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RCASA’s Friday Facts: A Historical Overview of Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women

In Friday Facts, Sexual Assault Awareness on February 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

“Who knows what the Black women thinks of rape? Who has asked her? Who cares?” –Alice Walker (2004)

As our society becomes more multicultural, it is imperative that our research, treatment, and intervention efforts meet the needs of women of color who have survived sexual violence.  Although this is a richly diverse population, spanning the spectrum of lifestyles and interests, education and income levels, religious background, and extent of assimilation, the unique legacy of slavery, racism, sexism, and economic oppression continues to influence the lives of contemporary Black women. As a result, a disproportionate number of African American women are young, single, impoverished, and urban dwellers. These are all demographic risk factors for criminal victimization, including rape (Catalano, 2006). Despite the level of trauma in their lives, African American women are remarkably resilient (West, 2002).

Historical Overview

In her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , Harriet Jacobs (2001) wrote that “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” (p. 66). Embedded in her bold pronouncement was the recognition that Black women experienced a unique threat and danger in slavery—that of sexual assault. In 1619, the first ship loaded with enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. For many women, rape was part of their initial journey. When they arrived, Black women were placed on the auction block, stripped naked, and examined to determine their reproductive capacity. Once they were sold, enslaved women often were coerced, bribed, induced, seduced, ordered, and of course, violently forced to have sexual relations with their slaveholders and overseers (Sommerville, 2005). Historians estimate that at least 58% of all enslaved women between the ages of 15 and 30 had been sexually assaulted by White men (Hine, 1989).   

When the importation of Africans was banned in 1808, the systematic sexual exploitation of Black women was used to produce a perpetual labor force. Some slaveholders paired healthy slaves, a practice known as “slave breeding,” with the goal of producing children who were suitable for heavy labor. Considered chattel property, similar to other farm animals, Black women’s children could be sold to other slaveholders, which separated families and created unimaginable grief (for an audio description of slave breeding see Berlin, Miller, & Favreau, 1998).

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did not liberate African American women from sexual terrorism. For instance, White vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, whipped African Americans, destroyed their property, and savagely gang raped Black women (Sommerville, 2005). Sexual harassment also frequently occurred in the workplace. Well into the twentieth century, Black women were employed primarily as servants and domestic workers. Desperate to support their families, African American women were coerced into providing sexual favors to their employers (Hine, 1989).

Rape laws did not provide equal protection for all women. 3 In fact, during the 1800s some rape laws were race-specific. For example, an 1867 Kentucky law defined a rapist as one who “unlawfully and carnally know any white woman, against her will or consent” (Sommerville, 2004, p. 148). Lynching, castration, and incarceration were possible penalties for Black men who were accused or convicted of raping a White woman. In contrast, White men faced no legal sanctions for sexually assaulting Black women. Nor did the criminal legal system recognize Black-on-Black rapes. As evidence, in 1859 a Mississippi judge overturned the conviction of an older male slave for the rape of a Black girl under the age of ten. He concluded that “[t]he crime of rape does not exist in this State between African slaves…Their intercourse is promiscuous” (Roberts, 1997, p. 31). Embedded in this court decision, and embraced by the larger culture, was the myth that Black women were hypersexual. This belief, which was referred to as the “Jezebel” stereotype, was used to justify the limited social and legal support Black women received after being raped (Hine, 1989; Sommerville, 2005).     

Black women used many strategies to resist sexual victimization. They ran away, fought back, engaged in activism, and developed a culture of silence. For example, in 1835, Harriet Jacobs (2001) escaped her master’s sexual advances when she hid in her grandmother’s attic crawlspace for seven years. After she had endured five years of brutal sexual assaults, Celia, a Missouri slave, killed her master in self-defense and burned his body in a fireplace. In 1855 she was convicted of murder and hanged at the age of 19 (Sommerville, 2005). The earliest efforts to systematically confront and organize against rape began in the 1870s when African American women, most notably Ida B. Wells, organized anti-lynching campaigns. These activists challenged the deep-seated ideas about the innate promiscuity of Black women and attempted to protect African American men from false rape allegations (Sommerville, 2005). Despite the efforts of well-known activists and their anonymous sisters, many African American women preserved their emotional health and dignity by creating a “culture of secrecy” around their sexual violence (Hines, 1989).

This historical trauma is intergenerational and continues to live in the collective memories of contemporary African American women. For example, in Wyatt’s (1992) interviews with Black rape survivors, all the women in one participant’s family were told about a relative who was abducted, beaten, raped, and murdered while her family lived in the South. Even though the family moved West following the incident, retelling this story, almost as a “rite of passage” into womanhood, sent a clear message: “Rape was described as something that could happen to you just because you were Black and female” (p. 88).

To summarize, several points can be gleaned from this historical overview: (1) Throughout much of U.S. history, the rape of Black women was widespread and institutionalized through economic and labor systems. (2) Regardless of the perpetrators’ race, the legal system often failed to protect Black women from sexual violence. (3) The Jezebel stereotype, which stigmatized Black women as promiscuous, was created to justify their rape. (4) Black women developed a culture of silence and secrecy to cope with their sexual assault. (5) Black women have a long history of resilience and anti-rape activism, which includes a sense of racial loyalty that encourages them to protect Black men from an unjust legal system.

The preceding was adapted from the article Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women: Risk, Response, and Resilience written by Carolyn M. West, Ph.D.

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carol Olson, RCASA. RCASA said: RCASA's Friday Facts: A Historical Overview of Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women http://wp.me/pAwr3-ER [...]

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