Disclaimer: I'm dealing particularly with the sexual exploitation of black women. If you are a founding member of either the "not all whites" or "not all men" or "leave the past behind" or the "but I love black women" society, please sit this one out.
The word Hoe or Ho is derived from and is a variation of 'whore' - as in Jezebel in the Bible – a prostitute. It is believed to have been shortened through a popular process of dropping the 'r' at the end of word as is done with many words in the African American English Vernacular (AAEV) in the South (of America). This term has been, throughout history, used to violently describe women and as an identifier for the black woman. One can attribute this to America being a predominantly white (male) society.
The History of (the) Hoe
The term's roots are found in slavery which has been the dominant frame for the sexuality and sexploitation of black bodies, both male and female. Slavery was a time when black women were used as a sexual outlet and group control tool for their white supremacist owners and overseers: they were raped, often in front of their husbands, as a means to show dominance over black males. Black bodies were (and are still) viewed as objects undeserving of sexual intimacy, fulfillment and consensual partaking. Black slaves were property and therefore legally could not be raped. Their sons and husbands were also often forced to rape these women publicly as a means for their white owners to have a good laugh at their base nature and to punish both male and female for their disobedience. This brought about the slur mother fucker when referring to black males: they were blindfolded and usually unaware of the woman's identity with whom they were having sex. This woman could be their mother, aunt, sister, daughter ... It held no significance to the slave owner. This enforced breeding, to create more slaves and thus labour force, resulted in Breeding Farms: a place where black men and women were put together to "breed just as they would cattle." Black men, women and children as a young as five years old, were raped continuously and forced to do inhumane acts such as defecating in the mouths of male slaves to emasculate and humiliate them in front of the group. Across the world black bodies are still seen as "sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire." (An Open Letter from Black Women to the Slut Walk)
Racism is at the heart of the irrational narrative that the sexuality of black bodies is to be feared. Do you remember the Moor of Venice (Othello) and how his blackness was associated with bestiality? The belief that blackness, especially male blackness, is to be associated with barbarism, inferiority and savagery. Those are in no way black identifiers yet black slave men were lynched and castrated based on these beliefs; black slave women were raped by their white masters and subjected to breeding farms based on the narrative that black women have a deep hunger for sexual feeding which even the 'base' slave black men could not fulfill. Hence black women were, and still are, referred to as hoes because of this apparent insatiable hunger for sex. White men literally traded our bodies and ensured that we had numerous children fathered by various men, including themselves, yet licentiousness is somewhat ours to own? This dehumanizing of black women has become so ingrained in the black mind that there is now a barrage of black men who say that they will no longer date black women as well as those such as Steve Harvey who are monetizing their packaged misogyny and self-hate.
The two narratives of female sexuality
We need to ask ourselves why we believe black women, as a category, are angry; crazy; and loose (Narrative 1). And alternatively why when imagining white women we see a sense of calm; pristine morality; and self-control? (Narrative 2) What is the foundation for this narrative of a pure white angel and a "basic black bitch" or "nappy headed hoes" as Dom Imus referred to the Rutger's women's basketball team? It's all in the history of course. As I mentioned before, black slaves were traded at auctions. Before a slave master would purchase a slave, he would first have to examine 'its' body. Black bodies were stripped in front of all the auction attendees and inspected meticulously to determine whether they: could breed with ease; were well able to work tirelessly; and were rebellious – rebellion was identified by lashing marks on their backs. These slaves were usually adorned in raggedy clothes which hardly covered their bodies. On the other hand, the wives of their white masters were always dressed to the nines and their bodies fully covered: auction days were a grand affair on their social calendars. This planted the seed for the self-respecting white woman archetype and informed the conviction that black women are cheap, provocative and have no dignity. For the liberated mind it seems irresponsible and archaic to deduce such critical character traits from dress code, but these deductions have informed the daily lived experiences of black women until today. This characterization and ignorance of a black women's agency has forced us to become tied up in being dignified and prissy. It's exhausting. To add shock to horror, one could just google search "sexy black mom" versus "sexy white mom" (Warning:content of an explicit nature) or "professional hair" versus "unprofessional hair". Every. Single. Day. Black women are viewed in this light.
Of course there was no need for the perpetuation of this racist conditioning but then again there was certainly no need for slavery to begin with; or apartheid; or the mass murders of Africans who chose not to follow Christianity; or police brutality towards black men in the United States. These beliefs of the inferiority of blacks have only festered and reproduced themselves in different forms. And popular media is highly to blame for this.
Pretty Woman is one of my favourite movies. I like it because love wins and I am annoyingly fervent, at times, about love. It follows a prostitute named Vivian (Julia Roberts) who falls in love with one of her rich clients Edward (Richard Gere) who gives her a shot at acceptance; leaving behind her 'dirty line of work'; and wealth. I hadn't perceived it this way initially but now I agree that it is a modern remake of the Cinderella story (a whirlwind of misogyny all on its own). Vivian is characterized as a spunky and confident women who sleeps with men for money. She's very idealistic about meeting a man who will save her from her life. Overlooking her idealism, she is portrayed as a confident and empowered woman who has to make a living to survive Los Angeles. She is sexually liberated and even owns that she does not kiss clients on the lips – the sex is simply a business transaction and is devoid of all intimacy. She dresses in next to nothing with thigh high 'stripper boots'. She ticks the boxes for society's level of hoe-ness or promiscuity but because she is not a black woman, she is hardly participating in either.
'Hoe'; 'hoodrat'; 'basic bitch'; 'gold digger'; 'trash' etc. are some of the terms that come to mind were a black woman have been in this role. A black woman obviously would not have gotten this role in mainstream Hollywood, but the point is she would not have been characterized as spunky nor cute if by some small miracle she had been cast. When black women are portrayed in movies that explore sexuality they are never empowered or nuanced. Their story is that they are black (read: animalistic); viciously sexual; and property to be used and abused. It is not art or sensual in any form. Think: Halle Berry's character in Monster. Hence why when you google 'sexy black mom', you will come across porn because to this day black female bodies in all their beauty and variance exist to fulfill a current purpose and not with to establish a sound, respectable and loving relationship. We are a sexual commodity – in history and today. This is why "you can't turn a hoe into a housewife" or why "bad bitches don't deserve love" because of the continued way popular media represents femininity and blackness.
One would argue that black people owe the degradation of black women to hip hop but that is not factual. Yes, hip hop is homophobic, misogynist and violent. Of course, the representation of black women in hip hop music videos as sex objects is prevalent and atrocious. But this is a not a black music problem, please don't make it about race. I could write you an essay about the sexist ideologies in country music but I'm way too busy trying to unlearn all the trash. These beliefs were cemented long before hip hop became a music genre and because 80% of hip hop production is bought by white people, it must continue to represent the gore, degradation and brutality that has become accustomed to black people. That hood life which whites fetishize is what sells platinum records. The rags to riches story of rappers is what blacks buy into. Record companies, owned by the very people who inform societal beliefs, make their money off exploiting black bodies which informs content for rappers. And as 2pac said "'I gotta get paid!' well hey, but that's the way it is."
This is the constant cycle of trying to survive and thrive in a black female body and Toni Morrison put it perfectly in The Bluest Eyewhen she wrote: "You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question."
And now I'd like to put forward to you: Knowing the filth of the Hoe symbol in black history, is it possible to repackage and repurpose this word? We explore that in Part 2.