The Cultural Image of the African-American Woman

The American media developed several stereotypical images to counter usually latent fears of African American women. These images probably originated in Antebellum years to ease the minds of white people and keep them from believing that white men would be attracted to female slaves. In the post-war New South, the entry of African Americans into the work force compounded these fears. The three main images are the Mammy/Aunt Jemima image, the Sapphire image, and the Jezebel/bad-black-girl image. While other images have come and gone, these three have remained consistent throughout African American history. These stock images helped to remove the blame from white males in their sexual encounters with African American women by portraying these women as the sole instigators of any relations. All three images distort African American female sexuality, as they variously portray black women as either asexual (and therefore not a threat to the wives of white men) or as hypersexual and therefore the cause of any sexual encounter between the races.
Depicted as a domestic worker, the Mammy figure foreshadowed the Aunt Jemima figure and reinforced the notion that black women want to, and are suited for, work in white homes. To justify the role in which white society consigned blacks, media projections convinced whites that blacks were, in fact, content in their service. The Mammy was traditionally a large, dark African-American woman dressed in a calico dress with a bright do-rag on her head and a happy white smile on her face. She is submissive to her master or employer, but her outlets for aggressive behavior are African-American males, her mistress, and the white children of whom she takes care.

When she scolds "her" white family in a nurturing manner, she is tolerated and sometimes even heeded, but when she is "pushy" about it, she is scolded, mocked, and she usually pouts. Her exaggerated features also manifest the desires of whites to justify their harsh treatments of slaves and to portray them as satisfied and content to serve whites. Her exaggerated white teeth are reminiscent of Europeans' fascination with the strength of the teeth of their slaves, which to them signified health and endurance, and of the need of proponents of slavery to depict happy slaves. Her exaggerated breasts and buttocks act as symbols of maternal femininity and thereby lessen sexual threat.

The Sapphire figure appears in the character of that name played by Ernestine Wade on the "Amos and Andy" television show, although she extends further in the past than that show. Sapphire is stout, medium to dark brown, headstrong and opinionated and usually not taken seriously by African-American males, but she usually has a female counterpart who allies with her.
She requires a male to fulfill her image and she asserts her personality by attempting to expose the immorality of the African-American male through cunning, thereby exposing her own virtues. The Sapphire image is a comfort to whites because she is not sexual and because she is not often taken seriously even by members of her own race because of her constant "runnin' at the mouth."
The Jezebel/bad-black-girl image is portrayed by a thin fair complected black female with thin lips, a thin nose, and long straight hair. She conforms to the American, not African, standard of beauty. Jezebel is seductive, and fulfills the white concept of sexuality but is more street-wise than a white girl. She plays on the white notion of the hypersexuality of the black female, and in doing so attracts the blame for any sexual relationship she might have with a white man. White comfort level was assaulted by a sexual relationship between a black woman and a white man, and so needed to know that it was the woman who initiated the contact. They needed some explanation as to why a white man would seek companionship in an African-American woman, and so created an image of a black woman with an unsatiable sexual appetite.

African-American women posed a major threat to white society, and this threat is reflected in the media's masculinization of them. The empowering characteristics that are a threat to those (whites) in power of these women are negatively exaggerated, so they masculinize themselves and, in comparison, emasculate the black male.