Scholars: Slavery's Legacy Present in Current Policies, Social Customs

By Cooper, Kenneth J. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, November 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Scholars: Slavery's Legacy Present in Current Policies, Social Customs


Cooper, Kenneth J., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


WALTHAM, Mass.

Several hundred people spent a day and a half recently at Brandeis University discussing a subject that most people generally avoid: slavery.

The conference focused on overcoming the "religious and sexual legacy" of the Atlantic slave trade and systems of bondage embedded in the original teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Professors who presented papers at the invocation of the Brandeis Feminist Sexual Ethics Project described as contemporary legacies of slavery public policies on welfare and criminal justice as well as social customs that shape marriage, Black women's sexuality and even Black leadership.

A major theme was that two contradictory images of Black women from slavery continue to constrain their sexuality and define expectations about their behavior. Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at Northwestern University, defined the images as "the oversexed Jezebel and the asexual Mammy."

"Jezebel, a woman governed by her sexual desires, made White men's sexual abuse of Black women seem justified--if Black women were inherently promiscuous, they could not be violated," Roberts said in her presentation. "Unlike the exotic Jezebel, Mammy was totally unappealing. She was depicted as overweight with African features and a dark complexion, always wearing an unattractive dress, apron and head rag ... Mammy represented the utmost safety in womanhood because she was both asexual and enslaved."

As a result of those images, Roberts said, "Black female sexuality is at once hidden and paraded" in the media. She cited rap videos and two incidents involving entertainers. In accepting the Oscar for best actor from Halle Berry in 2003, Adrien Brody "very forcefully, without seeking permission, French-kissed her." Both Brody and Justin Timberlake, who exposed Janet Jackson's breast during the 2004 Super Bowl, received little public censure for their actions, Roberts noted.

"Most of the blame focused on Jackson, who was demonized for being a degenerate exhibitionist," or Jezebel, she said.

Dr. Dwight Hopkins, a theology professor at the University of Chicago, and Adrienne Davis, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, called for special reparations for the sexual abuse of slave women and girls. …

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