Luther hosts 10th annual Black History Conference
The Luther community recently had the opportunity to gain a new perspective on the way African-American women are presented in society. The tenth annual Black History Conference took place on Feb. 6-7, with the theme “Body Politic: Cultural Identities and Representations of Black Women’s Sexuality.”
University of Pennsylvania Professor of law, sociology, civil rights and Africana studies Dorothy Roberts gave the opening lecture on how slavery’s sexual imagery still influences the depiction of black women today.
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“On the one hand, there’s a profound silence about black women’s subjective sexual experiences,” Roberts said. “The unattractive, asexual black woman is still the icon of black female respectability. Yet at the same time, the public displays of black women’s bodies abound throughout United States culture.”
Roberts argued that slavery gave slaveholders the power to have unlimited sexual access to their “property.” The slaves had no legal rights to their own bodies, and women and girls were particularly subject to sexual violation. Black women were the ones considered inherently promiscuous in contrast to white women. The only way for a black woman to be respectable, according to Roberts, was to be a “Mammy” figure.
“Slavery’s stereotypes linking natural black femaleness to sexual promiscuity and respectability to sexlessness have left a gaping void in the cultural terms needed for black women to freely and publicly define their own sexual identities,” Roberts said.
Visiting Assisting Professor of Africana Studies and History Lauren Anderson attended the conference and agreed with Roberts.
“Is there a space for women to be sexual without being exploited?” Anderson asked. “Culture makes it seem like only certain types are desirable.”
In another session, singer Abby Dobson
echoed Roberts’ concerns, particularly for black female artists.
“They are expected to lead with their sexuality, often scantily clad, and offer expressions of their sexuality onstage for purchase in digital form and market products to consumers,” Dobson said.
However, art can still be a mode of expression for black women.
“They are creating sonic narratives to give evidence of their subjectivity,” Dobson said.
One artist recognized in the conference was Lena Horne, the conference’s legacy honoree. Horne was a singer, actress, dancer and civil rights activist.
“She was a person who knew her worth,” Diversity Center Executive Director Sheila Radford-Hill said. “Lena Horne became a famous Hollywood actress at a time when the Depression was raging and Jim Crow was king. She was an embodied resistance.”
As part of the tribute to Horne, Christie Owens (‘16) presented a movement piece reflecting Horne’s life and Owens’ own admiration for her.
“My goal was to learn enough about her and reflect her story and mine through movement,” Owens said. “I picked the song ‘If You Believe’ from “The Wiz” because it was my first experience with Horne, and I feel it reflects her perseverance.”
“The Wiz” is a musical following the same story as “The Wizard of Oz,” with a cast entirely made up of black actors. Owens said Horne stood out to her at first because she didn’t look black.
“Later on in high school, I was in a production of “The Wiz,” Owens said. “I was one of two black students in the cast. Then I did a research project on Lena Horne. My teacher suggested I could grow from learning about her, and I think I definitely did.”
Above all, Owens said she believes that race does not define a person.
“You should be proud of who you are,” Owens said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or Asian, just embrace yourself.”