“Jezebel,” a racial stereotype and slur that historically and persistently has been used to obfuscate the truth, promote and justify racial inequality and sexual violence against Black women.
The “Jezebel” stereotype is one of three pernicious racist and sexist stereotypes that have been used to rationalize and justify slavery and to spur racist and sexist perceptions and treatment of Black women.
Jezebel is a slave construct and stereotype that paints Black women as evil and immoral. The Jezebel stereotype is “synonymous with promiscuity,” having “an insatiable sexual appetite,” and “someone who uses sex to manipulate men,” Ladson-Billings writes. She is a “conniving temptress who cannot be trusted.” Accusing Black women of these traits and calling them “Jezebels” also attempts to connect Black women to the infamous “treacherous” queen in the Bible called “Jezebel,” who is accused of having “turned the heart of her husband, King Ahab, away from the worship of the one true God and righteous living.”
Reproduction and having a constant supply of slaves was essential to the institution of slavery. Pilgrim states that enslaved young Black girls were encouraged to have sex as part of their “socializations” as future “breeders.” When young Black girls became pregnant during slavery, this was just seen as evidence of their insatiable sexual appetites and their “Jezebel” nature.
Deborah Gray White, providing detailed accounts of slave women and the culture of slavery, says that the Jezebel stereotypes were meant to characterize Black women. She writes: “In every way, Jezebel was the counter image of the mid-19th century ideal of the Victorian Lady. She did not lead men and children to God; piety was foreign to her.”
According to West, during slavery, Black women were “stripped naked, examined to determine their reproductive capacity, placed on auction blocks and sold.” She states that enslaved Black women were “coerced, bribed, induced, seduced, ordered and, of course, violently forced to have sexual relations with slaveholders, their sons, male relatives and their overseers.” The “Jezebel” stereotype, which branded Black women as sexually promiscuous and immoral, was used to rationalize these sexual atrocities.”
The Jezebel image excused miscegenation and the sexual exploitation of Black women.
All these stereotypes, constructs and images were used as tools of slavery to create lies, justify racial inequality and the sexual and economic exploitation and unjust treatment of Black women and Black girls.
The perception of Black women as “Jezebels” and the Jezebel stereotypes also affected Black women during slavery and post-slavery. According to Pilgrim, “From the end of the Civil War to the mid 1960s, no Southern white male was convicted of raping or attempting to rape a Black woman.”
They not only included enslaved Black women and Black girls, but these stereotypes migrated to include and sexually objectify Black girls and Black children post-slavery.
According to Pilgrim: “An analysis of Jezebel images also reveals that Black female children are sexually objectified. Black girls, with the faces of pre-teenagers, are drawn with adult-sized buttocks, which are exposed. They are naked, scantily clad or hiding seductively behind towels, blankets, trees or other objects. A 1949 postcard shows a naked Black girl hiding her genitals with a paper fan. Although she has the appearance of a small child, she has noticeable breasts. The accompanying caption reads: ‘Honey, I’se Waitin’ Fo’ You Down South.’ The sexual innuendo is obvious.
That’s exactly what racial and sexist slave stereotypes like “Jezebel” are all about. They are meant to cast all Black women and girls as “despised others,” who are morally corrupt. They are meant to apply to all Black women, and they migrate to include Black girls.
No woman should be called a “Jezebel” or cast as a sexual or racial stereotype the way enslaved Black women were.
To make this even more alarming, just imagine the effect these stereotypes have when the comment is coming from church by a pastor or church leader. Does it add credibility to the “Jezebel” myth or cause others to repeat this racial slur? Does the use of such a slur incite violence to be perpetuated? Does this behaviour by clergy give permission to use Scripture to maltreat Black women and Black girls?
Excerpt from Yvonne McLean’s article in the Baptist News. She is an attorney and member of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., where she is a Sunday school teacher and a member of the Unhoused Ministry.