Empowerment Starts Here

This site is dedicated to the professional and academic work of Dr. Angela Dye.

The Black Woman

Based on the officer that was just acquitted in Baltimore, Maryland (in the trial surrounding Freddie Gray’s death), I wanted to recycle a post that I had written last year (posted here) about the black women of authority (and their visibility) surrounding the case.


A month ago, when the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the behaviors of Baltimore’s police department, I became acutely aware that much of the city’s forward motion would be influenced at the hands of three black women: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. And, in that moment, I became aware of the optics of their presence and the powerful message of their collective imagery.

Usually, black women have to hunt a sea of images to find those of which we can relate.  And, our search usually falls short to connecting to one part of the equation or the other.  Although Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, in her book Sister Citizen, reports that black women relate more to black men than white women (Chapter 5), the issue of partial- relatability, or more importantly the need for complete relatability, is significant.  As said in one of my earlier references, black women (or black people in general) are not monolithic.  While we represent a myriad of values, beliefs, interests and desires, we do share a sociopolitical history which influences the current context of our existence.  Even when wanting to escape a black female reduction, wanting to simply be human more than anything else, we (without discrimination) are confronted with specific falsehoods about our person.

This is what the Blake-Mosby-Lynch trinity offers. It provides African American women a model to navigate through the crooked room of skewed depictions.

The Crooked Room

Harris-Perry does a phenomenal job giving visibility to the unspoken existence of the crooked room (Chapter 1).  With analytical astuteness, she uses research by cognitive psychologists to develop a metaphor to explain the skewed identities confronting black women in America.

In a specific study, participants were placed in a crooked chair inside of a crooked room with slanted images.  The participants were then asked to find the true upright.  Exploring the degree in which participants relied on the visual images versus an internal sense of up, researchers were able to determine those participants who were field dependent and those who were not.  And, what they discovered was that many people were, in fact, field dependent—relying on the crooked images to determine an upright position.

Harris-Perry’s crooked room metaphor has value beyond explaining the sociopolitical distortions affecting black women; but, it is this function that gives it a special place in discussing the optical power of the Blake-Mosby-Lynch trinity.

According to Harris-Perry, historical conditions of male domination and white supremacy conjure up four stereotypes:

  1. Black women have a deep, self-sacrificing desire to take care of others (this belief is captured by the Mammy stereotype);
  2. Black women have an abnormal and amoral sexual appetite (this belief is captured by the Jezebel stereotype);
  3. Black women have a pervasive, irrational anger (this belief is captured by the Sapphire stereotype); and
  4. Black women have a superhuman/supernatural strength (this belief is captured by the Strong Black Woman stereotype).

These four caricatures that routinely, according to Harris-Perry, show up in public spaces, are psychologically damaging.  Even the Strong Black Woman is harmful, which is a stereotype that most black women willfully embrace (as supported by Harris-Perry’s study).  It is damaging because it sets up unrealistic, ultimately unhealthy, behavioral and emotional expectations.  According to Sims-Bruno, since westernization, there has been a desire to define and link decency to the human condition.   Through Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and the Strong Black Woman, black women’s emotions, desires and behaviors are defiled and their pursuit for decency and worth is hijacked.  Through the state of field dependency, they struggle to find the upright in the crooked room.

Byproducts of the Crooked Room

The crooked room is not without utility.  To explore its function, I want to share a few points offered by Theodore Johnson and Nia-Malika Henderson who share critical findings from two national studies:

  • Black women are severely under-represented in political office in that they comprise only 2.6% of Congress and 3.3% of state legislatures (they struggle to gain political and financial support needed to run);
  • Black women, at age 65, are the poorest than any other demographic (they do not have access to wealth generating systems);
  • Black women are more represented in low-wage work than white women;
  • Black women are most likely, out of all female groups, to be beaten, raped, and murdered; and
  • Black women are the most vulnerable to poor health than any other group.

Without more information, one may be tempted to resolve this issue of lower social status as pathological… a collective behavior based on a shared lack of desire, a shared lack of knowledge, a shared lack of values.  But, putting a pin in that thought for a second, let’s move on to review some additional findings from the same reports (offered by Johnson and Henderson):

  • Black women have the highest voter turnout among any other race or gender subgroup in 2008 and 2012;
  • They make up 52% of the black population but made up 60% of the electorate and show up to vote at a rate 10% higher than black men;
  • Black women are the fastest growing demographic to obtain higher education degrees;
  • Black women outrank white women in the field of work (with or without small children);
  • Black women collectively carry with them a 1 trillion spending purse (positively contributing to the U.S. economy).

“In a country where rugged individualism, the Protestant work ethic, and personal sacrifice are key aspects of the national identity” (Harris-Perry, 2011, Chapter 5) why does the record for voting, schooling, work, and economic contribution not put black women in stronger social positions?  Exactly what causes black women to be underrepresented in political office, be the poorest demographic in retirement, and be overrepresented in lower-level employment and lending schemes?  According to Bordens and Horowitz (2002, p. 127), negative stereotypes serve to pigeonhole outsiders–giving insiders a sense of superiority of their own group. A reasonable induction, although not correlated in this blog post, is that stereotypes of the Crooked Room, in the behaviors they influence, help maintain a social order– keeping black women in lower-ranked social status.

Selma as an Example of the Crooked Room

It is important to note that the crooked room is not limited to being a function of white superiority.  Harris-Perry talked about the way skewed images from the crooked room play a toll on internal relations within black communities… in romantic relationships as well as in religion.  The movie Selma, dramatizing the passing of the Voting Rights Act, offers up a noteworthy illustration.  [Note:  In two previous posts, I share a more positive critique of the movie.  Click here or hereto review.]

There are five key black women that you see in the movie.  And, based on what was shown and not shown, it is hard not to see four of them aligned with the four stereotypes that Harris-Perry attributes to the crooked room.  Profiling the characters (or the caricatures), I will let the reader decide for him/herself

Jean was a teacher, writer and civil rights activist.  She also extended her home as the unofficial headquarters for the movement in Selma.  The only way we see her in the movie is serving a hearty meal to a male only group, including Dr. King, representing the SCLC.  Is this mammy?

Aside from being the wife of Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Scott was an author, activist, and a civil rights leader. The movie mainly shows her as a wife and a mother but there were two scenes that allowed us to see her in some form of partnership with Dr. King.  In one of those scenes, the viewer watches as Dr. King (from prison) accuses Scott of adulterous relations with Malcolm X.   Is this Jezebel?

Cooper, referenced by President Obama the night of his 2008 election, was an educator, writer and activist.  One of the things Cooper is known for is her self-defense against an officer that was physically assaulting her as she stood in line to register to vote.  However, this is not how she is shown in the movie.  In the movie, we mainly see her in two scenes.  First, we see her trying to register to vote.  After successfully answering two literacy questions, she is unable to answer the third.  Dejected, she walks away.  In the second scene, we see Cooper attack an officer because he was physically abusing a male activist.  The director chose to reassign Cooper’s physical altercation, making it be an issue of male protection rather than female self-protection.  Does this rewrite present her as Sapphire (or possibly Mammy)?

Boynton was the president of the Dallas County (Alabama) NAACP chapter and was also

an agent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a play writer.  The only real significant moment in which she shows up in the movie is when she is badly beaten by law enforcement on Bloody Sunday.  Regardless of the brutality of the attack, we see a bruised Boynton proudly return when the march is resumed.  Is this the Strong Black Woman?

This analysis on the women in Selma is just that– an analysis.  Whether or not these characters were turned into caricatures is truly in the eye of the beholder.  But, it is worthy of consideration to question why the prominence of these women in the movement was not relayed and projected on the big screen.

Conclusion: The Optical Value of the Black-Mosby-Lynch Trinity

In order to understand the optical value of the Blake-Mosby-Lynch trinity, it is first important to understand Harris-Perry’s position on resistance and accommodation. In order to navigate the crooked room, we dance between accommodating (complying with the stereotypes as a subverted way to garnish power) and resisting (giving push back to those stereotypes and disclosing them for what they are).   Truthfully, it is not always clear when to do either but it is certain that no-one completely resist and no-one completely accommodates. So a dance begins as we each try to find our upright among slanted images.

Watching Mayor Blake, Prosecutor Mosby and Attorney General Lynch both represent the American republic while at the same time facing a culture so willing to limit them to the crooked room… it is inspiring to say the least. Looking at them head on, in real time, in the aftermath of extreme social unrest, we watch the dance. In the end, in the absence of someone else’s interpretation, their clear visibility empowers us with an untainted, unedited image of the upright.

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