Invisible woman: Reading rape and sexual exploitation in African-American literature

Patricia Dannette Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania


During the latter half of the twentieth-century Black women novelists created the space to discuss the sexual exploitation of Black women in literature and attempted to eradicate the literary conspiracy of silence around Black-on-Black rape. Yet, regardless of the emergence of Afro-Americanists, Feminists, Black Feminists, and Womanist critics, the silence within the criticism persists. It is important to explore the roots of nineteenth-century African-American women writers, where they first begin to question the silence around rape, albeit White-on-Black rape. Literary representations include Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Toni Morrison's Beloved. Such Black female authors begin to respond to what has been done to them in silence, to bring it to light in black and white. What is apparent in both feminist and womanist criticism is that the discussion of Black women who are raped by White men is an acceptable topic. In looking at the literary representation of Black women as rape victims, it is necessary to look at twentieth-century Black male writer's portrayal of this character. Black male writers, like Richard Wright and Eldridge Cleaver, illustrate that although an Afro-American tradition was formed in order that Black people might have a venue in which to respond to their absence in Eurocentric-Western-White literature, that tradition also held its silence around certain issues: specifically Black-on-Black rape. Here the image of the Black woman as rape victim is superseded by the ideology of eradicating the myth of the Black male as rapist, rendering the image of the Black female rape victim invisible. Black female writers of the twentieth-century respond to this image of the defacto “unrapeable” Black woman. Black woman writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou in their various works give response to the Black male-driven Afro American tradition's call—a call of literary absence and silence. Although Black women writers were quite prolific on this theme, the cries of “racism” and “for the sake of racial unity” demanded silence from even the Black feminist of the day.

Subject Area

American literature|Black studies|Womens studies|African American Studies

Recommended Citation

Hopkins, Patricia Dannette, "Invisible woman: Reading rape and sexual exploitation in African-American literature" (2002). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3054952.