Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my parents and my best friend Goran for their endless support as well as my supervisor for his useful guidance and advice.
Slavery in the United States is a very controversial topic that has caused so many discussions, conflict-ridden and troublesome issues. It provoked so many scholars to write and do research connected with this topic. In my diploma thesis I am going to analyze how slavery together with the ideologies of racism and sexism tyrannized African-American women and how those beliefs together with the denied role of mother, and the image of beauty they did not fit in influenced the sense of identity and the concept of self of Black women. At the same time, the thesis is going to illustrate physical, emotional and psychological destruction caused by the institution of slavery, a devastation that deformed black female’s concept of self, beauty and sexuality and continued to haunt former female slaves even in freedom as well as black women who were born long after slavery. In my attempt to highlight the complex nature of black womanhood in American society, I am going to analyze several black women’s autobiographies, speeches, and other writings published in and around the nineteenth century, as well as novels that dwelled on those topics after the slavery ended showing that the consequences were far reaching and deep rooted. I am also going to focus on the writings of some white women writings as well as films made mainly by white authors in order to discuss African American women’s representations seen through the prism of whites that mirror typical stereotypes connected with them. The secondary sources which have been used in this diploma thesis relate to the topics of slavery, racism and racial issues, sexism, patriarchy and feminist criticism. I have relied most heavily on Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Pauline Hopkins’ Contending Forces, Bell Hooks’ Ain´t I a Woman, Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought, Fox – Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household, and Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll. The thesis is divided into six chapters.
In the first chapter The Concept of Race, I am going to introduce the topic of race, different definitions of it by both white and African American scholars as well as racial differences that led to the justification of slavery. I will briefly describe the reactions of whites during their first encounters with people of dark skin and how it led to different kinds of superstitions and negative representations of African people especially false depictions of African women who were perceived as exceptionally sensual.
The second chapter of my thesis Within the Plantation focuses on the female slaves’ family life and how slavery shattered their families denying them the opportunity to be true wives, sisters, daughters, or loving mothers. This institution destroyed traditional family structures because black families were torn apart, with children and parents sold to different masters and places far away from one another. Taking away their children form them, slavery deformed even the most basic emotional instinct, the love of a mother for the children in such ways that mothers wanted their children to die or to kill them rather than watching them being slaves. For these women, such experiences were psychologically as difficult and devastating as flogging or any other physical punishment, if not more so.
The third chapter The Institution of Rape is going to deal with the horrible mental torture caused by sexual exploitation by their white masters. Besides being beaten, starved, or forced to work in the fields, female slaves suffered terrible psychological agony of sexual harassment. In addition to race, gender is also one of the most significant aspects of southern social relations. The American society, particularly under slavery, had to ascribe excessive sexuality onto black people especially black slave women and create the ideology of asexual and pure white femininity in order to justify their sexual behavior. The ideology of true womanhood was created to exclude black women from the concept of womanhood but also from humanity ascribing them animalistic qualities. Nevertheless, this notion operated as a means of oppression and control of both black and white women by white men.
In the fourth chapter The Stereotypes of Black Women and the Issue of Beauty, I am going to examine the creation of stereotypical pictures of African-American women such as Mammy, tragic mulatto, Jezebel and Sapphire and the things that led to those creations. Both racism and sexism have diminished African-American women’s role in the society, turned them into brute animals and destroyed their concept of self.
In the fifth chapter Racial Uplift I am going to discuss the steps that African-American women undergone in order to change the deep –rooted misconceptions about their race. Therefore, Black women considered it vital to change those negative images and create more positive and adequate ones. Thus, proving their virtue to the white world was one of the conditions of racial upbuilding. The only way to change those deep-rooted misconceptions was to challenge the traditional notion of female purity and prove that the shadow of slavery that haunted black women is not incompatible with purity and domesticity. Among other things, Black women put strong emphasis on united family and education which they saw as powerful weapons of struggle and defense against the harmful images that presented them in a very negative light.
The sixth chapter Black Women and Feminism deals with the outstanding female personalities who were not afraid to express their opinion and struggle for their rights from the slavery era up to the civil rights movement and foundation of first African-American feminist organizations.
Chapter One: The Concept of Race
“The European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.” Jean-Paul Sartre
The travelogues of Europeans contained superficial analysis of African way of living and thinking. Travelers to Africa found the skin color and lack of clothing the most striking and stunning characteristics of the newly discovered Africans. “Englishmen found the natives of Africa very different from themselves. Negroes looked different; their religion was un-Christian; their manner of living was anything but English; they seemed to be a particularly libidinous people…The most arresting characteristic of the newly discovered African was his color.” (Jordan 1968:4) In his book White over Black, Jordan writes that among those who made such comments were M. John Hawkins in his travelogue The voyage made by M. John Hawkins…to the coast of Guinea and the Indies of Nova Hispania…1564, Richard Haklyt in The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, Robert Baker in The First Voyage of Robert Baker to Guinie… 1562. “The twelfth-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela wrote that at Seba on river Pishon…is a people…who, like animals eat of the herbs that grow on the banks of the Nile and in the fields. They go about naked and have not the intelligence of ordinary men. They cohabit with their sisters and anyone they can find.” (Gates 1986:228) The initial impression about their black complexion was a source of great anxiety since they found blackness in human beings very peculiar and the notion of it was heavily loaded with bad connotations of sinfulness and evil. Blackness of Africans was seen as the evidence of their inability to reason as rational people as well as their inherent wickedness. On the other hand, the notion of whiteness represented the direct opposite and conveyed purity, virtue and beauty. In Elizabethan England it symbolized the perfection of human beauty, especially female beauty.
The African cultural traditions of polygamy were misunderstood and were attributed to the African’s uncontrolled lust while tribal dances were apprehended as nothing more than plain orgy. Similarly, being unaccustomed to such a hot weather and the lifestyle it dictated, Europeans mistook the lack of clothing for vulgarity. They associated their half-nakedness with sexual availability and promiscuity, often commenting on the largeness of penises of African men and especially the posteriors of African women. As early as the twelfth century, African women and the largeness of their posteriors fascinated Western explorers and led them to believe women were immodest with elevated levels of sexual desire. William Bosman, who was the chief factor for the Dutch West India Company, wrote a book called A new and accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (1704) where he described the women he saw in Guinea as “fiery” and “warm” and “so much hotter than the men.” (White 1985: 175)
Differences in skin color, body parts and ways of clothing became indisputable evidence and undeniable demonstrations of not only physical differences but also mental and moral differences between those with more and those with less pigmentation. The perception that Africans were more sensual was one of the central factors in this belief of the lack of humanity since the excessive physicality was usually matched with their limited mental abilities. The development and crystallization of racial and gender hierarchies in the Western world placed Africans at the bottom and Europeans at the top of any scale.
Early European views of Africans were largely expressed in religious terms which involved satanic connotations and the word devil in the description of Africans. “…as one of the earliest English accounts distinguished Negroes from Englishmen
, they were “ a people of beastly living, without a God, lawe, religion, or common wealth” – which was to say that Negroes were not Englishmen. Far from isolating African heathenism as a separate characteristic, English travelers sometimes linked it explicitly with barbarity and blackness. They already had in hand a mediating term among these impinging concepts – the devil. As one observer declared, Negroes “in color so in condition are little other than Devils incarnate,”…” (Jordan 1968:24) When American chattel slavery was well-established those views started getting forms of racism. In the late eighteenth century, pseudo-scientific racism provided the essential justifications for slavery. Racial scientists have often been far from objective in their studies trying to prove racial inferiority as fact. In their intention, they did not hesitate to jump into wrong conclusions in order to get favorable results. Polygeny, which was based on the idea that each race was a different species
, became very popular in the States because of the work of Samuel George Morton and especially Louis Agassiz. They argued that Africans were mentally inferior to Caucasians. Agassiz, the father of this theory, actually never gathered scientific proofs for his theory while Morton presented his “empirical” results in his book Crania Americana
(1839). He collected human skulls to prove his hypothesis that the characteristics of race could be established by the size of the brain meaning the bigger the brains the more intelligent the race. Most people rather believed that African people’s inferiority was encoded in their genes and there was no nurture that could possibly change it than that it was the consequence of a constructed strategy whose power relied on dehumanization and deprivation of basic human rights. Those theories were widely popular and accepted in the society even by the prominent politicians and scientists of the period. The examples are more than abundant. Some of the founding fathers of American nation such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. While paradoxically proclaiming human equality, Thomas Jefferson, who has been accused of fathering children with his slave Sally Hemings, stated in his only book Notes on the State of Virginia
(1781), that black and white races differed in skin color and intelligence wrote “I advance it
, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowment of body and mind.(Jefferson, Notes: 270)” but enthusiastically petitioned for a scientist who would document his suspicions with evidence. “Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them?” (Jefferson Notes: 270) He also argued that slaves could be freed only in the case of their deportation from America “beyond the reach of mixture [with whites].” But the mere fact that there was the large population of mulatto slaves goes against the arguments used to justify the inherent inferiority of African race.
Even though, he was an abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln did not have any doubts about the essential differences between the two races. He expressed his racial views in a Lincoln – Douglas debate in 1858 by saying: “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I… am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. …I agree with Judge Douglas he [black man] is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.”
Slaves were often ascribed negative childlike characteristics such as immaturity, laziness, playfulness, instability, and obedience. The insinuation behind these charges, which involve unfavorable personal qualities, low morality and intelligence, is that Blacks needed to be protected, looked after and under the surveillance of whites who proudly saw it as their divine duty. One of the pro-slavery oriented social theorists, George Fitzhugh expressed these beliefs his book Sociology for the South (1854). Having compared Negroes with children who “cannot be governed by mere law” he stated that “they must be constantly controlled by parents or guardians, whose will and orders shall stand in the place of law for them.” (Fitzhugh Sociology: 82/83). He further declared that they, being careless and unable to provide for themselves, could not possibly compete with the whites. Freeing Negros would be the same as giving children all the rights that adults have. Negroes should have masters as same as children have parents. Seeing no difference between a master and a parent he proclaimed: “The Southerner is the negro’s friend, his only friend.” (Fitzhugh, Sociology: 95) Many wanted to perpetuate chattel slavery by forcing people into belief that it was a Black man’s natural state since they could not possibly be capable of contributing to the society or to survive without the assistance of the whites and therefore should be kept as their servants.
Defending his black race, W.E. B Du Bois, who also believed that different races exist, claimed that the race is sociohistorical concept rather than biological and that each race has got a message - “its particular ideal, which shall help to guide the world nearer and nearer that perfection of human life.” (Gates 1986:24) At the time he wrote this in The Conservation of Races, the difficulty of the Negro race was that they had not yet identified their ideal upon which they would strive to improve all the aspects of their life and urged them to do it as soon as possible.
Those early views of European colonizers who belonged to the patriarchal Western culture shaped the views of the whole society and affected even more the image of African woman than man, mainly but not only through Hottentot Venus as well as the image of black female slave.
The Early Vision of a Black Female
The image of Hottentot contributes to the idea supported by the slave trade indicating that the inhabitants of the whole continent were seen as the lowest, most savage human beings. African American women’s degraded status was closely connected with the European ideologies and narratives towards Africans before and during slavery because her body was a highly contested object from the moment she arrived to the New World. Discourses regarding the sensual nature of African women, especially those that emphasized them as being sexually aggressive, constructed them as individuals who were extremely physical in all aspects of their lives.
The story of Sartje or Sarah Bartmann, who was best known as the Hottentot Venus, was significant in understanding the dual Western feelings of attraction and repulsion toward Black women. Bartmann’s nude body was exhibited in Britain and France from 1810 to 1815. She was shown by being put into a cage and then told to act like a wild animal to attract the masses. The main attractions of this show were Sarah’s disproportionately protruding buttocks which were a regular feature of the female anatomy of the Bushman and Hottentot tribes. Despite some protest against this exhibit due to its indecency, the exhibition was not stopped or closed. After her death, her body was dissected by a scientist called George Cuvier who paid particular attention to her unusually large apron and protruding buttocks which were displayed once more. In his essay, Black Bodies, White Bodies, Sander L. Gilman claims that “the uniqueness of the genitalia and buttocks of the black is thus associated primarily with the female and is taken to be a sign solely of an anomalous female sexuality.” (Gates 1986:237), since the nineteenth-century scientists mainly focused on the autopsies of black women’s genitalia because in finding abnormalities they could have the proof of their sexual pathology. Black licentiousness was an established reality and they only needed to prove it. Interestingly, autopsies of African men during this same period have no discussion of male genitalia. Therefore, Black women became the embodiment of sexual temptation. “This polygenetic view was applied to all aspects of mankind, including sexuality and beauty. The antithesis of European sexual mores and beauty is embodied in the black, and the essential black, the lowest rung on the great chain of being, is the Hottentot. The physical appearance of the Hottentot is, indeed, the central nineteenth-century icon for sexual difference between the European and the black… ” (Gates 1986:231)
Chapter Two: Within the Plantation
A Different Story to Tell
“Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” (Jacobs 2001:66)
Unlike Black men, African American women were not inferior only because of their dark skin that conveyed the inherent status of inferiority and mental disability they were also treated differently in regard with their gender. As women they were considered weak and obedient which enabled their masters to abuse them verbally, physically, and sexually. As an African-American and a woman, the black woman had a unique story to tell, a story of struggle against all those things that completely shuttered their identity such as the limitations of her role as a mother
, physical and mental oppression as a result of sexual harassment, emotional suffering caused by creation of twisted images of her sexuality and physical beauty, the loss of relatives and especially children, and a tremendous sense of voicelessness. African-Americans are people who were historically denied the power of speech which is one of the most important differences between humans and animals. This happened because of the slaves’ willed forgetfulness and repression of memories or to forced silence since they were collared and muzzled like beasts wearing an iron bit. This is how Olaudah Equiano describes it in his narrative: “I had seen a black woman slave as I came through the house, who was cooking the dinner, and the poor creature was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and could not eat nor drink. I was much astonished and shocked at this contrivance, which I afterward learned was called the iron muzzle.” (Equiano, Narrative 1789:91/92) White masters did everything they could to control the speech of their slaves. Those who revolted and talked back with an inappropriate disrespectful tone often had their tongues removed. Thus, the very act of speaking
about their tortures and inhumane treatment is a way of retrieving their humanity. For slaves and descendants of slaves, such speech often takes the form of song, narrative and later the form of a novel. For slaves, stylized, artistic expression of their agony becomes a matter of survival, because explicit language could be punished with death. Likewise, they often had to be silent and invisible in order to stay alive and not to trigger their master’s rage. Many people, especially those in the North, misinterpreted these songs as indisputable indicator of the slaves’ happiness and contentment with their condition. Actually, whites failed to recognize the deep symbolism behind the words which indicated a complaint about their profound unhappiness. For the descendants of slaves
, creative articulations served as the means of showing them who they were, the way out of their self-alienation, the way how to love themselves as well as the way of supporting social activism and racial uplift. The ability to express their feeling and thoughts through the power of words was a step forward towards asserting a sense of self.
The Property without Identity
Slaves were considered subhuman beings that had more mutual characteristics with animals than humans and were traded as chattel whose worth could be expressed in small amounts of dollars. Slaves did not have ownership over themselves and their children. Also, if they had last names, those were usually the names of their owners marking them as the property of their master. Slaves were thus deprived of any other role except the role of servants. First of all, slaves were not allowed to be legally married because they were property rather than human beings. Marriage means giving yourself to one another, and slaves already belonged to the white man. An enslaved husband did not have any legal rights to lay claim to his slave wife any more than she herself did. And if they were allowed to get married, husband and wife could not always live together or the marriage did not last long as husbands and wives were often sold to different owners according to the sole decision of their previous masters. Marriages were encouraged by some masters, because it was an advantage that brought less opposition and more children as well as work force. But there was no legal ceremony on the wedding day which was actually just a form of an agreement to live together as husband and wife. “..the great majority were undoubtedly married in broomstick ceremonies. If many whites demanded broomstick weddings as the form appropriate to slaves, others did so to avoid the embarrassment of having to perform a Christian ceremony that had no status in law and could not include the usual words “till death do you part.”(Genovese 1976:460) The slaves knew very well that weddings were supposed to reach a climax with “till death do you part
,” and they were bound to react grimly to the absence of such words in their own ceremonies. Not many blacks could have thought it clever when a white minister offered “Until death or distance do you part.” (Genovese 1976:481). Therefore, most slave women never had a chance to enjoy their marriage and motherhood because slavery tore traditional family structures apart, with children sold to a place far away from their parents. They were regularly passed between owners, regardless of where the slaves’ families were. They had to ask for permissions to visit or to be visited by their close relatives but they would usually never again hear a word about them after the separation. Nuclear families in the traditional sense of the structure were even prevented from forming since mothers and children were separated soon after the birth. According to the Digital History website “The most conservative estimates indicate that at least 10 to 20 percent of slave marriages were destroyed by sale. The sale of children from parents was even more common. Over the course of a 35-year lifetime, a slave had a fifty-fifty chance of being sold at least once and was likely to witness the sale of several members of his or her immediate family.” (Mintz: 2007) The early separation of mother and children made sure that they would not develop familial bonds between each other. The separation, which deformed social bonds and the natural life processes, was one of the means that slaveholders employed to turn black people into perpetual slaves. A child, being removed from their nuclear family, becomes vulnerable, loses the family support and perceives the master as his own and only family. The dehumanizing effect of this cruel practice destroys the child’s sense of personal history. But it was not only difficult for children; mothers also suffered enormous emotional torture which I am going to describe in the following chapter.