Scholars: Slavery’s Legacy Present in Current Policies, Social Customs - Higher Education
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Scholars: Slavery’s Legacy Present in Current Policies, Social Customs

by Kenneth J. Cooper


A few hundred people spent a day and a half at Brandeis University this week discussing a subject that most people generally avoid: slavery.

The conference focused on overcoming the present “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 invitation 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. Davis said they had been compelled to do “reproductive and sexual labor” without compensation.

Other legacies of slavery cited at the conference included:

  • Roberts and Dr. Emilie Townes, a professor of African-American religion and theology at Yale University, asserted welfare reform had been aimed at controlling the sexuality and reproduction of poor Black women. Roberts argued the time limits placed on welfare penalizes them for having children outside marriage.
  • Dr. Bernadette J. Brooten, the conference’s organizer and director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, said Black women are less likely to report rapes and authorities are less likely to prosecute and win a conviction. Rape of a slave had been rarely treated as a crime.
  • Ellen Barry, director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, described the “prison industrial complex” that incarcerates a rapidly growing population of female inmates and subjects them to sexual abuse as “directly related to the plantation structure.”
  • Dr. Frances Smith Foster, chair of the English department at Emory University, said many “otherwise progressive” Black women insist on Mrs., instead of Ms., because slave and freed wives were not addressed with the traditional title of respect.
  • Dr. Barbara Savage, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, attributed what she called the outsized role of African-American ministers in the debate over same-sex marriage to deference accorded the “unelected Black male clerical class” since slavery.

    Participants in the conference numbered more than 300 and were overwhelmingly female. Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis, moderated the final panel discussion.
    The most emotional session was a speech by Mende Nazer, whose voice rose with angst as she talked about being enslaved in the Sudan. Captured at age 12 by Arab raiders, she escaped seven years later in London.

    “I am one of the few who escaped slavery and know what it was like,” she said. “I know slavery leaves you with a shadow for the rest of your life.”

    The conference, held with Ford Foundation funding a week after another at Pace University on the slave narrative of Harriett Jacobs, was notable for even treating a subject that has many Americans in denial.

    “In the South, slavery is not often discussed in plantation museums,” noted Dr. Delores Walters, an anthropology professor at Northern Kentucky University.

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