The social hierarchy additionally explains the reason why African-American women -- slaves in particular -- were subject to "persistent sexualization" in slave culture (77). Men of both races maintained social power over African-American women, who had little recourse if they were abused physically or sexually (West, 3). African-American men did not have the same sexualization and the very idea of a sexual relationship between a free or slave African-American man and a white women invoked violence (West, 77).
Changes in the role of African-Americans did occur in the period leading up to the Civil War. African-Americans sought out more rights during this period. Conversely small groups of women may have been seeking out rights but most were called to support their husbands and families -- and their entire society -- as the political scene turned towards the possibility of war (Dorsey, 77). This was particularly true in the South where states rights and slavery had become a threat to an entire way of life.
Freed African-Americans even pursued the possibility of returning to Africa in the early 1800s (Dorsey, 77). This idea met with great support from those who supported an end to slavery but recognized the difficulty in incorporating African-Americans into a racially segregated society. Dorsey explains that the "movement's underlying ideological premise... was that white prejudice against black people was so debasing and immutable that African-Americans could never be accorded equality unless they were removed from white society" (77). Though the move to Africa never occurred, its support by white in the North made is clear that they, too, did not see a society where African-Americans would be free and not marginalized, despite efforts to provide them with rights and freedoms.
In the North, after all, it was possible for African-Americans to have some freedoms, particularly as the antebellum era moved closer to the war. Despite these changes, both groups continued to be marginalized. One key example of such marginalization appears in Frederick Douglass' "Independence Day Speech." Douglass was asked to speak, implying some measure of acceptance, respect, and freedom from those around him. Yet, Rochester, New York in 1852 continued to celebrate the social constructs that prevented Douglass from being truly free or independent. Douglass lived in Rochester among white men and had gained enough support to be openly invited to speak and to them as a leader. However, there continued to be a rift between what was expected and what actually was. In other words, the ideology of independence and freedom for men like Douglass was treated as if it had occurred when really it was in its infancy.
To that end, Douglass offered a rather startling homage to independence in his speech, saying, "To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhumane mockery and sacrilegious irony." Though the people of Rochester asked Douglass to speak because they thought he would speak of the freedom he has as a Northern free African-American man, he instead pointed out how little they really understood about the marginalization of African-Americans in that society.
Women and African-Americans were clearly marginalized in antebellum America. Though new rights were offered or fought for, the social roles and expectations placed on both groups were deep-rooted. These deep-rooted ideals contributed to the following war and helped to define the groups in the post-war society. However, it would be many years before either groups saw significant changes in their socially acceptable roles. Until that time, white men held the power over white women and African-Americans; white women held the power over African-Americans; and African-American men held the power over the women of their race. These clear delineations made it easier for members of antebellum society to oppress certain individuals and find their place in the larger social scheme.
Dorsey, Bruce. "A Gendered History of African Colonization in the Antebellum United States." Journal of Social History 34.1 (2000): 77-105. Academic Search Premier. 8 May 2007. http://search.ebscohost.com.
Douglass, Frederick. "Independence Day Speech." Rochester, NY. 4 Jul. 1852. 6 May 2007 http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/douglass.htm.
Mars, James. Life of James Mars: a slave born and sold in Connecticut. Hartford, CT: Press of Case, Lockwood & Co., 1865.
West, Emily. "Tensions, Tempers, and Temptations: Marital Discord Among Slaves in Antebellum South…