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Disfigured Images: The Historical Assault on Afro-American Women.

Disfigured Images is a damning indictment of one hundred years of scholarly writing on Afro-American women. It is an provocative and compelling book. In just over 150 pages, Patricia Morton surveys a vast body of historical and sociological writing to explore how black women have been treated by this "literature of fact."

While we might expect Afro-American women to be largely absent from American historiography - to be doubly invisible as women and as Afro-Americans - Morton reveals that they have "figured" to a surprising extent in scholarly writing, but their experience has been reduced to a handful of distorted images. The most enduring of these stock characters are Mammy, the loyal and asexual servant; Jezebel, the licentious slave woman; the mulatto seductress; the brood mare; and more recently Sapphire, the scold who dominates and emasculates black men. Together these racial and sexual stereotypes form, according to Morton, a "distinctive and profoundly disempowering, composite image of black womanhood."

This analysis is not in itself new. Indeed, Morton makes it clear that she builds on the work and ideas of Deborah Gray White, Alice Walker, Michelle Wallace, Bell Hooks, and many others. What is new about Morton's book is that it finds these images of "damaged and damaging womanhood" in racist and antiracist scholarship, and in the writings of both white and black authors.

Few scholars come through Morton's fire unscathed. Even W.E.B. DuBois, who Morton agrees was "strikingly advanced" in his views on women generally, denigrated black women in his early work for their historically "lax morality," neglect of their children and poor hygiene. By 1921 DuBois had abandoned these negative images of black women in favour of what he called the "primal black all-mother," whose "innate decency" and "deep, emotional nature" was the source of Afro-Americans' strength and survival. Still, Morton notes, even DuBois's all-mother was more image than substance. DuBois created a respectable stock character but a stock character nonetheless.

While DuBois tried to create "profound and enduring myths" of black womanhood to instill Afro-Americans with pride in their history, most scholars found other political uses for perpetuating myths about black women, as Morton's history of the Jezebel and Mammy images reveals. The old slave mammy and the licentious black woman mere common figures in Jim Crow historiography. Scholarly apologists for slavery upheld the Old South's Mammy as a model of black industriousness and faithfulness to whites. To support their assertion that emancipation had triggered the "regression" of the "Negro race," they pointed to the supposed insatiability of black women as proof of some innate African savagery. Morton cites one scholar who went so far as to blame black men's supposed sexual savagery on the "wantonness" of black women. Repelled by black women, this author argued, black men turned their lust upon white women. Mammy and Jezebel mere thus two sides of the same racist coin.

Slavery's apologists did not go unopposed. What Morton reveals, however, is that white anti-racist scholars also accepted the notion of the slave woman's licentiousness; they simply blamed it on the peculiar nature of slavery. For example, one 1917 study of the American family condemned slavery - particularly the master's rape of slave women and "negro-breeding" for destroying female honour, "maternal solicitude," and for leaving the "negress" with a "spontaneous sensuality."

While male black scholars challenged misinformation about black men, they too accepted misogynist notions of black female sexuality, blaming "black familial decrepitude" on the black woman's "impassioned" nature. Mammy remained the only positive image of black womanhood in Jim Crow era historiography, Morton argues, but she was "conspicuous by her absence" in the black-authored scholarship because she seemed a collaborator and, therefore, an unacceptable symbol of black womanhood.

While Mammy found herself on pancake boxes and on the silver screen, Jezebel made her way into the annals of sociology, informing or malforming inquiries into "Negro pathology." Morton clearly shows that nineteenth-century stereotypes of black women have set the terms of the current debate over the nature and state of "the black family." This debate relies on the work of scholars who drew their conclusions about black women seemingly without reflection and certainly without research.

While Morton's critique of academic misinformation is compelling, her proscriptions are ultimately unclear. "The writing of history is integral to the making of history," she concludes. Only when women, especially black women, rewrite their history will we be able to free our understanding of the past and our vision of the future from the "power of mythology." After reading one hundred pages on how the historical image of black womanhood has been buffeted about by the winds of political change, this positivist message comes as a bit of a surprise. Only by slaying old myths can scholars write "black women's history as it should be written," Morton argues, and she cites the recent histories of slavery by women authors as examples of what ought to be done. What Morton does not explain is that these scholars have done justice to the complexity and diversity of black women's experience, not because of some essential female ability, nor because they "let the facts speak for themselves," but because of their political commitments as feminist and antiracist scholars. Once they lay old myths to rest, surely they will begin to create new ones. What are historians if not mythmakers?
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Author:Hahamovitch, Cindy
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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