Representations of Women the Concept of Slavery Essay

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Representations of Women

The concept of slavery in America has engendered a great deal of scholarship. During the four decades following reconstruction, despite the hopes of the liberals in the North, the position of the Negro in America declined. After President Lincoln's assassination and the resulting malaise and economic awakening of war costs, much of the political and social control in the South was returned to the white supremacists. Blacks were left at the mercy of ex-slaveholders and former Confederates, as the United States government adopted a laissez-faire policy regarding the "Negro problem" in the South. The era of Jim Crow brought to the American Negro disfranchisement, social, educational and occupational discrimination, mass mob violence, murder, and lynching. Under a sort of peonage, black people were deprived of their civil and human rights and reduced to a status of quasi-slavery or "second-class" citizenship (Foner). Strict legal segregation of public facilities in the southern states was strengthened in 1896 by the Supreme Court's decision in the Plessey vs. Ferguson case. Racists, northern and southern, proclaimed that the Negro was subhuman, barbaric, immoral, and innately inferior, physically and intellectually, to whites -- totally incapable of functioning as an equal in white civilization (Elliott).

However, it is not as typical in academic scholarship to discuss the roles of women during this pre-Civil War and Reconstruction period, at least not until the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In these intervening years, and between the Compromise of 1877 and the Compromise of 1895, the problem facing Negro leadership was how to obtain first-class citizenship for the Negro American. Such a simple, and one sided question caused considerable debate among Negro leaders. Some advocated physical violence to force concessions from the whites, a few urged a radical and immediate return to Africa. The majority, however, suggested that African-Americans use peaceful, democratic means to change undesirable conditions. Some black leaders emphasized becoming skilled workers, hoping that if they became indispensable to the prosperity of the South, political and social rights would be granted to them. Others advocated struggle for civil rights, specifically the right to vote, on the theory that economic and social rights would follow. Most agreed that solutions would come gradually (Litwak). Black women had an even more tragic paradigm -- they were a double minority, and often were treated poorly by both Blacks and Whites. However, the role of Black women cannot be underestimated -- particularly in both the economic nature of the slave experience and the socio-cultural experience of future generations. So much of the research shows that work was a central aspect of slave life- and male and female children had substantially different work experiences. In fact, one analysis showed that the net earnings of a slave (value of their labor less maintenance costs) indicated that females were far more productive than males, and thus had a greater influence on the tangible, and then intangible, aspects of slave culture (Steckel).

Harriett Jacobs- Jacobs (1813-97) was an American writer who escaped from slavery and became a dedicated abolitionist and reformer. She published one book, in 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, under the pseudonym Linda Brent which was one of the first autobiographical works solely focusing on the struggle for freedom by women slaves and a frank account of the sexual harassment and abuse they endured under the institution of slavery. Jacobs could no longer endure the abject cruelty of her situation so, at the age of 22 she escaped and hid in a crawlspace attic for seven years prior to finally arriving in the North. However, all was not safe for her and she endured a number of tribulations until in 1853 she began to write about her life in various newspapers until she found a sympathetic audience and publisher in 1861 (Harriet Jacobs, 1813-1897).

Frederick Douglass- (1818-1895) -- Douglass was one of the most prominent early leaders of the abolitionist movement and became a well-known American social reformer, orator, writer, and statement. He was one of the greatest orators of the late 1800s, so much so in fact that many Northerners found it difficult to believe he had ever been a slave (Radical Reofm and Antislavery). Douglas was incredibly passionate about antislavery and was the living counter-argument to slave holder's statements that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens (Lawson and Kirkland). Douglass wrote several books and remained active in the abolitionist cause, and then the movement for black equality, as well as women's suffrage. His views can be summed up with his adamant stance on equality when he said, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong" (Douglass, 33). Douglass ended his life the exact way he lived -- with a flurry of public attention. On February 20, 1895 he attended a meeting of the national Council of Women in Washington DC, where he was given multiple standing ovations. Shortly thereafter, he returned home and died of a heart attack/stroke and buried in Rochester, New York (Oakes).

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl- At the time of its publication, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring that states return any escaped slave to their master, had been in effect for over a decade. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, along with Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, were considered some of the most persuasive arguments against the Slave Act and, for some, the groundwork and the fuse for Anti-Southern feelings and the beginnings of the Civil War. The novel is both a biographical account of what Linda (Harriett) went through to get to the North and remove herself from abuse, and a social commentary about the role of women and the family in the pre-Civil War years. Fictionalized names were used to protect the identities of many of the people in the story, some of whom remained in danger during the time period. The book was praised for its simple style, a narrative at which was conversational and yet emotionally forceful at the same time (Yellin).

The book is also an interesting commentary on the manner in which women, marriage and the family are depicted during the pre-Civil War years. "Reader it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am teeling you trutfully what I suffered. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage" (5). First, we have the very real juxtposition between the central topic of the novel (sexual predation upon Black women) and the style and prose with which it was written (rather melodramatic as befit the 19th century). What comes forward is the epitome of a strong Black woman, one who would survive against all odds, and indeed transcend the trials of her life and, despite her gender and lack of physical strength, triumph over her tormentors. "Those who never witnessed such scenes can hardly believe what I know was inflicted at this time on innocent men, women, and children…. Everywhere men, women and children were shipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet…. Some received five hundred lashes; others were tied hands and feet and tortured…" (98).

Too, the idea of domestic space -- of the home and hearth, were depicted in a way that seems to suggest that the house was an extension of the woman -- at least in Black society. In this role as angel of the household and as mother or wet nurse, they had direct and first influence on the children - children of their own household and those of the households they may work in as slaves or maids. These women through their actions, explanations to children's questions, the stories they told, and the songs they sang, etc. had great influence over the children in their care as these children formulated their first opinions of the world. The best example of this is white children from the wealthy southern families have much more tender feelings to their black nannies than they ever could muster for their birth mothers. The house, too, represented safety, security, and a barrier against White ravages, "Honey, now you is safe. Dem devils ain't comin to search dis house. When I get into miss' safe place, I will bring some nice hot supper" (153).

In a way, this concept transposes into the idea of motherhood -- not simply a physical or biological act, but one of emotion and tenderness that is not reserved simply for offspring, and something that transcends law and discipline, "The spirit of the mothers was so crushed by the lash, that they stood by, without courage to remonstrate." (132).

Narrative of the Life- Frederick Douglass found that in general, those closest to the cause of abolition would be more fervent in their views if they had material to back up the negatives of slavery. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is both a memoir and anti-slavery treatise,…[continue]

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