Kamala Harris may become the first Black woman elected as vice president, but for now she’s still being slotted into a well-worn mold, as President Trump and his allies seek to cast her as “a mad woman.”
Within hours of her joining Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket on Tuesday, Mr. Trump branded her “extraordinarily nasty,” and then “so angry,” as the rhetoric ratcheted up. By Thursday, a Trump campaign fund-raising email called her “the meanest” senator.
All of it played on a racist trope that goes back generations in American culture, and has a complicated history in forging gender identity, power and class. The “angry Black woman” remains a cultural and social fixture, a stereotype that has been used to denigrate artists, athletes and political figures.
“The notion of the angry Black woman was a way — is a way — of trying to keep in place Black women who have stepped outside of their bounds, and who have refused to concede the legitimacy of being a docile being in the face of white power,” said Michael Eric Dyson, the Georgetown professor and author.
The trope, like all stereotypes, is meant to make its subject into something one-dimensional and easier to puncture. It demeans Black women who are perceived as angry by dismissing them as shrews whose opinions do not count because they are pushed to rage by everything, and nothing.
“If you don’t grant us a degree of emotional complexity, then you don’t have to take us seriously, as leaders or as a constituency that has value,” said Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University and the author of“Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.” “White supremacy is lazy and unoriginal,” she added, “and doesn’t feel the need to ascribe humanity to Black women.”
Ms. Harris has not responded to Mr. Trump’s language, but the Biden camp released a statement Friday evening that referred to Mr. Trump’s “clumsy, bigoted lies.”
The statement from Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesman, said the president was “proving that he’s dumbfounded after Joe Biden’s selection of a strong running mate who he himself said not two weeks ago would be a ‘fine choice.’”
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the president’s remarks.
Serena Williams also did not directly address the stereotype in 2018, when an Australian cartoonist drew global ire by depicting her, with exaggerated features, as throwing a tantrum on the court. Ms. Williams was fresh off her loss to Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open, where she had heated words with an umpire. She did note, when criticism surfaced of her remarks, that she had only complained in a way that white male players have been doing, with impunity, for decades.
In her book “Becoming” and in 2016 interviews with Oprah Winfrey and others, Michelle Obama described how hurt and bewildered she was after being portrayed as an angry Black woman during President Obama’s first presidential campaign.
“That’s the first blowback, because you think, Wow, that is so not me,” she told Ms. Winfrey. “But then you sort of think, Well, this isn’t about me. This is about the people who write it. And then you start thinking, Oh wow, we are so afraid of each other.”
Though the exact origins of the trope are not clear, scholars believe the concept sprang from the post-bellum South, an outgrowth of the mammy archetype — a strong, desexualized authority figure that ruled households assertively. “In some cases that sassiness kind of borders on anger,” said David Pilgrim, a sociologist and the founder of the Jim Crow Museum, a compendium of racist memorabilia housed at Ferris State University, where he is vice president for diversity and inclusion.
The stereotype has been promoted on film and television since at least the 1950s, with the TV arrival of “The Amos ’n’ Andy Show” and the character Sapphire Stevens, played by Ernestine Wade. She was the emasculating and relentlessly volatile foil of her husband, Kingfish. Both characters were written largely by white men.
The character type was replicated on other television series (the dominating Aunt Esther in “Sanford and Son,” the glowering Pam James on “Martin”) and in films (Terri, the fiery female cutter in “Barbershop”), until “Sapphire” became its own category. It’s the woman with the smacking retort, the flip side of categorizing Black men as overwhelmingly physically threatening, except when they are at the mercy of their Sapphires.
In the ’70s, the trope morphed into the gun-toting sex objects of blaxploitation films — drawn as taboo figures, Professor Dyson said, “to control the outlaw behavior of the Black female body.”
Long before she was on reality TV, Omarosa Manigault Newman learned she had to walk a fine line between being perceived as strong versus aggressive, she has said. On the first season of “The Apprentice” — where she was the sole Black woman — she was packaged as a villain, opposite Mr. Trump, whom she later worked for briefly as a presidential adviser. (Mr. Trump reacted to her book, “Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House,” by referring to Ms. Manigault Newman as “that dog.”)
Some creators have aimed to give context by exploring the origins of women’s fury (“Waiting to Exhale”) or satirizing the clichéd portrayals of it (“The Boondocks,” “Dear White People”). But the depths of the cliché are hard to shake.
In 2014, a New York Times television critic invoked the stereotype in an article about the work of Shonda Rhimes, the TV writer and producer. Its opening line: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” Criticism came quickly, including from Ms. Rhimes. (The writer, Alessandra Stanley, defended the article.)
For Black artists, the choice to portray a character who could be read as rageful is doubly fraught. Tonya Pinkins, the Tony Award-winning actress, has rejected and embraced so-called “angry Black woman” roles onstage.
In the 2015 Off Broadway play “Rasheeda Speaking,” a dark comedy about racism in the office, she played a receptionist whose boss searches for a reason to fire her by having a white colleague monitor her behavior. Friction ensues.
Ms. Pinkins said she fought off suggestions that she play it tough in the role because she knew that it would only encourage the audience to tap into the trope and see her as the villain of the play because of her race. She played her “docile” instead, she said in an interview, though she recognized that some audience members would still view her as the villain.
In another role several years earlier, in Broadway’s “Caroline, or Change,” Ms. Pinkins said that she felt it necessary to express the unadulterated pain and rage of her character, Caroline, a single mother making $30 a week doing housework for a family.
“That’s a place where I feel that I got to be the ‘angry Black woman’ and it was incredibly powerful and healing for people to see,” she said.
In pop music, Black women have turned anger into a potent, anthemic tool, acknowledging and subverting stereotypes.
In a quickly iconic moment from her visual album “Lemonade,” Beyoncé struts down the street in a flouncy gold gown accessorized with a baseball bat, shattering car windows like it’s a release and whacking open a fire hydrant with a gleaming smile on her face — all to the delight of other Black women on the street.
“Mad,” a deceptively sweet track from Solange’s 2016 album “A Seat at the Table” — itself a meditation on the pain, and exuberance, of Black identity — is a validation, and a rebuke, of how women’s emotions are presented.
“I got a lot to be mad about,” she sings, with a chorus of female voices echoing, and then concludes, “But I’m not really allowed to be mad.”
Alain Delaqueriere and Susan Beachy contributed research.