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.