Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Trope of Revealation: The little Black Girl as Truth-teller in Black Women’s Fiction about Family Sexual Secrets

Eve: Mama keeps stabbing herself in the kitchen! Show her your hands, Mama. Roz Batiste: I think you'd better hush...
Eve: And where Daddy? He's never home. He's supposed to be home sometimes!
Roz Batiste: Listen, you little ingrate. Your father works hard so we can have a house with four bathrooms!
Eve: Not every night he's working, I know he's not!

From Kissi Lemons' film Eve's Bayou

Black women writers have used with great effect, the trope of the little black girl as truth teller of family sexual secrets. In her book, Longing to Tell, Tricia Rose of Brown University’s Africana Studies Department, writes that “black women's distinctive sexual concerns are often obscured under a feminism that defines the experiences of middle-class white women as those of all women. Even heartfelt white feminist narratives about the strength and resilience of black women praise them for their superwoman-like capacity to carry overwhelming burdens.”

Black women have a decidedly different sexual experience than white women in the United States. Dating back from the time of slavery, black women were stripped naked and rapped not only during the middle passage and on the auction block, but also at the whim of their male masters and male overseers. Both black men and black women were forced to have intercourse with one another to produce children that would be sold for profit by their white owners. At the same time, stereotypes of black female desire as hypersexual would serve to justify their sexual exploitation by white men for those who worked in the fields as laborers and in their homes as domestics. The American legal system did not recognize that it was possible to rape black women so; white men could exploit black women’s sexuality with impunity.

As late as 1971, Tricia Rose notes that a judge admonished a jury to not apply the ordinary presumption of chastity to black women. In 1998 a Black female US custom’s official blew the whistle on the unjustifiable and excessive search and detention of black women female travelers at US airports. Black women were nine times more likely than white women to be x-rayed after already having undergone pat-downs and strip searches.

Due to the stereotypes of black women’s sexuality and the blatant inequality in treatment of black women in comparison to white women, White supremacist patriarchal culture has resulted in a silencing of black women around speaking out about the truth of their sexual lives. The cost for any individual woman is just too high. Rose notes that it is black women writers who stepped in to disclose and map out the landscape and subjectivities of sexually exploited black women. Kissi Lemons continues this tradition in her first film, Eve’s Bayou, through her character, Eve, a girl who defies her father, sister, mother, and community moreways to make visible the deleterious effects of the father’s philandering on the family and the price of the family’s denial, i.e. their pathological accommodation to soul murdering social customs.

Psychoanalyst, Bernard Brandschaft writes that “our adaptation to the world is dependent on both the learning acquired in the transmission of culture from one generation to the next, and our ability to challenge the limits of accepted wisdom….In order to self-correct and grow, we must oppose pathological accommodations to retrograde social systems in which some truths remain absolute.” By ensuring pathological accommodation, he asserts, “entrenched systems, preserve their own interests by imprisoning us in archaic bonds.”

Black feminist thinkers such as Alice Walker, gave us an academic way to bring in black theoretical notions of womanism. Womanism stems from the black colloquialism of womanish, which means to act like a woman, to act like an agent, to claim a subjectivity, to tell their own truths, to risk the consequences and weather rejection. The goal of womanish behavior is to create access for others to tell their own stories of marganizaltion and challenge social institutions to move away from its hegemonic regressive trendings. The womanish girl is often an outcast in her own community. No where is there more true of than of Eve, who is the favorite child of either her mother, who prefers her brother or her father whose preference is for his eldest daughter.

Who really want to risk being censure, gossiped about, retaliated against and ostracized which is the
normal fate of anyone standing on the margins of society: any ‘othered’ person who dares to make the simple observation that “the emperor is naked.”* It is not every black girl child who can contain the explosive mix of thoughts and feelings that involve getting clear and confident about what she sees happening right before her eyes and then developing the capacity for boldness through weathering the effects of social disapproval for her womanish vocalizations.

Nevertheless, the womanish girl child is one who is sensitive to and identifies with the powerful person in her immediate surroundings. It could be the outspoken, pillar of the community, librarian or organizer or the father who is a preacher who models forthrightness and courage in standing up for his beliefs. She is the one who then imitates her idealized role model and practices speaking to adults in her community. Because of her charm, resoluteness, and intelligence, she is usually given the floor and the affirmation for what she says. That reinforcement leads her to become more informed about topics of interest to the adults in her world and thus she engages them more. Unlike her sister who shies away from making trouble, who takes the abuse on herself to in an often failed attempt to protect her other siblings, who internalizes her own anger rather than talk about it, the little girl who reveals is also willingly to risk the consequences of speaking and disrupting the family and community status-quo.


This is a synopsis of a paper I presented as part of a A Faculty Panel at the EGSA Conference, “Anything But Safe” at USF on March 8, 2009 along with Adriana Novoa, Ph.D. USF Humanities and Cultural Studies Department who presented, “Are We Truly Enchanted? The Representation of Women in Crisis in Recent Film” and Lycia Alexander-Guerra, MD, Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society who presented “Film Portrayals, Psychoanalysis, and Girls into Women: the Role of Mothers."


Brandchaft, B. (2007). Systems of Pathological Accommodation and Change in Analysis. Psychoanal. Psychol., 24:667-687.

Rose, T. (2004). Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy, McMillian.

The copyright of the article The Trope of Revealation: The little Black Girl as Truth-teller in Black Women’s Fiction about Family Sexual Secrets in “City of Spirits:” Psychoanalysis and South Culture on the T-BIPS blog is owned by Kim Vaz. Permission to republish The Trope of Revealation: The little Black Girl as Truth-teller in Black Women’s Fiction about Family Sexual Secrets in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Contact Kim Vaz at

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