The reImagining Speaks: Constructing the Phantom Woman
“It is axiomatic that if we don’t define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others for their use and to our detriment.” – Audre Lorde
“No, I am just Black. It’s okay.” – Ebony Williams, The reImagining, Model #60
I love looking at these two quotes together. They tell the history of the Black woman’s struggle to wrest back the control of her own identity. On the macro level we are all aware of the need to put forth a structured identity to be consumed by society on it’s own greedy whim, but in the micro, we just want to be the person residing in our skin. We just want the freedom to walk through the sunshine without the phantom of some else’s preconceived notions clinging to our backs.
For Black women, that stroll is rare, if non-existent. Throughout our history, the skin we wear and the bodies we occupy have always been seen through a societal construct whose main purpose has always been an “othering”, the exoticism Ebony mentions in th video above. This exoticism usually works in one of three ways – to dehumanize, to criminalize or to bastardize.
The most heart wrenching dehumanization still haunting the history of Black women to this day is Sarah Baartman, other wise known as the Hottentot Venus. I find it almost humorously ironic, that this amazing woman’s identity was preserved through history solely because so many people worked so hard to construct a false identity for her that was gratifying to them. Extremely long and complicated story short, Sarah Baartman was a slave woman sold into the freak shows in the early 1800s in order to amaze crowds with her non-European physical features. Her dehumanization served as entertainment for the genteel English. Let’s fast forward 180 years and pick up on Ronald Reagan’s quest to criminalize the Black woman as “welfare queens”. This time the manipulation of the Black woman’s identity in society served as a political stepping stone. This particular phantasm to this day still haunts any Black woman within a 30 foot radius of a baby carriage – despite the fact that the myth has been debunked too many time to recount here. Another time leap forward 30 years and the old ghost of bastardization wanders the halls of the White House in search of First Lady Michelle Obama. Even before she took up residence in the White House the New Yorker was trying to paint her as the militant women all the good boy’s mammas told them to stay away from. I know it was supposed to be “satire”, but how many other wives of presidential candidates were given such treatment? Now having occupied the White House for half a decade, the racist coding has been applied to her in a way no First Lady has ever had to deal with. From the size of her derrière, to the baring of her ridiculously toned arms, to the critique of every stitch of clothing she puts on, Michelle is framed in a lens that would have driven Jackie O to the brink.
So how do we exorcise these ghosts? How do we reclaim our history so we can leave our daughters a less haunted future? We look those phantoms in the eye and reclaim the voices they are trying to steal from us. The amazing conclusion to Sarah Baartman’s story is South Africa’s fight to bring her remains back from exhibition in France to be buried in her homeland. Yes, after her death in 1815 her remains were put on display in the Musee de l’ Homme in Paris until 1974. The South African government was finally able to bring her home in 2002. It took close to 200 years, but Sarah won her fight to establish her true identity as an African woman returning to her place of birth. We too can fight to reclaim and redefine our own identities. All we need is a bit of reImagining!
Latest posts by Ijeoma D. Iheanacho (see all)
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- The reImagining Speaks: Constructing the Phantom Woman - May 15, 2013
Filed Under: dnm, female identity, Hottentot Venus, Michelle Obama, Ronald Reagan, Sarah Baartman, social justice, the reImagining, the reImagining Speaks, twib-ce-pending-image, visual arts, welfare queens