The pop culture landscape is littered with lazy images of black women ― the nurturer, the hussy, the angry bitch. Hovering around the all-encompassing myth of the “strong black woman,” those paper-thin characterizations fail to represent real women in all their complexity and vulnerability.
Despite the monolithic representations that appear so often in TV series, advertisements, films and the imaginations of those who digest them, artists have long worked to provide images that speak to the depth and sweet fallibility of all human beings ― black women included.
An exhibition at the Alexandria Museum of Art, titled “Beyond Mammy, Jezebel, & Sapphire: Reclaiming Images of Black Women,” deconstructs the limiting categorizations mainstream culture allows black women. The artists on view reveal the shoddy nature of the stereotypes in favor of challenging, poetic and thorough visualizations of black culture ― the myth, the archetype, the self-portrait and beyond.
Characterizations commonly ascribed to black women in America are both historical and insidious. The Mammy ― a big-bosomed, jolly mother figure ― was written fictitiously into history to make slavery appear more humane. Her illusory existence suggested that there could, in fact, be such a thing as a happy slave. Today, the Mammy is often framed as a sexless, selfless nurturer.
Then there’s the Jezebel ― an overly sexualized, promiscuous black woman ― with a similarly atrocious origin story: her image was used to justify the sexual violence systematically inflicted upon black women in the antebellum South. Its influence persists to this day, making it more difficult for rape allegations by black women to be taken seriously.
And finally, the show addresses the image of Sapphire, named for the one-dimensional character on the radio and TV show “Amos ‘n’ Andy” ― an angry black woman. This cultural generalization, too, is a corollary of slavery and oppression. It calls back to a time when history overlooked the atrocities committed against black families and suggests instead that black women are inherently hostile, a foil to the delicate femininity of white women.