Curren Gauss: First of all, it's lovely to have you here. You're teaching a course Wenches, Witches and Welfare Queens within IU Themester Semester for this coming fall. If you want to like, talk a little bit about that before we hop on into it for any listeners.
Dr. Myers: Sure. I'm really excited to be here. Thank you for having me and I'm really looking forward to teaching my class within the Themester programming this fall. It's a class that I've been teaching for a number of years actually. So, the full title is Wenches, Witches and Welfare Queens: Stereotypes, and Images of Black Women in US History. And it's a course that I developed a number of years ago, because I teach black women's history more broadly here at Indiana University. One of the things that I became really concerned about and invested through my own research was how black women have been sort of type cast up throughout US history in various ways. Not just within the present moment by the media.
Dr. Myers: You know, various kinds of media, but also like historically I was sort of thinking about.. there's my own work, particularly my own research and publications are on the era of slavery, and I was thinking about well, these images that are resonating in the media today didn't just sort of pop up out of nowhere, right, they have a long history. Ideas about the mammy, about hyper sexualization of black women, ideas like the Jezebel. But even things that are more presentist that we think about in terms of “the video hoe” which is a very particular image. Black women as the stripper, these sorts of things. They actually are not very…they are not recent images. They actually have a really really long history. But I was really troubled by the fact that there's this constant, just like black men have images as “the rapist'' or “the thug,” these have long histories as well. But, there were just these… on social media you had these acronyms that were popping up like “thot” and we know what that means. I mean, “the hoe over there,” right these sorts of things. But people were just throwing these things out, there was a lot of laughter, and snaid commentary around them.
Dr. Myers: But nobody was contextualizing them, and as a historian I was really disturbed by that. And so I put together this course, because I thought it was really important that we take these images, and that we look at them and say, "Well, who developed them, when and where did they develop them? And for what purpose, right?" But then, also, most more importantly, how did black women respond to these images, these attacks on their character? What was their response, and what counter images and narratives did they put back against these images about themselves, you know, against their morality, their sexuality? Because this has been happening for centuries here in the United States and obviously it isn't just in the United States. These sorts of things are happening globally, but because I’m a US historian, and because this is a class about the US, we focus on what's happening here in our country.
Dr. Myers: So it's not a course that is chronological, it's more it's thematic. We pick several concrete images, and we look at them and sort of build the context around them. Say, like, for example, right, mammy. And we say, “Okay, here is where it began, how it developed and how it was constructed. And here's how it's still resonating throughout different time periods, even into the present moment." And so we look at things like Aunt Jemima, for example. And so we read different kinds of things. We look at advertisements. We look at videos, we look at films, and so we look at different kinds of source materials. We look at poetry, we look at fiction, we look at music, and we look at all the different ways in which these images have been permeating society not only across time, but in different media formats. And it's so subtle that that's what's so insidious about it is that people today are being sort of like bombarded with these images but don't even realize it because it's become so insidious and so invisible. And so, by the time we get to 18 or 20 or 25, we have been conditioned to sort of think about black women in certain ways without even realizing it. We assume that black women are like meant to be servants, or are available sexually, or you know that they are morally degraded etc. etc.
Dr. Myers: We don't even realize where these images have come from because they're staring at us from supermarket shelves, or they're coming at us from the evening news or from Hollywood screens, or even from the toys that you know that we might have grown up with, or from the books that we read. And so we assume that black women are “available,” or “meant to clean our homes,” or these sorts of things, and it's like "Well, now hang on! Why do I think this way?" And so this class helps to unpack a lot of those things and help us to understand the biases that we have that we maybe don’t even realize we have. Also what I think is really important is how black women have always always pushed back against these constructed images of themselves, and put forward their own constructed ideas and beliefs about black women's, morality, sexuality, respectability, etc. And even into the present moment, with body positive images, like with music like WAP, for example, right? And other things of that nature so that's how the course is constructed to really go back and forth between past and present, and utilizing a wide range of materials. So that we can talk really openly about where these ideas come from.
Dr. Myers: Why we might unknowingly even hold them and begin to really have an open conversation about images and stereotypes in the United States and about misogynoir.
Curren Gauss: Lovely. I took that course with you last year. It is fantastic. It was so important. And I really, I learned a lot. Kind of going off of that. Can you speak a little bit about your research within history and gender studies? Outside of just like that course, just for anyone listening.
Dr. Myers: Absolutely. So, my PHD is in U.S. history, then I have specialization fields within that. Two specialization fields: one is in African American history, the other one is in Women and Gender Studies. So it all kind of comes together in the fact that my specialization is actually in black women in the antebellum south. And so I specialize in my books and articles and publications are all on African American women in the era of slavery in the United States. So I have a joint appointment here at Indiana University. My home departments are History and Gender studies. My first book looked at the lives of free black women who lived in Charleston, South Carolina prior to the Civil War.
Dr. Myers: And it really interrogates, What does it mean to be free? But also be a black woman living in the heart of the slave South. You know. What does freedom really look like when you're both black and female in the plantation south. Especially in a city like Charleston, South Carolina that's going to become the heart of the Confederacy when the Civil War starts in 1861. So that book runs from 1790 to 1860, and it really interrogates, first of all, how do black women even become free in a place like Charleston? And then why do they stay right? What does life look like for black women under those circumstances? What kind of jobs are they able to get? Are they able to acquire property? What kind of social lives are they able to have?
Dr. Myers: Because what we discover and what I discovered after doing my research is that freedom is really limited in you know in that city. It's never the kind of freedom that white folks are able to have in the nineteenth century. Certainly not the kind of freedom that white men are able to have. But black women push as hard as they can as far as they can, to try to construct free lives for themselves in a society that's really constrained and limiting, because you know, white Americans never envisioned that black people would ever have freedom right, because in their concept, in white people's concept free meant white and enslaved met black.
Dr. Myers: And so the whole concept of free black people was an oxymoron for them. And so, when the the fact was that when black people became free, it was just so shocking for them, and they consistently tried to create avenues back into slavery for black people. As soon as black people became free they were like setting up laws and and ways to sort of re-inslave them, to trap them back into slavery. And so black women had a hard road. There were constantly obstacles trying to trip them back up into slavery. But they did the best they could with what they had to make free lives for themselves, to acquire property, you know, to be able to go to church and worship. Everything was always towards making lives better for their children. Stronger sort of free lives for their children and grandchildren. And it's actually really led to my second book which is going to be published finally next year. It's called “The Vice President's Black Life: The Untold Life of Julia Chin," and I've been working on this book for 10 years. And it really actually has a lot to do with another class that I teach here at Indiana University, called Sex, Lies and Diaries.
Dr. Myers: It came out of my first book, and it has a lot to it has to do with interracial sex and interracial families, and it's all about the woman about a woman named Julia Chin, who was an enslaved woman in Kentucky, and for almost a quarter century she was in a relationship with the ninth vice President of the United States and his name was Richard Mentor Johnson so he you know this kind of sounds like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Henry, which is what most people think of when they hear the story. But what's different about this relationship is that Johnson never had a white wife. He never married a white woman and he openly lived with Julia and their 2 daughters. And so this is coming out next year. But my whole career has been really dedicated to unpacking issues of race, color, sex, gender, power, freedom, citizenship. And putting black women at the center of the story always. And seeing what does it mean to be a black woman in the slave South, and trying to like, acquire more power, more privilege, more freedom for yourself and your family and your children? So those themes resonate out from the first book and translate into the second. So that's the kind of work that I do.
Kate O’Brien: It's great. To add on to that, and to continue more of our conversation, I was wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about sort of intersectional identity, especially in relation to black women, talking off of what we've been speaking about from earlier.
Dr. Myers: No, definitely. I mean that's something that I talk about so much in my classes, all my classes, and with my students. Kimberly Crenshaw, of course, coined the term. And I think that you know it took a long time for people to sort of pick up on the term, and really understand it. And for black women's scholars and black women, historians, and you know, have been talking about intersectionality for a long time, and the fact that for anyone who's listening who maybe doesn't quite understand what it means. It's the fact that there are certain individuals that their positionality in life means that they can experience intersecting modes of oppression.That if you are a woman, and you also happen to be impoverished, that means that you can experience intersecting nodes of oppression. You could be a white man but you could also be get, you know you could also be gay. That's an intersecting node of oppression because you could be impoverished. So there's different ways that intersectionality works out. But Kimberly Crenshaw, who is a black woman, said, "Look, when you are black and you are female, you are born with intersecting notes of oppression in this country because you experience racism and sexism throughout the course of your life simultaneously every single day as a woman of color. If you're a white woman, you're gonna experience sexism. If you're a black man, you're gonna experience racism."
Dr. Myers: For black women, you can't wiggle your way out of misogynoir. So that's something that deeply shapes and I mean, this is certainly, when you're talking about indigenous women when we're talking about latinx women when we're talking about women of color from different groups. This is something that they're going to experience in different ways. Now it's going to be modified by class. Obviously. It's going to be modified also by sexuality. And we know that folks who are trans right, who are wealthy. It's going to be modified by religion.. All kinds of things can intersect, and either add to or modify intersectionality in different ways. So everyone's experiences are different and I'm not interested in engaging in what we like to call “Oppression Olympics.” I’m not suggesting that you know, because people like to talk about, “Oh, like you're just saying you're saying that like you know there's like some people like there's this whole gradation of like, who has it worse in society, or whatever and I'm like no. What I'm saying is that there are certain things, there are people who experience different kinds of oppression than others. That my experience walking through life is different than your experience walking through life, or your experience walking through life.
Dr. Myers: What that means is that we have to be willing to sit and listen to other people's experiences. That Curren’s experience walking through life in her body is not the same as my experience walking through life in my body. I’m not saying that that means that… it's not about victimology, it's about being willing to listen to each other's stories, because intersectionality means that our experiences are different. And that we have to honor those differences and be willing to listen to them and be open to the fact that our experiences are gonna mean oppression affects us differently simply because of structural issues. We have to acknowledge that the United States is structurally misogynistic, structurally racist. If we don't start from that basic acknowledgement, if we don't agree that the US is white supremacist foundationally from its founding, even prior to when it was colonial. That if we don't acknowledge that it was misogynistic, if we don't acknowledge that it was a settler colonial nation that attempted to like perpetuate genocide against the original indigenous inhabitants of this place, that we sit on. If we don't acknowledge that and start from that place of agreement. Then we actually aren't even going to be able to acknowledge intersectionality at all right. So it has to start from that. It's not about me saying, Well, my life is worse than yours. It's saying, my life is different from yours and I walk through it differently because of the body that I inhabit. Yes, I'm a cisgendered woman. That means that my experiences are going to be different from somebody who's transgender. Therefore I have to be willing to listen to those experiences because I don't walk through this life as a transgender person.
Curren Gauss: Intersectionality can be so hard for people to understand sometimes. Because I think it's like “Oh, well like my life has been hard too.” And just like you were saying, it's not about oppression olympics. It's about people having different experiences and listening. Kind of going off of the last question a little bit towards the beginning. You were talking about intersectional identity within black women. How would you say that gender and race for these women, how does that inform their own personal identity?
Dr. Myers: I think that you've been, we've been hearing a lot over the last few years about black girl magic and black girl joy. Black boy Joy. Because I think that we talk so much about racism and sexism and oppression and violence, and all of these things. Which are the things that are sort of coming at us right, coming at women of color, people of color, black women from the outside. And it can be really easy to sort of focus on the negatives. And how those shape, how women of color, people of color, black women respond to the world. But I think it's also really important to understand that you know we grow up in families, church communities and are surrounded by friends and people who pour into us and teach us, and give us a lot of love and affirmation and strength about who we are.
Dr. Myers: And that's equally important to constructing our identities, that the book that I'm writing that's coming out next year is going to be dedicated to my grandmothers. One passed away when I was 11, the other when I was 19. I didn't get to spend very much time with them, but as I got older and I learned more about who they were, and their stories, I realized that as important as my grandfathers were to who I am, my grandmothers were equally important to the woman that I've become. How they poured into their children and to my aunties, and how my aunties have poured into me, and how my mom has poured into me right. This is, and this is what I see in the women I know who are my closest friends, that we have women in our lives who are our role models. Our aunts, our cousins, our sisters, but also our fictive kin. The people in our lives, the women in our lives who aren't necessarily biologically, or blood related to us, but who are our family, who are our God mothers, and our play aunts. Who are our fictive kin who have poured into us and shaped us and raised us to say that just because the there are all of these things out there who are saying one thing to you that doesn't mean that you have to absorb that or believe that in any way shape or form and that's, I think, very important to consider. Because that has been the case for centuries.
Dr. Myers: But in terms of race and gender, when you see you know women throughout the ages like Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells and Ella Baker and Fennie Lou Hamer and others, the things that they went through and were able to stand up, and speak about the truth of what it meant to be a black woman. To be a leader in their communities, to serve their communities. It was because they said, despite everything that this country says about us, we know who we are and we know what we have to offer our families and our communities. And to this nation, despite the fact that this nation seems to not want us. Because there's a book title that I read many years ago, and it's always stuck with me.
Dr. Myers: We're rooted here and you can't pull us up, and that sort of that's always really stuck with me about race and gender, and how women of color, indigenous women, black and brown women sort of respond to these things. I'm just thinking about the fact that I never thought that I would live long enough to see a woman like Katanji Brown Jackson ascend to the Supreme court of this country or that I'm writing about the enslaved partner of the Ninth Vice President of the United States, and we now have a woman of black and South Asian ancestry who is the Vice President of the United States. Do we have a long way to go? We absolutely do. But black women have never allowed white people in this country to dictate how they see themselves.
Kate O’Brien: Something that you talked about and that we talked about this in the beginning. And we actually talked about this a little bit in some of our previous questions. Obviously we have some of these harmful and very outdated stereotypes that still affect us in the model era. And are attached to black women including, like the Jezebel, Sapphire and the Mammy, and more as well. Sort of based on what we were talking about with identity and also, maybe perhaps coming from what you've been talking about in your class. How do these stereotypes sort of inform the identity of black women?
Dr. Myers: You know, I was thinking about the fact that it took the uprisings of 2020 to get Aunt Jemima off the shelves like, and the name changed, even though black people have been protesting and trying to get the name of that product changed for like a 100 years. And even though the name was changed, there are people who complained that the name was changed. And there was like social media push back on the fact that the name was changed. So let's just kind of stop and think about that for a second. There are people who are angry that Aunt Jemima is no longer Aunt Jemima. Think about the fact that the movie, The Help was one of the highest grossing films in the year in which it was released. And the largest demographic that went to see that movie or white women, and they were bawling all over themselves in the theater, watching it. These images of black women as maids, black women, as cooks, black women as like the sultry sex symbol of Jezabel. So like Mammy is wrapped up in that whole image of the cook and Aunt Jemima. So black women is the servant, black women as the sex symbol or the Jezebel, black woman as the angry black woman or Sapphire.
Dr. Myers: Michelle Obama was accused of that, of being the angry black woman, the outspoken black woman, the bitter black woman. So any black woman today, if she's outspoken, if she's assertive, if she's intelligent, she runs afoul of being accused of being angry. So if you're if you're in politics, if you're in higher education, if you have half a brain, then if you say anything, you're immediately angry. Certainly it's happened. If you look at any, if you look at Stacey Abrams, if you look at... it happened during the Senate hearings with Katanji Brown Jackson with the confirmation hearings. So these these stereotypes are very much alive and well.
Dr. Myers: I mean, Fox News had a field day with Michelle Obama. Any time. She had to constantly be like smiling and smiling. And no matter how much she smiled or how bright she was, she was still accused of being "Barack's bitter half." That was literally a phrase that Fox News used. I think that this is the point that no matter how much you try to wear conservative clothing, to smile and be polite and modulate your tone. If we're outspoken, if we're ever educated, if we're intelligent, if we're insightful, we're angry. If we are body positive, we are Jezabel’s. If we know so We're sort of damned if we do and we're damned if we don't. So I think many more and more people are just coming to realize, why bother trying to engage with those you know what's the point? I mean it's just something better to sort of carve our own path.
Curren Gauss: And you are sort of talking about that earlier with how black women form identity in positive ways outside of these stereotypes. And sort of going back to that and going off of that. How, What does the rebellion against these stereotypes look like for black women? And how are, despite everything that's sort of thrown at them, from the media and from outlook biases, how are they still able to form their own identity? Kind of how you were talking about earlier?
Dr. Myers: I think a lot of it has come through creating separate organizations. I mean, I'm certainly allying with folks who are like minded in integrated organizations as well. But a lot of it comes through organizations, some of which are very long standing like the AKAs, for example. Which our Vice President belongs to,so like historically black sororities like the AKAs or the Deltas. So safer space where you can truly be yourself, and not have to constantly feel like you are being watched by white eyes all the time.
Kate O’Brien: I absolutely agree on that. I think it's a really important discussion to have especially as our generation is coming through college, as some of us are even graduating college. And entering, I guess what you call quote unquote, the adult world and entering this, this whole new life that we are now finally facing. Now, I have to ask before we let you go. First and foremost, thank you so much for having this conversation with us. We really appreciate it. Just wondering if there was anything really quick, that you'd like to touch on before we let you go.
Dr. Myers: There are so many things that we could talk about. but I guess I would end with saying, you know, I was just at a conference this weekend up at Purdue. On the past, present, and future of American democracy, and which was, it was really wonderful in many ways, but it was also a little concerning. I was on a panel, on a plenary session with some really wonderful scholars, where we were talking about sort of the imminent what will most likely be the imminent reversal of Roe. Given the leaked decision that came out last month from the Supreme Court. I was talking about my concerns, that about how this is going to affect you know, impoverished women and women of color in particular given that we know the statistics about the ties in this country between race and class.
Dr. Myers: But I also- you know, said that this isn't just something that goes back 40 or 50 or 60 years. No, this is really something that the state has long tried to regulate black women's bodies. It's long tried to regulate the bodies of women of women of color here in what is now the United States. It has long tried…it has sterilized, indigenous, and black and brown women. Fanny Lou Hamer is a woman who comes to mind right away. Who was illegally sterilized, without her consent, when she thought she was having an appendectomy, and then found out as an adult that she had been sterilized without her knowledge. So there are many black, brown, indigenous women who have been sterilized without their consent. Black women's bodies were, enslaved black women, were used as test subjects and the site of experimentation to develop the field of gynecology. So that white women could then safely have hysterectomies and other life saving surgeries performed on them. Basic women's health care in the United States today owes, that whole medical science field owes itself to the unregulated experimentation on the bodies of black women, indigenous women, brown women.
Dr. Myers: The whole sort of attempt by the government to once again dictate and regulate and control and say what does and does not happen to women's bodies in this country is not new. It's longstanding and it's old, and it's terrifying to me because it has always met terrifying things for women of color in particular because those are the women who look like me, who have been at the mercy of the state, of scientists, of doctors and hospitals and researchers and the government. Who have said, we get to cut you open. We get to experiment on you, we get to take things out of you. We get to put needles into you. You don't have any control over what you get to do with your body. It's why today black and brown communities still distrust the medical establishment in this country. It's why so many black and brown folks still didn't want to get the COVID vaccine in this country because they mistrust the medical establishment. It's why so many of our elders were hesitant to go and get the Covid vaccine.
Dr. Myers: I mean, black women have the highest rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer. We have the highest rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality in this country. We lack access to healthcare, but we also mistrust healthcare. And so, with the looming decision on the docket in front of the Supreme Court on Row. I am terrified as to what is going to happen in this country to any person with a uterus right.
Dr. Myers: But I'm particularly concerned as to what is going to happen to women of color. To black, brown, and indigenous women, because we know that the history of this country has never been kind to women who look like me and any time the State gets involved. This will not be the first law to fall, because if you think they're going to stop with Roe…they're going to get involved with transgender issues. They're going to get involved with gay marriage.
Dr. Myers: They're going to get involved with affirmative action. They're going to get involved with anything that they feel they can get involved with. They're going to get involved with Brown versus Board. They're going to get involved with you know, like I said I mean the State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. That is what a very smart political leader once said many decades ago, because it's none of their damn business. And this is exactly where we're headed. And it is gonna fall. The acts will fall most mightily on the poor.
Dr. Myers: The disenfranchised and folks of color. And they are threatening legal action and arrest and incarceration on anyone who helps someone procure access to an abortion, and that means going back to laws like the fugitive slave act when people helped people escape on the underground railroad. We're going back to the nineteenth century. So that is what we're going, that is what is on the horizon if we do not come together and fight back. And that means we have to go back to grassroots activism. So that is where I would leave us today.
Curren Gauss: Thank you for leaving us with that. That is truly very important and a very very heavy issue that it's not going to go away anytime soon. Unless truly, just like you said activism.