The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.
The Sapphire is one of the most enduring black stereotypes in literature, film and television. A black woman with a strong will and a strong back. She always speaks the truth – especially to the white people. She gets laughs and inspires courage. Yet her humor masks her truth telling. We love her because she is strong, courageous even, while being heartwarming. Today we see her as an equal (which is a good thing,).
So, what’s wrong with this trope and how can we fix it?
Here are the top four things wrong with the Sapphire trope and the two things we, as writers, can do to fix it.
1.) The Sapphire loves the white family – a little too much.
She cooks amazing meals, is there early and stays late & helps raise the little white children. The sapphire is more than a maid or housekeeper, she is a surrogate mother – and that is the problem.
She does everything for the white children. Literally everything. Doesn’t this woman have a family of her own? What about her kids? What about her husband & family? Yet she is always there for her white employers. Yes, it’s her hard work and nurturing that gives her the moral authority to teach wisdom to the children and her employers. However, what is her status?
The Sapphire is in some kind of limbo where the white children are concerned. Her authority comes from her white employer and not because of her own moral authority or relationships with the child.
Look at Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, the woman is shown to be hard on Scout, to help her grow up. Scout even says:
She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why
I couldn’t behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older,
and calling me home when I wasn’t ready to come. Our battles
were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because
Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem
was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could
Her authority of Scout is only because Atticus takes her side, as the white male and head of the household. The Sapphire is in a kind of limbo because she’s doing the job of a mother – without the job title.
2.) The Sapphire emasculates the black man.
Her strength, whether its moral, physical or emotional, is unquestioned. She speaks truth to power. She is a courageous woman. However, in order for the Sapphire character to shine, she has to knock some sense into somebody. In shows like Nell Carter’s Gimme a Break, it was always the white kids who got the lessons about life from the sassy housekeeper. In shows like Good Times, it was Florida’s own children who got the brunt of it.
The character of JJ Evans on Good Times was a clown of the highest order. While later seasons showed him taking his art more seriously, becoming more of a productive citizen, the character could easily be confused with a minstrel show performing jive artists. While the rest of the family struggles, JJ was shiftless, sexually obsessed, lazy and a potential con artist. He always had a plan or a scheme that his mother, Florida Evans (or his father, to be fair,) had to stop.
In many ways, you can’t have a Sapphire without emasculating a black man around him. Go back and watch Mammy and Pork from Gone with the Wind. They don’t have many scenes together, but it’s clear who’s in charge.
3.) The Sapphire is a neutered woman.
The Sapphire’s strength is unparalleled. She is virtuous and is the soft spot everyone can lean on. All great story telling. Except, who does the Sapphire lean on? Who’s shoulder does she cry on?
Because her presentation to us, as reader, usually involved her being older, with copious amounts of fat on her, she is never presented as an object of sexual desire. Her romantic desires are never discussed.
No one is that strong.
And, while there are people who show no desire to form romantic relationships out there, the Sapphire is continuously portrayed as strong enough not to need a man – or anybody.
4.) The Sapphire is All Rage
The Sapphire is righteousness personified. She has no time for foolishness or crap while she tells it like it is. While she speaks the truth her emotions range from irritated to full blown rage. From Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, to Nell Carter’s Nellie in Gimmie a Break, this woman is angry.
A good example of this is Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia in the Color Purple. She is all rage and indignation and truth telling. Oprah gives a beautiful monologue about her abuse growing up to Whoopie Goldberg’s character Celie. It is a moving and heart wrenching scene. To Spielberg’s credit, he pushes Sofia to her natural conclusion and has her curse a white woman and slug a white man, which gets her sent to prison.
How do we avoid these stereotypes? How do we fix them?
As I have said at conferences before, fixing the stereotypes of black characters involves one major step: show agency.
If the black housekeeper loves the white children she cares for, show her choosing her own family over the people she works for. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, my own daughter is in a play tonight and I must see her. You’ll have to find someone else.”
No one will have a problem with this decision because it’s human.
If the Sapphire is emasculating the black male characters around her flip the script. Have those same men honor their mother/aunt/stepmother by taking the responsibilities away from her just once. Have her come home and dinner is cooking, the house is clean, and the men are waiting on her to show their love and respect. (This also has the added effect of eliminating the stereotype of the black male as shiftless, lazy and uncaring.)
Show the Sapphire as an object of desire. Have her talk about her lover, or husband or wife.
Let an older Sapphire have an opportunity to wax poetic about her lovers when she was younger. Let her brag about her figure and bust.
Let her break down and cry. Have her lean on her friends and get a hug. Allow people wait on her. Show her being vulnerable. Show her laughing, good naturedly. Let her have a passionate kiss.
Here is the incomparable Esther Rolle in Good Times showing a strong black woman being vulnerable.