An Alternative Womanhood

Deborah Gray White’s 1985 text Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South seeks to demonstrate that black womanhood — its meaning and function — in antebellum America differed substantially from white womanhood.[1] It is not only that the roles of black female slaves contrasted in many ways with those of white women, it is also the case, the Rutgers historian argues, that white society’s view of women’s nature shifted in dramatic ways when it came to black women, driven by racism and the realities of slavery.[2] Likewise, the slave experience meant black women (and men) had different perceptions of women’s nature and place.[3] If this sounds obvious, it is only due to the scholarship of White and those who followed. The relevant historiography in the mid-1980s was incomplete and, White argues, incorrect. “African-American women were close to invisible in historical writing,” and it was assumed that black women’s roles and womanhood mirrored those of white women.[4] Indeed, historians were inappropriately “imposing the Victorian model of domesticity and maternity on the pattern of black female slave life.”[5] Because white women were “submissive” and “subordinate” in white society, it was presumed that “men played the dominant role in slave society” as well.[6] Thus, female slaves recieved little attention, and beliefs that they did not assert themselves, resist slavery, do heavy (traditionally masculine) labor, and so on persisted.[7] Ar’n’t I a Woman? offers a more comprehensive examination of enslaved black women’s daily realities, sharpening the contrast with white women’s, and explores how these differences altered ideologies of womanhood.

White primarily uses interviews of elderly female ex-slaves conducted in the 1930s, part of the Federal Writers’ Project under the Works Projects Administration.[8] Enslaved and formerly enslaved women left behind precious few writings.[9] Anthropological comparison and writings about American female slaves from the era — plantation records, articles, pamphlets, diaries, slave narratives, letters, and so on — supplement the WPA interviews.[10] Organized thematically, the first chapter centers the white ideology of black women’s nature, while the remaining five chapters emphasize the realities of slavery for black females and their own self-perceptions, though there is of course crossover.

Given White’s documentation, it is interesting that historians and the American South perceived black women in such disparate ways. Historians put them in their “proper ‘feminine’ place” alongside Victorian white women.[11] They were imagined to fit that mold of roles and expectations — to be respectably prudish, for example.[12] But whites, in their expectations, positioned enslaved black women as far from white womanhood as possible. This is one part of the text where the primary sources powerfully support White’s claims. For Southerners and Europeans before them, black women had a different nature, being far more lustful than white women. The semi-nudity of African women and, later, enslaved women in the South, was one factor that led whites to view black women as more promiscuous, with the fact that whites determined slave conditions seemingly unnoticed.[13] To whites, the “hot constitution’d Ladies” of Africa were “continually contriving stratagems [for] how to gain a lover,” while slaves were “negro wenches” of “lewd and lascivious” character, not a one “chaste.”[14] Black women were “sensual” and “shameless.”[15] White women, on the other hand, were covered, respectable, chaste, prudish.[16] This was true womanhood; black women stood outside it. True, there existed a long history in Europe and America of women in general being viewed as more licentious than men, but White makes a compelling case that black women were placed in an extreme category.[17] They were not expected to be prudish or in other ways fit the Victorian model of womanhood, because they were seen more as beasts than women.[18] Racism wrought a different kind of sexism.[19]

Of course, Ar’n’t I a Woman? is about realities as much as it is expectations. The work argues that enslaved girls believed in their equality with boys, as opposed to the inferiority and weakness taught and held true by whites, that the slave community practiced something far closer to gender equality, and that “women in their role as mothers were the central figures in the nuclear slave family.”[20] What it meant to be a woman was quite different for enslaved black women — a woman was physically strong, the family head, an agent of resistance and decision, worthy of equality. “In slavery and in freedom,” White concludes, “we practiced an alternative style of womanhood.”[21] Some of this appears interpretive, however. “Most slave girls grew up believing that boys and girls were equal” is a conclusion based on oral and documentary evidence that slave children engaged in the precise same work and play, without categorization of masculine and feminine spheres.[22] But White does not quote former slaves or writings of the era explicitly asserting this belief. And the conclusion is far more confident than the prior “young girls probably grew up minimizing the difference between the sexes…”[23] While White’s interpretation is not unreasonable, more primary evidence is needed before shifting from supposition to assertion.

Overall, however, this is a vital text. It convincingly demonstrates how black womanhood was viewed differently by black women and white Southerners alike compared to white womanhood. Intersections of race and gender — how sexism was different for black women due to their race, and how racism against them was impacted by their sex — are well-explained and examined.[24] Showing the interplay between these beliefs and enslaved women’s roles, White makes a course correction for the field, which had entertained various myths. Equally important, she offers an intimate view of the terrors, drudgery, resistance, support systems, families, and much else experienced by black female slaves, which had been sorely lacking in the historiography. Short in length yet broad in scope, the work is highly readable for a general audience, and experiencing it is a powerful education.

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[1] Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 22.

[2] Ibid., 5-6, 14.

[3] Ibid., 14, 141.

[4] Ibid., 3, 21-22.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Ibid., 22-24.

[10] Ibid., 23-24.

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 29-33.

[14] Ibid., 29-31.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 31, 22.

[17] Ibid., 27 and Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), xiii-xiv. See chapter 5, especially pages 153-162, as well.

[18] White, Woman?, 31.

[19] Ibid., 5-6.

[20] Ibid., 118, 120, 142.

[21] Ibid., 190.

[22] Ibid., 118, 92-94.

[23] Ibid., 94.

[24] Ibid., 5-6.