400 Year Blog #26 – The Weapon of the Black Sexual Predator Myth

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Few stereotypes have harmed Black men as much as the myth of “the Black sexual predator.” It wasn’t prevalent before the Civil War when stereotypes defended slavery by representing Black people as childlike, foolish, and in desperate need of “benevolent white control.” After emancipation, however, white portrayals of Black men as uninhibited, hypersexual, violent brutes led to lynching and terrorism.
White patriarchy justified vigilante violence to defend “white womanhood.” During the 1863 New York rampage Black men were tortured for having married white women. False and exaggerated rumors of sexual assaults by Black men sparked the destruction of entire Black neighborhoods in Tulsa, Rosewood and Atlanta (Blogs #24 -#25). Of course for centuries few admitted the horror of white men raping Black women they claimed to own.
D. W. Griffith’s blockbuster 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, spread this pernicious myth of the Black predator to millions. A white actor in blackface played “Gus,” a Black Union soldier who stalks a young white girl named “Flora.” To save herself from sexual attack, Flora leaps from a cliff to her death, fueling continued white supremacist rage and malicious attacks on Black men. This stereotype is solidified by scenes where Black elected representatives leer at white women in the Congressional galleries.
Furious that the NAACP called out the racism of his film, Griffith only confirmed his bigotry in a 1916 pamphlet, “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America.” He attacked critics by saying that censorship is the “malignant pygmy” that grew into a “caliban,” a Shakespearean half man–half monster. Black men, portrayed as sexual beasts in racist films, could be lynched for simply looking at a white woman. Does this vicious stereotype explain why so many lynchings involved mutilation of the sexual organs of Black men?
Griffith and others praised the Ku Klux Klan for defending white women. One woman, settlement house pioneer Jane Addams, bemoaned the film’s appeals to racial prejudice in the New York Post emphasizing what we all know: “history is easy to misuse.” As my next blog will explain, it was used against many teenagers: the “Scottsboro boys” in Alabama, Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta, and the “Central Park Five.” Today it continues to harm Black men, teens, and boys because we have failed to deconstruct this horrible myth.
Lesson #115: Pernicious stereotypes were created by powerful whites to fit their need to justify evolving forms of white supremacy.
Lesson #116: Emancipation led white supremacists to create the myth of the Black sexual predator leading to decades of fear and terrorism.
Lesson #117: Centuries of widespread denial that Black women were raped by those who claimed to own them magnifies the hypocrisy that created the hateful myth of the Black sexual predator.
Lesson #118: The sexual mutilation of lynching victims indicated the perverse depth of white preoccupation about the Black body.
Lesson #119: The Birth of a Nation, called by some “the most racist film ever produced,” contributed to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
Lesson #120: Race prejudice has long been used to lure whites to racist forms of entertainment – from minstrel shows to the silver screen.
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