Academic journal article Making Connections

Seduction or Rape: Deconstructing the Black Female Body in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Academic journal article Making Connections

Seduction or Rape: Deconstructing the Black Female Body in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Article excerpt

"The institutionalized rape of black women has never been as powerful a symbol of black oppression as the spectacle of lynching"

Hazel Carby

"Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished.The black girl was merely ' evidence'"

RichardWright

The lynching of black men and rape (whether real or imagined) of white women thoroughly overshadow the violence black women endured within the discourse on violence and the body. Consequently, the violated black female body is only traditionally discussed in reference to the aforementioned two icons: either the lynched black male body or raped white female body. As a result of this overshadowing, the violated black female body is rendered to be not as important within the discourse on violence as her white female or black male counterparts. Equally important, in the wake of this continued silence it is prudent to explore how the history of race, class, and gender inequality in America has affected the way some feminist, cultural, historical, political, and theoretical scholars talk about the violated body, yet continue to omit the black female body as anything other than evidence in their discourse on violence and the body. By looking at the precarious plight of protagonist Linda Brent in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written By Herself, it is evident that the subject of the violated black female body and her plight can be added to that of the violated white female and black male bodies. In Hine Sight, historian Darlene Clark Hine suggests that one "of the most remarked upon but least analyzed themes in the history of southern black women deals with black women's sexual vulnerability and powerlessness as victims of rape and domestic violence" (37). The reason for this may be that when sexual exploitation is discussed, the images of the virtuous white female victim or the tortured lynched black male body overshadow that of the black female body in discourse, which gives voice to cultural theorist Sabine Sielke's assertions that there are still silences in regards to this issue: "Post-modern fiction also recognizes that now that rape can be spoken, its cultural significance and function are being equivocated and displaced in turn. And while old silences may have been broken, new ones have taken shape in their stead" (Sielke 10). Sielke is quite right; there are still silences that need to be broken in regards to this issue. For many scholars still, the violated body means either the rape of the white female body or the lynching of the black male body.

Historian and scholar Catherine Clinton asserts, "[d]espite the incontrovertible evidence that only a small fraction of rapes are interracial, race continues to inflame the issue and to obscure the fact that African-American women are represented in rape statistics in dangerously disproportionate numbers. In America today, a black woman is six times more likely to be raped than a white woman" (206); however, like many others, Clinton uses this statistic, not to move forward the discussion concerning the violated black female body, but rather, to assert that black men are not raping white women - a legacy that followed black men out of American slavery. Further, Darlene Clark Hine adds to this legacy of slavery and racism in A Shining Thread of Hope. Hine purports that the lynching of black men "thoroughly overshadowed the violence black women endured. They too were lynched, though in smaller numbers. In addition, because they were women, they were raped, beaten, and killed in the thousands by men. And the men who committed this violence against them were both white and black" (302). Both Clinton and Hine give sound support that black women are raped and lynched, but like others, they fail to move beyond the evidentiary stage. In order to challenge what Ida B. Wells- Barnett contends is "that threadbare lie" that lynching was only used for the purpose of protecting white female virtue,1 one needs only to consider that black women were also lynched. …

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