In herwork, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, Deborah G. White describes the lives of black slave women in the American South. According to White, black slave women shared a double oppression of sex and color (23). Yet, black slave women defied the mid-nineteenth century Victorian ideals of inequality of the sexes based upon physical and mental weakness. To cope with cultural boundaries and criticisms, whites developed stereotypes and myths of black womanhood, particularly in the images of the Jezebel, Mammy, and later, Sapphire figures. Through her attempt to dispel these myths, White portrays the existence of a distinct female slave culture within the overall slave society.
In order to overcome the Victorian boundaries set for women, slaveholders developed the Jezebel image of black women to enable to continue their breeding practices and sexual abuse. White describes the Jezebel figure as the, “counterimage of the Victorian lady” (29). Black women, or Jezebel, supposedly possessed an innate sexual hunger and sensuality. Whites’ misinterpretation of African cultural traditions, such as polygamy, tribal dances, and religious ceremonies, contributed to their belief in Jezebel’s consuming sexual power. The rate of pregnancy and increase amongst blacks provided evidence for the Jezebel image (31). Even if a black woman wanted to practice chastity, the overwhelming beliefs surrounding the Jezebel image hindered them. Without fear of punishment, slaveholders raped the, ‘lustful,’ female slaves (36). To further confuse the situation for black women, white slaveholders encouraged pregnancy with threats or rewards. As White explains, if the black women made themselves available, it only lent credence to the whites theory of Jezebel, but if black women remained chaste, they faced the fear of being sold or whipped (38). Ultimately, the dilemma presented a no-win situation for black women.
When Northern abolitionists began to criticize Southern morality, pro-slavery advocates reacted by generating the Mammy figure of black women. Mammy presented the opportunity to create a chaste image to offset the immodest, heathenish Jezebel (45). Slaveholders used the Mammy character to portray slavery as an institution benefiting both whites and blacks. Mammy took care of white children, and the white family took care of and protected Mammy. White characterizes Mammy as an asexual woman, maternal, and deeply religious (46). Mammy represented the ideal slave and woman, thereby portraying race and sex relations at their best (61). Yet, White explains the iconic Mammy figure often simply did not exist or function in the described capacity. White women took care of a great deal of the chores and domestic sphere. The development of the Mammy myth served to discredit the amount of work the white wife of the household put forth.
White briefly mentions the much later development of the image of Sapphire, who negatively mirrors qualities of a Jezebel and Mammy. Sapphire represents facets of Jezebel’s personality with her domineering and emasculating effect. But, instead of Jezebel’s sexual nature, Sapphire exhibits an, “aggressive usurpation of men’s role” (166). White further parallels Sapphire with Mammy’s tough and efficient virtues, but Sapphire remains devoid of maternal compassion. With the development of Sapphire, White believes black women must now prove their womanhood.
White argues that a distinct female system of slavery emerged from the overall slavery institution. Until White’s work, historians often ignored or underscored the lives of black women by placing a larger emphasis upon the role of black women in the lives of black men. In part, White believes the reason for this emphasis derives from the lack of source material on female slaves. As White states, “Slave women were everywhere, yet nowhere” (22). Still, White illustrates that childbearing and childcare responsibilities created a different system for female and male slaves (89). Because they functioned in groups, such as “trash gangs,” and spent a great deal of time outside of work together in their quarters, bonds formed between the slave women (119). A hierarchy developed amongst the women based upon talents and skills. Because husbands and fathers often lived abroad, relationships between mothers and their children superseded that between husband and wife or father and child. Women developed a society within a society through their close ties to their children and each other.
Although she makes inferences throughout the work, she bases her conclusions upon plausible evidence from interviews conducted by the Works Projects Administration. White used information from these interviews to shed light upon the previously overshadowed lives of black slave women. In a relatively short work, White manages to dispel the myths of Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire surrounding black women and establish a distinct place for them in the continued study of Southern slave society.
Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. By Deborah Gray White. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985.
Deborah Gray White’s book, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, places black women in the context of the two ideologies they faced in the antebellum South—the Southern feminine ideal of the dependent, physically inert female, and the harsher imagery of hard labor and dehumanization that characterized the lives of slaves. According to White, the slave woman’s identity as defined by white society dangled precariously between these two images. In this sense, slave women found themselves doubly victimized: “For antebellum black women…sexism was but one of three constraints….They were slaves because they were black, and even more than sex, color was the absolute determinant of class in antebellum America” (15). The ultimate theme of White’s work is to identify slave women by considering the imagery forced upon them by white society, but also by studying the society the slaves made for themselves, thus achieving a more accurate view of the lives of antebellum slave women.
White begins her work by outlining the prevailing images by which white Americans defined black women. On the one hand, plantation society viewed the slave woman as a sexually insatiable female, a Jezebel, whose licentious appetites differentiated her from the more ideally pious and pure Southern white woman. On the other hand, the slave woman functioned as the matronly, kind-hearted Mammy, intent on caring for her master’s children and running the plantation household. As paradoxical as these two images appear, White demonstrates how each view represented a part of a slave woman’s reality as she related to the plantation household. Indeed, slaves were expected to be mothers in the sense that they were expected to birth children, thereby replenishing the slave population. But the “Mammy” image equating slave women with motherhood did not prevent Southern white society from dehumanizing women. Indeed, slave women often incurred the sexual abuses of their masters, thereby forcing them into a sexual role indicative of the “Jezebel” image. As White shows, the slave woman suffered an identity crisis compounded by prevailing ideologies that often prevented her from assuming a humanized role within plantation society.
White’s outline of the female slave identity crisis functions as a good overview of ideology surrounding slave women, but the author does not neglect the realities slave women faced in spite of the plantation society in which they lived. According to White, slave women functioned within slave societies in much different roles than the women assumed in plantation culture. For instance, slave women often formed tight bonds with one another, and, within their own families, shared more “equitable” relationships. Treated as property within plantation society, slaves found ways to manipulate their situations, thus exerting influence over their environments. Some slave women even feigned illness so that they would not have to perform the backbreaking work typical of many slaves’ lives. Indeed, quite apart from larger ideologies, White effectively demonstrates that slave women formed their own places within plantation society, thus bringing into question the passivity associated with slave women when viewed in terms of plantation imagery.
As a work involving paradoxes, White’s book shows the extent to which ideology impacts realties. Certainly, slave women were affected by the Jezebel/Mammy dichotomy even if their own lives did not reflect such existences simply due to the ways in which white culture—the promulgator of such imagery—treated the slave women by defining them in relation to these images. Nonetheless, one of White’s themes holds black women as paradoxes within slave culture, for while they functioned as slaves, the women also functioned as oppressed individuals with cultural ties of their own. What results is a work that questions previous literature holding slave women in relation to plantation imagery.
White’s work reads like a narrative of slave experiences, for the author evidences much of her theories by relying on slave narratives. The author’s decision to utilize slave accounts lends credence to her ideas, for by reviewing the source, White is more effectively broaching plantation life from the perspective of the slave women. In all, White presents a revisionist view of slave culture by examining the influences on how slaves are viewed while challenging scholars to look beyond imagery and consider slave women from their experiences rather than simply the ideologies surrounding their lives.
Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. By Deborah Gray White. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c. 1999. Pp. xi, 244. $11.00, ISBN 0-393-31481-2).
African-American women have long been neglected in the annals of American history, but the past 25 years have produced a large body of scholarly works, which begin to fill the void. Deborah Gray White’s book Ar’n’t I a Woman, first published in 1985, was path breaking in addressing the lives of female slaves. White teaches African-American and Women's history at Rutgers University and serves as the chair of the history department. While the work of Eugene Genovese and Herbert Gutman laid the foundation for studying slaves and their families under the "peculiar institution," they have focused more keenly on black males. White seeks to dispel the prevailing images associated with black females in the plantation South and illuminate their lives under the oppression of slavery.
The first two themes that White discusses deal with the images of the black “Jezebel” and “Mammy.” She argues that white slave owners created an image of black women that portends a lack of moral constitution. The intersection of race and gender formed a uniquely American mythology surrounding black women. White traces the foundation of the negative stereotypes to the first interaction of Englishmen and African women. Englishmen mistook the African woman’s minimal clothing as a sign of promiscuity. This erroneous judgment coupled with the pervading Victorian ideals of womanhood served to further diminish the worth of black women. White convincingly argues that the atmosphere in which female slaves worked also fostered the idea that they were lascivious and lewd. For example, black women’s tasks involved exposing their body. While working in the rice fields often times female slaves needed to hike their skirts up in order to effectively work the crop. During auction, black women were fondled and examined with no regard to modesty; their breasts and genitalia were exposed. During punishment, the slave owner also exposed her body. These actions effectively voided the privacy of black women and the ability to control their bodies. Black women became the targets for the sexual depravity of many white men. By debasing black women white men afforded white women the opportunity to keep the purity of their roles that were steeped in Victorian mores. But as time passed it became obvious to white southern society that Jezebel conflicted with crucial entities within their culture. Whites comfortably reconciled the Jezebel image by creating the affable Mammy.
In order to deal with the fact that black women cared for white children an alternate image needed to be created. A promiscuous woman did not meet the standards for those in close proximity with white children, therefore the jovial and ambidextrous caretaker Mammy served the purpose of a necessary positive image. But White illustrates that steeped in the Mammy image lies misleading and erroneous ideals. While Mammy predominately served in wealthy white households, there were female servants that combined fieldwork with household duties, particularly in less wealthy families. In these instances a strong bond between the female slaves and the white children often developed. Also, the Mammy image negates the active role white women served in maintaining their households. Diaries indicate that white women worked extremely hard caring for their children and home; placing all these responsibilities upon the Mammy strips white mothers of their integral familial roles.
White also addresses the camaraderie of female slaves. She spends a great deal of time discussing the close relationships and support systems formed by quilting, sewing and laundering as a unit. These tasks served to create bonds that assisted black women in coping with the harshness of slave life. Black women’s lives on the plantations of the South illustrate the “double-duty” syndrome of working women. After their work in the fields, slave women tended to domestic affairs long after the men retired (122). Female slave networks also demonstrate the tenuous strands of female bonding. Women often fought each other for the scarce resources available on the plantations. The control that masters and mistresses maintained over their black servants often pitted the women against each other. Disruptions occurred while vying for the slave owners’ good graces or over one of the mistress's old calico dresses. Not only were relationships between black women affected by the "peculiar institution," but the interactions of black men and women also suffered by the intrusion of white racism and sexism.
Ar'n't I a Woman explores the development of egalitarian relationships between black men and women. White argues that these relationships were neither patriarchal nor matriarchal because many aspects of the work black men and women did was not distinguished by gender. Female slaves worked in the fields and did back breaking labor along side their male counterparts. Black men had no power to provide for or protect their women. Therefore, black women could not rely on them for income or safety. For similar reasons black men could not depend on black women. White asserts that this atmosphere fostered mutual relationships rather than ones based on subjugation.
The final stereotype White addresses focuses on the image of Sapphire. This image portrayed black women as domineering females who emasculated black men after emancipation. Sapphire combines the sexual manipulations of Jezebel and the “tough, efficient, and tireless” Mammy to create a “domineering female who consumes men and usurps their role”(176). The creation and continual fostering of this image, White argues, allowed free black women to continue being viewed outside the sphere of womanhood thereby condoning violation of her mind, body, and spirit.
Deborah Gray White’s work is seminal in the field of African-American and Women's history. It laid the foundation for placing black female slaves on the center stage of historical analysis. While the author has addressed the obvious difficulty of available sources, White’s utilization of the Works Progress Administration interviews with female former slaves effectively supports her main themes. Due to the missing primary evidentiary material White must unfortunately make many inferences, therefore her otherwise succinct writing is cluttered with “must have,” “probably,” and “we can assume.” Inarguably, the manifestation of such conjectures may invite the scrutiny of historians, but this should not detract from her pioneering research of female slaves in the plantation South.
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