What Black Women Want
Why Black Men Don’t Only Date
A look into the gender roles in black communities
This is an advertisement (1) done by P&G featured in the May 2012 edition of Essence (2) magazine. What do these women share? What makes them different?
What is beauty? What is it that makes one beautiful? This essay will examine the ideals of beauty in Danzy Senna’s, Caucasia (3), Paul Beatty’s, The White Boy Shuffle (4), and Nella Larsen’s, Quicksand (5) through research, reading, and the use of strong media images.
A great American poet once said, “As far as I knew white women were never lonely, except in books. White men adored them, Black men desired them and Black women worked for them.” Maya Angelou (6). Why is it that black women are pushed to the wayside when a white woman walks by? Is that really the case? Let’s look into what is really driving relationships and why it seems unfair to some, while others flourish.
Is it the lure of the lighter skin? Maybe it’s the white woman’s fault (7)?
According to the 2011 Census Bureau American Community Survey (8), white women earn over $100 more than black women. This is in 2011. In 1928, W.E.B Du Bois called Quicksand the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of Chesnutt.”(9) During the afro-modernism movement, Nella Larsen portrayed the difficulties of living as a black (or half-black, half-Scandinavian) woman.
“The joke is on you, Dr. Anderson. My father was a gambler who deserted my mother, a white immigrant. It is even uncertain that they were married. As I said at first, I don’t belong here. I shall be leaving at once. This afternoon. Good morning.” (Larsen, 18)
Helga was always good at dealing with the truth, but she didn’t like ambiguity. She wanted a respectable life, as do most women. Helga ends up becoming a baby-factory, popping out at least five children. She got lost while assuredly on the “right path.” Helga seduced the fat, black, southern reverend and married him out of spite. Rather than marrying the lovely (but somewhat dim-witted) Axel Olsen, Helga denies him because of his race: “But you see, Herr Olsen, I’m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t at all care to be owned. Even by you.” (Larsen, 65) The specification of race by Helga is quite telling for what is to come in her future.
Now we know that a black man knocked up Helga’s white mother and left in a hurry; however, the idea that white skin is more appealing to black men is absurd, is it not?
(caution, abusive language)
Hopefully that video was enlightening. Though it may not pertain specifically to the time period at hand, it is a good start for our journey through the experiences of the blacks in literature where these opinions originate.
The three major stereotypes of black women in the media have been: The Mammy, the Sapphire, and the Jezebel.
The Mammy was a stereotypically larger, darker skinned care-giver. The Mammy will typically be the protector of the white family. It originated as a false-representation that black women enjoyed being slaves and serving the white man. This stereotype has been prevalent throughout history: from as early as the 1939 film, Gone with the Wind (11) and is still being used as satire in movies such as the 2012 film, The Campaign (12).
The role of the “Mammy” figure has perpetually been played by the large, black woman. (13)
Then we have the Sapphire and the Jezebel: the former is the “angry black woman,” while the latter is the overly sexualized video vixen. (14, 15)
These stereotypes were shaped by a media-driven generation, and actually helped shape generations to come. Whether or not this was the right way to go about afro-modernism is not what is up for debate; however, we do see that in Larsen’s Quicksand, Helga does not necessarily fit into any of these distinct categories, leaving her almost lost in society:
And he had said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them. They had good sense and they had good taste. They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste. (Larsen, 5)
While Helga is able to live somewhat of a posh life with Aunt Katrina and company, she cannot ever truly escape herself and her roots. During the proposal by Herr Olsen, he talks about how Helga has the “warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa” but “the soul of a prostitute.” (Larsen, 65) After going on about her selling herself, Helga realizes that she truly has a bond within her heritage; one that she did not know was even there:
Yes, I refuse you. You see, I couldn’t marry a white man. I simply couldn’t. It isn’t just you, not just personal, you understand. It’s deeper, broader than that. It’s racial. (Larsen, 65)
I’m homesick, not for America, but for Negroes. That’s the trouble. (Larsen, 68)
Larsen does a fantastic job of connecting the plight of the assumed need for interrelations between people who have black ancestors (within the past few generations) and the concept that it is much less of a choice for black women; rather, it is much more of an assumed destiny, brought upon by generations of hate for oppressors and lack of involvement in society.
This brings us to Beatty. In White Boy Shuffle, Psycho Loco chews out Gunnar for not talking to women, but it is more than just not talking to women that flicks Loco’s switch. As we see when Gunnar attempts to explain that he had a girlfriend in Santa Monica, the black community that Psycho is from does not see things the same as Gunnar: “What, some pasty white girl named Eileen, please? That don’t count. Nigger, have you ever seen any parts of the pussy?” (Beatty, 124) Beatty is showing the reader that in the society that Gunnar lives in, getting with a white woman is not even considered “getting some.”
But what happened to white women being at the top of the black man totem pole? The transition from Afro-Modernism through the Black Arts (16) movement and into Post Soul (17) era created a dichotomy between the draw of getting something that your father could not have gotten and staying true to your roots and procreating within your own race.
In Caucasia, we see the opposite. Senna attempts to show us that “Jesse” wants to be something that she is not. She yearns to be a part of the Marsh family. She wants to “reek of class” (Senna, 165), as Libby explained to Walter. Birdie Lee wants to be white because she wants to be able to have the things that the white people have. She wants to be seen as more than someone such as the “fat black chick from Africa or something” who Nicholas (and his friends) raped.
It was all right. We all took turns with her. She just lay there, looking up at us with this blank expression. But if you closed your eyes you’d kinda forget about it, you could pretend you were somewhere else. She was okay, though. I don’t remember her face much. (Senna, 171)
Birdie wants to fit in. She wants to be someone special, or at least someone who doesn’t have to hide herself all the time. Apparently being a lesbian did not work.
They would have made a fine couple. (20)
Clearly there were roadblocks on the path to happiness for black women in society between the 1920’s and the 1990’s (understatement of the year), but it is interesting to read as Senna, Beatty, and Larsen take us through life-changing events of our protagonists in very different worlds. Larsen almost made it seem like it was a burden to be wanted:
Incited. That was it, the guiding principle of her life in Copenhagen. She was incited to make an impression, a voluptuous impression. She was incited to inflame attention and admiration. She was dressed for it, subtly schooled for it. And after a little while she gave herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired. (Larsen, 55)
Helga was a strong protagonist, but even she was caught up in the dramas in the world of love.
Before Nicholas wanted to call Birdie “Pocahontas” because she “turn(s) all brown in the sun. Like a little Indian,” (Senna, 164) and decades prior to Gunnar feeling destined to “suffer the sins of the father,” (Beatty, 5) Helga was coming to harsh truths about reality:
An illusion. Yes. But better, far better, than this terrible reality. Religion had, after all, its uses. It blunted the perceptions. Robbed life of its crudest truths. Especially it had its uses for the poor – and the blacks. For the blacks. The Negroes.
Long before the Post Soul literary movement, Larsen captured the essence of what has been traditionally the most influential thing in the black community; neigh, the world: Religion. It is religion that creates these “social norms” and often degrades women. Why doesn’t the bible talk about all men and women being equal?
Beauty. In these novels, it lay between the cracks. There are glimmers of love and beauty, but Beatty brings beauty to the forefront with his addition of Gunnar’s wife, Yoshiko. Beatty created an idea that so many would frown upon and made it into something to be admired.
Yoshiko cleared her throat and threw her hands in the air. “Brmmphh boomp ba-boom bip. I’m the king of rock – there is none higher! Sucker MC’s must call me sire!”
“Anyone know how to say ‘I love you’ in Japanese?” (Beatty, 170)
Run-D.M.C. – King of Rock (1985) was a merging of two cultures: Rock and Rap.
The beautiful part of this relationship is that, as “forced” as it may seem, the two characters are the most real characters that we have encountered this entire semester. They don’t try to hide from each other, and neither one of them are trying to make the other into something that they are not. They are, just as King of Rock is, a perfect combination of cultures.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Each person sees beauty in his or her own unique way. Maybe that’s why these stereotypical relationships come to be. Maybe it is not the need to reject ones own race, but rather the need to expand ones horizons and experience the world outside of traditions and social norms that creates the disparities.
One mans trash is another mans treasure. I know whom I’m choosing. (19)
It is the running that Birdie has done that makes her scared, it is the heritage that creates relationship problems for Helga, but it is the blunt, poetically scientific look that Beatty gives Gunnar which makes him the most beautiful of characters. By not worrying about dancing the “White-boy shuffle” or not giving into making a decision between being a ball player, a poet, or a homosexual, Gunnar opens up his life to freedom. True beauty is when you free your soul. True beauty sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Make sure you are ready to embrace it.
Life is a system of half-truths and lies. Opportunistic, convenient evasion. – Langston Hughes (21)
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What Black Women Want; or rather, Why Black Men Don’t Only Date Black Women by Lee Hopcraft is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.