Sexual Assault in 3 Important Works by African American Women

[by Meredith Wiggins]

The historical realities of slavery in the United States created social conditions in which whites viewed Black bodies–particularly Black women’s bodies–as sexually available.  As a result, African Americans have been subjected to sexual violence, both threatened and realized, at increased rates throughout U.S. history.

African American writers have dealt with this reality in a number of ways.  In order to combat the stereotype of the sexually promiscuous and “loose” Black woman, many writers elided African American women’s sexuality entirely from their texts, instead embracing behaviors and attitudes toward sex similar to those of the white middle class, whose ideas about sexual morality were rooted in Victorian notions of ideal gender behavior.  Doing so, however, often meant having to downplay or ignore the very real impact that sexual assault had on the lives of far too many Black women and men. 

Narratives about the pain of sexual violence on African Americans, especially African American women, have since become more common, allowing both writers and readers space to negotiate their understandings of rape and sexual assault in the context of a society that often sought to represent the victims of this violence as always willing and therefore “unrapeable.”

In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Week here at the University of Kansas, this post will highlight a few works that deal with the physical, emotional, and mental effects of sexual violence on African Americans.

Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is a slave narrative that deals heavily with the author’s attempts to prevent her owner, Dr. Flint, from raping her.  In order to save herself from this violence, Jacobs, writing under the pen-name Linda Brent, consents to a sexual relationship with a white neighbor, Mr. Sands, and bears him two children.  The story calls attention to the mistreatment and lack of options available to enslaved people, particularly enslaved women, as Jacobs must accept one forced sexual relationship in order to prevent being forced into another.

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), an autobiography about the author’s childhood and early adolescence, speaks with shattering honesty about Angelou’s rape as an eight-year-old child.  Her mother’s boyfriend brutally assaults Angelou, then threatens to kill her beloved brother if she tells anyone.  After he is put on trial for the crime (and then murdered, seemingly by one of Angelou’s uncles), Maya comes to believe that her words are responsible for his death and subsequently refuses to speak for five years.  Angelou’s literal silence vividly illustrates the cultural silence that is imposed on victims of sexual assault, especially Black women.

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987) is a text replete with sexual assault, showing how widely such violence has been used as a weapon of control and dominance by whites over the African American community.  Schoolteacher’s nephews sexually assault Sethe when they hold her down and steal her milk by suckling her, and Beloved recalls being penned up and raped by a man without skin.  Importantly, Morrison’s novel also demonstrates that Black men, too, can be victims of rape, as when Paul D remembers being forced to perform fellatio on the white guards at a prison camp in Georgia.

Each of these works helps to bring awareness to the legacy of sexual violence in the African American community, and, in so doing, helps give voice to the stories of survivors.