On the first day of the Black Portraiture III conference, I was in attendance for the “Imagining the Black Female Body” topic session which included, as panelists, both black women artists and scholars from different disciplines that, in their works, foregrounded the experiences, exploitations, or (mis)representations of black women and their bodies, both in the U.S. and abroad, alongside their resistances. First to present, T. Thompson, a visual artist and storyteller from Washington D.C.,and Jessica Rucker, educator and founder of a community-based organization, screened their documentary film, Four/For Women. The black and white short film featured the autobiographic retellings of the experiences from T. Thompson, their living mother, and their maternal predecessors (both maternal grandmother and great-grandmother). Here, each woman delivers an intragenerational account of their livelihoods, which range from the early 1900s to present, as mothers, spouses, domestic workers, and, among others, cultural producers, in absence of chronological order.
(Please clink the following link to find out more about T. Thompson’s photographic and cinematographic works: http://www.acreativedc.com/blog/2015/8/10/tia-thompson .)
Following Thompson’s and Rucker’s screening, Kanitra Fletcher, a cultural and art scholar, meticulously concatenates and encloses in her presentation, “Strategically Strange: From Black Female Icon to Eccentricity”: the centuries-long (mis)representations and (dis)figurations of the black female body. Inasmuch as a black woman’s physicality has been intricately and, often, misappropriately linked to notions of black female behaviors, biology, sexuality, and, among others, mythology, Fletcher notes that many black women artists, in consequence, contend against such pervasive negative depictions in their creative and personal lives. Thereby, she highlights and prioritizes the works of several black woman artists and iconic performers that deploy eccentric strategies of reconfiguration to disrupt the “othering” body schema found in Western imagi(ni)ng of the black female body. Black women artists, such as of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle and Deana Lawson, utilize strategic representations ranging “from contorted posture and irrelevant conduct, wild costume and jarring composition,” as Kletcher points out irrespectively, that question and become objectionable to their own subjectivities. These actions are derived from a keen awareness of the abnormality, obscenity, and sexual fantasy (or lack of) enshrouding the black female body in the cultural imagination and productions, regardless of context or narrative.
Through Fletcher’s acknowledgment and selected examples from an overwhelming repository of historical misrepresentations about black women, such anomalies of the black female body are affirmed as not emergent contemporaneous issues of exploitation but as part of a larger, complicated historical continuum. For example, she relays the atrocious depictions and treatment of Sarah (or Saartjie, among other varying names) Baartman aka Hottentot Venus, a KhoiKhoi woman from what will become known later as South Africa, as a prototypical case of these historical misrepresentations. Europeans of the 17th century exploited the outer anatomy of Baartman’s body through “freak” exhibitions, articles, and medical and news illustrations showcasing her curvaceous figure and elongated genitalia. For the European population her perceived “unusual” anatomical figure became indicative of promiscuous perversions. For official support, Fletcher cites a quote from a white male traveler of the 1500s from the work of Jennifer Morgan, an author of the essay “’Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770”: “the shape of an African woman body marks her deviant sexuality, both shape and sexuality evidenced her savagery.” Such kind of exploitative portrayals disseminated into the general population and, thus, became part of the justifications of slavery and colonialism and the establishments of socio-economical institutions that relied on the reproductive system of black female bodies.
From hypersexualization to the mammification of black women, such as the Jezebel and the round figure of the nanny, respectively, the misrepresentations of black womanhood in America procured the validation for whites, especially slave masters, to reap violence and abuse upon their bodies without consent. Fletcher ascribes black women’s orientation of their livelihoods around sexual intercourse during the early to mid 1900s to the vulnerability of being physically or fatally assaulted or raped. She elucidates that, after Emancipation, many black women eschewed sexual expression or exposures to their bodies to counter cultural notion of their body as hypersexual and deviant. The Black Women Club Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century demonstrates such plight: The Black Women Club’s holistic intents were to disrupt negative cultural perception of black women through the subscription to Victorian ideals and etiquette. Consequently, as Fletcher asserts, such withdrawal and repression of their sexual expression relinquished ownership and, thus, permitted others to define such.
Notwithstanding, numerous black female cultural producers turned to and embraced their sexual expression and creativity during a time of social conservatism that permeated the experiences of black women in the American social landscape. Inasmuch as they accepted their sexuality as undeniably being a woman and human, Fletcher argues that black female entertainers employed eccentric forms of self-representation through lyricism, imagery and performances from a sexually liberated perspective of black womanhood. Fletcher attributes a number of black women’s advent, such as Josephine Baker, into music industry to their volition to join cabaret as dancers or entertainers to opt out of the designated occupations as domestic servants. Escaping domestic servitude, Baker countered the middle class conservatism of black women through the gamut of her titillating performance and personas: wearing blonde wigs, lightening her skin, appearing nude, cross-dressing, and performing the banana dance, Baker, as Fletcher cites, embodied
“the desire to be postmodern, challenged conventional restrictions and comportment of the autonomy of women in the bourgeois society in the jazz ages, and drew on racial stereotypes and caricatures to create a positive affirmation out of a negative identity discourse.”
Later on after Baker, Grace Jones reconfigured herself through sundry guises and presentations as she reveled in transgressive and hybridized figures: either posing as a man, robot or wildcat, among others, Jones confounded essentialist black subjectivity and disrupted the notion of black woman sexual availability and its naturalizations. Contemporary black women performers, such as Erykah Badu, Nicki Minaj, and Janelle Monae, continue such legacy through their aesthetics of and appearances as gender-bending, Cyborgian woman, Barbie Doll, avatar, and, among others, lioness. These artists as well as others ground their practices as strategically strange which result into the liberation of black female sexuality. Fletcher reaccounts author Carla Peterson’s definition of an eccentric black female body where eccentric strategies from black female artists “[represent] a determination to define the black female body on its own historical terms and suggests a more successful attempt at reconciling body and spirit.”
In subsequence, trained medical sociologist Alicia D. Bonaparte, PhD., along with visual artist Andrea Chung presented jointly on a talk titled “Push and Pull: The Biopolitics of Black Female Reproduction.” Their project consisted on the examination of midwifery in the U.S. and Jamaica, particularly the controlled apparatus of black female reproduction and the politics of invisibility/visibility for black midwives. Specializing in reproductive health, health disparities, and female crime and deviance, Bonaparte contend, in her research of midwifery from both regions, that the social and political immaculacy of sanctioned medical practices in the U.S. and Jamaica ramifies the pathologization of the black female body and propounds the idea that black women are immanently deviant beings that need state control. Her methodology for such undertaking included, in brevity, a multi-pronged quantitative textual analysis of both contemporary and, majority of, archival documents, such as documents from the Ministry of Health in Jamaica. Furthermore, she conducted semi-structured interviews in Jamaica with ten midwives, six laypeople, and two relatives of nana midwives—term reserved in Jamaica for midwives.
As Bonaparte relays, grandmother or granny midwives—terms reserved for midwives in the U.S.— are mostly trained herbalists and have a significant spiritual calling that subsequently leads to an apprenticeship with an older midwife until she retires. Consequently, many midwives, birthing both black and white children, are seen as producer of knowledge in regards to cultural birthing and healing and become delegated as spiritual leaders and healers in their respective communities. Despite such facts, Bonaparte forebodes the waning of centuries-long birthing practice due to the increasing interests of maternal and infant mortality rate. According to Bonaparte’s research, white male doctors from both the U.S. and Britain, such as Dr. Michael Graham in Jamaica, accused and scapegoated midwives as the primary cause. For example, she found that doctors used persecutions through anti-midwife advocacy in medical journals and litigations to lobby for changes in the medical practice. In South Carolina, beginning in the early 20th century, practicing midwifery became more exclusionary as two lines of regulations in early 1900s eventually turned to three pages in the 1930s. As a result of such regulations, the pathologization of the black female form and the delegitimization of black midwives shifted the control away from the midwives and to the supervision of doctors.
Thus, the medicalization of birthing occurred as only birthing sanctioned by doctors are permitted. Such shift of control to “authoritative” knowledge, the conferment of expertise through academic credentials along with social and legal legitimacy, is a prime example of biopolitics. As Bonaparte poignantly points out, “Foucault is useful in talking about public health interventions, such as the decimation of midwifery in Jamaica and the U.S., as a means to protect new mothers and infants from perceived (and actually miniscule) risk from such practice.”
Theorized by Foucault in his lectures “Society Must be Defended,” biopolitics is the mechanism of the government that seeks to regulate and control the population through biopower—the application and efficacy of political power on all parts of human life. In brief, Foucault succinctly summarizes: “to ‘make’ lives and ‘let’ die.” Towards the end of the presentation, Andrea Chung provided insights about the process of molds, casts, print and papermaking involved in her artworks in an exhibition all which illustrate the complicated relationships of the invisibility of nana midwifery and the (mis)perceptions of nana being uncleaned.
 Michel Foucault, “17 March 1976,” in Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, ed. Mauro Bertani et al. (New York: Picador, 2003), 241.
List of Complementary Readings and Media:
Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013.
Foucault, Michel. “17 March 1976.” In Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, edited by Mauro Bertani, Alessandro Fontana, and François Ewald, translated by David Macey, 239-65. New York: Picador, 2003.
Morgan, Jennifer L. “‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1997): 167-92.
Peterson, Carla. “Foreword: Eccentric Bodies.” In Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women, edited by Michael Bennet and Vanessa D. Dickerson. New Brunswick: Rutgers University press, 2001.
YouTube video: NYU Florence – The Sweetest Taboo: Theorizing Black Female Pleasure