Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Borders of the Body: Black Women, Sexual Assault, and Citizenship

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Borders of the Body: Black Women, Sexual Assault, and Citizenship

Article excerpt

The institutional rape of black women has never been as powerful a symbol of black oppression as the spectacle of lynching. Rape has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting sexual attack. The links between black women and illicit sexuality consolidated during the antebellum years had powerful ideological consequences for the next hundred and fifty years.

-Hazel Carby, "Policing the Black Woman's Body in an Urban Context"

A culture is developing in which intimate relations and the sexual body can in fact be understood as projects for transformation among strangers.

-Michael Warner, "Publics and Counterpublics"


Late one night in August 1995 while walking home from a North Philadelphia bar, Melody Madison was approached by one of the bar patrons and offered ten dollars in exchange for sex. When Ms. Madison refused, the man known in the bar as "Wild Bill" said, "Bitch, you're going to give me something," before striking her in the mouth, knocking out four front teeth, then raping her on a park bench in front of a mural of Harriet Tubman (McCoy, Fazlollah, and Matza 2000). Police in the Twenty-third District filed the report, classifying the crime as rape, and forwarded it to the special Sex Crimes Unit for investigation. Ms. Madison bore physical markers on her body that dismissed any implication of consensual sex, gave a detailed physical description of her assailant-including his nickname-and possessed the pair of shorts he left behind. Nevertheless, sex crime detectives closed her case without prosecution because, according to official reports, Ms. Madison (who does not have a phone) could not be reached for a follow-up interview.

Reader, this is no fiction. In fact, Ms. Madison's case is one of thousands of "real" rape cases of low-income black women ignored and not investigated in Philadelphia. In this essay I am interested in the way that rape cases illuminate that for black women the law is not a source of justice or protection, but contains, constitutes, and generates violence. Here, processes of normalization defer to highly selective definitions of the mainstream that leave black women outside the parameters of protection. I suggest that unmediated violence against black women is illustrative of how sexual ideologies help construct complex social hierarchies that in turn affect access to entitlements. In the gap between the "law as legislation" and "law as practice," the relationship between conceptions of black female sexual bodies and citizenship comes into sharper focus.

Fiction fills in and illuminates some of the troubling gaps in social reality. In Gayl Jones's 1976 novel, Eva's Man, it is early one evening on a New York City street that seventeen-year-old Eva Medina Canada leaves a local restaurant and is similarly followed by a male patron, Moses Tripp, who offers her five dollars in exchange for sex. In response to her refusal he says, "Bitch, if you don't wont a man to speak to you, you ought to stay in the house" (Jones 1987,153). When he grabs for her, Ms. Canada stabs him in the hand with a pen knife. While the title character in Jones's book actively avoids this particular attempt at rape, her assailant escapes prosecution, and Eva is arrested for assault. Both Melody Madison's and Gayl Jones's narratives are instructive about the classification of black women, sexual bodies, and the experience of citizenship.

This essay puts fiction and nonfiction in conversation through the analysis of two sites of sexual assault-Gayl Jones's novel, published thirty years ago, and recent rape cases in Philadelphia-to investigate the contradictions, stratifications, and disentitlements around which black women are simultaneously victimized and criminalized, sexually assaulted and imprisoned. The narrative sites I've chosen to discuss here track a process of subjectification that exemplifies the law's force as a normalizing tool on black female bodies. …

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