Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Woman

Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, I saw them. Oiled, buttered up, ready for consumption. And though black writers hate to describe skin color in terms of food, it’s true: their bodies were all the shades of brown you’d see on a Thanksgiving dinner table.

That’s not the important thing.

This is. Heads tucked down, asses pushed out, they’d mastered the Kim Kardashian pose, though they hadn’t quite figured out how to achieve her money or status.

It’s interesting how the kiosk owner had set it up. These black women dominated the magazine rack. The rows of glossy brown bodies tumbling out of bikinis seemed to have been placed almost strategically in front of The New Yorker. New York Magazine. The New York Times. Psychology Today. An old issue or two of Wired.

And I always wondered, who at the 116th Street station was buying these magazines?

I was taking a seminar at Columbia, and was the only black person in it. That could have been an anomaly, but I don’t think so. The first time I ran into a brother who was also in my graduate program, we almost hugged each other.

So who was buying these magazines? And why had the kiosk owner put them there, smack in the middle of the station?

Was it to give people something brown to look at as they came and went? Or was it for his own enjoyment? Did he, a forty-something Indian man, get tired of the similarity of the people walking by? Was positioning a video vixen’s defiantly arched backside in front of the Times his version of an STFU to the world?

I never had adequate time to ponder these questions. The train would come, leaving fifty minutes to get to Long Island City, Queens, where I taught.

In any case, it didn’t matter. The moment I exchanged the 1 train for the 7 train, I relaxed.  Rather than look away, people looked me in the eye, or at least, in the vague direction of my voice. I felt like an invisible object suddenly gaining form. It’s funny how the more you move away from certain sections of Manhattan, the more you notice the darker and more varied faces, and the intricate-almost-magical way a potpourri of accents blossoms.


My very first sex dream was about a puppet.  That may sound odd, but it’s probably because you don’t hear much about girls and their wet dreams. But I woke up, wet and scared and excited. I could feel my vagina vibrating, and though at thirteen I didn’t know what an orgasm was, I knew I’d had one; I knew I had experienced something. To this day, I can’t figure out what it was about this image that did it for me. If I had to guess, maybe it was the way the puppet moved its genderless, boxy form. The little brown puppet pushed itself up and down, out and in, in all kinds of crazy, jerky ways.  The oddest part of the dream?  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tell who held the puppet’s strings.


My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham brought us the most useful term ever: “the politics of respectability.”  In Righteous Discontent, Higginbotham describes how black women in the post-Reconstruction era adapted a politics of respectability in order to combat the “widespread assumptions of the black woman’s innate promiscuity.”

The politics of respectability was, in many ways, a visual fight. Black leaders cautioned black women to keep immaculate homes, dress modestly, and appear clean and neat at all times.

And yet, the politics of respectability always had a vocal undertone.

Most people are familiar with the photograph of a bespectacled Rosa Parks sitting calmly on a bus, but in At The Dark End of the Street, author Danielle McGuire describes how Parks seldom sat; she traveled across the country, investigating cases of violence, including sexual violence. Long before the boycott, Parks was noted for her campaign of justice for Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by six white men. Parks, McGuire explains, was tireless in making sure her voice was heard. She “wrote letters, signed petitions, sent postcards” in support of Taylor.

It’s impossible to hear battle cries in a silent image. Still, the Rosa Parks photograph, which has seeped into our consciousness, is not entirely without noise.


When I Google “black women and rape,” the first website that pops up is The second is from a man claiming that black women were never raped during slavery. Black female slaves, he writes, willingly had sex with the slave master because that was “moving up in the world big time.” The fact that black women were property and thus could not legally give their consent either does not enter the man’s consciousness or is something he does not wish to discuss.


Before I taught at a community college, I taught at a historically black women’s college. My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

One year, I brought pictures of women – black, white and Latina, dressed similarly, in bathing suits and biking shorts – to a couple of my composition classes.  I held a stopwatch and asked students to write their immediate reaction to each picture.  We’d been reading personal essays from both ordinary women and prominent feminist scholars. Because the pictures were from women’s and men’s magazines, I expected to have a conversation on the male gaze. But that’s not what happened.

“She looks alright,’” one student said, and pointed to a white swimsuit model. “But we can’t wear things like that. It looks different on us.”

“Black women can’t wear bathing suits?” I wondered.

“We can’t have all our meat hanging out,” the student answered. “It looks disgusting.”

Other students nodded, though their bodies were similar to the ones they were critiquing.

I went home, tired. How do you get to a place in life where you are disgusted by the images that resemble you most?


Black women: Steve Harvey says you can’t get a man.


Black women: The New York Times says you can’t get a man.


Black women: Fox News says you can’t get a man. And yet, ironically enough, you’re still a whore.


I spent my teen years wrapped in a cocoon of ugliness. Other than my butt, my body was on the slim side, and in the South, in the 1990s, you didn’t want to be shaped this way. You wanted to look like one of the models from Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison video; you wanted a round butt and thick thighs, attached to a tiny waist.

But my shape (or lack thereof) and other aspects of my ugliness – frizzy hair, acne, braces – de-sexualized and freed me. I played with dolls longer than I should have. I read novels and became immersed in my own little world. I had a long, extended childhood, which ended abruptly when I spent a summer in California.

The aesthetic was different there. For the first time, because of my body, people overlooked the braces, the frizzy hair.

That summer, I dated a guy a few years older than me. He grabbed me in public, no matter where we were. When I protested, he said, “Look at how you’re dressed. You wouldn’t wear shorts if you didn’t want attention.”

This escalated. A few weeks later, I was in bed clawing my way from him.

“Don’t act like you don’t want it,” he told me. “Look at how you’re built. Like a ho.”

The meanness of the comment made me want to scream. In fact, I did scream, so loudly he jumped away from me.

Who can blame him?

That evening, the force of my voice scared me too.


In the Columbia seminar, I was aware of my body from the moment I walked into the classroom. If a reading alluded to a concept outside of black American culture, it was assumed I was unfamiliar with it, but if it mentioned race, the class assumed I was an expert – and then I faced eleven sets of eyes staring at me.

I tried to ignore my body, but over the course of the semester, I grew more aware of it, and less confident, less sure of my abilities. The assumptions about what I had or hadn’t read, what I did or did not know, didn’t just make me want to escape my body, they made me want to crush it up and fold it.


For months after the attempted rape, I couldn’t use tampons. When I was in bed with cramps, my mother would come from the drugstore with a box of Playtex and I’d beg her to go back and get pads.

When I decided to have sex, I found that I couldn’t. My body tightened and prevented anyone from getting close. To others, I seemed normal, outgoing, even flirtatious. But intimacy scared me. I didn’t seriously date.

My body had, without my being fully conscious of it, adopted a politics of respectability. If the world had looked at my body and rejected it, decided it was dirty and tainted, then I – my body – would reject those assumptions, rebel against them.

But the problem with adapting a politics of respectability is that by doing so, you decide that someone else’s version of you is powerful or factual enough to resist.

Still, there has to be a way of resisting that doesn’t destroy you, a way of making yourself visible in a world that doesn’t see you. Or maybe we can never really be seen, though there are moments when we can be heard.

The man who would later become my husband is a patient person. Because we lived in different cities, we’d been distant friends for years. One night he came into town, and I decided to sleep with him (I made this decision only because, if the sex were bad – or, more likely, impossible – then I’d never have to face him again).

That night, my apartment was so quiet you could hear our breathing, the sound of Atlanta’s traffic, even footsteps from someone outside plodding around the building. But the one thing you didn’t hear was the sound of human voices. I was too nervous to speak.

“Talk to me,” he said after a few minutes. “I don’t care what you say, but say something.”

I didn’t speak, but I did finally relax, knowing I was in a place where I could be heard.


The spring after my first semester at Columbia, I was tired of the isolation, so I registered for a literature class in the African-American Studies Department.

The young, black woman who taught the class was an academic rarity: a brilliant intellectual who was also a good listener.

I loved the class. In my excitement, I talked way too much. One student in the class was as quiet as I was talkative. Like me, he was an older student, but unlike me, he was white – and I assumed Jewish because he wore a yarmulke. He was one of three white students in the class of nine; the other students were multi-racial, Asian, or black. Though he didn’t speak, he looked like he was listening, absorbing everything. I wondered if his silence was because he thought an opinionated student like me would jump all over him simply because he was white. Perhaps my professor wondered the same thing because she nodded in his direction, offered him smiles of encouragement.

We discussed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was my third time reading the novel, but the first time I felt I had actually understood it. It seemed more applicable to my life – and where I was at that moment in time – than anything I had ever read.

“The protagonist isn’t an Uncle Tom,” I said. “He’s subversive. Even when he doesn’t realize it, he’s taking his grandfather’s advice and undermining a society that constantly sees him through this veil.”

“But that’s true for everyone. Everyone is seen through a veil,” my quiet classmate said, and everyone looked at him in surprise. “People see this beanie on my head and think they know everything about me. They don’t. They know nothing about me, or what I’m thinking.”

It was the most he had said the entire semester.


In the weeks since the class ended, I have been thinking of Jack, my shy classmate, of what I would say if I were to see him now, and whether I would even recognize him.

I know now that he’s right. No one is ever really seen. We can only be understood by the traces our images leave behind. We are all mysterious blackbirds.

And yet, even knowing this to be true, even as I write these words, I long for sound.  I remain less interested in the way a blackbird appears in a green light than the sound it makes when it takes off and flies.

Rochelle Spencer has an MFA from New York University, and her work has appeared in African American Review, Calyx, Poets and Writers, Cake Train, The New York Times and other places. A recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, she’ll complete a doctorate in 2013.