Enslaved women's resistance in the United States and Caribbean

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Black women have been aborting themselves since the earliest days of slavery. Many slave women refusing to bring children into a world of interminable forced labor, where chains and floggings and sexual abuse for women were the everyday conditions of life. ~ Angela Davis


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Enslaved women were expected to maintain the enslaved populations, which led women to rebel against this expectation via contraception and abortions. Infanticide was also committed as a means to protect children from either becoming enslaved or from returning to enslavement.

Quotes[edit]

What is motherhood for a woman deprived of the ability to care for and protect her child? How are we to conceptualize maternal identity under conditions of enslavement? Furthermore, because procreation by bondwomen can be regarded as both a means of perpetuating slavery and an act of love and self-sacrifice, the sexuality of enslaved women and their relationship to their offspring must be understood as a complex negotiation involving individual agency, resistance, and power. ~ Stephanie Li
A thorough reading of the WPA narratives reveals not only that slave women used contraception, but also that it may have been very effective. In the context of slave women and work, this is a significant discovery, as the evidence, which is detailed below, suggests that slave women not only understood that their childbearing capacity was seen in terms of producing extra capital, but that they were sufficiently opposed to this function to actually avoid conception. The use of contraception can be seen not only as a form of resistance, but also, more specifically, as a form of strike, since reproduction was an important work role for most slave women. ~ Liese Perrin
  • Many slave owners looked at black women’s bodies as a source of free labor and often forced relationships or raped enslaved women to produce more children. Generally, enslaved women who bore children were considered more valuable than those who didn’t.
    At the same time, the backbreaking work expected of the women, the lack of medical care and healthy food, and abusive treatment often resulted in miscarriages, premature births, and stillbirths. Those losses led some southern whites to conclude that enslaved women knew secret ways to manage their fertility.
    Though the practice probably wasn’t as common as was assumed, some black women did use remedies such as cotton root or looked to a black midwife to end their pregnancies. In doing so, they were asserting some control over their own bodies-and perhaps hoping to avoid the heartbreak of having a child born into slavery or sold away from the family. But the birth rate for black women didn’t notably decline until after the end of the Civil War.
  • Margaret Garner, who was born as an enslaved girl, almost certainly did not plan to kill her child when she grew up and became an enslaved mother.
    But she also couldn’t yet know that the physical, emotional and psychological violence of slavery, relentless and horrific, would one day conspire to force her maternal judgment in a moment already fraught with grave imperative.
  • Black women have been aborting themselves since the earliest days of slavery. Many slave women refusing to bring children into a world of interminable forced labor, where chains and floggings and sexual abuse for women were the everyday conditions of life. A doctor practicing in Georgia around the middle of the last century noticed that abortions and miscarriages were far more common among his slave patients than among the white women he treated.
    Why were self-imposed abortions and reluctant acts of infanticide such common occurrence during slavery? Not because Black women had discovered solutions to their predicament, but rather because they were desperate. Abortions and infanticides were acts of desperation, motivated not by the biological birth process but by the oppressive conditions of slavery. Most of these women, no doubt, would have expressed their deepest resentment had someone hailed their abortions as a stepping stone toward freedom.
  • Legend has popularized the image of the Caribbean as a woman compelled to suckle a snake all night long. This image of a woman’s violated body is viewed as paradigmatic of a land and people exploited and ravaged by imperialist aggression. As a corporeal representation, the image recalls Hortense Spillers’s formulation of the New World as a “scene of “actual” mutilation, dismemberment and exile,” where the “seared divided, ripped-apartness” of the flesh serves as “primary narrative.” As legend has encoded it, however, this primary narrative is inscribed in the flesh of the woman’s body and takes the particular form of violated maternity This powerful image of the violated maternal figure has, not surprisingly, found a significant place in contemporary Caribbean and African American literature.
    The literary representation of the figure of the violated mother is enmeshed with two dominant and long-standing issues of this literature. Although they have long been of concern in Caribbean and African American literature, the slave mother and black motherhood have only recently appeared, in all their complexity, as focal points for the exploration of past history and self-expression. Not only does the issue of violated maternity force the painfully unspeakable and unspoken experience into avenues of objectification, insisting that the sexual abuse of black women, both slave and free, be included in discussion of slavery, but, as image, it can also become emblematic or representative of an entire people, as in the work of Edouard Glissant. As well, it can become the cornerstone for a critique of repressed desire, as in Maryse Conde’s “Moi, Tituba, sorciere . . . Noire de Sale” (1986; Eng. “I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem”). This critique resolves itself, turning absence into presence, through an alternative production/reproduction: that of writing or telling the female self into existence.
  • Throughout Antillean oral culture,” writes Maryse Conde in “La parole des femmes” (Women’s Word; 1979), “the mother is glorified as the bearer of gifts and the dispenser of goods. We can easily say that this is also the case in literature written by both men and women.” This idealization of the mother, which Conde characterizes as an enduring feature of the folklore and literature of the Antilles, has given rise to a romanticized, if not exotic, portrayal of maternity. It is only recently, argues Conde, that feminist literature of the Antilles has responded to the model image of a nurturing, supportive, selfless mother and the reductionist conception of maternity as the definitive function of women. The response, Conde adds, is somewhat nuanced: although literary heroines continue to conceptualize the mother as a prominent figure, they themselves refuse maternity. Conde suggests that the ambivalence that accompanies the heroine’s refusal reflects both the persistent defining power of the images and a conscious or unconscious rejection of them (40-47). I would like to suggest that, in addition, the ambivalence is indicative of residual traces of violence against the slave mother, vestiges of the past that consciously or unconsciously shape present conceptions of social identity. Rooted in the violence colonization of black female sexuality, motherhood in slavery was an extremely complex and conflict-ridden experience, the repercussions of which are still felt today and manifest themselves as the literary heroine’s ambivalence.
  • Southern slaves were "the happiest, and, in some sense the freest people in the world," wrote George Fitzhugh, Virginia proslavery defender. He claimed bondwomen did "little hard work" and were "protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters." In her famous diary, Mary Chesnut noted that the female slaves "take life easily. Marrying is the amusement of their life." Many antebellum southerners thought the female slaves were sensuous and promiscuous and cited the "easy chastity" of the bondwomen. Since associations were made between promiscuity and reproduction, the desired increase of the slave population seemed to be evidence of the bondwoman's passion. A slaveowner in northern Mississippi told Fredrick Law Olmsted that slaves "breed faster than white folks, a 'mazin' sight, you know; they begin younger," and, he added, "they don't very often wait to be married." Bondwomen's perception of the slave experience is in marked contrast to the slaveowners'. In her remarkable autobiography, Linda Brent, a mulatto female slave, noted, "Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own." Female bondage was worse than male bondage because the female slave was both a woman and a slave in a patriarchial regime where males and females were unequal, whether white or black. Because they were slaves, African-American women were affected by the rule of the patriarch in more ways and to a greater degree than the white women in the Big House. The size of the food allotment, brutal whippings, slave sales, and numerous other variables influenced the bondwoman's view of the patriarchy. Yet because she was a woman, her view, like that of the white woman, was also gender related. According to Anne Firor Scott, the most widespread source of discontent among white women centered around their inability "to control their own fertility." On the other hand, the bondwoman's entire sex life was subject to the desires of her owner. This essay will, therefore, deal only with the bondwomen's perspective from the viewpoint of gender, using twentieth-century interviews with female ex-slaves who were at least twelve or thirteen years of age at the time of emancipation. Of the 514 women in this category, 205, or almost forty percent, made comments of this nature.
  • Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman shall be slave of free. Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother-“Partus Sequitur Ventrem”. And that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.
    • Laws of Virginia, 1662 Act XII; Latin added by Willian Henig, “The Statutes at Large”, 1819
  • Claudia Tate has observed that for female slaves "motherhood was an institution to which they had only biological claim". Enslaved women and their children could be separated at any time, and even if they belonged to the same owner, strict labor policies and plantation regulations severely limited the development of their relationships. Hortense J. Spillers concludes that because of this fundamental maternal outrage, and the concomitant banishment of the black father, "only the female stands in the flesh, both mother and mother-dispossessed. This problematizing of gender places her, in my view, out of the traditional symbolics of female gender". George Cunningham further argues, "Within the domain of slavery, gender or culturally derived notions of man- and womanhood do not exist". The predetermined violence of slavery disrupts conventional meanings attached to words such as "mother" and "womanhood." What is motherhood for a woman deprived of the ability to care for and protect her child? How are we to conceptualize maternal identity under conditions of enslavement? Furthermore, because procreation by bondwomen can be regarded as both a means of perpetuating slavery and an act of love and self-sacrifice, the sexuality of enslaved women and their relationship to their offspring must be understood as a complex negotiation involving individual agency, resistance, and power. Due to slavery's basic destabilization of blood relations, the black female subject demands new terms of radical self-determination. Spillers thus reminds her readers, "It is our task to make a place for this different social subject. In doing so, we are less interested in joining the ranks of gendered femaleness than gaining the insurgent ground as female social subject".
  • It is precisely through her flesh as both mother and slave woman that Harriet A. Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) claims the insurgent ground of her social identity and formulates her resistance to human bondage. By emphasizing her narrator's maternal sentiments, Jacobs resists prevailing beliefs concerning black women's indifference to their children while also establishing an important association between her protagonist Linda Brent and domestic ideologies. Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe and other nineteenth-century writers of sentimental fiction, Jacobs describes "nurture as a quintessence of the maternal that crosses race and class boundaries" (Stephanie Smith 215). Relying upon an understanding of maternity as a form of innate attachment, Jacobs presents Linda's actions as largely determined by the effect they will have on her children and their eventual emancipation. Many female slaves were unable to keep their families together, yet by emphasizing the oppositional action inspired by maternal sentiment Jacobs presents motherhood as a force that resists slavery and its supporters. By fashioning a literary persona who is defined almost exclusively by her maternal identity, Jacobs rejects the materialist logic of human ownership. Maternal love is shown to offer a model of relations that opposes the economy of exchange and possession characterizing the antebellum system of human bondage. Converting her body and reproductive abilities from sites of exploitation to vehicles of resistance, Linda undermines the authority of the slave master and works to liberate her children.
    Works by Carla Peterson, Valerie Smith, and Claudia Tate have focused upon Jacobs's departure from the assumptions and expectations of the male slave narrative to articulate the experiences and concerns of bondwomen. By contrast, I explore forms of female bodily resistance as well as ideological strategies of literary representation. Rather than conflate Jacobs with the text's protagonist, as many previous critics have done, I analyze Linda as a literary figure deliberately constructed to perform certain political aims. As the embodiment of maternal love, she acts almost exclusively to improve the lives of her children. Although Linda strains credibility as a result of her overriding maternal sensibility, Jacobs's reliance upon the trope of motherhood capitalizes on the political import of prevailing beliefs in the sanctity and power of the mother and suggests that a woman's sexuality offers a vital means of resistance against patriarchal oppression.
  • From the moment of its introduction into the Atlantic world, hereditary racial slavery depended on an understanding that enslaved women's reproductive lives would be tethered to the institution of slavery. At the same time, few colonial slave codes explicitly defined the status of these children. This essay explores English slave codes regarding reproduction under slavery alongside the experience of reproduction to suggest that legislative silences are not the final word on race and reproduction. The presumption that their children would also be enslaved produced a visceral understanding of early modern racial formations for enslaved women. Using a seventeenth-century Virginia slave code as its anchor, this essay explores the explicit and implicit consequences of slaveowners' efforts to control enslaved women's reproductive lives.
  • Atlantic slavery rested upon a notion of heritability. It thus relied on a reproductive logic that was inseparable from the explanatory power of race. As a result, women and their experienced of enslavement shed critical light on what it meant to be enslaved or free in the early modern Atlantic world. Regardless of the rate of reproduction among the enslaved-which remained low in all early American slave societies-the ideological solidity of those slave societies needed reproducing women. Building a system of racial slavery on the notion of heritability did not require the presence of natural population growth among the enslaved, but it did require a clear understanding that enslaved women gave birth to enslaved children. Resituating heritability was key in the practice of an enslavement that systematically alienated the enslaved from their kind and their lineage. Enslaved people had to be understood as dispossessed, outside of the normal networks of family and community, to justify the practice of mass enslavement.
  • The practices of abortion and infanticide seem worthy of at least a fleeting mention in most studies of slave women in the United States, yet few historians mention the use of contraception. Those who do, usually conclude that little is known about the subject, but that it is probably not particularly significant. This article will discuss the use of contraception among slaves and will concentrate, in particular, on the use of cotton roots as a form of birth-control. Evidence that the cotton root was used for this purpose is taken mainly from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives, edited by George Rawick. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vols. 2–41 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972–1979). As yet, the author has come across only a few references to the use of cotton roots as a form of contraception in any other source. The WPA narratives are a controversial source, but, in sifting through every single interview, the multiple references to such an intimate practice were striking and demanded attention. This article forms part of a chapter from a thesis which looks at the work of slave women in the American South. Liese M. Perrin, “Slave Women and Work in the American South” (University of Birmingham: Ph.D. diss., 1999).
    A thorough reading of the WPA narratives reveals not only that slave women used contraception, but also that it may have been very effective. In the context of slave women and work, this is a significant discovery, as the evidence, which is detailed below, suggests that slave women not only understood that their childbearing capacity was seen in terms of producing extra capital, but that they were sufficiently opposed to this function to actually avoid conception. The use of contraception can be seen not only as a form of resistance, but also, more specifically, as a form of strike, since reproduction was an important work role for most slave women.
  • This article examines antislavery authors’ attempts in the 1850s to fictionalize the Margaret Garner story of slave infanticide as a means of converting northern white readers to the antislavery cause. In their attempts to gain sympathy for an enslaved female protagonist who had murdered her own child, these authors confronted strong cultural beliefs about femininity, motherhood, and blackness. Almost uniformly, their strategy involved lightening the skin of the main character and presenting the killing of her child as a form of suicide. Nevertheless, the intense emotions surrounding the slavery issue by the mid‐1850s also led these authors to endow their fictional slave women with an aggressiveness that challenged contemporary social boundaries for women.

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