Gender Relations and the Experience of African-American Women under Slavery
Race has grown to be a serious matter in politics and social life. Not only it is an issue in the United States of America but many other parts of the world have faced and are facing this matter as a crucial one. To classify people based on their complexion is alright but dividing them into clear separate races is not. Biological variations tend to fade out when two or more different races live together for a few generations. With the passage of time, people of mixed blood mingle characteristics and attributes from the other existing races increasingly. The same can be considered true for the United States where white-skinned and black-skinned people have lived side by side for about 300 years. When it comes to the institution of slavery, there is nothing peculiar about it. Its existence is evident since the beginning of human history right down to the 20th century. Slavery has existed not only in the most primordial of human societies but also in the most educated, enlightened and urbane (Taylor, 2000). The United States of America is among those civilized societies where African-Americans have been living since the times of slavery. This paper would not discuss the institution of slavery as a whole but the state and condition of African-American women who lived in the times of slavery. The main purpose of this paper is to study the gender relations and the experience of African-American women under slavery.
The Breeding Wenches
To begin with, the African-American female slave reproduction is an issue worth mentioning. The whites kept black men as slaves because of their bodily strength to be used for labor. However, due to the fact that the newborn children inherited the status of their female parent, people owned black women to own her race. The basis of any land was being made up by women. Owners of plantations, in particular, used to stock them with women to use their breeds for plantation growth. More women meant more slaves in the future to work the land. The origins of slaveholding have been explained by a legislator in Virginia in these words, "....the master forgoes the service of the female slave, has her nursed and attended during the period of gestation and raises the helpless infant offspring. The value of the property justified the expense; ....in its increase consists much of our wealth" (as qtd. In White, 1979).
Therefore, the young African-American women were considered precious and important, not for their labor in the field but for their progeny. Their proper handling meant that they could make a mine of wealth for their masters. The masters used to handle the women with care by not asking the expecting young girls to work hard. Such girls were given plenty to eat and it was made sure that they do not go to the fields too soon. However, some of them used to think that the pregnant women must work in the fields too because labor is advantageous for health. Thus, the women who expected children were made to work to keep them healthy. The reason was that a healthy woman will rear more children in the future. A group of plantation owners in the south used to refer to their slave black women as "breeding wenches." They used to brag about them in the public in the same way they talked about their animals. A planter by the name of Harriet Martineau had 1/3 of his slaves less than 5 years of age. They boasted of the breeding prospective of their female slaves because at least 5-6% of their profit resulted from natural increase of the slave population. Thus, a slave woman was not admired and valued for her working qualities but for her breeding potential (White, 1979).
The Impacts of Slavery on Race and Gender Roles
There were a number of ways by which the racial and gender roles were impacted by the institution of slavery. It influenced the attitudes toward black people and for the most part on the dynamics of relations between black females and males.
With the passage of time, the white women and their functions changed. However, the circumstances and conditions of the black woman remained the same as they were during the first stages of the country's growth. Not only the black females labored in the fields alongside their husbands; they also developed muscles in their arms and tolerated the lash and the anger of their masters. Regrettably, the hard work and trials of these women became associated with their skin color. The astonishing fact is that a majority of people started to develop a network of lies so that they could defend the prolongation "of the master/slave relationship, the selling of children away from their mothers, the separation of wives and husband, the breeding of slaves like animals" (Wallace, 1979). When the slave importation was constitutionally banned during the early 1800s, the market made it essential that a cruel emphasis must be placed upon the stud capabilities of the black males and upon the sexual productiveness of the black females. This became a point in history when the black women achieved their status for immunity and protection. They were the key to the labor provision. No one was brave enough to accept the reality that black women also feel the same about the loss of their children as any other woman would. People also were reluctant to admit that black women too were deeply attached to their husbands who were also sold or imported. Nobody, at that time, was ready to realize that a black woman could also want to have a house of her own where she could live with her husband and children (Wallace, 1979).
Almost the whole American society believed black women to be not only psychologically insensitive but physically invulnerable. The society regarded them as stronger than white women and equally stronger to black men. The heartless people considered them stronger than white women so that they could validate her performance of labor. They were regarded as strong as black men so that no black man can come forward to protect any black woman. They were given the label of being "sexually promiscuous" so that she could be used by anyone to increase the supply of the labor force. They had no husbands by law as the law did not recognize their marriage. The father of their children could be anyone; master, a neighbor, an administrator or any other assigned slave. To cut a long story short, the powerfulness of the whites demanded the powerlessness of the blacks. Similarly, the omnipotence of white men required the impotence of black women. However, further complications in the scenario produced with slavery. The black women were required to show strength that white women were not allowed to show. In the same manner, the black men were compelled to demonstrate weakness that white men were not allowed to show (Wallace, 1979).
As already discussed, the institution of slavery maintained a pattern of dominance and showed positivity towards an environment where African-American women were regarded as unethical, immoral and dishonorable. They were considered as the favorable targets for the belligerence of slave-owners and supervisors (White, 1979). Black-skinned females did hard manual labor like male workers. However, their femininity, sexuality and reproductive potential offered opportunities to whites for varieties of sexual exploitation and sexual slavery. Their masters held the right to use every part of the enslaved black woman. If truth be told, "she was a fragmented commodity whose feelings and choices were rarely considered: her head and her heart were separated from her back and her hands and divided from her womb and vagina" (Collins, 2004, p. 56).
It was when the whites went to Africa to acquire slaves that the idea about black women being extraordinarily physically attractive first gained acceptance. The whites misunderstood the semi-nudity of black females for vulgarity and unwholesomeness. In the same manner, they got the wrong impression about the cultural traditions of Africa. Thus, they started regarding polygamy the result of hysterical covetousness of Africans. They misunderstood tribal dances as something to achieve orgasmic state. Not only this, they also misinterpreted the African religions. Thus, the white tourists brought with them the superficial scrutiny of African life. They concluded black women as characterless and immoral. Therefore, slave women were regarded as bawdy, lascivious and vulgar. They were thought of accepting the sexual approaches made by white men very invitingly. Any resistance they displayed was thought of as plain pretending. The whites simply presented the women as sexually inviting because they wanted to justify their acts of breeding through black women. As already mentioned, the slavery in America was "dependent on natural increase of the slave population and through the use of innumerable incentives" (White, 1979). However, the whites claimed that black women satisfied their lust in this way. Slave reproduction became such a general…