The Period of Slavery and the Brilliant Women who Overcame



          Slavery in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the most difficult movement that African-American people had to endure.  Moreover, slavery occurring in Africa was just as serious.  The Europeans came to the coast of Africa in the sixteenth century in search of new energy, new land, and new resources.  The primary reason to come to Africa was not necessarily for slaves, in other words.  The European slave trade in Africa was started and reached its crescendo somewhere between the fourteen hundreds and the sixteen hundreds.  Not only did men have an increasingly hard time getting by, but women did as well.  In the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century women slaves in America were often times used as more than just housekeepers and nannies.  Many women slaves talk about being raped and being used as prostitutes to keep the white males content.  This proves just how strong a woman had to be.  Not only is the woman dealing with mental abuse, but with physical abuse as well.  Families were often split up and sold to many different slave owners.  The life of a slave was the most damaging and detrimental life one could live.  However, being a woman and being a slave were arguably more difficult than living as a male slave.  The main literary works that will be discussed are Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, poetry by Sojourner Truth, and the book Banned by Alice Walker.  These works have had a powerful impact on readers over the last one hundred years.
         Women slaves endured many long, horrible, emotional times.  On top of raising their slave keepers’ family, taking care of the household, and doing tedious field work, the women of that era also had their own families to worry about.  The separation of families was not the only fear slave women encountered.  According to Susanne Everett, “with their mothers working in the fields all day, slave children were cared for either by old black nurses, or, more commonly, by other older children” (116).  Most of the time African-American women could not even care for their own children.  Moreover, when the women could finally raise their children, there was always the constant burden of raising the children with the realization that they were eventually going to be sold as slaves.  Since literary and artistic outpouring is a positive expression drawn from painful experiences, poetry, books, music, and artwork began to emerge.  To begin, it is essential to look at the books written during the period.
        In 1853, using the fictitious name Linda Brent, Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to warn Northern white women about the dangers faced by enslaved African-American women in the South.  She began writing her incredible story thirty-four years after realizing she had become a slave. The story details her experience of slavery emphasizing the sexual harassment she experienced working in the home of Dr. Flint. This story was one of the most widely talked about novels not only of Jacobs’ time, but later as well.  Jacobs discusses in detail trying to hide her children from her master, trying to free herself and her children from a life of slavery, trying to escape from not only being a slave but from being a rape victim as well, and trying to make light of a situation that seems to be hidden completely in the dark.  In other words, the legal system of the time did nothing to ensure protection or even justify the atrocities against slave women.  As Jacobs puts it, “there is no shadow of law to protect her [the slave girl] from insult, from violence, or even from death” (27).  According to Kari Winter, “Jacobs, like hundred of writers before her, was pointing to the inadequacy of language to express the human pain and degradation that existed under slavery…[her narrative] is perhaps the longest and best developed slave narrative ever written by a woman” (39).  Her words, thoughts, and feelings hit home for many individuals like nothing ever had. 

          As a result of having to put other children and people before their own, mothers who were slaves during this period clearly suffered.  Jacobs discusses how her “mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food” (7).  This proves that regardless of the fact that a slave women had her children to feed and care for, the needs of the white children came first.  In the novel, Jacobs brakes many “moral” codes to ensure the safety of her children.  For example, she has sex with Mr. Sands, a white man, knowing all along that when she has her children, he will be a good father to them.  Moreover, if her owner ever tries to sell her or her children, Sands will buy them and keep them safe.  Her relationship with Mr. Sands is not as much romantic as it is practical.  Mr. Sands feels great sympathy for Harriet, and she knows that if she has children with Sands, they would be protected.  Jacobs loses her virginity while she is unmarried which goes against many moral values.  However, she can be looked at in an even better light as a woman and mother by doing what she did.  Harriet Jacobs is an amazing person and her story proves just how strong not only women, but mothers as well, really are. 
           In 1851, just a bit earlier than Jacobs, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the first chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  This first novel by Stowe had instantaneous success: “over three hundred copies were sold in America in the first year; in a very short time there were forty editions in England and over a million and a half copies sold in the Empire” (Brown 35).  Stowe paved the way for African-American women writers who followed; however, the book was criticized for several reasons.  First, if Stowe characterized the slaves as being “brutalized…she would have alienated her readers, whose preferences were for idealized heroes” (Brown 36).  Obviously one would rather read about a heroic person rather than a person who is beaten and tortured.  Had Stowe portrayed all of her characters as weak and “non-heroic,” she would have lost a large majority of readers.  On the other hand, if she made her characters seem too noble, her case against slavery would be weakened.  Therefore, Stowe was faced with a very tough predicament.  Her main goal was to alert her readers about the atrocities of slavery.  However, she had to do so in a way that would appeal to all readers.  The story follows the fortunes of a slave, Uncle Tom, who is sold by his owner in Kentucky to pay off debts to Augustine St. Clair in New Orleans. In the St. Clair's household, young daughter Eva becomes fond of Tom and life is relatively happy.  However, following the deaths of both St. Clair and Eva, Tom is sold again but now to Simon Legree.  Legree is a cotton plantation owner and treats Tom terribly. The story also presents the reader with a parallel tale of another slave, Eliza, who escapes to freedom in extraordinary circumstances.  There are many interesting motherly characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  One character, Cassy, in particular has an unbearable time dealing with slave owners when it comes to her children.  After coming home one day to discover that her children had been sold into slavery, Cassy says:
                                Well, you can do anything with a woman, when you've got her children. He made me submit; he made me be peaceable; he flattered me with hopes that, perhaps, he                                         would buy them back; and so things went on, a week or two. One day, I was out walking, and passed by the calaboose; I saw a crowd about the gate, and heard a                                             child's voice, -- and suddenly my Henry broke away from two or three men who were holding the poor boy screamed and looked into my face, and held on to me,                                         until, in tearing him off, they tore the skirt of my dress half away; and they carried him in, screaming 'Mother! mother! mother!' There was one man stood there                                                 seemed to pity me. I offered him all the money I had, if he'd only interfere. He shook his head, and said that the boy had been impudent and disobedient, ever since he                                     bought him; that he was going to break him in, once for all.  (78) 
From the first line of the statement, it is obvious to see that once a mother loses her child, she is more easily manipulated.  The vivid detail that is painted in this story is chilling for anyone to read.  It proves just how cruel and cold hearted the slave owners of the era were, and just how strong and courageous a women had to be.  Moreover, one can see just how dedicated a mother is to her child.  Cassy is saying that as soon as she realizes her children are gone, she becomes completely vulnerable.  She will obviously go to great lengths to do whatever she can to bring her children back.  Stowe combines her tales of slavery in an extraordinary novel that helped readers to understand more fully just how dehumanizing slavery was. 
          Toni Morrison’s Beloved is another well-known book that discusses the characteristics of a mother during slavery.  Although Jacobs’ book is an autobiography, Morrison’s book, on the other hand, is completely fictional.  According to Sally Keenan, “Beloved is a story that revolves around contradiction: a story of an infanticide motivated by the mother’s fierce love, a story that is itself about a preoccupation with story telling” (121).  The story is about a woman named Sethe who risks her life to escape from slavery.  On her escape route, Sethe gives birth to a child she names Denver.  Sometime later on, her former master’s nephew tracks Sethe down, and in turn, Sethe is brutally beaten.  Morrison discusses how slave women’s bodies were treated with no consideration at all.  This is apparent when Sethe first tries to escape: “they milk her like a cow, taking away her baby’s milk…then they whip her on her back while her stomach is placed in a pit to protect the fetus” (Keenan 125).  Sethe, seeing that she is about to be beaten, kills Denver.  Sethe explains it as “put [ting] her child where it could be safe” (164).  She wants nothing more than to live her life as a mother, happy and free with her children. However this cannot be the case.  It is apparent that there is a constant struggle between life and death for a slave mother, not only physically, but metaphorically.  Sethe’s milk can be seen as a symbol of the life she gives to her child.  By breast-feeding her child, she is allowing her to live and have life.  Moreover, it is evident that she would rather kill her child herself than have the child be given to masters to be further brutalized.  This is not the most humane way to act, however.  Sethe knows that if her child is taken by the white man, it will suffer a much worse death.  Her actions are similar to those in the story of the patient wife Griselda told in the Middle Ages by Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch and Geofrey Chaucer.  Griselda, as her first child is taken away to be murdered, states, “Take him, too, and do what you are bidden.  But one thing I beg of you: that if it can be done, you will protect the tender limbs of my beautiful baby against the ravages of birds and beasts” (Petrarch 384).  Sethe is acting in the same way.  By killing her child herself, Sethe, like Griselda, is protecting her from the “beasts” who would do worse things.  At one point in the story Sethe says, “I wouldn’t draw breath without my children” (Morrison 203).  Sethe is sent to jail so that she cannot harm her other child, and upon leaving jail, she goes to live with her mother-in-law, her two sons, and her daughter, Denver.  However, the child she has murdered comes back to haunt the family.  Her two sons decide to leave their mother.  It is now Denver and Sethe again.  The mother-daughter relationship is very strong. 
          The relationship of Sethe and Beloved (the ghost of her daughter) can further be compared to the relationship of Demeter and Persephone.  Demeter does not rest until she is reunited with her daughter, and in a way, Sethe will do anything and will not rest until her children are safe from harm’s way.  Jacqueline de Weever, author of Mythmaking and Metaphor in Black Women’s Fiction, states:
                                Morrison uses the mother-daughter relationship to investigate the relationship of slavery to the national life of American society…instead of the absent mother or

                                the distant mother or the ineffective mother…Morrison depicts the aggressive daughter, determined to have her mother.  (159) 
Just as African-Americans do not, and will not deny their past of slavery, Beloved refuses to deny her mother, and Sethe refuses to deny Beloved.  Everything a slave mother does is for her children.  If it means being beaten, if it means being starved, if it means being raped, a mother will undergo any experience to save and protect her child.  Slave mothers who survived deserve much more credit than has been given to them.  De Weever concludes that “the identification between mother and daughter can illustrate the identification between a people and its past…” (161).  It is obvious that the bond between a mother and daughter is very strong.  Moreover, it can be said that the bond between people and history is strong as well.  People tend to hold onto the past and the events that have taken place, just as a daughter will cling to her mother in many situations. 
          Among the many stories and accounts of slavery, the three previously discussed had an astonishing impact on readers both now and then.  Not only were novels written about the time, but many poems and gospel songs emerged as well.  One outstanding poem was written by Sojourner Truth.  Ain’t I a Woman? is a chilling poem that points out just how difficult being a slave was for a woman.  Truth writes:
                               …And ain’t I a woman?/Look at me/Look at my arm!/I have plowed and planted/and gathered into barns/and no man could have me…/And ain’t I a woman?/I could                                   work as much/and eat as much as a man--/when I could get to it--/and bear the lash as well/and ain’t I a woman?/I have born 13 children/and send most all sold into                                     slavery/and when I cried out a mother’s grief/none but Jesus heard me… (Stetson 25). 
These few lines of poetry are shocking.  The speaker had thirteen children, and most of them have been sold into slavery.  This was not an uncommon experience for women slaves of the time.  Truth is telling the reader that regardless of the fact that she is not a man, she has faced many hard times, not only as a woman, but as a mother as well. 
          Another astounding author is Alice Walker.  Banned is a compilation of short stories, excerpts, letters, testimonies, and essays put together by Walker in 1996.  Walker wrote a paragraph in her book that is pertinent to understanding how women slaves cared for white children as well as their own:

                            Well, about slavery: about white children, who were raised by black people, who knew their first all-accepting love from black women, and then, when they were twelve                                   or so, were told they must “forget” the deep levels of communication between themselves and “mammy” that they knew (36). 
Walker is pointing out that women slaves did not just care for other children, but they did so in a loving, compassionate way.  Women slaves taught many of their master’s children how to love, live, and survive.  It is more than unfair to deny them of the credibility that they as women deserve.  Raising one's own children is hard enough.  However, the slaves back then had to protect their own children from slavery and raise their master’s children as well.  Moreover, the women were not given credit for any of their hard work.  As Walker points out, the white children were told to “forget” about what they had been taught by their African-American mothers.  Furthermore, Walker is trying to prove that there were definitely strong bonds between the white children and their “mothers”; if there were not strong bonds there would be no need for forcing children to forget their “mammy.” 
          After researching and better understanding the women who lived during slavery, or the women who wrote about slavery, one tends to feel deeply hurt for what these women experienced.  Not only did women during that era need to protect themselves, but they needed to protect their children.  Many children were sold off to be slaves as soon as they turned twelve years old, and their mothers could do nothing about it.  The women of this time were strong, resilient, courageous, and downright remarkable.  The times they lived in were terrible times, but research shows that women are strong-minded and committed to their values, families, and themselves.  The stories previously discussed help to justify the fact that women of that time needed to be strong minded and strong willed to survive.  They had their children taken from them and sold into slavery, they were beaten and tortured, they were raped, and they were degraded.  A strong mind is needed to conquer what these brilliant women overcame.   A woman, especially a woman during the time of slavery, deserves much more credit than has been given to her.  It is a bizarre, yet somewhat rewarding, feeling to be able to look back in history and see just how determined women are to survive.  Women who lived during slavery paved the way for other women in proving that no matter what the circumstance, a mother and a woman can do and overcome anything.



                                                                                                                                                        
     Image of Harriet Jacobs                                Image of Toni Morrison                                   Image of Harriet Beecher Stowe                        Image of Sojourner Truth                              Image of Alice Walker






Works Cited:

Brown, Sterling.  The Negro in American Fiction. Port Washington:  Kennikat Press, 1937.

Chaucer, Geoffrey.  The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue.  Ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.

De Weever, Jacqueline.  Mythmaking and Metaphor in Black Women’s Fiction.  New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1991.

Everett, Susan.  History of Slavery.  Ed. John Man. Leicester: Magna Books, 1978.

Jacobs, Harriet A.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1987.

Morrison, Toni.  Beloved.  Ed. Carla Plasa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Stetson, Erlene, ed. Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Walker, Alice.  Banned.  San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1996.

Winter, Kari J.  Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.








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