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Jacquelyn Sparks

History 325

Dr. Murphy

4-30-01

Essay #3- African American Women

 

African American women in the slave South were undoubtedly some of the most oppressed individuals in the history of our nation. Not only did they experience the atrocities and degradation of slave life, but their status as a woman slave put them in an even more vulnerable condition than that of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. Slave women had little (if any) autonomy—their lives and destinies were largely out of their control. Only an exceptional few had any authority, but it wasn’t impossible. As in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet described her grandmother as having influence in the community because of her wisdom, and many showed her a kind of respect uncommon to normal conditions of slave/master relations.

All slaves were considered chattel—property, that can be bought or sold, with no regard that the "property" is actually human life. Family ties between slaves meant nothing to slave owners and traders, as husbands were separated from wives, and mothers were separated from children, all on the master’s smallest whim. Marriages were not legally binding, and as spouses were often bought and sold, many slave women would have several "husbands" in their lifetime. Marriages between slave women and free black men were strictly forbidden in most cases, as Harriet found out the hard way, with a romance ending in heartache and disappointment.

Slaves generally owned nothing, and all but a few (who could earn their own money on the side) were completely dependent for food, shelter, and supplies from their masters. As these were almost always inefficient and lacking, many slave women found it hard to prepare meals for their families with the meager portions that they were afforded. An education was another privilege denied to most slave women, but some slave women endeavored to learn on their own in secret.

Slave women shared many of the same experiences as slave men, but also experiences that were by virtue of being a female in a bad situation. They often took part in some of the same back-breaking work that men did during the daylight hours, but had the added task of doing chores in their homes at night. Slave women could be whipped, beaten, or punished as men could; but were also subject to the sexual abuse by their masters or other manipulative white men, whom often sought to take advantage of young slave women. This is a threat that Harriet was faced with by her master. It seemed that he was obsessed, every day for many years she lived in fear of him defiling her with his words and with his actions.

All slaves were subject to the mistreatment and harshness of Southern whites; but perhaps the worst of this treatment befell slave women who came under the suspicious eye of their plantation mistress. It was a well-known fact that mulatto children were born frequently on plantations, the fathers often being the slave’s master. This lead many plantation mistresses to jealous, hateful treatment of any young slave girl who came under suspect. Harriet, though she had resisted Dr. Flint’s advances, was constantly treated by her mistress as if she had done something wrong.

Another experience unique to women was the constant, inner struggle of slave women as to whether she should bring another slave into the world. Since the condition of slavery was matrilineal, a child could have any white father and still be born a slave. Many slave women, as an expression of one kind of autonomy, used birth-control methods to not have children. This was a severe protest to the master, as he often counted upon slave women to replenish and multiply his "stock".

Slaves, men and women, often came to a point of decision—whether to remain in slavery for the rest of their natural lives, or to risk them for a chance at freedom. Some women, like Harriet’s grandmother, thought it was foolish to try to escape—buying one’s own freedom would be the only sure way to freedom. Many other slaves felt the opposite, that paying for their freedom was ludicrous because they belonged to no one in the first place. So many slave women, including Harriet, ventured on daring escapes. Some made their way to the North, and some were captured and returned. Some slave women, like Harriet Tubman, would make their escape, then return to guide their family members (as well as many others) to freedom.

Once out of the bondage of slavery, Freedwomen were faced with many daunting tasks of their newfound freedom and autonomy. How can I be safe with fugitive slave laws in place? is a question that many slave women faced in the North before the start of the war and emancipation. Harriet also had her fears, and purchasing her freedom was the only way she could be truly safe from the return to Dr. Flint.

Another issue that faced ex-slaves was the question of how to earn a living, when many of them had no material possessions after they became free. After the war, many slaves found that their only option was to move to large, urban areas (like Atlanta), or to return to the fields as sharecroppers. Other ex-slaves’ primary concern was to attempt to reunite with families and loved ones, a process that was aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Even after families were reunited, and issues of employment were worked out, African American women in the South were faced with the challenges of "Jim Crow" laws and heavy race discrimination from bitter, racist Southerners. With slavery in the past, the new African American woman had care for her family and establish her place in society in the midst of a new set of adversities.