Sander Gilman, featured in Kimberly N. Pinder’s collection of essays on Race and Art History, writes on the prostitute and the presence of black female women and women in general as sexual objects. She notes that in the Middle Ages, a Jewish traveler named Benjamin wrote that the black slaves, the sons of Ham, went “about naked and have not the intelligence of ordinary men” (Gilman, pg 121). A naturalist French painterly the name of Buffon correlated with this idea and “went so far as to encourage black women to copulate with apes” (Gilman, pg 121). It was common to lower the female, namely the black female, to that of an ape’s status.
The discussion of black female/female bodies as sexual object went so far as to inspect their sex organs upon their death. It was suspected that black women’s sexual organs were not the same as white women’s. Interestingly enough, “when one turns to autopsies of black males form approximately the same period, what is striking is the absence of any discussion of the male genitalia” (Gilman, pg 124). Even after death, black women are exploited sexually by dominant males.
The evidence of female exploitation is abundant in Gilman’s writing. I was wide-eyed while reading and astonished at the assumptions and descriptions used to describe women in history–especially black women. What stands out to me the most from the reading is the comparison of black women to apes and the inspection of their bodies upon death. I am wondering whether or not the questions males posed on black females were of actual, scientific curiosity or as an outlet to exploit their bodies without being “shamed” or demoted to that as a prostitute, “for interracial marriages were seen as exactly parallel to prostitution in there barrenness, If they produced children at all, these children were weak and doomed” (Gilman, pg 132). Needless to say, I’m outraged at the treatment of black women in history.
Michaela Stock, Hope College 2020
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