Slave Women Had to Deliver Babies of Their Rapists

I am hearing a cacophony of anger. “Critical Race Theory.” “The 1619 Project.” “Real American History.” And my ear is tuned to language and how that language reverberates through the chambers of history. And in this case, the language comes to us from slavery. The restrictive Texas abortion law shows us that the tentacles of slavery still touch and taint every facet of American life. It gives the government unprecedented access to women’s wombs and turns every private citizen into a policeman. It could possibly force women to birth the children of their rapists. Where have we seen these types of tactics before?

Getting my first book published caused me a great deal of humiliation. I sent the manuscript out to over two dozen academic publishers and received over two dozen rejection letters. One of them was dripping with so much racism and sexism, that I had to answer this intake editor with an angry reply — breaking the rules of publishing courtesy. It seemed that no one wanted to take a chance on a first-time writer who had two crazy ideas going at once: masculinity is a gender and that slavery should be discussed in terms of gender.

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Even now, some of my colleagues laugh at my publisher behind my back. And some of them tell me to my face that I will never get tenure with such a book and such a publisher. And some of this is coming from people without a book published at all. They tell me that it is better to not have a book published than to have one with a “second-rate” publisher like mine.

I do not care what these people have to say. What I have to say is important. Discussions of slavery have been race-based in the United States for far too long. Gender, or Black women and slavery, have been addendum when gender should be central to the argument. Enlightenment philosophers, after all, used as their justification for enslaving African men the fact that African women worked outside of their homes and ran the markets in some African locations. Hegel, in his “Thesis on Africa,” masculinized African women by stating that the “Amazons” strangled their weak and effeminate king to death with nothing more than their hands.

This masculinizing of Black women continued as technology changed. In the Tarzan series, when Black people are shown as something more than the backdrop of the jungle, African women are not shown as mothers (an ape raised Tarzan), keepers of house, and children’s first teachers. African people are not shown as having any kind of civilization at all. Oh, no. Only the very delicate Jane is shown as a lady who brings the gift of civilization to the white man in the jungle.

Sadly, some Black people were put in human zoos throughout the United States and Europe so that white people could see the “missing link.”

The above picture is a very famous picture from St. Louis. This is a picture of a young man.

We know the case of Sarah Baartman, or Hottentot Venus. She was put on display in England and France. After she died, her genitals and brain were pickled and displayed in a museum of natural science for more than 150 years. Even after it was taken down (because that’s just morbid), South Africa was not given her body until 2002. She died around 1815.

Poster advertising Sarah Baartman

Not only did Europeans use gender as justification for slavery, so did our most hallowed American philosophers. Thomas Jefferson had a particular disdain for the writings of Phillis Wheatley — not because of her skin color — but for her gender. He likened her poems to an animal simply parroting what she had heard. He did not say the same thing about another Black writer of the time, Sancho, who was a man. By the way, I found it frightening that Richard Wright used the same language against Zora Neale Hurston. It was as if he’d lifted that passage from Notes on the State of Virginia and applied it to Hurston’s fiction.

Gender was central to slavery. These notions that we have of slavery, the house Negro versus the field Negro are neat, twentieth-century constructions put forth by masculinist historians who do not view women’s issues as central to oppression. For women who found themselves trapped in the nightmare of slavery, the choice became this: do you want to be raped in the house or down in the slave quarters?

These notions that we have of slavery, calling slavery the “peculiar institution,” are neat, twentieth-century constructions. There was nothing peculiar about the fact that slavery existed in America. Slavery existed in most great civilizations. The “peculiar” thing about American slavery is that “Black” became synonymous with “slave.” Now, “Black” is synonymous with “poor” and “criminal.” If we want to continue to look at American-style slavery as “peculiar,” that would call for a serious evaluation of our legal system, which to a certain extent, is still based upon controlling behaviors that threatened the institution of slavery. And yes, that would require people trained in critical race theory. These are people with a J.D. and an M.A. — not elementary school teachers. If we want to continue to think of American-style slavery as “peculiar,” that would call for us to have some serious conversations about class in America that we are simply unwilling to have. We cannot even say the phrase, “poor white people” without conjuring up mental images of a person who made awful choices because he/she is somehow morally corrupt. We cannot even say the phrase “poor white people” without images of a buffoon riding an ATV while drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette without a helmet. According to American lore, if a white person is poor, it’s his/her own fault and not the structure of our legal system, or our economic system where CEOs are paid more than 100 times what their workers are making.

Slavery, in its American-style manifestation, was a patriarchal institution. First of all, white women were second-class citizens while Black people were considered 3/5th human. Images of white plantation mistresses from that time are of demure, genteel, pale women sitting on the veranda sipping sweet tea while watching magnolias blossom. In spite of the Southern humidity, her silken hair is perfectly curled, her many petticoats are crisp and layered under a snow-white dress, and she does not sweat. Even in Alabama. She is the picture of angelic perfection here on earth.

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Read the real slave narratives. Plantation mistresses, because they had little rights themselves, were often jealous of the slave women, who were just as beautiful (I will explain that later). When and where they had power, white women wielded it ruthlessly, often punishing slave children harshly and ordering their mothers to be whipped at the slightest bend of the rules. Woe onto the Black slave woman should the mistress find out that her husband was partial to that woman! Try as they may, white women could not deny that their husbands philandered in the house and down in the slave quarters. We have our images of Mammy and all of her children. We think about Mammy as wet nurse. Did any of us ever think about where Mammy’s children came from? Did any of us ever stop to think that in order to have milk, one must have given birth? If Mammy had milk, she must have given birth. And who was the father of Mammy’s children? According to one slave narrative writer, some plantation owners sold off these mothers and children as a mercy to the Black mother and child.

Black women were forced to have the babies of their rapists. The house Negro versus field Negro construction came from chromatism in the Black community with little regard for gender politics. It was said that the lighter-skinned Black people were given the “better” jobs in the house and did not have to toil in the fields. But for Black women, were these house jobs, where the Master had easy access to their bodies, better? According to one abolitionist, there were breeding farms constructed for Black women to be impregnated by a random man and forced to give birth. We have to understand something about early capitalism here. Before the firm establishment of slavery, the entire economy of England was based on feudalism. Land was handed down from one generation to another. After slavery started supplying the looms of Great Britain with cotton and other goods, capitalism, with a roaring stock market took off. Part of the success of capitalism depended upon the reproduction of the next labor force. This is why it was pivotal, with the African slave trade being closed in United States, for Black women to give birth. In a sense, the Black woman’s womb was linked to the stock market.

Modern gynecology is based on experiments done on slave women. James Marion Sims performed shocking, torturous medical experiments on slave women and children with no pain medication and no follow-up care. Some of the children died. The slave women whose names that we may never know, are casually forgotten in history. James Marion Sims is lauded as a hero and is now called, “The Father of Modern Gynecology.”

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Sims’ main job was to keep enslaved women producing and reproducing. Really stubborn cases were brought to him. Sims built the first women’s hospital in America. It was located in Montgomery, Alabama and his practice was almost exclusively enslaved women! Oddly, before he began practicing on slave women, Sims had no prior training in gynecology.

During slavery, any white man could be a possible policeman. In order to move about, Black men had to have a pass. In the South, where class lines were firmly entrenched, poor whites fought to gain the favor of their richer kin. They were deputized by law and custom (notice I didn’t say, “Southern” here. The Fugitive Slave Law was a national law that affected Black women in the North. Many ex-slaves, because of fear, moved from the North to Canada to escape recapture.) with the color of their skin being the only qualification. Many became patrolmen, those actually paid to patrol the night for slaves. Many simply became bounty hunters under the fugitive slave law. Some staked their reputations on becoming the hardest driving overseers (middle management) in the area. Read the slave original narratives, and you see something called, “the patty-roller.” They were talking about the patrolmen who were out to catch Black men traveling without a pass. This kind of “papers please,” politics carried over long into the 20th century, when Black men could be arrested for not having a job, placed in the penitentiary, charged with vagrancy, and made to serve the state on a chain gang. All it took was white skin, maleness, and a willingness to serve the agenda of the richer white males and protect their human “property.” What was in it for the poor white males? Perceived white privilege. But in any case, every white man in slave society was deputized — unless that white man chose absolutely not to participate (and some did).

Being forced to have babies and turning citizens into cops to carry out the will of richer legislators. These things characterized slavery. And these things characterize some conservative thought. I say some, not all. There are those conservatives who truly believe in small government and a hands-off approach to the economy. My only question is: where are they?

The bulk of this blog comes from my book. I hate a shameless plug, but this is a shameless plug. My book is still available on Amazon.

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.