The queering of the view of white women’s relationships to black women is particularly instuctive during the period of American history when Africans were legally enslaved. This period, lasting roughly from the 1600’s to 1865, was a time when, though the spoken rhetoric stated otherwise, white women and black women were placed in polygamous relationships where they both served the white man sexually. The black woman, through the system of enslavement, and the rhetoric of inferiority was prohibited from being a socially acknowledged partner, and even if the sexual relationships could be deemed “consensual”, one is left in a conundrum trying to parse out how an enslaved woman, deemed “unrapeable” and a piece of chattel property, could have ever given consent. Similarly, white women were, in many ways, legislated property of their husbands, and any land or material wealth they owned transferred ownership to their betrothed at the time of marriage. On page 188 of Siobhan B. Somerville’s extended definition essay entitled “Queer”, she writes, “If queer theory’s project is characterized, in part, as an attempt to challenge identity categories that are presented as stable, transhistorical, or authentic, then critiques of naturalized racial categories are also crucial to its antinormative project.” She goes on to assert that, “As a number of critics have shown, heteronormativity derives much of its power from the ways in which it (often silently) shores up as well as depends on naturalized categories of racial difference in contexts ranging from sexology and psychoanalysis to fiction and cinema” (Somerville 2000; Eng 2001). What I am most interested in, in my own writing and cultural studies is the ways silence and erasure have been deployed in order to “shore up” heteronormativity, and the particular ways in which this silence exhibits itself in and through relationships between black woman and white women, particularly in America.
Interestingly, Siobhan also writes that, “Contemporaneous literary works by African American writers such as Nella Larsen (1929) and Jean Toomer (1923/1969) suggest that the term [Queer] could also carry racialized meanings, particularly in the context of mixed-race identities that exposed the instability of divisions between “black” and “white” (188). In one sense this assertion reifies the cross section of blackness and queerness; for just as sexual designations serve to “police the line between what is normal and abnormal”, racial designations do the same. In the sense of American race designations, white is the “normal” or default race-less category, while black or non-white is very often the abnormal, raced designation. Much has been written about how the invisibility of whitenenss is a visual silence deployed by white supremist systems in order to retain power. But what one must engage when using the lens of Queer theory is how silence is used by heteropatriarchal systems to retain power. This can be seen in the incredible silence from white women concerning the “mixed race” children their husbands fathered throughout America’s period of legalized slavery. One is hard pressed to find any instance (written by a white woman) where she expresses any knowledge of her own husband’s sexual relationship with an enslaved woman. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of America (twice its president) and a slave holder modeled another way in which the silence that reproduces heteropatriarchy was/is enacted – through the schism between what is said and what is done. In between these two speech acts – one verbal, one physical – lies a wealth of unspoken that characterizes the gaps and erasures embedded in cultural discourse that serves to retain the status quo. In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, with regard to slavery and enslaved women, Jefferson wrote: “Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the orangutan for the black women over those of his own species” (230). Of course most readers are aware of the many children Jefferson bore with the woman that was his slave and his wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemmings. But the deeper more frightening silence lies in the fact that hundreds of thousands of literate white women over a 400 year period were reticent to even vocalize in private journals the degredation, disloyalty or despair they felt about their husbands having no standard of fidelity or the humiliation of interacting with the corporal evidence of that infidelity (in the form of “mixed race” children) on a daily basis. Black women wrote about this situation, however, and have continued to voice what this relationship with white women has meant and comes to mean in and through history. Toni Morrison in her collection What Moves at the Margin, muses, “It is a source of amusement even now to black women to listen to feminists talk of liberation while somebody’s nice black grandmother shoulder’s the daily responsibilities of child rearing and floor mopping . . .” (27). Although this dynamic has changed in more recent years as black women have moved up in the class rank, their subordinate spot has been assumed by Latina women, Carribeean women and Asian women. And one could argue that the feminist movement has not made enough use of its position in the academy or the political sphere to made vocal the needs and concerns of poor and immigrant women, particularly domestics and nannies. Somerville’s essay, however, does real work toward exposing these areas of culture where silence has been used to reify heteropatriarchy.
In likewise fashion, the essay entitled “Gender” contained in the same collection and written by Judith Halberstam engages the way the term renders seeable what has been made unseeable or silent. In the first sentences the definition of “gender” reads, “In American studies and cultural studies, as in the humanities more broadly, scholars use the term “gender” when they wish to expose a seemingly neutral analysis as male oriented and when they wish to turn critical attention from men to women” (116). This definitely shows us that like “queer”, “gender” is a naming word. It calls what has been lurking behind it into existence. It is a word that makes corporeal what has been ghostly. Like whiteness, “Gender” is a word that it exposes false universality. The “false universality” that Gender exposes is of particular import to the dynamic between black women and white women. One of the ways “false universality” resonates with respect to this dynamic is in the “politics of respectability” and how it used against both groups. Here’s what I mean: heteropatriarchy works with supremist hierarchies. One of the tenets of this hierarchy is the stereotyping of the animalistic sexual proclivities of black women. This stereotype allows white women to assume a position of “purity” and of privilege. Halberstam names this when she writes, “In African American contexts, for example, black femininity has often been represented as vexed by the idealization of white femininity on the one hand and the cultural stereotyping of black women as strong, physical, and tough on the other” (Hammonds 1997). The universal binary this sets up also assumes that these binaries act within a heteronormative context. In heteronormative discourse, each of the positions, the virgin and the whore, both have the same goal — to get married. And one of the ways white women in collusion with the heteropatriarchy were paid for their silence was through the privileged status they were given (at least in comparison to enslaved women) within the institution of marriage. Of course, these positions are classed as well as raced, but what they do to make cultural groups retreat to their own “corners” and to dissuade conversation is monumental. As the essay continues Halberstam reveals that, “Money is credited with (and readily claimed) the invention of the term [Gender] in 1955 . . . to formalize the distinction between bodily sex (male and female) and . . . to note the frequent discontinuities between sex and role”(117). The frequent discontinuities between personal fulfillment and the institution of marriage, and personal fulfillment and heteronormative gender roles, run alongside the unvoiced ones between “sex and role”, silencing black and white women, but serving to totally marginalize queer women and transgender women. It is no wonder that Gertrude Stein wrote, “Brother singulars, we are misplaced in a generation that knows not Joseph. We flee before the disapproval of our cousins, the courageous condescension of our friends who gallantly sometimes agree to walk the street with us. From all them who never any way can understand why such ways and not others are so dear to us. We fly to the kindly comfort of an older world accustomed to take all manner of strange forms into its bosom . . .” (Stein 1934: 21). Though Stein acutely describes the isolation of queerness, by locating it in the “old world” she shows her privilege. With respect to the dynamic between black women and white women, there is no “old world” to return to. It is helpful, however, to view this relationship through the lens of Queer theory; a theory Somerville admits finds it basis in a term used “. . . in a seemingly contradictory way: as a term that calls into question the stability of any categories of identity based on sexual orientation” (187). So, “queering” the lens through which we examine the relationship between black women and white women, allows us to use the lens of gender, and a lens that assumes that gender is unstable and not universal. And this is a lens that allows in sight and sound and does not work to silence or erase.
Damon, Maria. “Queer Cities.” A Concise Companion to Twentieth-Century
Halbrstam, Judith. “Gender”. Keywords for American cultural studies:
Jefferson, Thomas, and Frank Shuffelton. Notes on the State of
Virginia. Penguin, 1999.
Morrison, Toni, and Carolyn C. Denard. What moves at the margin:
Selected nonfiction. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2008.
Somerville, Riobhan. “Queer”. Keywords for American cultural studies: