Black women socialized in the American South are having a very specific experience; one rooted in the fusion of traditional Victorian morals with the ravages of chattel slavery, forging a survival strategy of intentional invisibility. The American South is often referred to as the “Bible Belt”, a reference to the conservative religious interpretations, which have an impact on Black women socially, how we organize, and advocate for ourselves.
In considering this intentional invisibility as a method of coping with the dangerous positions in which our Black (appropriate for overuse) female (service, ever-giving) bodies (tool for release and other-pleasure) place us; Black femaleness becomes a required performance passed from one generation of Black women to the next.
Audre Lorde writes in Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger “… survival is the greatest gift of love. Sometimes, for Black mothers, it is the only gift possible, and the tenderness gets lost.” She explains the survival training further. “Black women give our children forth into a hatred that seared our own young days with bewilderment, hoping we have taught them something they can use to fashion their own new and less costly pathways to survival.”
Invisibility as a survival strategy, was and is a way to negotiate the fact that rape and domestic violence were and are very real threats on the livelihood of Black women. Black women mastered the seen and unseen, to have to separate selves. A self for her own, and a self to be consumed daily by the intersecting oppressions that demand her labor, creativity, and spirit.
Historically, if Black women were to thrive economically, and by thriving, having the means to attain food, shelter and clothing for themselves, they had to work for or in some way interact with whites. Domestic work for Black women in white homes was a primary source of income. Therefore, Black women developed safety strategies for themselves and had to develop a method of translating these survival methods to their daughters.
Historian Darlene Clark Hine explains this adaptation to life in the U.S. post-slavery in her essay “Culture of Dissemblance” included in her book Hine Sight: Black Women and the re-construction of American history. Selected quotes are below.
“One of the most remarked upon but least analyzed themes in the history of southern black women deals with the vulnerability and powerlessness as victims of rape and domestic violence.”
“I suggest that rape and the threat of rape influenced the development of a culture of dissemblance among southern black women. By dissemblance I mean the behavior and attitudes of black women that created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors…While dissemblance may very well be an integral feature of general southern women’s culture, it exists in an even more complex fashion among black women who endured the combination of race, gender, and class oppression.” p. 37
“The combined influence of rape (or threat of rape), domestic violence, and a desire to escape economic oppression born of racism and sexism is the key to understanding the hidden motivations of major social protest and migratory movements in African-American history.” p.38
“Because of the interplay of racial animosity, class tensions, gender role differentiation, and regional economic variations, black women as a rule developed a politics of silence, and adhered to a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance, to protect the sanctity of the inner aspects of their lives. The dynamics of dissemblance involved creating the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings, while actually remaining enigmatic. Only with secrecy, thus achieving a self-imposed invisibility, could ordinary black women acquire the psychic space and gather the resources needed to hold their own in their often one-sided and mismatched struggle to resist oppression.” p.41
“The inclination of the larger society to ignore them as elements considered ‘marginal’ actually enabled subordinate black women to fashion the veil of secrecy, or ‘invisibility,’ but paradoxically contributed to their failure to realize equal opportunity or to receive respect in the larger society. There would be no room on the pedestal for the southern black lady, nor could she join her white sisters in the prison of ‘true womanhood.’ In other words, stereotypes, negative images, and debilitating assumptions filled the space left empty due to inadequate and erroneous information about the true contributions, capabilities, and identities of black women.” p.42
“I would argue that a secret, undisclosed persona allowed the individual black woman to function, to work effectively as a domestic in white households, to bear and rear children, endure the domestic violence of frequently under- or unemployed mates, to support churches, found institutions, and engage in patriarchal, middle-class America.” p. 43
“To counter negative stereotypes many black women felt compelled to downplay, even deny, sexual expression. The twin obsessions with naming and combating sexual exploitation tinted and shaped black women’s support even of the suffrage movement.” p.45
“As the institutional infrastructure of black women’s clubs, sororities, church-based women’s groups, and charity organizations sank roots into black communities, it encouraged its members to embrace those values, behaviors, and attitudes traditionally associated with the middle-classes.” p. 45
Culture of Dissemblance
Hine, Darlene Clark
Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History
Carlson Publishing Brooklyn, New York, 1994
Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger
An abbreviated version of this essay was published in Essence, vol 14, no. 6(October 1983)
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
Crossing Press, 1984, 2007