Historian Danielle McGuire, examining the epidemics of sexual violence and lynching used to preserve a slave society after Reconstruction ended, asked a question that has stuck with me since I first spoke to her six years ago. It’s a question that pertains to Turner’s life and that of many modern Black women seeking liberation: “If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends? Does the culture change? … And the answer was of course it didn’t.”
What remains, in part, is indifference, a blindness to Black women’s suffering, their ability to feel pain, to be raped, to be regarded as something other than profit centers. Turner, of course, was too captivating to ignore. She had the greatest gams ever seen on a human being, a voice to match, style for days, and an indomitable stage presence. At first glance, she was the embodiment of American grit, a person many saw as proof of concept for the nation’s obsession with rugged individualism and bootstrapping.
However, it’s vital to remember what preceded Turner’s embodiment of lively, joyous liberty: a disassociation from the fear of losing her life. It lurks behind her eyes in many of the photographs with her notoriously abusive ex-husband and musical collaborator, Ike Turner. A disassociation born of the definition of Black womanhood in antebellum America.
As law professor Dorothy E. Roberts writes in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story: “The laws that invented race also created a regime intent on policing Black women’s sexuality and controlling Black women’s bodies. Many generations later, we are still living with the legacy of entangled racial injustice and sexual violence.”
That Turner attained wealth and fame does not exclude her from this legacy. Not only does My Love Story read like a slave narrative, but Turner deliberately courts the comparison in the language she employs to characterize her life and the people in it. Her father, Floyd Richard Bullock, Turner wrote, worked as an “overseer” when she was growing up in the tiny community of Nutbush, Tennessee. She talks about how Ike treated her like his “property,” and when she finally got away from him she referred to herself as a “fugitive.”
Yet this part of her story is often missing from many celebrations of her power, meaning, and celebrity. But to honestly examine Turner’s life is to see the ways our peculiar institution continued in the bodies and minds of Americans well beyond 1865. Turner was a human souvenir of our country’s greatest shame. When she got free, she made herself into an icon. How typical, how American, to focus our collective klieg lights on the infectious, feel-good parts of Turner’s story while turning away from the dark circumstances that haunted her to her grave.