“From the intricate web of mythology which surrounds the
black woman, a fundamental image emerges.
It is of a woman of inordinate strength, with an ability for tolerating an unusual amount of misery and heavy, distasteful work.
This woman does not have the same fears, weaknesses, and insecurities as other women, but believes herself to be and is, in fact,
stronger emotionally than most men. Less of a woman in that she is the embodiment of Mother Earth,
the quintessential mother with infinite sexual, life-giving, and nurturing reserves. In other words, she is a superwoman.”
-Michelle Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (New York: Dial, 1979), p. 107.
African-American Women in the Plantation South
The lives of female slaves in the plantation South stood in stark contrast to the lives of most nineteenth-century white American women. In addition, their experience also differed from that of black male slaves. In antebellum America (the 1820’s through the 1850’s) where most women were assumed to be the weaker sex, and physically and intellectually suited for “domestic duties,” most black women did just as much work as black men, and “endured the brutal punishment meted out by slaveholders and their overseers,” in addition to fulfilling their role as mothers. As slaves, they struggled against the double discrimination of being black and female. They also found themselves to be expected to fulfill the characters of either a Mammy, a nurturing and pious maternal figure within the plantation household, or a Jezebel, a promiscuous and irresponsible character, by plantation owners and their wives. These were the stereotypes associated with black womanhood and motherhood.
During a period in which the American society believed women needed to be supervised by men because women were irrational and “weak willed,” slave women proved that sex did not determine one’s “skill, will power, aptitude, or even strength.” While white American women were expected to be passive and submissive because of their sex, black women were not expected to be “subordinate or prudish,” because they were black and slaves. Due to the pervasive racism and sexism that existed in antebellum America, female slaves were the least powerful and the most vulnerable group of people vis-à-vis white American males. However, contrary to their status within the hierarchy of antebellum America, slave women were considered to have played the most important roles within the slave society as wives and mothers.
Deborah Gray White states in her groundbreaking monograph Ar’n’t I a Woman that although there is an abundance of research on slavery in general, it is very difficult to find sources about slave women in particular. She succinctly explains, “Slave women were everywhere, yet nowhere.” White points out that most scholars fail to note the double discrimination suffered by black women: that is, they endured the oppression of all African-Americans as well as that of most women. White asserts that this continues to be the problem for African-American women even today. It is the “double jeopardy and powerlessness,” as shown in economic and political studies, that contribute to the invisibility of black women.
Blacks and women were described as “infantile, irresponsible, submissive, and promiscuous” by white males, whom they were politically and economically dependent upon. However, because black men were identified with masculinity, aggressiveness, and dominance, they were able to free themselves from these archetypes while black women were unable to escape from “the myth of the Negro.” Black women shared oppressions as that of black men and white women. Hence, the creation of a complicated set of myths about black womanhood, of which are two archetypes of female slavery that White discusses—Jezebel and Mammy, discussed below.
One of the prevailing images of black women in antebellum America was The Mammy. The Mammy was thought of as not just any house servant, but someone who was a supreme cook and a most affectionate nurse for her master’s children. As an expert on all domestic matters, the Mammy was the supervisor of all younger house servants. The Mammy image was also considered as the nurturing disciplinarian of the master’s children, but especially known for her “love of her young white charges.” The Mammy was the “surrogate mistress and mother.” What is misleading about the Mammy stereotype, however, is that female house servants were considered as holding a less labor intensive or demanding job compared to that of female field workers. Although the daily cleaning, cooking, sewing, dairy work, and child care of house servants were not as physically strenuous as that of field workers, house servants were on call around the clock and expected to be available for assistance and nursing at anytime.
Another prevalent image of black women in antebellum America is the Jezebel character, “a person governed almost entirely by her libido...” Contrary to the Victorian ideals of women’s sexuality as well as Mammy’s nonexistent sexuality, the Jezebel image was depicted as naturally being sensuous and lascivious. This became a convenient way for white male plantation owners to rationalize their illicit interracial sexual affairs with female slaves and also the “mulatto population.”
The images of Mammy and Jezebel can be traced back to the images of Eve and the Virgin Mary. Just as Eve was depicted as the evil one who was responsible for the fall of mankind, Jezebel was the one who was naturally lustful, inviting sexual encounters with her white male masters. Similar to the portrayal of the Virgin Mary as a pious and moral figure having given a parthenogenic birth, Mammy was considered to be asexual, maternal, and virtuous. Eve and Jezebel were temptresses, and therefore, the antithesis of what constituted a Victorian woman. Meanwhile, the Virgin Mary and Mammy were considered to be maternal and understanding.
The archetypical images of African-American women that were created during the antebellum period reflect how the experience of black male slaves differed from the experience of black female slaves. Within the institution of slavery, there were two systems, one for men and another for women. These two systems became established due to the differing expectations slave owners had for male and female slaves, which consequently resulted in differing responsibilities for male and female slaves. The first major difference between male slavery and female slavery was that female slaves, in addition to the housework and field work that was expected of them, were expected to bear and rear children in order to “replenish [the] labor force.” Work and childbearing were not easy to balance. Of these two responsibilities, the slave owner decided which was more important for the female slaves carry out, depending on his needs. However, because female slaves were the default caretakers of their children, they were much less likely to run away or initiate resistance than male slaves.
Nevertheless, “this does not mean that they did not resist enslavement or sexual exploitation,” through subversive means. A form of female slave resistance was to feign illness in order to gain some rest or change their work completely. This was possible because childbearing was of primary importance for slave owners.
The life cycle of female slaves was another factor that distinguished female slavery from male slavery. Female slaves were put under much pressure by “both the slave society and planters” from an early age to marry and become mothers. The mores of slave motherhood could be traced to those of the traditions of West Africa. Motherhood was considered sacred and as the most important responsibility in West African tradition. Wives were necessary to continue men’s lineages: “In all African societies having children meant having wealth, since their work translated into material gain.” Thus, according to West African tradition, women were central as childbearers and nurturers. Having a child was an important rite of passage for African women, as well as for African-American women in antebellum America. Slaves understood the contributions and sacrifices slave mothers made for the individual child, as well as for the slave community. Hence, within the slave society, motherhood out of wedlock was not reproached. Instead, the community of bondwomen helped unwed pregnant slave mothers through labor and childcare after giving birth. Slave women depended upon each other during and after childbirth.
Marital relationships between slave men and women were unique because their slave owners possessed the ultimate power and influence to make “unsettling and life-threatening decisions.” Given the circumstances they were in, slave women still liked to look their best on “Sundays, religious holidays, and other festive occasions,” by using “sweet-smelling flowers and herbs as perfume” and making hoops out of grapevine to make the dress fall away from the body. They also accessorized with a bright hat or headwrap. They did this in the hope of attracting the attention of slave men.
Although many slave men looked forward to starting a family, they were also aware of the possibilities in losing their wives and children. Since a family was defined by slave traders as a woman and her children, this excluded her husband. Therefore, when families were sold, wives lost husbands and husbands lost their wives and children too. Sometimes, “those who tried to protect their spouses were themselves abused,” causing a harsh blow to their pride and machismo. Furthermore, some men refused to marry rather than suffer such emotional and psychological distress. Because women were frequently separated from their husbands, they became independent and resourceful in order to survive. In this way, slave women possessed an equal leverage compared to slave men and could not be treated as a subordinates within the slave community. Although they had not been protected from “life’s ugliness” and could not depend on “their men for subsistence goods and services,” they were also not “unnaturally strong and domineering” as they were negatively portrayed in literature.
The following story of one of Sojourner Truth’s lectures was told by White in Ar’n’t I a Woman? as a metaphor for explaining the general slave women’s experience. Truth was to give a lecture in Silver Lake, Indiana, on abolitionism and there was rumor that Truth was actually a man disguised as a woman. A man from the audience rudely challenged her to prove that she was a woman by having her breasts examined by female member of the audience. Many women in the audience were aghast by this demand, but Truth fearlessly answered that she had fed many white babies, with the exception of her own children. She then “revealed her breasts and told the men that it was not to her shame that she did so but to theirs.” During the Victorian era, there were distinct feminine characteristics that were desirable for women to possess and observe. By traveling around the country and lecturing to various public crowds of men and women, Truth was seen as defying the norms of Victorian womanhood. She had not only stepped out of the private sphere, her home, but was also voicing out against existing injustices.
While the lives of slave women stood in stark contrast to that of other American women in antebellum America, their experiences also differed from those of slave men. Many slave women were overworked and sexually exploited. While all women struggled for control over their reproductive rights, the experience of black women was much harsher due to the double discrimination they faced caused by racism and sexism. Stereotypes of black women such as the Mammy and Jezebel images have put them in a position where they have been pressured to “prove their womanhood,” as Sojourner Truth did in 1858. Hopefully, history will give us more insight as to deciphering the truths rather than just believing the myths.