Olympia’s Maid, 1992, 1994

“Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity.”
Opening section published as illustrated essay in Afterimage, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 14-15, Summer 1992.
Final “Postscript” section added and full essay published in Frueh, Langer, Raven, New Feminist Criticism: Art/Identity/Action, pp. 152-170, HarperCollins, 1994.

© Lorraine O’Grady, 1992, 1994

This first-ever article of cultural criticism on the black female body was to prove germinal and continues to be widely referenced in scholarly and other works. Occasionally controversial, it has been frequently anthologized, most recently in Amelia Jones, ed, The Feminism and Cultural Reader, Routledge.

The female body in the West is not a unitary sign. Rather, like a coin, it has an obverse and a reverse: on the one side, it is white; on the other, non-white or, prototypically, black. The two bodies cannot be separated, nor can one body be understood in isolation from the other in the West’s metaphoric construction of “woman.” White is what woman is; not-white (and the stereotypes not-white gathers in) is what she had better not be. Even in an allegedly postmodern era, the not-white woman as well as the not-white man are symbolically and even theoretically excluded from sexual difference. Their function continues to be, by their chiaroscuro, to cast the difference of white men and white women into sharper relief.

A kaleidoscope of not-white females, Asian, Native American, Latina, and African, have played distinct parts in the West’s theater of sexual hierarchy. But it is the African female who, by virtue of color and feature and the extreme metaphors of enslavement, is at the outermost reaches of “otherness.” Thus she subsumes all the roles of the not-white body.

The smiling, bare-breasted African maid, pictured so often in Victorian travel books and National Geographic magazine, got something more than a change of climate and scenery when she came here.

Sylvia Arden Boone, in her book Radiance from the Waters (1986), on the physical and metaphysical aspects of Mende feminine beauty, says of contemporary Mende: “Mende girls go topless in the village and farmhouse. Even in urban areas, girls are bare-breasted in the house: schoolgirls take off their dresses when they come home, and boarding students are most comfortable around the dormitories wearing only a wrapped skirt.”

What happened to the girl who was abducted from her village, then shipped here in chains? What happened to her descendants? Male-fantasy images on rap videos to the contrary, as a swimmer, in communal showers at public pools around the country, I have witnessed black girls and women of all classes showering and shampooing with their bathing suits on, while beside them their white sisters stand unabashedly stripped. ( … )

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