By Melena Ryzik, Reggie Ugwu, Maya Phillips and Julia Jacobs
New York Times
August 17th, 2020
President Trump’s use of the word to describe Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick, Kamala Harris, plays off a hurtful stereotype with a decades-long history.
Kamala Harris may become the first Black woman elected as vice president, but for now she’s still being slotted into a well-worn mold, as President Trump and his allies seek to cast her as “a mad woman.”
Within hours of her joining Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket on Tuesday, Mr. Trump branded her “extraordinarily nasty,” and then “so angry,” as the rhetoric ratcheted up. By Thursday, a Trump campaign fund-raising email called her “the meanest” senator.
All of it played on a racist trope that goes back generations in American culture, and has a complicated history in forging gender identity, power and class. The “angry Black woman” remains a cultural and social fixture, a stereotype that has been used to denigrate artists, athletes and political figures.
“The notion of the angry Black woman was a way — is a way — of trying to keep in place Black women who have stepped outside of their bounds, and who have refused to concede the legitimacy of being a docile being in the face of white power,” said Michael Eric Dyson, the Georgetown professor and author.
The trope, like all stereotypes, is meant to make its subject into something one-dimensional and easier to puncture. It demeans Black women who are perceived as angry by dismissing them as shrews whose opinions do not count because they are pushed to rage by everything, and nothing.
“If you don’t grant us a degree of emotional complexity, then you don’t have to take us seriously, as leaders or as a constituency that has value,” said Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University and the author of“Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.” “White supremacy is lazy and unoriginal,” she added, “and doesn’t feel the need to ascribe humanity to Black women.”
Ms. Harris has not responded to Mr. Trump’s language, but the Biden camp released a statement Friday evening that referred to Mr. Trump’s “clumsy, bigoted lies.”
The statement from Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesman, said the president was “proving that he’s dumbfounded after Joe Biden’s selection of a strong running mate who he himself said not two weeks ago would be a ‘fine choice.’”
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the president’s remarks.
Serena Williams also did not directly address the stereotype in 2018, when an Australian cartoonist drew global ire by depicting her, with exaggerated features, as throwing a tantrum on the court. Ms. Williams was fresh off her loss to Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open, where she had heated words with an umpire. She did note, when criticism surfaced of her remarks, that she had only complained in a way that white male players have been doing, with impunity, for decades.
In her book “Becoming” and in 2016 interviews with Oprah Winfrey and others, Michelle Obama described how hurt and bewildered she was after being portrayed as an angry Black woman during President Obama’s first presidential campaign.
“That’s the first blowback, because you think, Wow, that is so not me,” she told Ms. Winfrey. “But then you sort of think, Well, this isn’t about me. This is about the people who write it. And then you start thinking, Oh wow, we are so afraid of each other.”
Though the exact origins of the trope are not clear, scholars believe the concept sprang from the post-bellum South, an outgrowth of the mammy archetype — a strong, desexualized authority figure that ruled households assertively. “In some cases that sassiness kind of borders on anger,” said David Pilgrim, a sociologist and the founder of the Jim Crow Museum, a compendium of racist memorabilia housed at Ferris State University, where he is vice president for diversity and inclusion.
The stereotype has been promoted on film and television since at least the 1950s, with the TV arrival of “The Amos ’n’ Andy Show” and the character Sapphire Stevens, played by Ernestine Wade. She was the emasculating and relentlessly volatile foil of her husband, Kingfish. Both characters were written largely by white men…
Alain Delaqueriere and Susan Beachy contributed research.
Melena Ryzik is a roving culture reporter and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. She covered Oscar season for five years, and has also been a national correspondent in San Francisco and the mid-Atlantic states. @melenar
Reggie Ugwu is a pop culture reporter covering a range of subjects, including film, television, music and internet culture. Before joining The Times in 2017, he was a reporter for BuzzFeed News and Billboard magazine. @uugwuu
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