By Dr. Andrea Powell Wolfe
Early Modern European travel narratives consistently depict the female African as animalistic in childbirth and infant rearing. In a widely circulated 1602 narrative, Pieter de Marees claims that the women of Sierra Leone gave birth in mixed company and, instead of “lying in” as European women did, cleaned themselves and continued working after childbirth (Morgan 184). With imagery that influenced the representation of black women for centuries afterward, De Marees continues, “When [the child] is two or three months old, the mother ties the childe with a peece of cloth at her backe. . . . When the child crieth to sucke, the mother casteth one of her dugs backeward over her shoulder, and so the child suckes it as it hangs” (Morgan 184). The use of the term “dugs” here (used during this time to mean an animal’s teats), as well as De Marees’s depiction of the mother’s purported nonchalance in nursing her child, contribute to African woman’s characterization as bestial. Her animalistic nature is carried forth in the behavior of her children, who are described as “lying downe in their house, like Dogges, [and] rooting in the ground like Hogges” (Morgan 184). As Jennifer Morgan points out, in that it came to represent the quintessential otherness of Africans, the trope of the animalistic black mother in travel literature “marked the boundaries of English civility even as she naturalized the subjugation of Africans and their descendants in the Americas” (192).
We must look no further than the rhetoric surrounding America’s self-proclaimed “Mom-in-Chief” to find continued linkages between black women and animalism. In 2009, GOP activist Rusty DePass insinuated a familial link between First Lady Michelle Obama and a primate, commenting on Facebook in response to a post on a missing gorilla, “I’m sure it’s just one of Michelle’s ancestors—probably harmless” (“Rusty DePass”).
As recently as January 2012, Mike O’Neal admitted to forwarding an email that compared Obama to the Grinch (Rothschild). Besides the subject line “Twins separated at birth?” and an image of Obama alongside the Grinch, the message also included the text, “I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing Mrs. YoMama a wonderful, long Hawaii Christmas vacation—at our expense, of course” (Rothschild). Implied here is not only Obama’s animalism—in that she is like a hairy, cave-dwelling Seuss character—but also her deviance in using “our” money to travel. The racially-coded term “YoMama,” used in mainstream culture as a marker of black, urban rhetoric, defines African Americans as the others in the text of this email. White readers are constructed as the intended audience, the real Americans whose hard-earned dollars are being used to fund Obama’s trip. As “Mrs. YoMama,” Obama is portrayed as a black matriarch, the archetypal emasculating mother-figure made the butt of the joke in the endless flow of “your mama” stories exchanged in African American culture. Since she is also the First Lady, though, this “Mama” is figured as threatening, not necessarily to black men but, instead, to white men atop the political power structure of the nation (many of whom, thanks to O’Neal, received the email). Obama’s characterization as yet another in a long line of animalistic black mothers is supposed to be funny. What the joke reveals, however, is sobering: that today white men draw on the trope of the bestial black mother to contain the social and political threat of blackness (perhaps felt all too keenly throughout President Obama’s first term) and continue to justify the oppression of black individuals on the basis of the black mother’s otherness.
Andrea Powell Wolfe teaches literature and humanities at Ball State University. Her current book project considers the literary positioning of black motherhood within the nation.
Image: de Bry, Theodor. Woman Breastfeeding over Her Shoulder. Title page from Verum et Historicam Descriptionem Avriferi Regni Guineaa. Small Voyages. Vol. 6. Ed. de Bry. Frankfurt: Frankfurt am Main, 1604. Web. 25 June 2012.
Morgan, Jennifer. “’Some Could Suckle Over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54.1 (1997): 167-92.
Rothschild, Scott. “Speaker O’Neal Apologizes for Forwarding Email that Calls Michelle Obama ‘Mrs. YoMama.’” Lawrence Journal World. 5 Jan. 2012. Web. 20 June 2012.
“Rusty Depass, South Carolina GOP Activist, Says Escaped Gorilla Was Ancestor Of Michelle Obama (VIDEO).” 15 July 2009. The Huffington Post. Web. 25 June 2012.