By the 19th century, popular Southern literature characterized female slaves as lustful and promiscuous “Jezebels” who shamelessly tempted white owners into sexual relations. This stereotype of the promiscuous slave was partially motivated by the need to rationalize the sexual abuse of female slaves by white males. Edward Ball, in his Slaves in the Family, noted that it was more often the sons than the senior planters who took advantage of slave women before their marriages to white women. The stereotype was reinforced by female slaves’ working partially clothed, due to the hot climate. During slave auctions, females were sometimes displayed nude or only partially clothed. Sometimes, some were dressed “fancifully” for a different sort of trade…
To satisfy lustful desires the “Fancy” trade came in to existence. “Fancy” trade is when extremely light skinned female slaves Many female slaves were sold specifically to wealthy white southern men. Many lived as mistresses in the urban dwellings of the men who also had a wife and children on a rural plantation. Some women, or their children, eventually were freed by their owners. In rare cases, some even married their concubines. Fine clothing was a critical aspect to the success of the slave traders who sold and the men who owned “fancy” girls. These Black women were not dressed as prostitutes, even though what was happening can be called nothing less than prostitution, but as fashionably “showy” ladies. On the auction blocks they wore clothing and jewelry of the latest fashion. This style continued after they were bought as concubines. Much like enslaved house servants, these women’s bodies were places for slaveholders to signify their social power by displaying their wealth. While dressing up meant a degree of freedom and an avenue of individual expression for most of the enslaved, for these women, fine clothing was another form of exploitation.
New Orleans and Lexington, Kentucky, had active markets in “fancy girls.” In the 1850s, beautiful teenage girls were valued at more than $1,500 (close to $30,000 in today’s dollars), which made them as “expensive” as prime male field hands. Buying a “fancy girl” was a status symbol for traders, gamblers, and saloonkeepers. Because New Orleans attracted a large population of gamblers, debauchees and revelers for Carnival, it was the largest market for those girls and young women who were sent there from the Upper South.
As you read this history, ask yourself, Did the “fancy” trade ever end? as I watch some of our television programming I still see the exploitation of Black women. Black women are still, by how they are portrayed as lustful and promiscuous “Jezebels.” The similarity gets deeper because they are dressed up, like Fancy girls, to be able to sell an image of how other Black women should view themselves and act in order to be successful. Recognize that this exploitation has never stopped and we must begin to control our own image.