When Dr. Lisa B. Thompson names modern women who fit the iconic “Black lady” mold – Coretta Scott King, Anita Hill, Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama – you know exactly whom she is trying to liberate. Chances are your mother played this role. You probably do, too, if you are a Black woman involved in higher education.
It is time for middle-class Black women to break the mold, Thompson argues in her book, “Beyond the Black Lady, Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class” (New Black Studies Series), University of Illinois Press. Being this “lady” is not all it is cracked up to be. The role is far too confining, and it comes at the high cost of denying any claim to what she calls “sexual agency.” Such women do so in a valiant effort to “uplift the race” by countering intractable stereotypes of Black women as “promiscuous, seductive and sexually irresponsible,” she writes.
To pull it off, they “have to be so morally upright they are almost inhuman,” she tells Diverse.
A native of San Francisco, Thompson is an associate professor of English at the University at Albany. She earned a doctorate in modern thought in literature at Stanford University, a master’s in African-American studies and a bachelor’s in English, both at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book, released in July, follows her two-woman, comic play “Single Black Female,” which had a successful and warmly received run off-Broadway last June. The play emerged as a kind of alter ego to her doctoral research on sexuality in African-American literature about the Black middle class. This book expands on her dissertation.
Although less familiar to some than the Mammy and Jezebel caricatures often ascribed to Black women, the prim, proper, stoic bearer of standards for the race is no less a stereotype, a staple in the media and the arts.
“Against the backdrop of other more historically charged stereotypes, the image of a highly professional, sexually repressed Black lady may seem to be a relief, but she is an equally demeaning figure who merely adds to the litany of misrepresentation,” Thompson says.
The toll of living the role is something “I think we are afraid to even think about,” she says. She speculates it might reveal itself in excessive shopping and “eating ourselves to death or not taking care of ourselves,” as well as in diminished “marriageability” of upscale Black women today. All that reflects the need “to deflect the stress of not being able to be fully realized sexual beings,” she adds.
As Thompson notes, King had to maintain silence about her husband’s improprieties but carry on as the permanently unpartnered, pure widow. Hill endured intrusive, public interrogations about sexual matters with unflinching dignity. Rice stood firm against taunts about her personal life or lack thereof. Obama has to stick to a traditional script while standing up to extraordinary scrutiny of her every utterance, attire and behavior.
Such women do these things almost mutely, demurely with ramrod posture, pristine wardrobes and nearly expressionless, asexual effect, in other words like “the Black lady.” What is that about?
In search of answers, Thompson discusses the Hill vs. Clarence Thomas spectacle and dissects plays like P.J. Gibson’s “Long Time Since Yesterday,” autobiographies like Jill Nelson’s “Volunteer Slavery,” films like Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and novels like Andrea Lee’s “Sarah Phillips,” among others. Along the way, she finds that some Black women are pioneering new ways to be and to give voice to a more fully actualized, human, female persona. This new woman is long overdue.