Black feminism

Black Women’s Moral Resistance to Slavery

One book I’m reading for my dissertation is When and Where I Enter by historian Paula J. Giddings. The book revolves around the idea of “Ain’t I a Woman” as Black women linking experience to theory. Giddings writes about how Black people had uneven access to freedom during the colonial era because the need for labor included both race and class exploitation:

During the first years of the African presence in North America, Blacks had a higher status than other servants, because the circumstances of their seizure put them under the protection of international law. The first Africans worked as servants for the colonial administrators, and in subsequent years they worked side by side with White servants. Africans worked out their indentures, and several subsequently purchased large parcels of land—and the services of their own servants.”1

Ideologies developed throughout the course of European history highlighted the notion of personal responsibility for moral failings. The Renaissance popularized the cult of individualism. The Protestant Reformation led to the church teaching that the body was separate from soul. An Age of Discovery ushered in a commercial Revolution that increased global wealth at the expense of some countries over others. During this time period, social beliefs started to reinforce that idea that whiteness and blackness opposed each other. Whiteness was considered pure while the blackness was savage.

By 1640 Black people no longer worked as indentured servant along side European settlers. By then, legal decisions quickly increased boundaries between the two groups. Several legal decisions determined status of Black women in society especially in Virginia.

For example, the social belief created the notion that White women lacked sexual passion, while Black women were seen as prostitutes. Giddings writes:

The first judicial decision that specifically referred to race in the model Virginia colony involved a Black woman. The decision, Re: Davis, rendered in 1630, read: Hugh Davis to be soundly whipt before an assembly of negroes & others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro which fault he is to actk sic Next sabbath day.”2

By 1643 Virginia had ruled Black women enslaveable along with all men as opposed to 1629. In 1656 Virginia’s John Hammond determined Black should be domestic slaves. This extended to free Black women in 1661:

Such legislation laid women open to the most vicious exploitation. For a master could save the cost of buying new slaves by impregnating his own slave, or for that matter having anyone impregnate her. Being able to reproduce one’s own labor force would be well worth the fine, even in the unlikely event that it would be imposed.”3

By 1662 Virginia ruled that Black women children must also be enslaved. Maryland followed suit in 1664. Virginia also passed laws that prevented White women to marry Black men or enslaved women from marrying their masters, If they did they’d be banished from colony. For instance, Maryland ruled that White women who married enslaved Black men would be considered enslaved until they die. By 1705 Virginia had solidified race and gender class divisions by stating that Negros are slaves & White women shouldn’t do the work

Black Women’s Resistance During Enslavement

Black women’s acts of resistance during slavery earned them the reputation of witches. According to Giddings, rebellious women would use poison or set fire to their masters’ homes. In 1800 thousands of slaves met outside Richmond and marched on the city.

Acts of resistance weren’t always on the ground. For instance, Slew & Freeman sued for their freedom during the America’s revolutionary war. At that time, the status of Black people was in flux because the U.S. needed soldiers for war.

Freedom came in uneven patterns as the North abolished slavery by 1830 . Still, the South embraced the cotton gin and sent the cotton to be manufactured up North. The maintenance of slavery in the South meant it changed character:

After 1830 slavery became “domesticated,” according to historian Willie Lee Rose. It became “a domestic institution which came to mean slavery idealized, slavery translated into a fundamental and idealized institution, the family.” Especially among the wealthier planters, this meant that slave masters adopted a new ethic, and a new image.”4

This new form of slavery rested on a Victorian ideal of slavery as a domestic institution.  Black and White relations got framed as an extended family maintained via the paternalistic slave master and a loyal mammy. Slave owners encouraged organic family units among the enslaved. This helped prevent runaways and allowed them to reproduce their labor force. Within this context, White women used their status as wives to ensure the Black woman would serve as no more than a breeder.

Enslaved mothers impart values to their children and maintained their own moral codes. For instance they might refuse to have babies and had techniques for abortions. Free Black women, however, used the cult of true womanhood to cultivate an air of domesticity. Unfortunately the attitudes of White women made it difficult to organize across class and race lines.

Women in the abolitionist movement parted over race in 1840/50s. Thus race became central to Black women’s feminism. They did not see themselves as just reproducers of the labor force in the post-slavery era. Many of them worked as domestics, mostly single women, and married women tended to be washer women.

The single women got exploited for sexual use by upper class men. These women developed a class consciousness where they showed resistance by giving the impression of being a lady. Women like Maria W. Stewart, the first Black woman orator, saw no distinction between domesticity and political action.
I think Giddings’ book reveals how intersectionality plays a role in Black women’s resistance. Black women deal with legislations and social beliefs that make their existence political due not only to their race and gender but also class status.

  1. (58 -9) Excerpt From: Giddings, Paula J. “When and Where I Enter.” iBooks. ↩︎
  2.  Excerpt From: Giddings, Paula J. “When and Where I Enter.” iBooks. (142 – 3) – emphasis added ↩︎
  3. Excerpt From: Giddings, Paula J. “When and Where I Enter.” iBooks. ↩︎
  4. Excerpt From: Giddings, Paula J. “When and Where I Enter.” iBooks. ↩︎

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