The Play’s the Thing: The Function of Cultural Works in Supporting Racist Ideology

Author’s Note: This is a paper I did for the first quarter of my History Class Junior Year. The only source we could use was Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and by the time this essay was assigned, we had only read through chapter 10. The following essay includes minor grammatical edits from my teacher.

Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016) tracks the spread of racist ideas from Ancient Greece to the present day. Kendi argues that elite Europeans and white colonists established racist policies to serve their economic and sexual self interests. Support for these policies came from science, religion, and popular culture, including literature and plays. Some notable cultural works that promoted racist ideas included Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness (1605) and La Venus Hottentote (1814), a French opera.

Seventeenth-century elites used The Masque of Blackness to justify colonizing America. King James I commissioned Ben Jonson to write the play for his coronation at Whitehall Palace. In Masque, twelve African princesses learn that they can become beautiful by going to Britain. Kendi notes that the theme of the play was supported by another, scientific justification of racism: climate theory.[1] In emphasizing the ugliness of the princesses before their journey, even calling them “corpses,” the play not only argues for the inferiority of Black people and Black skin, but also proposes a solution for this problem — colonization.[2] James I wanted England to become an imperialist superpower and reap the rewards of resource-rich land. He used the ideas of Masque to cast colonization and enslavement as selfless acts that conveniently happened to substantially increase his influence and wealth.

John Smith used The Masque of Blackness to ensure that the English accepted enslavement. After King James I chartered the London Company in 1606, Captain and future planter John Smith successfully established Jamestown. In his widely acclaimed travel books, Smith attested to the idleness and devilishness of Black people.[3] According to Kendi, Smith was simply “recasting ideas he had heard in England between The Masque of Blackness, the founding of Virginia, and the founding of New England” instead of creating new racist ideas of his own.[4] Smith’s repurposing of Masque is yet another example of elites, and later wealthy colonists, using literature to justify self-interest. In this case, Smith used racist ideas of Black inferiority to support his economic interest in colonizing the New World and enslaving Africans because he too could portray enslavement as an altruistic instead of despicable act.

The French Vaudeville opera La Venus Hottentote, Or the Hatred of the French Woman promoted the dehumanization of Africans. The 1814 work follows a Frenchman who does not think his French marriage prospect is “exotic” enough. After she disguises herself as the titular figure Venus Hottentote, a Black woman, the man falls in love with her. Once the woman knows his feelings, she discards the disguise. The Frenchman, as Kendi puts it, “comes to his senses” and marries her.[5] The opera sexualizes Black women and portrays attraction to them as dehumanizing. According to Kendi, La Venus Hottentote supported the idea that “hypersexual Black women are worthy of sexual attraction [and] asexual Frenchwomen are worthy of love and marriage.”[6] French elites established this dichotomy so that society would view male sexual advances differently of white women and Black women differently. They also used the play to maintain their superior status to Black people by portraying them and their love as irrational and animalistic.

La Venus Hottentote maintained white claims of racial superiority and justified sexual abuse of Black women. Kendi writes that in the play “when Frenchmen are seduced by the Hottentot Venus, they are acting like animals” and says that the Frenchman is attracted by the exoticism of the Venus Hottentote.[7] By making the Hottentot Venus the seducer, the white Frenchman becomes the helpless victim. By portraying Black women as solely sexual beings and placing the blame of white sexual attraction on the women rather than the men themselves, elites argued that they could neither control nor prevent their sexual desires and subsequent actions. This view of male lust allowed men to victimize themselves while they continued to sexually abuse Black women. Secondly, the characterization of lascivious white men and African women as “animals” dehumanizes Black people. This dehumanization was nothing new — for decades scholars in the Enlightenment movement had been classifying Africans, who they believed were ruled by their sexual desires, as inferior to Europeans and other racial groups. Carl Linnaeus, an Enlightenment authority on race theory and the author of the 1735 book Systema Naturae, went so far as to call one African ethnic group the “missing link between human and ape species”.[8] Venus Hottentote’s continued sexual and senseless behavior contrasted by the Frenchman’s return to sense confirmed Linnaeus’s views on Black people as below white people in reason and governing ability in his racial hierarchy. Elites used La Venus as an example why Black people, consumed and defined by their sexuality, were unable to govern themselves while white people, who only suffered temporary lapses in judgment, were more fit to rule. Thus, men in power used Venus’s racist ideas to maintain power over Black people.

Elites used literature for their personal gain and interest — whether those interests be sexual, economic, or power-related. Through The Masque of Blackness, King James I and his court propagated the portrayal of Black people as ugly and flawed and proposed colonization and enslavement as not only a solution, but a saving grace. La Venus Hottentote dehumanized and sexualized Black women and in doing so gave European elites proof of their racial and sexual superiority. These portrayals not only laid the groundwork for both centuries of imperialism and colonization and the covert and overt discrimination Black women face today. The beauty industry still promotes lighter skin and straight hair as the standard of beauty, resulting in limited shade ranges for people of color and a plethora of hair smoothening and straightening products. Black women also experience higher rates of physical and sexual assault than women overall, which mirrors the aggressive sexual action of men in La Venus. In the United States alone, the rate of physical abuse for Black women is almost seven percent higher than the rate for women overall.[9] While the explicitly racist ideas European elites used for their self interests are less common in modern literature, the conclusions elites and wealthy colonists drew from contemporary literary works and the implications of those conclusions still linger centuries after they were first produced.
Dumonthier, Asha, Chandra Childers and Jessica Milli. Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“The Status of Black Women in the United States.” 2017.
Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
New York: Nation Books, 2016.

[1] Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016), 35.
[2] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 35.
[3] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 36.
[4] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 37.
[5] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 138.
[6] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 138.
[7] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 138.
[8] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 83.
[9] Asha DuMonthier, Chandra Childers, and Jessica Milli, “The Status of Black Women in the United States,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2017,, xix, 119–121.



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Sydney Weiner

A student publishing essays, short stories, and other pieces I’m currently writing. Come along for the ride