The Culture of Dissemblance: Obsolete or Still Operative?

In her essay “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” Darlene Clark Hine coined the phrase “the culture of dissemblance.” The framework of resistance is based on the migratory black women of the early twentieth century and their motivations for moving from the rural southern United States to the North and the Midwest. Although it is flawed, the framework both provides important incite into the behaviors of the black, African American women of the time and provokes questions about the behaviors of black women across the diaspora and today.

 To begin, Hine describes dissemblance as “the behavior and attitudes of Black women that created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppression” (Hine, 912). She argues that black women have historically employed dissemblance to prevent sexual violence and change public images of black women’s sexuality. The culture of dissemblance serves as a historical framework to understand the resistive strategies black women employed. Hine discovers dissemblance in an attempt to understand the motives of migratory black women in the early twentieth century. She found that black women’s motivations went beyond the surface level explanation of economics and truly centered around achieving personal autonomy over themselves, including their seuxality (Hine, 915).  Dissemblance also explains the silence in the archives of black women on rape, as well as the lack of fully fleshed out discourse on the effects of rape and threat of rape on black women (Hine, 916). In the process of hiding their true selves from the world, black women remained largely silent on how sexual violence affected them and their interior selves. 

However, the culture of dissemblance on its own has limits. The framework tends to ignore the interiority of black people and instead focuses on how they protected and concealed themselves (Quashie, 15). Although this isn’t necessarily bad, the discourse could be deepened by a discussion of what the concealed thoughts, feelings, and experiences of black women were rather than how and why they went about concealing them. With that being said, investigating the interiority of migratory black women who were under the threat of rape is a difficult task because of the limited archives. The silence surrounding black women’s sexual trauma makes an interrogation of interiority challenging. How does one know and understand the inner selves of historical subjects who remained silent? When discussing what she calls the politics of silence, Evelyn Hammonds suggests that not all black women practiced the culture of dissemblance. In fact, the blues singers of the 1920s were vocal about their sexuality and about sexual violence in their music (Hammonds, 97). Unlike black women who practiced the culture of dissemblance, blues women turned what others protected into performance. Their music makes up part of an archive surrounding black women’s sexuality and what they said and thought about it.

Despite its flaws, the idea of a culture of dissemblance continues to hold relevance in the discourse surrounding African American women and how they responded to sexual violence historically. Although the blues women proclaimed their sexuality and testified about the sexual violence committed against them, the dominant response in the period was a protection of the inner self and in turn, hiding the trauma of sexual violence. Understanding the behaviors of historical actors requires context, and in this case the context is a racist and sexist one in which many black women felt the best way to protect themselves was to take up this culture of dissemblance Hine describes. It cannot be ignored that the culture of dissemblance was not necessarily the most effective strategy. Hine herself recognizes how the culture of dissemblance actually prevents black women from “realizing equal opportunity or a place of respect in the larger society” (Hine, 915). But, interrogating the culture of dissemblance remains a relevant discourse because understanding how and why African American women acted in the past can inform the present and could have diasporic ties.

There has been limited formal discourse on the matter, however it would be interesting to see if there were disproportionate amounts of black women who jumped in on the #MeToo Movement in 2018. Angela Onwuachi-Willig wrote about how “the recent resurgence of the #MeToo movement reflects the longstanding marginalization and exclusion that women of color experience within the larger feminist movement in U.S. society” and how Tarana Burke, a black women, actually started the movement in 2007 (Onwuachi-Willig, 107). It would also be valuable to investigate the actual numbers and demographics of the #MeToo Movement and if there was a smaller number of black women, does that go back to a tradition of practicing the culture of dissemblance. In addition, it would be extremely interesting to undergo an analysis of the archives in other places in the diaspora, such as Brazil, and see if black women there employed the culture of dissemblance, too. Perhaps black women undergoing sexual violence exercised similar patterns of secrecy that have not yet been explored. The culture of dissemblance has the potential to create another parallel between sites of the African diaspora in the practices of black women in the face of sexual violence. 

Ultimately, the culture of dissemblance is an idea with a number of flaws, both as a historical framework to understand the actions of black women and as a resistive strategy itself. But, the conversation on dissemblance is not over. The concept as a lense applies to modern movements, and it is worth further investigation of the data to see if people continue to practice dissemblance or another strategy of resistance. In the same token, the culture of dissemblance has the potential to cross diasporic boundaries, but that discussion is yet to come. Although it is not the most pressing topic of Africana scholars, the culture of dissemblance remains relevant to the conversation regarding how marginalized people behave in the face of their subordination and how those practices evolved overtime and overlap throughout the diaspora.

One thought on “The Culture of Dissemblance: Obsolete or Still Operative?”

  1. This post raises important notions on the utility and limitations of dissemblance. It accounts for both the personal and institutional effects of dissemblance on discourse about sexual violence against Black women. The post also emphasizes the power of understanding dissemblance culture across the diaspora and its importance in understanding the me too movement. In presenting the example of blues women, who processed sexual violence and abuse through public performance, the post raises questions about how dissemblance culture is learned. Is dissemblance learned from other Black women or society at large, or is it a reflexive protective action in response to a violent exterior world?

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