The jezebel discourse is reproduced in and circulated between the Black Church and black popular culture, making each a site of antiblack and sexist stereotypic cultivation and pornotropic gazing.
“There is no place for antiblack patriarchal aims, ideas, or representations in black liberation.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Tamura Lomax. Lomax is an independent scholar, CEO and founder of The Feminist Wire.Her book is Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Tamura Lomax: The current sociopolitical climate reflects old wounds re/split wide open. Meaning, what we’re wit(h)nessing isn’t new. Yet, it is different. It’s a combustion of previous ideas, moments, influences, boundaries, epistemes, and representations from the old world but with fresh blood, new lines of power, and new technologies. As we say in cultural studies, there are no new moments. History is conjunctural – a steady mixture of the past and present. But it is this mixture that nuances previous moments from the present. With that said, the racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, et al. of modernity never went away. It’s remixed – old lyrics with new music. The question is, how are we dancing? Differently, the same, or both?
Jezebel Unhinged makes this plain. It begins with the premise that theological, artistic, scientific, philosophical, literary, and medical gazing, dating back to the medieval period, yielded a collective of racist and sexist mythologies, which produced a “discourse on black womanhood” that contemporarily marks black women and girls with inbred sexual savagery. The latter is now seen not as racist/sexist myth but truth – upon which all kinds of violences are justified. The aim of the book is to a) show how mythology became truth and b) to rupture the myth, with the hopes of also stopping the violences. This discourse mass-produced a normative way of talking about black women and girls. Concurrently, it justified and was pivotal to the treatment of African female slaves during North American slavery who were raped, sexually tortured, and forced to breed partially because they were seen as inherently libidinous. Simultaneously, breeders were called jezebels to warrant sexual violence and labor.
“Racist and sexist mythologies produced a discourse that marks black women and girls with inbred sexual savagery.”
In the neo-colonial state, the discourse on black womanhood, which is in fact a discourse on jezebel and thus immanent sexual immorality, is not only produced in white racist/sexist culture, it’s reproduced in and circulated between the Black Church and black popular culture, making each a site of antiblack and sexist stereotypic cultivation and pornotropic gazing. More, the Black Church and black popular culture “churned out a simultaneously normative and dangerous jezebelian ‘ho’ discourse that imagines black women and girls and black female sexuality as quintessentially different, hyperlegible, illegible, and the opposite (and absence) of ladydom,” which is “vital to preserving gender hierarchy, black patriarchy, and heteronormativity in black families, communities, cultures, and institutions.” This makes black women and girls the scapegoats for a range of racial problems. Jezebel Unhinged uncovers this. It shows us not only how old ideas operate in the present (to be sure, this isn’t a new revelation), but how myths get mass-mediated and turned into everyday truths that we maintain and take for granted even in black communities, or that we can’t unwind because they are so deeply internalized. The lyrics are the same, but the dance is different. Figuring out the “how” will help lead to our liberation.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
On August 30, 2018, Rev. Jasper Williams, an iconic figure in the Black Church, preached Aretha Franklin’s eulogy on a mass-mediated international stage. As if Williams prepared the night before by reading the Moynihan Report, E. Franklin Frazier’s work on “the negro family,” and John Singleton’s script for Boyz n the Hood, like so many before him, he contextualized black crisis in black womanhood and black women’s purported illicit sex. While many critiqued Williams for his antiblackwomanism, many agreed with him. And though this is a recent example, it’s exactly what Jezebel Unhinged is about. That said, the takeaway is this: “The problem with ‘the’ black community” is not black women, black female sexuality, black women led homes, black women acting like so-called hos (jezebels) rather than ladies (Proverbs 31 women), black women not being able to raise “proper” children, or black men not being able to turn alleged hos into mystical housewives. Nor is the “solution” black nuclear homes and the institution of black sexism and patriarchy.
“Patriarchy will neither save black lives nor heal black wounds.”
The black problem in America is and has always been antiblack white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, racism, sexism, and classism – and appropriations of the like by brown and black folk. The solution is and has always been rooting this out – wherever it exists, not in re-appropriating the masters’ tools. Patriarchy will neither save black lives nor heal black wounds. It serves to oppress and demonize black women and girls and is the opposite of black liberation, which is fundamentally a collective political project with shared aims and benefits. More, patriarchy, which was seminal to Williams’ eulogy, demands that black women and girls are seen as secondary, non-essential, problems, and ofttimes, evil, bitches, and hos thwarting racial progress. It requires black social movements emphasize the place, needs, and rights of cisgender heterosexual men and boys over and against everyone else’s – while claiming black cisgender heterosexual women “got next” (and LGBTQIA never). This is illiberal.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
To know a culture and its values is to know its language. What we say about black women and girls says a lot about how we treat them, how we see ourselves, and the world we hope to create. Worlds are built, resisted, and/or accommodated first through our imaginations and our mouths. When we get our language right, our actions, resistance, and political demands will follow. However, black social movements have been known to at times speak out both sides of its mouth. Too often we hear black woke folks preach how they love black women, how the “future is *female,” and how black women are queens – while also upholding heterosexism, patriarchy, anti-queerness, and so on, whilst circulating every stereotype about black women and girls imaginable. We cannot be both your bitch and your queen nor your ho and your future. Nor do we want to be. And neither are these things, however they are appropriated, necessarily mutually exclusive. Mostly, they are projections knit ever so tightly by the discourse on black womanhood and secured ever so firmly by the knots of patriarchal dominion and discrimination. Jezebel Unhinged leads us away from this paradigm towards self-definition, autonomy, complexity, and love, the latter of which looks like mutuality, respect, and justice for ALL in real life.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This book has Victor Anderson, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, bell hooks, Hortense Spillers, Toni Cade Bambara, Patricia Hill Collins, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, Charles Long, and Joan Morgan written all over it. It’s a sassy mix of history, black religious criticism, black feminist theory, and black cultural criticism.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
As we’ve learned through histories of violence on black flesh (for example, lynching, rape, and murder), language (for example words like nigger, whore, faggot) can lead to violent thinking and doing. The statement “Black Lives Matter” is powerful precisely because it not only critiques historical, social, political, cultural, interpersonal, institutional, and structural antiblack violence, discrimination, and demonization, but because it pushes us to conceptualize an alternative world where black thriving, rooted in collective black radical liberation, is the norm. Jezebel Unhinged adds to this chorus through a specific engagement on black women and girls, discourse, representation, equity, community, transformative justice, safety, healing, spirit, and accountability. It calls on us to explore how the same antiblack patriarchal lenses used to define black women and girls as bad, illicit, immoral, negligent, and inconsequential in the old world makes us dance in the new world, thus limiting true black progress, particularly as such lenses get appropriated and therefore infiltrate black space – black communities, black families, black institutions, black religion, black culture, and black social movements, thus defining social aims.Jezebel Unhinged makes it clear that there is no place for antiblack patriarchal aims, ideas, or representations in black liberation, ALL black lives matter, and ALL black women’s lives matter. What we communicate about these lives matter, too. Creating a new world requires interrogating all of this, and as truthfully as possible – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the forthcoming book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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