Introduction: Black Femininity Across Decades
The development of perceptions toward womanhood and femininity as they are affected by the changes in social standards and trends allows inspecting the challenges that vulnerable groups of women face in their daily lives. The analysis of African American femininity and alterations in its interpretation over decades will inform the strategies for addressing a number of prejudices and stereotypes that hamper interpersonal relationships within the African American community, as well as in the multicultural context.
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Due to the impact that slavery and decades of discrimination have had on inhibiting the development of African American culture and the awareness of African American people’s needs, in particular, the current portrayal of Black women represents a distorted image of Black femininity. While enslaved women evidently resisted the norms and standards that were imposed on them, the despair and the lack of support made the stereotypes in question pervasive.
The present-day perspective on the African American female identity as an exaggerated and overly sexualized image needs to be challenged and altered to put an end to problems in the relationships between African American women and the rest of the American society.
Conceptualizing Black Femininity: Key Elements and Characteristics
The problem of the perception of African American womanhood stems from the times of slavery and racial discrimination, poisoning gender relationships in modern times. The issue of misinterpreting African American femininity due to racial stereotypes and the lack of awareness has been addressed in numerous novels and stories. Specifically, Walker, Hurston, and Jacobs provide an original interpretation of the issue and explore the problem in depth.
The general concept of Black femininity truly shines through in Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits,” where the very essence thereof is represented as oppressed and subdued, calling for a massive social change. For instance, in the relationships of the protagonists, the air of despair and the focus on stereotypical gender roles that have become ingrained into society are evident when taking a glance at the relationships between the main characters. Hurston also points to the problematic perception of the characteristics that are traditionally attributed to Black femininity as inherently related to weakness.
As a result, in “The Gilded Six-Bits,” in the scene when Missie May bursts into tears, her emotions are not treated as weakness; instead, the author is sympathetic to the character. As a result, her words “Ah love you so hard and Ah know you don’t love me no mo” is not deemed as a weakness but, instead, as a way of calling out the social and gender-related injustice (Hurston 1047). Thus, when Joe Banks consoles Missie May and shows his empathy, it is regarded not as a moment of weakness but, instead, as character growth: “Missie May, whut you cryin’ for?” (Hurston 1047).
Although the lead characters resist the stereotypical behavior and ideas, the desperate environment in which they are enclosed leads to the spread of these clichés. Thus, Hurston portrays the idea of Black femininity as strong and decisive, yet inhibited by social stereotypes and gender roles fisted onto African American women. Therefore, the author questions the idea of viewing emotional maturity and openness as a weakness, pointing to the fact that the specified character traits constitute the essence of Black femininity and represent its strength.
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Shaping the Psychology of African Americans
It is impossible to deny that the era of slavery as the most despicable blight upon the history of the United States has affected the psychology of the African American community. In her work, Jacobs points out that the idea of inequality was baked into every facet of relationships between African Americans and the rest of the U.S. society at the time of slavery, referring to it as the “fear of insurrection” (235). Therefore, the psychology of African Americans was shaped in a way that makes them retract from the traditional representation of femininity that is akin to their culture and, instead, consumes the overly sexualized and degradingly dehumanizing interpretation that has been foisted onto them for decades.
The changes in the perception of Black femininity as it is viewed through the lens of the African American community, in general, can be found in novels that render the problem of gender in the contemporary African American culture. For instance, Hurston gives a rather clear example of the culture and philosophy that sparked the current trend in dehumanizing African American women and viewing them as ornaments rather than actual people.
In her description of a life of a Black woman, Hurston sets the following scene: “But she knew that it was her husband throwing silver dollars in the door for her to pick up and pile beside her plate at dinner” (Hurston 1042). The sense of helplessness with which the entire scene above is drenched allows embracing the extent of despair and fear that African American women experienced. Thus, when translated into modern relationships, this deeply settled fear along with stereotypes set by the abandoned yet impactful social standards shapes the image of the Black femininity and distorts it.
Perception of Assigned Gender Constructions
In retrospect, the most harmful factor affecting the current perception of African American femininity was rooted in the process of dehumanization that Black women experienced during the era of slavery. In her novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Jacobs addresses the problem of dehumanization of Black women very directly and uncompromisingly: “I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it” (231). The era of slavery defined the effect that the white culture has had on the changes in the perception of Black femininity, shaping it in a most detrimental way and introducing unnatural changes to it.
Because of the impact, that slavery produced on the perception of self and the idea of personal identity in African American women, the current representation of the image of Black femininity as it is viewed through media is quite detached from its actual meaning. Being interpreted through the lens of patriarchy, which has been reinforced by the decades of slavery and still echoes in the contemporary perception of African American womanhood, the notion of Black femininity needs to be examined closer.
Thus, the devastating effects of slavery and discrimination, which Black women have suffered, can be reduced, while the notion of womanhood that offers a more palatable interpretation can be encouraged (Sacks 67). The resistance that African American women put in order to address the artificial social constructs is tangible, yet it is not enough to subvert the stereotypes that have been in existence since the era of slavery.
The problem of the perception of African American femininity is also inherently linked to appearance, which is the effect of the stereotypes that have been in existence since the era of slavery. The issue of applying stereotypical images of body and appearance to African American women leads to both problems in the perception of self and the destruction of the notion of African American womanhood, in general.
Walker portrays the detrimental outcomes of the specified problem in her “Everyday Use” quite vividly by describing the psychological challenges that the protagonist experiences after being shunned by her family members for her weight. For example, Walker’s protagonist “will stand helplessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe” (Walker 1168).
Therefore, the problem of misrepresentation of African American femininity occurs at both physical and psychological levels, affecting women’s physical and emotional well-being (Hall 75). Although slavery is no longer in existence and racial profiling is deemed as socially unacceptable, the weight of stereotypes that have been thriving since slavery has shaped the current perception fop Black femininity, causing African American women significant harm.
Conclusion: Changes in the Perception of Black Femininity
Although there have been significant changes in the social dynamics within the American society, the current interpretation of Black femininity retains the aspects that were shaped by the past experiences related to slavery and the following discrimination of African American people. The problem of misrepresentation of Black femininity is expressed directly in the novels by Walker, Jacobs, and Hurston. The so-called “cult of the womanhood,” which involves fetishizing the female body, affects the lives of numerous African American women in modern society since it causes their dehumanization in modern media and American society, in general.
The observed issue leads to a vast variety of negative outcomes, including negative dynamics in gender-based interactions within the American society, ranging from contempt to outright violence. Thus, the existing perception of Black femininity needs to be challenged and shaped to represent and meet the needs of African American women. Thus, the principles of social equity will be established in modern American society.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Gilded Six-Bits.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Norton, pp. 1011-1019.
Hall, J. Camille. “No Longer Invisible: Understanding the Psychosocial Impact of Skin Color Stratification in the Lives of African American Women.” Health & Social Work, vol. 42, no. 2, 2017, pp. 71-78.
Jacobs, Harriet Ann. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Norton, pp. 209-244.
Sacks, Tina K. “Performing Black Womanhood: A Qualitative Study of Stereotypes and the Healthcare Encounter.” Critical Public Health, vol. 28, no. 1, 2018, pp. 59-69.
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Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Norton, pp. 1168-1195.