s ability to define for themselves what it means to be a woman and be feminine. Often femininity is tied up with notions of feminity linked to Victorian notions of the weaker sex or post war attempts at normalcy (i.e. June Cleaver). As the four tropes indicate, Black womanhood is either one of four pathologies and it is definitely not feminine.

I argue that shutting out of Black women from public discourse or dismissing their grievances and realities based on negative racist tropes of the emasculating Sapphire is the moral equivalent of emasculating Black women. I’ve been reading a lot on the web about manhood and the many threats to manhood and masculinities, particularly the masculinity of Black and Black American Muslim men. In most cultures, manhood is tied to being able to protect and provide for oneself and one’s family. Manhood is not just about being male, but linked with notions of maturity, efficacy, courage, virility, and honor. Manliness, like honor, is something that needs to be cultivated. And a blow to the manhood literally and figuratively really hurts. I’m not trying to be condescending, but at times I do wonder if masculinity is by its very nature so fragile that it has to constantly be guarded. Now since we have been talking about emasculating Black women, let us look at the definition:

Main Entry: emas·cu·late
Pronunciation: \i-ˈmas-kyə-ˌlāt\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): emas·cu·lat·ed; emas·cu·lat·ing
Etymology: Latin emasculatus, past participle of emasculare, from e- + masculus male — more at male
Date: 1607
1 : to deprive of strength, vigor, or spirit : weaken
2 : to deprive of virility or procreative power : castrate
3 : to remove the androecium of (a flower) in the process of artificial cross-pollination

Emasculation is not about making a man into a woman, that is feminization. Rather, emasculation is about dehumanizing or making an adult male feel like a child, incapable of effecting change or acting as an agent for change. In addition to systems of oppression, poisonous relationships and negative life experiences can make a person feel less than human, or zapped of vigor. Much in the same way , racial tropes can make women feel less than a woman, a full person. They deprive them of their ability to define themselves and express their experiences as real and legitimate. Her grievances aren’t real, because they are simply attempts at emasculating others or spreading her spitefulness. They not only make Black women invisble, but their camoflauge behind some caricature. These efforts suit particular political or personal agendas. But they are no less detrimental than the psychological impact of emasculation on men. When it comes to the female gender, there is no equivalent term for dehumanization through emasculation. t I did find a gender neutral term, enervate, hence the title of this blog entry. The definition is as follows:

Main Entry: 2en·er·vate
Pronunciation: \ˈe-nər-ˌvāt\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): en·er·vat·ed; en·er·vat·ing
Etymology: Latin enervatus, past participle of enervare, from e- + nervus sinew — more at nerve
Date: 1605
1 : to reduce the mental or moral vigor of
2 : to lessen the vitality or strength of
synonyms see unnerve
— en·er·vat·ing·ly \-ˌvā-tiŋ-lē\ adverb
— en·er·va·tion \ˌe-nər-ˈvā-shən\ noun

Black women have been denied the ability to be truly feminine, nor do they fit within European notions of beauty, much in the same way that they do not fit within Arab or South Asian notions of beauty. Within the American Muslim community, Black women are seen as less feminine than their white, Latina, Asian, South Asian, and Arab counterparts. Hence, their place within the marriage totem pole and the desperate use of the Sapphire trope to justify the intraracial discrimination against her. The stereotype has detrimental effects in the workplace, where Black women’s grievances are dismissed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had white co-classmates or co-workers mock Black women or me by rolling their neck and with a caricature voice of a Black woman. It’s even happened to me when I was trying to get a young Jewish classmate to not disrespect me. He was using the Sapphire stereotype to belittle me, in essence dehumanize me to some caricature not even worthy of consideration. The Jim Crow of Racist Memorabilia concisely describes the relationship between the Sapphire stereotype and social control of Black women:

The Sapphire Caricature portrays Black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing.1 This is the Angry Black Woman (ABW) popularized in the cinema and on television. She is tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men for offenses ranging from being unemployed to sexually pursuing White women. She is a shrill nagger with irrational states of anger and indignation — prone to being mean-spirited and abusive. Although African American men are her primary targets, she has venom for anyone who insults or disrespects her. The Sapphire’s desire to dominate and her hyper-sensitivity to injustices means that she is a perpetual complainer, but she does not criticize to improve things; rather, she criticizes because she is unendingly bitter and wishes that unhappiness on others. The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish Black women who violate the societal norms that encourage Black women to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen [5].

I’ve been searching for thoughtful books that explore ideas about feminity and womanhood. I spoke with a Black woman and community builder asking if she knew some middle of the road books that were healthy for Black Muslim women. We couldn’t think of many. But there is a growing literature that we can build off of. There is a recent work that I’m looking forward to reading, titled Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women. On the offical website, the book is described as:

Based on the African American Women’s Voices Project, Shifting reveals that a large number of African American women feel pressure to compromise their true selves as they navigate America’s racial and gender bigotry. Black women “shift.” They change the expectations they have for themselves. Or they alter their outer appearance. They modify their speech. They shift ‘white’ as they head to work in the morning and ‘black’ as they come back home each night. They shift inward, internalizing the searing pain of the negative stereotypes that they encounter daily. And sometimes they shift by fighting back.[6]

In my most recent research on the intersections of race, gender, and Islam, I have begun to seek out voices from the margins. But I have also have the pleasure to know so many Black Muslim women from different walks of life, professional, stay out home mothers, community activists, public speakers, researchers, and thinkers, I’m finding women who are in the trenches working besides their men, raising sons and daughters, trying to live dignified lives. They like myself, have their different personality quirks, modes of expression, and ways. They are amazing treasures and assets to their families and the community, they are neither materialistic or controlling. They are trying to get stuff done. And all of us enjoy being women and would appreciate it if more of our brothers and sisters supported us rather than create broad sweeping categories to cart us off in boxes and do away with us and our multitudinous voices.

………………………………………………….

For more information on the Sapphire Caricature, see
[1] Jamillah Karim, “To Be Black, Female, and Muslim: A Candid Conversation about Race in the American Ummah .” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26, no. 2 (August 2006): 225-233.
[2] http://community.babycenter.com/journal/yassysmami/1009385/on_black_womanhood_and_femininity…
[3] Marilyn Yarbrough with Crystal Bennett: “Mammy Sapphire Jezebel and Their Sisters” (2002)
[4] http://abagond.wordpress.com/2008/03/07/the-sapphire-stereotype/
[5] “Sapphire Caricature” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/sapphire/
[6] http://www.blackwomenshifting.com/

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5 thoughts on “Sapphires and the Enervation of Black American Women (Updated!)

  1. As salaamu alaikum,

    It’s so crazy. Sometimes we’re(AAW) trained to internalize so much that we are unaware that issues are as deep as they are.

    You know it’s happening, but you don’t know what to call it, or how to express it. This post did that for me.

    Like

  2. I myself am a Sapphire woman. I have come to realize this. I find most of my relationships as well as friendships a constant battle. I have been through so much in my life it sometimes acts as a defense mechanism. I am working on myself trying to pull back the layers everyday without actually feeling like I’m conforming or not being true to myself. Watching my father best my mother for years before they finally divorced exposed me to a great deal of violence. And as time past, I too became very violent. Each day that goes by, I feel like I’m constantly reconstructing myself.

    Like

  3. hmm…this is a very interesting post (and blog). Found you after your profile on Fly.

    I’ll have to re-read this while less tired to see what I take away from my second reading but I enjoyed this reading and am mulling over it.

    Like

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