Liberating the Black Female Body. Reaction and Analysis by Jenna Alvarez
“There is a price that comes with decentering and decolonizing, part of what has to happen for us to be free is we have to create our own standards of how to live”. Bell Hook’s thought-provoking statement sets the stage for Eugene Lang College’s “Are You Still A Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body”. The event featured a panel of leading voices in black feminism and the LGBTQ+ community consisting of bell hooks, scholar-in-residence at Eugene Lang College, author Marci Blackman, film director Shola Lynch, and author and activist Janet Mock. Hooks and her fellow panelists explored the topic of the African American female body and its association with sexuality, disguishment, innovation, and representation. All while being deprecated and politicized by outside hegemonic sources. Throughout the event, the speakers emphasize the liberation of the black female body through its degraded perception and its enslavement to modern media. The panelists create a space for the audience members to listen to black female voices from various backgrounds and share their thoughts and reactions on the liberation of the black female body. In doing so, the discussion highlights the roots of systemic racism and its harmful connection to black women. The program poses essential questions that will be discussed throughout this review: Are sexual and violent images of African American women in big-screen films progressive? How do we free ourselves from the sexualized image of African American women and claim a different image? What can be done to be able to create a space for African American women within society?
The philosophy of black power significantly emerged in the 1960s during the expanding struggle beyond civil rights. Although black power was not a new concept, as it had been practiced in the first half of the century, black power was prominent during this time because of black/white confrontation. A most notable figure of the black power movement was Malcolm X, who introduced the concept of “black is beautiful”. In Chapter 15: Multiple Meanings of Freedom: The Movement Broadens [1961-1976] in Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr., “Malcolm’s insistence on ‘black is beautiful’ had special significance for black women, who had been negatively impacted by white standards of feminine beauty”(Malcolm X 897). A portion of the panel discussion focuses on Beyoncé Knowles, a female African American singer-songwriter, TIME Magazine cover. TIME Magazine recognized her as the 100 most influential people in the world. Bell Hooks criticizes the cover of Beyoncé, stating that “she [looks] like a deer in the headlights…wearing a little panty and bra…what is that cover meant to say about the black female body?”. In regards to Hook’s statement, panelist Shola Lynch introduces the term symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is two things: not seeing yourself; Only seeing yourself as denigrated and victimized. The psychological and emotional effects of only seeing yourself in a dehumanizing way can be harmful. The most impactful part of this discussion is the presence of the various panelists and being able to hear their opinions. Lynch provided a useful term and concept to understand while viewing media that specifically focus on black women. It is essential to recognize that creating positive images in the media that black women can relate to and feel uplifted by has more importance than it may appear. The representation of the black female body in media is a powerful tool that is inspirational and progressive. It isn’t something that is contributing to the construction of slavery but rather is highlighting Malcolm X’s idea that ‘black is beautiful’. Bell Hooks continues on to discuss the portrayal of the black female body in the film 12 years a slave. Hooks describes Patsy, a slave woman portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o, as voiceless throughout the film. Her only role was as a sexual servant, a victim, a woman whose duty was to satisfy the needs of others. “Why if you can create that fictive sex scene could we not have had an effective moment in the film where the black female body is in resistance, not despair”. The argument that Hooks makes is valid, in the sense that the confinement that black females have to victimized and oversexualized roles in films is prominent, however, the director’s decision to portray the victimization and sexualization of the black female body historically is critical to understanding slavery. Specifically focusing on what black enslaved women had to endure. In Chapter 2: From Africa to America [1441-1808] in Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr., “on board some ships, the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with such black women whose consent they can procure…it was common for the dirty filthy sailors to take African women and lie upon their bodies”. The scenes used in the film 12 Years a Slave reveal the harsh reality of how white men brutalized black enslaved women. It also showcases the historical concept of the degraded black female body and informs those who continue to motivate this historical toxicity. Hook’s frustration derives from the violent portrayal of back women in the media and the question as to why the continuation of using black female bodies as subjects to rape and violence persists. It will always be difficult to differentiate the line between historical depiction and blasphemy. However, it is important to call attention to this specific portion of history.
Bell Hooks continues the panel discussion with the topic of liberating the female body from a containment of silence, more specifically focusing on the LGBTQ+ community. As a trans-female writer, Janet Mock adds to the portion of this discussion with her viewpoints and opinions on this issue. Mock explains how through black female writers and publishers she was able to obtain lived experience of intersectionality and what oppression means to an African American female. Noting how cis-gendered women view trans women as less than and how that intertwines with how white women view black women. Mock states “so for me, I try to pull all of that into my own work with redefining realness and bring all of the composites how I learned my image of self into this from literature”. This demonstrates that through outlets of literature, strong black female writers provide education and voices to young black women. Literature provides relatability amongst the African American community in which they can connect with various writing mediums. Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, placed African American women at the forefront of her writing, regulating African American inequality within her margins. Through her works, “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eyes”, Morrison was able to powerfully convey the nature of black life in America, starting from slavery to present-day inequality. Morrison was able to give a voice to the African American experience and provide textual knowledge to those who contributed to this oppression. Similar to Morrison, Janet Mock uses the lived experience of being a trans-African American woman in her writing. Stating, “connection can be found through writing…the power of resonance and mirroring where we see each other in each other’s experiences is important”. The panel notes that naming yourself and giving yourself an identity is important and should be celebrated within the African American community.
This program’s narratives and themes are essential to understanding African American history as the content brings awareness to the oppression and enslavement that black women still face today. This fundamentally connects to the historical material discussed in the book as well as in lecture. It highlights the liberation of the black female body and what can be done to be inclusive in which a space can be made for black women. By discussing this topic, we can hopefully set standards for how black females should be treated in multi-intersectional spaces. After viewing this panel discussion, challenging these issues head-on will be centrally important to navigating these issues in hopes of creating a better future for African American women.
“Chapter 15: Multiple Meanings of Freedom: The Movement Broadens [1961-1976]” Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray et al., 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.
“Chapter 2: From Africa to America [1441-1808]” in Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray et al., 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.
Langer, Emily. (2019, August). “Toni Morrison Nobel laureate who transfigured American literature, dies at 88” Retrieved March 11, 2022, from