At this year’s Essence Music Festival songstress Jill Scott, and others, addressed a panel concerning the media’s portrayal of black women in popular music and videos. I was thrilled to see the attention given to this topic. Such a platform is long overdue.
The promotion of black women as body parts with a particular emphasis on the buttocks has a painful place in our history. In 1810, Saarjite Baartman (also known as Sarah), a Khosian woman, was taken from South Africa to Europe to be publicly displayed because of her steatopygia, or enlarged buttocks. Known as “The Hottentot Venus,” she was exhibited naked in a cage for more than five years. After Saarjite’s death, her genitals were removed and dissected as European scientists sought to understand the “primitive sexual appetite” of African women.
Black women’s thrusting, vibrating buttocks are the primary Black Media object in many of today’s videos. These videos perpetuate the continued assault on the sexual integrity of black women’s bodies. It is not simply the depiction of black women as big booty, scantily clad, gyrating, voiceless sex toys. But, there is little to counter these images anywhere else in the media. Consider the role that garnered actor Halle Berry an Academy Award. It involved an animalistic sex scene suggesting something primitive about the sexuality of black women.
I’m led to wonder about the impact upon black girls absorbing these images.
Although a link has long been suspected between sexually charged images in the media and the socio-emotional development of adolescent girls, empirical evidence is beginning to establish a correlation. And as you may assume, black girls don’t fare well.
A study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health found that black girls who view more rap videos are more likely to get in trouble with the law, take drugs and become infected with sexually transmitted diseases. “We can see there is some link, some association,” says study co-author Gina Wingood, an associate professor of behavioral sciences and health education at Emory University in Atlanta.
Whether or not we want to believe these assertions, the statistics regarding the sexual health of black girls are troubling. A survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found 32.7% of sexually experienced black girls aged 15-19 reported having 2 or more male partners in the last year. Research done by Girls Inc., showed that among black girls between the ages of 12-18 tested for sexually transmitted diseases, 25% tested positive for at least one STD, with chlamydia and gonorrhea most prevalent. Although black girls made up about 15% of all U.S. girls between the ages 13 and 19, they accounted for 72% of all HIV cases reported among young women. Many rap videos heavily promote sex without consequences. We can see the results are devastating.
Growing up as a girl in the 1970’s, the potential for women seemed enormous. Black women were part of changing history and left a formidable legacy. Recently, Oprah broadcasted her Legend’s Ball honoring great black women in media, music, and the civil rights movement. The legends were women I grew up watching–women like Diahann Carroll, Gladys Knight, Nancy Wilson, Cecily Tyson, Dorothy Height, Coretta Scott King, and Maya Angelou just to name a few. These women were dignified, graceful, and commanded respect. They were (and still are) beautiful black women, courageous and strong. As a girl, whenever I saw these women a sense of pride welled up inside of me and still does today. Who can black girls turn to today for such inspiration?
As a society, we must ask ourselves several questions. Do we care about the type of women girls grow up to become? Is their public image worth defending? Is their sexual integrity worth protecting? There was a period in our history during which black men risked lynching if they attempted to protect their women from the sexual assault of other men. I am perplexed by the silence of black men as black women are publicly degraded and sexually exploited. We are in need of a new sexual revolution, one which restores the dignity of black women. A revolution is needed that will transform black women from “baby mamas,” “chicken heads,” and “‘hos” to self-respecting wives and mothers (preferably in that order.)
While I applaud the Essence Music Festival for providing a platform to discuss the portrayal of black women in popular media, it is essential that we take action that will begin to make a difference. Getting the media to present balanced images of our women is imperative. But, we must also do some work on ourselves. By challenging every attempt to exploit the sexuality of black women and girls by men in our community we can create safer, healthier spaces for girls to grow up. And girls must be taught media literacy so that they can deconstruct the images they are absorbing.
As an advocate, consultant, and educator, I have worked on behalf of girls for more than a decade. I love girls. They are beautiful, caring, resilient, and strong. But, over the years I have seen girls struggle to grow up in a society that fails to protect them at every level. The rate of sexual harassment of girls in their own neighborhoods and schools is extremely high. Black girls face extraordinary incidents of sexual abuse at the hands of a relative or close family associate. Many of these girls end up involved in the juvenile justice system, the focal point of much of my work. Because of their traumatic sexual histories, girls in the juvenile justice system are easily lured into the sex industry. Pimps disguised as video producers seek them out as easy prey.
The troubling reality is that many of these girls are mothers of more than one child. What will their children grow up to become? Can they pass on to their children the love they didn’t experience? To change the trajectory of the lives of these girls, we need to begin with restoring their sense of value and worth. I have heard girls speak of making self-destructive choices because they believed they didn’t deserve any better. They saw their lives as worthless. As I mentor these girls, I tell them that they are valuable and have tremendous worth. And that it is not dependent on anything other than the fact that God made them wonderful. As I read to them from the book of Psalms, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well,” they are amazed. If we want to begin to transform the lives of girls, we as a community must demonstrate our belief that their lives are worthy by showing that we care enough to take action on their behalf.
I felt hopeful and relieved when a group of courageous women at Spelman College organized a boycott of Nelly, known for his misogynistic lyrics and music videos that demean black women. Our communities need more of that kind of organizing and action. We must keep the momentum going and begin to turn the tide. A future generation of healthy wives and mothers depends on it. The Hottentot Venus is a tragic part of the history of black women. Doing nothing about the present day assault on the public image of black women stands to be just as tragic.
Valerie Johnson lives in Boston, Massachusetts with her teenaged daughter. She is presently developing The Tamar Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of girls and women. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, she has been working on behalf of girls since 1994. It was during her tenure as a Community Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that she began researching self-esteem and the development of adolescent females. Over the years she has worked for faith-based and community-based organizations creating interagency collaborations with multiple institutions serving high-risked youth. The primary focus of her work has been serving the interest of girls involved in the juvenile justice system. Her range of work has included program development, needs assessments for services, training institutions to work with such populations, and policy development. She was once appointed by governor Mitt Romney as a member of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee for the state of Massachusetts.