Sexual Trauma in Black Diaspora Literature:
Working through Collective Memory and Raising Awareness
by Natasha Dörr-Kapczynski
Given that the literary canon is dominated by white males, sexual trauma is an under-discussed theme in literature, especially as it relates to Black women. Nevertheless, due to the sexual exploitation of Black women since the times of slavery, sexual trauma is an integral part of the collective memory of the Black diaspora. This paper aims to explore the emergence and progression of the theme of sexual trauma in Black diaspora literature and its role in and effect on the story being told. Feminist works from different genres and backgrounds of the Black diaspora community, including Harriett Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah demonstrate and explore the theme in question. Ideas from scholarly critiques of feminist writings of the Black diaspora then provide the basis for a deeper analysis of sexual trauma in the selected works. The overall findings are that recounting sexual trauma in literature serves as a therapeutic process and a way to bring light to issues that have plagued Black women for generations. However, due to the breadth of space, time, and experiences encompassed by the Black diaspora community, further investigation and analysis using different works could provide alternative explanations or expand on the research here.
sexual trauma, feminism, Black diaspora, collective memory, raising awareness
From the times of enslavement to the modern day, Black women have been oppressed both in terms of race and gender and thus have faced various forms of discrimination, such as sexual violence. Unfortunately, this incredibly relevant issue has been deemphasized and often ignored by society and the literary canon. For this reason, many feminist works of the Black diaspora cover the impacts of sexual trauma, especially as it relates to collective memory within the Black diaspora community. To represent the breadth of female authors of the Black diaspora across space and time, I closely analyzed Harriett Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah to explore this theme. I found both true and fictional stories of sexual violence and literary techniques like graphic imagery were powerful tools for exploring sexual trauma in the Black community. The overarching goals of the authors in recounting these haunting collective memories were to work through trauma, raise awareness about critical issues in their community, and provide an intersectional feminist critique of society.
First, I examined Harriett Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a slave narrative based on the author’s personal experiences of being sexually harassed by her master. It was one of the first Black diaspora works to cover the topic of sexual violence and the subsequent trauma it causes. The author uses the act of telling her story as a way to work through her pain and raise awareness about the plight of enslaved Black women. At a time when Black women scarcely had any subjectivity in literature, a personal narrative like this had the power to “challenge negative images of Black womanhood and girlhood” by providing the author with the agency to depict her own lived experience (Hua 37). This agency can be seen in Jacobs’ story by her need to justify her actions, evidenced by her plea to “not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely!” (17) and her assertion saying, “I wanted to keep myself pure” (17). The reality of the time was that victims of sexual violence, especially Black women, were blamed for their situation and were offered little to no support. Thus, one of the only ways Jacobs could fight for herself and those with similar struggles was to recount her life story from her perspective. Furthermore, as an autobiography, it is easy to see how works related to trauma “allegorize the therapeutic process of putting the traumatic experience into words” (Vickroy 179). Even with later Black diaspora works that are fictional, such as the neo-slave narrative novel Kindred, this is seen by the author giving voice to the traumatic experiences that have burdened generations.
The therapeutic process of putting one’s experiences into words, although undeniably incredibly painful for Jacobs, serves another purpose of raising awareness about fellow enslaved Black women who have similarly suffered from sexual abuse. In the preface, she overtly states this goal saying, “I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse” (3). As part of the overarching emancipation movement, Jacobs wanted to make her work easier for the target audience––19th-century white Northerners––to take in and move people from pity to action. Jacobs accomplishes these goals by giving the reader a window into her mind, sharing her paranoia and the trauma caused by how Dr. Flint stalks and threatens her, yet she avoids graphic imagery. Never describing the scenes in great detail, she only hints at Dr. Flint’s misconduct by disclosing that he “began to whisper foul words in my ear” (9). Later, Jacobs remembers how he seems to follow her everywhere, explaining, “If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings” (10). The focus on the author’s inner turmoil throughout the story clearly shows that, despite the calmness she outwardly exhibits, she is deeply traumatized by Dr. Flint’s relentless pursuit of her, corroborated by the fact that she vividly remembers her experiences long after their occurrence. Overall, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl uses an autobiographical format to achieve the personal goals of working through sexual trauma and raising awareness about sexual trauma suffered by enslaved women. Additionally, it provides a starting point for later works to return to this issue and work through the deeper layers of pain it creates in the collective memory of Black diaspora communities.
Next, Octavia Butler’s Kindred is an example of a more contemporary Black diaspora work that covers the theme of sexual trauma. This novel is a neo-slave narrative that plays with time travel as protagonist Dana is caught between her modern life in the 20th century and that of her enslaved ancestors. As previously mentioned, neo-slave narratives and other more contemporary works of the Black diaspora serve a similar purpose in recording the traumas that plague the collective memory of Black diaspora communities, even though they were written long after the events depicted took place. This purpose is evident in the parallel between Dana’s connection to her past generations and aspects of Hariett Jacobs’ story. For example, Dana discovers that the plantation owner’s son Rufus is also one of her ancestors since he raped Alice and fathered two of her kids. Like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Kindred uses a first-person narrative to work through the trauma caused by sexual violence against Black women. One of the main differences between the techniques of the two authors is that Butler relies more on graphic imagery. This difference is likely due to her greater freedom as a contemporary writer and her goal not to move white Northerners to action in the antebellum United States but rather to honor the pain found in the collective memory of Black Americans.
The sexual violence in this story is seen primarily in two contexts: against Alice and Dana. As the novel narrates from Dana’s perspective, Butler acknowledges that her work provides a modern lens for examining the past. The fact that both examples are juxtaposed shows the differences between the sexual violence faced by past and present generations of Black women. Despite these differences, there is a clear connection and a common thread of female agency. First, the reader sees the constant comparisons likening Dana to Alice, such as when Rufus attempts to rape Dana after he has lost Alice. He says to her, “You’re so much like her, I can hardly stand it” (257). He continues, “You were one woman… Two halves of a whole” (257). Another way the two are alike is that they both carry the trauma of their families. This commonality is present because Black feminist literature explores how “memories and histories are, at times, inscribed onto women’s bodies” (Hua 35), which Toni Morrison refers to as “the site of memory” (1990, 299 qtd. in Hua 35). Butler uses Alice and Dana to embody this intergenerational bond forged by trauma. Alice’s trauma is demonstrated best by her final decision to commit suicide when Rufus takes her children away, indicating the extent of the pain and guilt she feels. Although this is an example of her agency, she cannot completely take control of her fate, and her descendants, including Dana, must continue to work through the pain caused by Rufus. Dana, who demonstrates her agency by fighting against Rufus’s attempted rape and finally killing him, is still forever scarred––both mentally and physically––by the sexual violence faced by herself and her ancestors. The graphic imagery in the closing chapter where the wall crushes her arm in “the exact spot Rufus’s fingers had grasped” (261) illustrates this intergenerationality of sexual trauma very well.
These vivid descriptions relate to one of Butler’s goals in writing Kindred: educating people about the sexual trauma of women of Black diaspora communities. This type of fictional story “can help readers commiserate with survivors by challenging readers’ thinking about human responses and engaging them in detailed explorations of the human mind” (Comer Kidd and Costano 377 qtd. in Vickroy 179-80). The varied examples of sexual trauma and the personal perspectives of a 19th-century enslaved woman and a 20th-century Black woman are tailored to this goal, allowing a modern audience to understand the connections between past pain and current trauma. Thus, Kindred exemplifies the consequences of sexual violence that have pushed contemporary Black diaspora authors to grapple with the past and raise awareness about the experiences of their community.
Lastly, Americanah is another work of the Black diaspora that is written from a feminist perspective and covers the issue of sexual violence against Black women, specifically in the modern-day contexts of the United States and Nigeria. Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 bestseller about a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. She moves to the United States but eventually returns to Nigeria and reunites with her first love, Obinze. Sexual violence is at first easy to overlook as a subtheme within the story, especially compared to some of Adichie’s other novels. However, the contrast between moments of sexual pleasure and sexual violence, found throughout Adichie’s works (Lascelles 895), along with the clear feminist tone of the novel, show that sexual trauma is a relevant theme to explore within this work.
Like Kindred, this modern work utilizes graphic imagery and scenes of sexual violence to work through the associated trauma. This imagery appears when Ifemelu desperately needs money and finds a job helping a tennis coach “relax.” The scene is full of suggestion, but there is also no room for doubt as the narrator describes Ifemelu’s experience and thoughts: “She had lain on his bed, and when he placed her hand between his legs, she had curled and moved her fingers” (156). This description is much more graphic than the scenes of sexual abuse in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Kindred, but there is a common thread of the victim’s guilt and hopelessness. After Ifemelu returns home, she is so disgusted that she cannot bear to touch herself or talk to Obinze. The fact that “she washed her hands with water so hot that it scalded her fingers” (157) demonstrates her inner turmoil, an act where the scorching hot water represents her futile efforts to rid herself of the tainted feeling from working with the tennis coach. Although Ifemelu may seem to have more agency in determining the situation that leads to her sexual trauma, she is undoubtedly a victim, just like Jacobs, Alice, and Dana.
At the same time, the sexual trauma of Ifemelu takes on a new depth since other moments in the novel emphasize the pleasure that women can derive from sexual experiences, offering a stark contrast to the scene with the tennis coach. Referring to Adichie’s novel Half a Yellow Sun, Sandra Nwokocha (2019) argues that “sex functions as a means of empowerment” due to “the way women’s sexuality is represented in the novel” (qtd. in Lascelles 895). This idea is evident in Americanah, such as in Ifemelu’s nickname for Obinze, Ceiling. This nickname refers to “their warm entanglements on his bed when [Obinze’s] mother was out, wearing only underwear, touching and kissing and sucking, hips moving in simulation” (27), showing that Ifemelu enjoys having sex and is not ashamed of this, although society considers “sex as something a woman gave a man at a loss to herself” (286). In fact, after cheating on her boyfriend, Ifemelu boldly asserts, “I took what I wanted” (286) to make clear that she is aware of the choices she made. Thus, in addition to exploring sexual trauma as a theme, Adichie makes a feminist statement about the sexuality of women, challenging stereotypes about and redefining Black womanhood and providing Black women with subjectivity in literature (Hua 37-8). Therefore, in addition to narrating the story of sexually abused Black women of the diaspora and raising awareness about this issue, Adichie brings in the more modern agenda of providing a feminist critique of society. Her work is part of Black feminism, defined by Amber Lascelles as a “radical political and social movement” that aims to “dismantle the overlapping manifestations of oppression that affect all Black women” (893) and is intersectional by definition. Although not all literary critics agree on the extent of the radicalism of Adichie’s feminism, her novel unquestionably is part of a surge in feminism. Black feminist authors are gaining momentum, with their critiques and demands becoming more and more difficult for systems of power to suppress and ignore.
As demonstrated by Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Kindred, and Americanah, the treatment of sexual trauma has come a long way since its first emergence as a motif in Black diaspora literature. The Black diaspora is a diverse collection of communities that span boundaries of time, space, culture, and more. Hence, one would expect different stories, literary techniques, experiences, and purposes. Throughout the works examined, writing about sexual violence is used as a therapeutic process for working through the pain of traumatized Black women, sharing personal narratives that humanize and legitimize their experiences. From autobiography to fiction, this is accomplished through various genres and writing styles. This often ties back to the individual struggles of Black diaspora authors, allowing them to capture parts of the collective memory of pain. In addition to this, sexual trauma in these literary works is a tool to raise awareness about the many levels of discrimination that Black women face due to societal prejudices against both their race and gender.
Finally, writing about sexual trauma, relying especially on more graphic imagery, has become a way that Black feminist ideology is influencing literature and society. Radical Black feminism, a movement focused on reworking modern-day society, is becoming an increasingly relevant part of the theme of sexual trauma in Black diaspora literature. Overall, the books examined and the multitude of other feminist Black diaspora works demonstrate the power of literature as a tool for humanity––from working through pain to challenging systems of power––to address relevant issues like sexual violence that Black women have faced for generations, and continue to face to this day.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979. Print.
Hua, A. “Black Diaspora Feminism and Writing: Memories, Storytelling, and the Narrative World as Sites of Resistance.” AFRICAN AND BLACK DIASPORA, vol. 6, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 30–42. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=edsbl&AN=RN329423886&site=eds-live.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Second edition, University of North Caroline, 2003, https://gel.sites.uiowa.edu/sites/gel.sites.uiowa.edu/files/wysiwyg_uploads/jacobs_incidents_in_the_life.pdf, Accessed 7 Feb. 2022.
Lascelles, Amber. “We Should All Be Radical Feminists: A Review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Contribution to Literature and Feminism.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 57, no. 6, 2021, pp. 893–99. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/17449855.2021.1900414.
Vickroy, Laurie. “Trauma as Critical Juncture of Society, Culture, and Human Psychology.” Reading Trauma Narratives: The Contemporary Novel & The Psychology of Oppression, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2015, pp. 179–184.
Citation Style: MLA