In the 1680s, a traveler named Michel Jajolet de la Courbe stopped to rest at a West African market and was surprised to find himself accompanied by a trading company employee, a young African woman:
“She told me that she came to offer me her services, that she was accustomed to doing the laundry for the directors and merchant who came to trade, to comb their hair, to look them in the eyes and to give them a massage. I could not help myself from laughing at such a compliment, and from admiring the weakness of our merchants, and how much this country exerted a pernicious influence on our young people. I told her that she could wash my laundry, but as for the rest, I had no need.” (1)
In the 1750s, a man named Michel Adanson, something of a scientist, traveled through Senegal and remarked on the habits and figures of the African women he encountered:
“The women all had a half-paan [pagne] round their waist, which served them for a petticoat; but from the waist upwards they were naked. Being generally well made, they have a very good air in this dishabille, especially when a person is used to their colour: those who are not accustomed to them, must be content with admiring their shape, which is extremely fine.” (2)
In 1779, on the island Haiti when it was still Saint-Domingue, the Attorney General of Cap Français (Le Cap) passed a statute prohibiting certain modes of dress well known among the free women of color on the island. The statute was part of a series of laws appearing through out the 1760s and into the 1780s, all meant to legislate the dress, behavior, sexual appeal, and general attractiveness of women of African descent.
This turned out to be an uphill battle. For example, when the Superior Council of Le Cap passed a law forbidding women of color from wearing shoes, “they then appeared in sandals, with diamonds on the toes of their feet.” (3)
In 1786, Governor of Louisiana Esteban Miró, in a bando de buen gobierno or a proclamation of laws, lamented the “libertinage” of the free people of color of the colony:
“He (Miró) complains that the distinction which had been established in the head-dress of females of color is disregarded, and urges that it is useful to enforce it; forbids them to wear thereon any plumes or jewelry, and directs them to wear their hair bound in a handkerchief.”(4)
Imagine the governor’s chagrin when, forced to save the respectable white men of the colony from being seduced into libertine behavior with black women, he found his moral reform foiled when the women adorned themselves with elaborately tied tignons or a “brilliant silk kerchief, artfully knotted and perhaps enhanced with a jewel.”(5) Women of African descent, in yet another time and place, were just too damn alluring for their own good.
In 1859, in the heated years preceding the Civil War, New Orleans’ white Nativist mayor Gerard Stith encouraged city police to arrest free blacks under a law that prohibited free people of color from crossing into the state. While men of color bore their share of police harassment,
“Most of the contravening free negroes arrested are dashing females of the silk dress and saddle-colored class, who, whilst more or less corrupting the slaves, with who they come in contact, add to the immorality of their houses and neighborhoods by their money-making intercourse with white men.” (New Orleans Daily Crescent, September 5, 1859) (6)
Attraction is a funny thing. In the form of diasporic black women, it is tinged with a legacy of bonded interactions, barely consensual sexual relations and the inability to control our own image or claim public ownership over how we are perceived. For nearly four centuries, white male scientists, legislators and journalists were the only authorities allowed to speak in our name. For as long and longer, print media, legal professionals, state institutions, and science itself colluded to tie our “well made” figures to illicit sexual activity. It wasn’t hard. The institution of slavery already confounded the terms of consent so that we, as libertine women of color, could never say no.
So when Kanazawa published this piece on the unattractiveness of black women (the headline was changed at least twice before the entire post was finally taken down from the site. The link refers to the second headline), I found myself wanting to have a good laugh. If only it was so easy! If only attractiveness was something that could be judged by placing numbers on a scale or by issuing one-sided interview questions to a group of strangers. If only attractiveness–along with “sexual appeal”, “libertinage” and “well-made”–were terms that just dropped out of the sky and into our brains. If only.
Instead, attractiveness is filtered down to us already dominated by the dark apex of forbidden fruit and subjugation. It gets so that you can’t look in the mirror without seeing names written in blood across your forehead and down your cheeks: Darwin, Jefferson, Sally, Harriet, Sojourner and Saartje. A history that still demands a reckoning.
He is not the first scientist to ignore time and place and he isn’t the first to try to put black women to work without our consent, without pay and in the service of his own vision. We’ve had centuries of this.
And it is still painful for me and problematic for my unborn daughters.
I am following the news out of the UK and I plan to lend my support to the movement to have him relieved of tenure and dismissed from his post. Because now we have weapons that we can deploy against this kind of racist, poorly researched garbage. And I will sign any petition that crosses my laptop that is geared toward the same.
And when I sign, I’ll do it while wearing fucking diamonds on the toes of my ugly black and brown feet.
Zora Walker guards my footnotes. She’s holding them for you here.