Mary told her family story to Charles Houston as part of the “Behind the Veil” oral history project undertaken by Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies from 1993 to 1995.1 The story she told symbolizes white men’s exploitation of Black women’s bodies from times of encounter, enslavement, Jim Crow, and into the 21st Century. Mary’s story is incredibly powerful and gives a historical context to the silencing of Black women’s voices as it relates to sexual assault by white men. Her grandparents, parents, and her own story were shaped by their relationship to white men’s ever-present violence and terror resonating across generations.
Mary explains that each of her grandparents had a white father. As told to her, they were born, taken away from their mother, and raised in the “big house” where they were treated somehow differently from other plantation workers. Key issues of colorism surface in Mary’s narrative as she explains that her and other fair Black families in Camilla, Georgia, were leaders of their community and respected by the white community because they “were all very-fair skinned; had some white ancestors.” Despite their social standing in the community, Mary’s family was nonetheless subjected to racism and sexual oppression. Her narrative introduces us to a white insurance salesman who epitomized white impunity as he invaded the homes of Black women. The man had a habit of walking right into their homes—breaking the illusion of privacy and intimacy in the Jim Crow South. Mary didn’t like it, but described her mother as a “very submissive-like person and she didn’t say anything,” meanwhile Mary would have to run for cover, when she wasn’t dressed. This confession about her mother’s submissive attitude requires more attention if we are to understand the domestic, hidden nature of the sexual assaults perpetrated against Black women and girls. During the Jim Crow era, Black women and girls experienced a continuum of white patriarchal violence in their personal space, in the domestic interiors of white households, in jails, and in public.
The scholarship of Hortense Spillers is illuminating for understanding the theoretical and material implications of slavery and its afterlives in the experiences of Black women like Mary in the early 20th Century. Spillers argues that the Middle Passage gave way to a “theft of the body” and that the female body in particular became a “territory of cultural and political maneuver.” This process reduced the body, what Spillers calls “a living laboratory,” to flesh.2 White predatory behaviors hid behind the oversexualized depictions of Black women’s bodies, as analyzed by Patricia Hill-Collins in Black Sexual Politics with the affixed image of the “Jezebel.” This reduction of Black women to flesh renders them sexually available, “unrapable,” and open to violence in the contemporary moment.
Because of racism and sexism, Black women’s stories rarely make it to the front page of the press. How do we make sense of such an absence when Black women and girls experience higher rates of rape and sexual assault than white, Asian, and Latina girls and women?3 Not to mention all the Black women who do not even report sexual assault, fearing repercussions, social pressures, and doubt. History tells these women that their bodies lie outside the law.
Yet scholars such as Danielle McGuire, Toni Irving and Hazel Carby provide insight into the importance of taking seriously Black women’s historical narratives about sexual assault, violence, and resistance. After finishing high-school, Mary went to Illinois for college. She returned to find that the salesman had not stopped his intrusions. When Mary confronted her mother, her mother scolded her saying, “Here you are, you went North, and you’ve changed, and you can’t come back here with that type of attitude.” Mary illustrates the terror in her mother’s voice—clearly afraid of the consequences if Mary openly expressed her anger. Mary recalls times in which the salesman, upon entering, found her sleeping in her bra. She felt violated but the behavior continued unabated. Mary considered locking the screen door so that he could not enter and vocalized her opposition to his intrusions telling him “don’t you ever walk in this house again.” She insisted again and again that he ought to knock. Mary explains that her steadfast opposition to the salesman caused her mother to grow afraid until she told Mary, “Don’t talk to him like that, you have to be careful.”
An acute sense of survival, the protective nature of a mother, and the years and legacies of sexual, social, and political oppression shaped the strategy advocated by Mary’s mother. Mary’s firm stance contrasted with her mother’s position and denotes an engagement with transgressive and disruptive story-telling. Mary understood the norms of her time, explaining that “there are some things in front of a man you don’t say” and she never told her father about the insurance salesman’s actions. However, during the oral history interview, responding to a white male interviewer, she boldly described the predatory behaviors of white men which characterized her experience. Mary wrote into the archive stories that too often remain untold.
Finally, Mary reveals that word had gotten out that “a couple of young girls had gotten pregnant by him and had babies and…you know, they had come out very fair-skinned and we knew that those were his children.” Nowhere throughout the narrative does Mary openly refer to sexual assault; however, her story demonstrates the inherently skewed power relations and the implausibility of consent in the violent and repressive climate of the Jim Crow era. The white salesman’s transgression served as reminders to the family that Black women’s bodies remained on the margins of the law and of protection. There continues an ever-pervasive erasure—literal and abstract—of Black women’s sexual assault. Research on the practice of Stop & Frisk by the New York Police Department between 2003 and 2012 highlighted that Black women stood apart from all other groups in proportion to stops experienced in private places. contexts. The myth of promiscuity attributed to Black women intersects with invisibility to create circumstances that leave Black women unsafe in their homes.
The systemic barriers to Black women’s security and bodily autonomy—as recounted by Mary—challenges an overarching narrative in U.S. media and politics that strives to ignore sexual assault against Black women while marking Black women as incapable of violation. She spoke out in the context of a society consumed with the supposed protection of white womanhood and the attendant criminalization and exploitation of Black people. Mary represents a tradition of Black women breaking their silence on sexual violence and her voice echoes through the ongoing work by Black women to challenge this culture of sexual violence.
*This piece grew out of a workshop on blogging organized by graduate students in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass who met with editors of Black Perspectives to craft these pieces.
- For purposes of anonymity, the last name of the woman whose story is told in these lines is redacted. ↩
- Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, Vol. 17, No. 2, Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection (1987): 64-81. ↩
- U.S. DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010,” 2013. ↩