Beyond Mammy, Jezebel, & Sapphire: Reclaiming Images of Black Women

Delta Doo, Alison Saar, 2002

monoprint/woodcut & chine colle, 33 7/8 x 24 3/8″

Photo courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

‘She died from an overdose
of other people clinging to her
when she didn’t even have energy for herself.

Excerpted from “The Strong Black Woman Is Dead,” by Laini Mataka

Since the antebellum era, the concept of Black female strength has posed a challenge to ideas of femininity and race. While certainly providing an image of power, the Strong Black Woman role model demands an impossible standard of female behavior; she must eternally be hard-working, long-suffering, ethical, sassy, sexy, and self-reliant.  Stories of Black women’s limitless capacity to nurture others, their willingness to sacrifice for family, their unswerving loyalty, and boundless Earth Mother sexuality abound within historical and contemporary cultural lore. And while inspiring respect and admiration, the Strong Black Woman is ultimately denied the ability to fail, to suffer, to fall from grace – for to demonstrate the human frailty afforded to others is to relinquish her power and become her antithesis: the Victim. The Strong Black Woman thus earns our respect, but not our empathy. Wambui Mwangi puts it thusly: The problem with the myth of the SBW is this. It falsely supposes that SBW have powers, skills and capacities beyond those of ordinary mortals – sort of like super heroes – So much so that their achievements are not as difficult to attain as they would be for others and somehow inhere in the very quality of SBW-ness, itself….Pedestals do not really give one much room to move or to be.”

Curated jointly by the InterDisciplinary Experimental Arts Space at Colorado College and the Alexandria Museum of Art from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, Beyond Mammy, Jezebel, & Sapphire features images of and by Black women. The exhibition examines the trope of the “Strong Black Woman”, uncovering the opportunities and dangers that this characterization creates for Black women. From the suffering mama, to the stoic victim, to the sassy broad – the images presented in the exhibition question and overturn entrenched archetypes of Black femininity. Frankly addressing idea such as frailty, sexualized power, and racially bounded ideals of beauty the exhibition presents us with compelling and nuanced examinations of multiple Black female identities and experiences.

Featured artists:

– Romare Howard Bearden                           – Robert H. Colescott

– Mildred Howard                                        – Ellen Gallagher

– Wangechi Mutu                                          – Alison Saar

– Lorna Simpson                                           – Mickalene Thomas

– Kara Walker

At age 14, Jordan D. Schnitzer bought his first work of art from his mother’s Portland, Oregon contemporary art gallery, evolving into his lifelong avocation as collector. He began collecting contemporary prints and multiples in earnest in 1988. Today, the collection exceeds 10,000 works and includes many of today’s most important contemporary artists. It has grown to be one of the country’s largest private print collections overall. He generously lends work from his collection to qualified institutions and has organized over 100 exhibitions at more than 80 museums. Mr. Schnitzer is also President of Harsch Investment Properties, a privately owned real estate investment company based in Portland, Oregon, with over 23 million square feet of office, multi-tenant industrial, multi-family and retail properties in six western states.

For more information about the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, please visit