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The history of anti-Black misogyny shaping coverage of Megan Thee Stallion

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File picture: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni – Megan Thee Stallion speaks after receiving the Best Female Hip Hop Artist award during the BET Awards at Microsoft theatre in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 27, 2021.

By Sarah Olutola

On Dec. 23, rapper Tory Lanez (whose legal name is Daystar Peterson) was found guilty in the shooting of rapper Megan Pete, otherwise known as Megan Thee Stallion, in both of her feet in July 2020. He was convicted of three felony counts: assault with a semiautomatic firearm; having a loaded, unregistered firearm in a vehicle; and discharging a firearm with gross negligence.

In the weeks and months before the verdict, commenters on Black social media, and in particular Black men, largely banded together to turn the victim into the perpetrator. Rappers like Drake, 21 Savage and 50 Cent, athletes like LeBron James, and media personalities like Joe Budden, Zach Campbell and DJ Akademiks suggested that Pete was lying about her assault. “I wish he would have just shot and killed me if I knew I was going to have to go through this torture,” she told the jury during the trial.

Sadly, such backlash for speaking out is not surprising. As much as the Black community often correctly points out systemic and institutional anti-Black racism, much work still needs to be done to confront and dismantle misogyny within the community in a meaningful, public and political way – the very culprit at the root of Pete’s cyberbullying.

Often buried underneath calls for “Black justice” in general was the fact that homicide rates against Black women in 2020 rose 33 percent. In 2020, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 4 in 10 Black women experience physical violence from intimate partners, with more than 20 percent of Black women experiencing sexual violence – higher rates than that of women of other races. Black women also disproportionately suffer from psychological abuse and are at a much higher risk of being murdered by men.

And yet, violence against Black women is often publicly justified through a demonizing image that has long cast Black women as deserving of violence, such as those on display with Megan Thee Stallion. This treatment of Black women within the Black community is rooted in a long history of violence tracing back to slavery.

The demonization of Black women has been a feature of American culture since the colonial period. As academic scholar Ange-Marie Hancock has shown, representations of Black enslaved women oscillated between the hypersexual figure who became known as the “Jezebel,” who prioritized sex over taking care of her family, and the “Mammy,” who neglected taking care of her own children in favor of her White master’s family.

In reality, Black women were sold as property into different White homes, sexually violated and brutalized with impunity, and their very Blackness marked them as subhuman within American society. Even after slavery, negative patriarchal stereotypes of sexual deviance persisted, and even took hold within Black communities, ultimately positioning Black women who did not submit to Black male dominance as threats to their own Black community and thus legitimate targets of male violence.

Ideas rooted in anti-Black misogyny continued well into the 20th century, especially in relation to women’s role as mothers and caretakers of Black families. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, key “studies” from liberal sociologists lent legitimacy to this stereotype of the overbearing Black “matriarch.”

For example, the image of the “bad” Black woman who destroyed Black families by being negligent or deviant prominently appeared in sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s “The Negro Family in the United States” (1939). That book noted the emergence of matriarchal families as a result of racial oppression, even as it dismissed Black women as having too much power within the family, thus assigning them blame for the breakdown of what many saw as the nuclear family. Backed by the prominence of the social sciences, this anti-Black and misogynistic logic found that if Black husbands had wronged their Black wives, Black women were to blame.

The pathology of Black women was similarly expressed in the culturally influential Moynihan Report. The federally funded study on Black families, published in 1965, was authored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, assistant secretary of labor of the Office of Policy Planning and Research under President Lyndon B. Johnson. The report became a key work in the degradation of the image of Black women.

Ironically, the Moynihan Report, or officially “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” was written under the pretense of achieving racial progress for Black families. It argued that the crisis of the Black family – here, defined by poverty and criminality – could be traced back to working Black mothers who failed in their duties to their children and in their ability to earn a living wage. In this view, Black women were guilty of neglect if they were too sexual and had too many children. It also found fault in Black women if they were too focused on outside work to give their children proper maternal care, which Moynihan considered to be a standard set by White middle-class families.

Indeed, the Moynihan Report was explicit in its commitment to restoring Black male authority and control – understood as the essence of stability – over Black homes. In advocating for the empowerment of Black men at the expense of Black women, this report reaffirmed particular representations of sexually liberated Black women independent of Black male financial support as deviant and destructive.

In the following decades, presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan translated this image of the “bad” Black woman into policies. Nixon attacked Black women as sexually irresponsible despite what he deemed the “animallike charm” of Black Africans. Employing fathers was seen as the solution to Black poverty, and so he tried to change welfare laws so that the government required mothers to establish paternity and indicate the economic prominence and authority of the biological father (a move praised by Moynihan).

Ronald Reagan took it to another level with the archetype of the “welfare queen.” Very publicly in 1976, in his first presidential campaign, Reagan spoke of the “welfare queen” who drove a pink Cadillac and had “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands.” His rhetoric not only brought the figure more powerfully into public consciousness; it forever mythologized her in national discourse as a criminal and parasite.

This image figured prominently in the conservative culture of the 1980s, which came to understand Black women as a drain on the system. And though President Bill Clinton framed his government’s welfare cuts in the 1990s more benignly as helping and disciplining the poor, this rhetoric only continued to demonize unwed Black mothers who came to rely upon social services for economic stability.

Even efforts to bring racial equality and social justice have perpetuated these harmful stereotypes of Black women as the fight for Black justice became intertwined with the fight for a reclamation of Black masculinity.

For example, in 1995, Black men and their allies congregated in Washington during a historic gathering called the Million Man March. Receiving support from the Black community, some speakers at the rally blamed the fall of the Black family – and thus the degradation of the Black community – on the lack of respect for Black male authority. Implicit in these charges was the villainization of Black women who were economically and sexually independent.

In short, for centuries, such images of “bad” Black women have circulated publicly and widely and across the political spectrum, ultimately becoming ingrained in popular culture and shaping the public’s understanding of who can be viewed as a victim and who can be viewed as a perpetrator.

In the trial against Tory Lanez, Megan Thee Stallion was fighting against a long history of racist and sexist tropes that have depicted Black women with access to some form of independence, power and pride as inherently deviant and worthy of hatred from even within their communities. It is among the reasons so many Black women stay silent about domestic abuse and other forms of violence – the very act that Pete is fighting against today.

Sarah Olutola is a graduate of McMaster University and she was the 2018-2019 Gordon F. Henderson postdoctoral fellow at The University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre. Her current academic research concerns postcolonialism, youth culture and representations of race in popular media culture.

Sarah Olutola is a graduate of McMaster University and she was the 2018-2019 Gordon F. Henderson postdoctoral fellow at The University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre. Her current academic research concerns postcolonialism, youth culture and representations of race in popular media culture.

This article was first published in The Washington Post.