In 1619, the first slave ship arrived in what would later be known as America, into the settlement which became Jamestown, Virginia. On this ship were twenty African men and women who were the first African slaves in America. How these men and women felt, crossing the Atlantic and then settling into slavery in America, no one knows for sure. What we do know, is that soon after this began “the forcible deportation from Africa to mainland North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, enslav(ing) roughly 400,000 free men and women and transformed the many people of Africa, into Africans and, in time, African-Americans”. Anything else that we know about how these men and women felt is found mainly in the stories and writings of the slaves themselves. Slave narratives, autobiographies, letters and interviews can help us to understand what each step in the process felt like to these people.
While there are many narratives from the perspective of men, those from women are few and far between. We know that slavery wasn’t merely happening to men as a labor force and that women did in fact play a very important role in black America during the time of slavery and after, in a struggle against not only racial issues but one of gender as well. Through these stories and narratives, we get two main themes. First, we get to see how slavery influenced the role and identity of the woman slave including what they specifically had to endure and fear while enslaved. Secondly, the forced movement of slaves affected women and their identity in many ways. This role of the woman was one that was often ignored or tends to be forgotten, yet one which was a very real and important part of the history of African-Americans.
In 1861, Harriet Ann Jacobs (pictured above) published her autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”. It was one of the first slave narratives which described not only her escape from slavery but the everyday life of female slaves including sexual abuse from her owner. Jacobs says that “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”. Throughout her book, she acknowledges that slavery and treatment of slaves is terrible for men. However, she points out that the situation for women is much worse. She describes how the suffering of slave women is so much more difficult because they have to also deal with sexual harassment and abuse. “When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in everything; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so strong”. She describes how she asserts what power she does have in this situation. Knowing that her future is going to consist of being forced into a sexual relationship with her owner and refusing to spend her life being raped by him, she makes the choice to begin a relationship with a young white lawyer which angers her owner. While this may not seem like a great response to the situation, she is asserting power in that she is choosing to choose the white man she has the relationship with. This lawyer had comforted her when she described the situation with her master and she genuinely had feelings for him.
She eventually had two children with the lawyer which angered her owner leading him to send her to work in the fields. Out of fear that he would punish her children as well, she escaped to Philadelphia and then New York. Jacobs writes her story not because she is proud of what she has done, but instead because she feels that it is important that the abuse done to slave women is known by all. Her brave telling of this story helped to reveal to the world the truths of slavery and opened the eyes of Americans who could no longer ignore the injustices being committed.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in her book “Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South”, compares the gender identities of white, slave-holding women with that of black slaves in the Antebellum South. She said that “For slave women, the power of masters over their lives and the lives of their men distorted their sense of the links between their relations with men and their roles and identities as women.” She is noting the important point that slave women were not allowed to have a normal relationship, therefore not allowing them to form a sense of identity completely their own. A free woman, while under the “control” of their husband, is still free, and therefore free to create her own identity. A slave woman is not only under the constraints of her mate, but there is also the always present master who has ultimate control and authority over all. She points out that “their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers depended upon the sufferance of a master who could always break up families.” This limits and put constraints on the ability to build up one’s self.
Fox-Genovese goes on to point out that another big difference between the white woman and the black slave woman in the south are the varying roles in the home. While the white woman slaveholder’s role is to run the house, it is the black slave woman’s role to do the duties of the house. She says that “Within the big house, they performed the labor deemed appropriate to the gender roles of white women, but they worked as servants – the opposite of mistress. Even the exceptions – cook, mammy, and a few especially well-trained maids – did work that bore no necessary relation to their roles as mother or wife.” She is describing how slave women are doing the jobs that would normally be assigned to the woman of the house and yet they have not real obligation to the house based on relation. They have their own family and house to be responsible for, just as the slaveholder does and yet they have to do the job of both. At their own home, they have the obligation to care for their children and house as these are the jobs assigned to the gender role identity of a woman. At their owner’s house, they have duties which are their obligation to fulfill, which are really the duties of the white woman of the house. Yet they have to fulfill these duties without that ownership of the responsibility as they would do for themselves.
Rachel Adams, a former Georgia slave, in her WPA interview, recounted a similar story. She discusses the jobs that the slaves were expected to do on the plantation. She said that “every slave had a task to do atter dey got back to dem cabins at night”. After the work day ended for the slaves, they had their own domestic issues to deal with. This had to do not only with their families and children, but also with the housework in their cabins. For a domestic servant, this meant that she spent all day cleaning the white woman’s house and doing the duties she is assigned there, just to come back to her house at the end of the day, to begin the duties which are also her responsibility there. At least at her house however, there is that feeling of ownership and relationship to the work because it is her own, as Fox-Genovese suggests. Celestia Avery describes how in the plantation she was from, “Work began at ‘sun up’ and lasted until ‘sun down’…After work hours slaves were then free to do work around their own cabins, such as sewing, cooking, etc.”. Here again, she Celestia is describing how all slaves were required to work all day, but then how women had a second shift, lasting late into the night, which required of them the tasks necessary of a women in her own household.
Walter Johnson makes it perfectly clear what slave women had to fear in his book “Soul by Soul”. Regarding the fear of being sold, he described some of the extreme circumstances reported as to the reason some slaves were sold. He said that “Lucy Delany was sold because her mistress thought she was getting too proud and putting on ‘white airs’; Celestine was sold by her elderly mistress because the woman’s son liked ‘to play and fool about her’. JWC Pennington’s mother was sold because she had been raped by her master’s son”. All of these were very real fears that all slaves had to deal with. One fear was more specifically focused in the slave women than men. Women had children, whether by their husband or their masters, whom they would go to great lengths to protect. He notes that “Lewis Clarke, in answer to a question commonly asked on the antislavery lecture circuit, remembered ‘a slave mother who took her child into the cellar and killed it. She did it to prevent being separated from her child”. He later briefly mentions the lengths that mothers would go to in order to convince their owners to sell their children only to slaveholders in the local area to keep them close.
Kate Drumgold, in her autobiography “A Slave Girl’s Story,” described how she felt when her mother was sold away from her children. She says that her “mother was sold at the beginning of the war, from all of her little ones… and the saddest thought was to me to know which way she had gone, and used to go outside and look up to see if there was anything that would direct me, and I saw a clear place in the sky, and it seemed to me the way she’d gone…and I watched it for three and a half years”. To this young girl, the loss of her mother did not mean the end of the world. She obviously kept on living. However, even at this young age, she was well aware of the fact that there was a piece of her missing since her mother went away. To watch for her return for a few weeks would be expected of any child, however to actually expect her return after more than three years shows the very important connection with and role that her mother played in her life. Upon their reunion, she describes how she believes her mother must have felt to be separated from all of her children. “She made up her mind that she would take her children to a part of this land where she thought that they would never be in bondage any more on this earth”. She describes the difficult task her mother underwent to track down each of her eighteen children after emancipation, and how important it was to her to ensure that she found them all. This again shows that important, protective and maternal role that a mother plays in the lives of her children.
Margaret Walker, in her book “Jubilee”, describes what a slave husband thought about his wife. “He remembered the bitter taste in his mouth when he realized she was Marster’s woman. Marster had broker her in, and then ‘giver her to me’…Often when he found her crying after Marster’s visits, while he…was in the fields he would get mad, but she never would talk except to keep him from doing foolish things.” I think that this shows an important aspect to what women had to deal with that isn’t talked about very much. Not only did women have to deal with forced sex with their masters, but they also had to worry about how their family and husbands were going to react when they found out. In addition to this, dealing with the mental issues that would be instigated within a marriage would be a very difficult one of any woman to live with.
Warren McKinney, a former slave in Arkansas, recounted in his WPA interview: “When I was little, Mr.Strauterwhipped my ma. It hurt me bad as it did her. I hate him. She was crying. I chunked him with rocks. He run after me, but he didn’t catch me.” Women had a very tough role to play in slavery. They not only had to do the work they were assigned to do, but they also had to worry about the well-being, protection and reactions of their children when they were treated poorly. McKinley’s memories of how he felt when his mother was being beaten were nothing in comparison to how his mother must have felt to have her child watching her being beaten, as well as having to ensure that they didn’t react in a way that would put them in danger of receiving a similar punishment.
Sojourner Truth, (pictured above) in her narrative, recalls how her parents dealt with losing most of their children as they were sold away. “She wishes that all who would fail believe that slave parents have not natural affection for their offspring could have listened as she did, while (her parents)…would sit for hours, recalling and recounting every endearing, as well as harrowing circumstance that taxed memory could supply, from the histories of those dear departed ones, of whom they had been robbed, and for whom their hearts still bled.” She goes on to recount that “she was often surprised to find her mother in tears…thinking of (her) brothers and sisters that have been sold away from her”. On being told that her parents were not to be separated through sale, she says that, “for though (they are) ignorant, helpless, crushed in spirit, and weighed down with hardship and cruel bereavement, they were still human, and their human hearts beat within them with as true an affection as ever caused a human heart to beat”. Her realization here seems to be a basic one. These men and women were, in fact, human, which was an idea that slaveholders often disregarded.
Truth describes how she got through the trials of slavery through her faith, as she was taught to do by her mother. “She always asked with an unwavering faith that she should receive just what she pleaded for…When I got beat, I never knew it long enough to go beforehand to pray; and I always thought that if I only had had time to pray to God for help, I should have escaped the beating”.While her beliefs were based in the ignorance of the teachings of her mother that praying to God required audibly speaking to him in solitude, her devout faith is commendable as a way of dealing with the horrendous circumstances she faced. After having children, Isabella “rejoiced in being permitted to be the instrument of increasing the property of her oppressors…(which) she (later) look(ed) back upon, in her state of ignorance and degradation, as one does on the dark imagery of a fitful dream”. Her role, as a woman in the slave plantation was advanced in that by having children, she now had power to in fact increase her owner’s property holdings. While this mentality seems skewed to us, her identity as a person was skewed based on the belief that she herself was a piece of property. After time, and a realization of her true identity as a woman, Sojourner was able to realize that this was, in fact, a misconception of the truth based on the identity she had taken on in the institution of slavery.
In a similar situation, William Brown’s narrative tells of a woman, named Lavinia. Lavinia had been about to marry a fellow slave when he was sold away. As was customary in slave plantation life, her owner demanded that she take another husband who lived at the plantation so that she could reproduce and increase the owner’s slave population. When Lavinia refused to follow these orders, her owner “whipped her in such a manner that it was thought that she would die…The woman did not die but it would have been the same if she had”. Lavinia had maintained some sort of informed gender identity contrary to that of Sojourner Truth, in that she was not under the assumption that her reproduction for the plantation was her duty. Her resistance cost her dearly and we don’t know what became of her. She might have very well come away from this situation, relenting to her master’s orders to reproduce, altering her identity as a woman. Even if she believed that doing so was wrong, her role had been decided and would obviously be enforced. Given this, it is no wonder why a woman slave, like Sojourner Truth, would have had this mentality ingrained in her so as to actually rejoice at the idea of it. Her ignorance to the truth of what was happening to her skewed her reality and identity in this way.
Kath Drumgold describes another example of ignorance towards accepting a role in slavery. She said that she remembers being “three years old when I was leaving my own dear mother’s home to go to my new mother’s home, or I should say to my white mother’s home, to live with her, and I left my mother’s as happy as any child could leave their own home”. A three-year old can’t begin to understand the injustices of this system of slavery. To live in the “big house” would have seemed exciting. She describes how her white mother had “watched (her) in (her) cradle and longed for the day to come when (she) should be able to walk for she knew that (she) would follow her everywhere she should go”. The idea of being the white woman’s personal slave was so indoctrinated in this little girl because she had been groomed to be it. Her entire life she had been told that this is what she was going to do, and from the mind of a three-year old then, she thinks that this is her duty. Not only was this little ripped away from her mother, but she was raised to look up to her “white mother” and to admire her. She genuinely wanted to fulfill her “duty” and make her new mother happy. After the death of her white mother, she was returned to her family with pulled heartstrings about her identity.
Octavia Albert, in her narrative, describes the story of a slave named Charlotte Brooks whom she had been enslaved with. “I had a little baby when my second marster sold me, and my last old marster would make me leave my child before day to go to the cane-field…When I did go I could hear my poor child crying long before I got to it. And la, me! my poor child would be so hungry when I’d get to it! Sometimes I would have to walk more than a mile to get to my child, and when I did get there I would be so tired I’d fall asleep while my baby was sucking”.
Charlotte’s story is not one uncommon to slave women. Those without the ability to keep their child nearby, such as those who had to work out in the fields, were forced to leave their child crying behind them. Knowing that their child was hungry and being forced to leave them had to have done a lot to the psyche of a mother. Another girl who Octavia worked with, Nellie Johnson had an even worse story. She had given birth while they were on the road to a new location. The speculator in charge gave Nellie’s baby away to a white woman where they camped for the night saying that they couldn’t take care of the baby on the road and it would be better this way. In response, Charlotte said that “the white people thought in slave-time we poor darkies had no soul, and they separated us like dogs. So many poor colored people are dead from grieving at the separation of their children that was sold away from them”. This more than anything else relates the torture put upon slave women in separating them from their children as their identity as a mother was ripped away from them.
While there is speculation as to whether these slave narratives should be considered reliable based on the potential for falsity in memory, they are the only window we have towards understanding the real story of what went on during slavery. It’s the only way we can really understand the roles the men and women played outside of merely someone’s property. It’s the only truly honest portrayal we have of the role that slave women played in their social and familial communities as well as a look at how the forced migration affected them and the entire black community. This role that these women played was vital in their community and in the world of black America which was entirely separate and different from the world as we know it have been.
Ira Berlin, The Making of African America, (Penguin Group: USA, 2010)
Harriot Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (Literary Touchstone Classics: Delaware, 1861)
Elizabeth Fox-Genevese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South – Kindle Ed., (University of North Carolina Press: London, 1988)
Work Products Administration, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interview with Former Slaves-Kindle Ed., Georgia Narratives, Part I
Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 1999)
Kate Drumgold, A Slave Girl’s Story-Kindle Ed.,” (1898)
Margaret Walker, Jubilee, (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1966)
Work Products Administration Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States – Kindle Ed., Volume II Arkansas Narratives – Part 5, Washington (1941)
Oliver Gilbert, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth – Kindle Ed., (1850)
William Wells Brown, The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave –Kindle Ed., (1847)
Octavia Rogers Albert, House of Bondage, (Hunt & Eaton: New York, 1890)