It is extremely difficult to draw true parallels between the lives/experiences of Black people in the United States in the present, and the lives/experiences of Black people in the United States under slavery. That’s not to say that it can’t be done, but in nearly two decades of critical race theory and analysis, I have observed that doing it well is tricky. From what I’ve seen, these conversations turn into arguments—and shouting matches—in the blink of an eye. These are discussions filled with hyperbole, false equivalencies, and logical pitfalls.
Which brings us around to the “Negro bed wench mentality.” When this term first caught my eye some months back in a Twitter conversation, I had to read it twice to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. In the exchange I observed, a Black man (or someone representing himself as one), used this phrase as an insult towards a Black woman that I follow.
“Negro bed wench?” I thought. “What in the fresh hell is this?”
Intrigued, I did a quick search on Google, and found a link to a talk radio website managed by author and lecturer Tariq Nasheed, who as far as I can tell originally coined this phrase. (I’m not linking it here, but you can find it yourself fairly quickly just using “Negro bed wench mentality.”) In fact, this was the title of an entire episode of his online radio show. There, Nasheed explains both what he says a Negro bed wench was back during slavery, and how this mentality translates to contemporary Black women— specifically a few sisters that he said he had encountered recently while a guest on a radio show promoting his work. (The episode itself is over an hour long, so if you're curious, feel free to Google away.)
According to Nasheed, the "Negro bed wench" was formerly an enslaved Black woman on one of the plantations of old whose specific function was to have sex with the plantation's White owner, her master. Now, though history has taught us that most enslaved African women were appropriately horrified at the idea of sexual contact with their enslavers (and presumably all White men), but some, Nasheed asserts, embraced this role and all the comparative privileges it brought. Worse, some "Negro bed wenches" even imagined that they were better than the rest their enslaved brothers and sisters, and used their (once again, COMPARATIVELY) privileged positions to thoroughly ingratiate themselves to their owners.
The contemporary "Negro bed wench mentality," therefore, is displayed when a Black woman—suffering from "Stockholm Syndrome", according to Nasheed— accepts and even acts to further White supremacy. The "Negro bed wench mentality," while still implicitly sexual in name, no longer requires a Black woman to have sexual contact with a White person to manifest. According to Nasheed, she's the Black female counterpart to the "Uncle Tom." (For the record: the "Uncle Tom" and "Mammy" concepts, as I find myself so often pointing out during these discussions, are actually post-slavery creations. Read about that here.)
Mr. Nasheed and I have different world views and politics, but to each their own. Having satisfied my curiosity (and cracked wise about it in some tweets), I concluded that these terms were hugely problematic, but definitely on the fringe, and went on with my life.
That was until a few weeks ago, when a tweet in my feed linked to a Facebook page where someone had accused world-renowned tennis champion Serena Williams of "Negro bed wench" aspirations.
You read right. THE Serena Williams— whose mere presence with her sister on once lily-White tennis courts the world over had dealt institutional White supremacy a blow from which it may never recover—was suddenly slapped with this ugly, ugly label. Her crime: dating a White dude.
Because I never leave well enough alone, I headed back to Google, where I learned that strong, successful and arguably PROUD self-identified Black women of note like Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, and Melissa Harris-Perry had all been slapped with this label. Even fictional characters weren't out of bounds: Scandal lead Olivia Pope is considered by many to be the epitome of the Negro bed wench.
Fiercely independent and unquestionably fabulous, the ONLY thing Pope's character has in common with an enslaved woman is sexual contact with a White man…but apparently, that's all she needs. And that’s what this term has boiled down to: a Negro bed wench is essentially a Black woman who, through her feminism, her success, and/or her dating options, challenges the institution of Black patriarchy. (Challenging Black patriarchy was never the same as actively working to uphold White supremacy, but what would this discussion be without a false equivalency?)
Controlling Black women's behavior through name-calling and shaming is nothing new. Invoking something as somber and tragic as slavery to do it, while also nothing new, is shameful. We've come too far, at the expense of the lives of our ancestors, to stoop to this nonsense. I think we can all do better—so can we try?