Gender Relations, Slavery, and the Use of History



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Gender Relations, Slavery, and the Use of History
In examining question of gender relations and slavery in the American South, we are treading into one of most politicized area if Amer. Historiography—that is, ongoing conversation between historians about differences in fact, analysis, and interpretation. Will discuss what those terms mean in second hour. Now want to note that all historical work is grounded in the present ideological context, and specifically the assumptions, beliefs, and interests of individual historians within the discourse of other historians. Male-centered before 1970s; often racist as well. Historians of slavery usually examined topic within current debates about social conditions of African Americans and relation to political reform—the role of the government—and personal and communal responsibility of Af Ams. As White notes, history often used by policy makers to make claims; most notably, the claim about the weakness of bl family due to matrifocal, men gone. In second hour, we’ll race changes in historiography. As noted, all historians come with personal perspectives—as do we. Our examination of history should take as starting point an examination of our own perspectives, esp. our assumptions—those unstated beliefs about what is “obviously” true. Rather than looking for evidence to affirm what we believe, we should ask, “what is going on?” and only then, “what does this help us explain?”

In this lecture, want to present outlines of slavery in America, give framework for readings. Gain larger historical context. I then want to present a theoretical approach used by Eugene Genevese that can serve to make sense of conflicting interpretations, to get a sense of the variations in slave life and the options available. Remember that rarely total misery; even in slavery, as we read, people negotiate a way to make life worth living. Must appreciate the struggle, the triumph of human spirit over conditions of extreme adversity, as well as recognize oppression. In considering the agency of all involved within limitations, want to raise specific role of slave men and their relationship to women. Finally, want to present another cultural group within the slave plantation community—the women who were wives of slave owners on the plantations—known as plantation mistresses—and their contradictory status in that community.


Overview of slavery

Want to present outlines of slavery in America, give framework for readings.

Origins: Early European civs had slavery—particularly Greece. Had helped establish participatory democ in Athens.

In Europe, serfs—near slave-like existence but still with some rights. Most importantly, while pledged loyalty to a Lord, not property of. Could not be bought and sold. In England, Neth, Scand, growth of ideal of rights of indiv. under law.

Slavery part of culture of Africa, particularly wars between Muslim north and polytheist west. Port. est. trading posts on West Af coast. Chiefs benefits. Trades include Muslim slaves. Accepted on Iberian peninsula because of great antagonism against Moors. (and racial distinction)

Slav. in Af largely product of tribal warfare—booty of war. In S. and C. America among native people, more of a labor system that increased wealth of elite. Sp and Port replicated this system. Spain (along w church) decided native pop should be christianized, no more sl, but still exploit (and often, virtual slavery). Thus, importation of Af. slaves, since not covered in ban. In Latin am, much intermarrying, thus mestizo cult.

In Br. colonies, some diff. Some sl existed among Ind, but product of war, not labor system. Br. would enslave Ind. but too difficult, largely because of retaliation from tribes. (Also, vulnerable to disease, very disheartened away from tribe) Bl seen as necessary

source of labor. Dutch traders bring in from W. Af. Some tribes trade other tribes, particularly in Ghana and other Ivory Coast states, Wh. begin slave raids. Sl. often dif tribes, can't communicate, diff. cultures, rituals. More easy to dominate. Eng col. need much labor to make it in Am. Also, Eng. very ethnocentric, anti dark-skinned. Frown on intermarriage. At first, many bls were indentured, as white. But after 1641—MA—slave codes.

Took hold most in areas that were most labor intensive. West Indies sugar plantation—source of rum, in South rice and tobacco in Car (Euro addicted by Ind), sugar in LA, King cotton across South. Environmental matters—need huge, level tracts for plantation system, low tech inputs. Little slavery in South upcountry (hills and mountains).

Colonial econ becomes based on slave trade and slave labor. A labor system justified by racial system. Little value on indiv. life—profit of cheap passage and brutality over saving life—10-20% die, often thrown overboard. Disease, hunger, beatings. This mindset extends to treatment of slv in New World.

Because of econ needs, sl tips towards south. In N, increasingly seen as unnec competition to econ opportunity of poorer whites wanting to achieve. Abolished before and after Am. Revolution in North, New York last in 1821, although only 5% of pop. Still, realized that econ the main push behind abolition of sl. From there, abolitionist attack against grew. As north pull away, White south begins to justify. Both had assumed would die out, bad for Rep. By early 1800s. complicated justification.

Southern elite claimed opposition. to N. cap. Condition of workers. Bls as inferior. Christian duty too protect, give useful work. Claims not capitalist. But while may not be most efficient, certainly profitable. Beyond profit, allowed planters to be free of manual labor. Historian Edmund Morgan claims one reason so many ‘fathers of democ” came from Southern plantation culture, esp. Virginia, because overseer managed fields, wives and “Mammies” managed home, and slaves did all the work. Left time to practice democracy, much as was case in Athens.


B. Theory of hegemony

But these are only outlines. Need to look at specific lives, go beyond patterns to see possibilities of individuals and groups within different settings.

One way to explain relations between bls and whs is concept of hegemony. at first, Bls had few options. Until 1780s, little place to run to—sl. legal everywhere. Violent resistance usually ends in horrible reprisals. Still, some revolts, kept whites terrified at prospect. Usually, whs outnumbered—sometimes only 30% of pop.

Bls found ways to accommodate on some issues while silent resistance. Old Chinese proverb, "The poor man farts and smiles kindly as the rich man passes by." Serious intent. Two-faced when don't have much power. Can exert some control. Stereotype of Sambo as "smiling nigger" in fact a trickster character in bl sl lore. Ways to undermine without gaining notice. But also ways to create dependency on Bl by white, for whs to implicitly acknowledge value of bl labor and culture.



Marriage and children as example of hegemonic process


Legally, a master owned a slave and could compel him or her to do whatever the master wished. If that meant the master wanted a particular slave woman and man to marry they had to submit to his will or endure the lash or worse. For the master, such "breeding" practices meant that his "stock" would be improved. Such brutal logic, which occurred in about 10-20% of slave marriages, often led to violence between the couple after the marriage. Will look at how Stevenson establishes percentages and how she interprets this practice.

Fortunately, most slaveholders held somewhat romanticized idea about their slaves, and more often acted as parents, sanctioning the union with their blessing. Their most common objection to match arose when a male slave began courting a slave woman from another plantation. Because the progeny of the couple would belong to the mother's master, slaveholders saw this as lost opportunity to increase his slaveholdings. Yet again, masters often caved in to pleadings of their servants, believing that to deny true love would demoralize worker. Above all, a good slave holder hoped to maximize his workforce.

Stevenson and especially White look specifically at bl women in these relationships, with some attention to men. However, men actually understudied in terms of gender, critical men’s studies. Wan to turn to work of Prof. Leslie Harris “Unchained Masculinity: African-American Men of the Slave South," In the earlier historical literature of slavery, historians assumed men's experiences as the normative slave experience. Thus, men's experiences of slavery were not examined as a gendered experience, with particular differences attached to their roles as husbands, fathers and sons. Although women's historians have since made great strides in understanding women's experiences of slavery and the meaning of womanhood for slaves, little has been done to explore the particular experience of men under slavery or slaves' conception of manhood. Further, much of the recent historical literature on slave families has been written through the lens of women's history, or through gender history that is seen as a simile for women's history. Additionally, the historiography on masculinity in the United States is largely about white men.

Men, masculinity, and slavery


By focusing on slave men's roles between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War (1783-1861), I hope to bring the analytical tools of women's and gender history to black men's lived experience, and to remove black slave men from the realm of stereotype. I am particularly interested in the definitions of masculinity that grew out of the conflict between whites' enslavement of and paternalist ideology towards blacks; and possible alternative models of masculinity, manhood, and patriarchy developed by slaves themselves, men and women. These models of manhood within the slave community grew out of both Euro-American and African cultural influences, but were rooted in the conditions of slavery: forced labor; the threat to the family of separation by sale, and of sexual and physical abuse; and the efforts of slave owners and white southern society generally to control the social and cultural lives of slaves. She suggests looking at decisions and actions of slave men through their perspective to understand choices they made.

Plantation mistress: the vortex of race, class, and gender


(I didn’t get to this section in class, but you can use it in your postings.)

Finally, turn to contradictory position of plantation mistresses.

Plantation woman occupied two worlds at the same time. They were part of dominant culture that exerted control of slaves, but also dominated by strongly patriarchal culture. Had to balance ideal of submissive belle with domineering mistress over slaves. Had little sympathy for sl. women, who were most like to be in contact, and thus to have to whip and demand subservience, and who also sexual rivals, as noted in readings.

For southern plantation women, their wedding was their crowning moment; it was also the benchmark of their decline. Southern plantation women married earlier than Northern women, usually around the age of twenty. By the mid-twenties, when middle-class Northerners were marrying, plantation women were being labeled "old maids." The southern "belle" was spared nothing by her doting parents—she could purchase the latest fashions, then quickly discard them for a new ensemble. She lived in a near-hermetically sealed world, punctuated by frequent balls and daily rounds of "social calls" to other fashionable women in the neighborhood.

As long as they chose a husband from within their own social circle, their parents usually supported their decision. Suitors, however, realized that parents could be potential allies, and often address their intended's mother, father, or brother first in an earnest declaration of the seriousness of his love. Whether enlisted in the suitor's campaign or not, plantation parents still kept a much more watchful eye on their charges than their counterparts to the North. One observer noted that in contrast to Northerners, "in the South it is deemed indecorous for them to be left alone, and the mother or some member of the family is always in the room; and if none of these, a female slave is seated on the rug at the door."

If sex was out, flirting was expected, and many belles raised it to an art form. One belle, Cary Bryon, declared "she meant to have as many lovers as she could bring to her feet to be a reputed belle." For Cary, "lovers" were of the verbal variety only, supplemented by an occasional well-chaperoned peck on the cheek. One man complained that "his wife never took his arm till she took it to be led to the church on her wedding day, and that he never had an opportunity of kissing her but twice" before the ceremony. Belles did not reject marriage proposals because of feelings of inadequacy as future mothers, but simply as a matter of course. If, in her rejection letter, the belle held out any hope at all of relenting, the young man took this first refusal as merely the opening salvo in a long campaign.

If a woman's "honor" was violated—either in word or in deed—an overly aggressive suitor could expect to get a call from an enraged brother or father. If the young man was fortunate, the aggrieved avenger would not shoot at once, but would merely insist upon a duel at ten paces. Within the plantation class, then, a belle could flirt at will without impugning her character. It was for the male suitor to maintain the honor of Southern white women, or else suffer the consequences. This offered southern plantation women some protection against marauding men, but it also placed them in the role of helpless victim, more so than their Northern counterparts.

Eventually, the belle would settle on a favorite and the wedding date would be announced. Weddings were an important social event in a society were social events played an important role in reaffirming their way of life. These were usually lavish affairs, with extensive guest lists and menus. Relatives from afar were expected to reunite with the family during these festivities. The big house was abuzz with preparations for a week before the celebration, and weddings between members of particularly important families were the source of neighborhood gossip for a while afterwards.

Once the party was over, the former belle was in for a difficult transition period. As a child and teenager she had been pampered and kept from most practical worries. Now she was given the task of managing a household with numerous chores. Further, she now had to take a hand in disciplining slaves, particularly members of the domestic staff. And where she had been treated to the chivalry of her many men-in-waiting, now she might have to cope with a drunken, violent or adulterous husband. But the biggest change was that she was no longer "belle of the ball," the object of desire of the young men, the object of envy for the married women. Now she was one of those married women, watching the proceedings wistfully from the sidelines.

Marriage relations among the southern planter class were in many ways an exaggerated version of those among the Northeastern middle-class. While Northeastern women were expected to have maintained their virginity before marriage, plantation society put an absolute premium on the bride's "purity." Northeastern women were placed on an elevated platform and praised for their selflessness and moral rectitude. Plantation women were ensconced upon a gilded pedestal, and Southern writers extolled the refinement, piety and grace in which these women surpassed all others. The result was a tightly constrained life that offered little opportunity to move beyond the boundaries their society had established for them.

One could argue that Southern society had created this vision of the plantation woman on the pedestal to offset the violence and inhumanity of slavery. Plantation women thus experienced striking contradictions in their lives and their marriages. It was for these women to overlook the philandering of husbands, including liaisons—forced or otherwise—with slave women. It was for the former belle to be the keeper of Christian piety while bearing the lash against recalcitrant servants. Her marriage prospered or faltered according to the degree she was able to rationalize these contradictions throughout her life.

If white women placed on pedestal, bl. women seen as sexual targets, worthy of no respect. Allowed men to abstain from sex with unmarried Southern belles while satisfying both their desires for sex and power by having sex with sl. women. This was essentially legalized rape, and allowed white men to assert their masculinity by claiming control over both a woman and a black. This was the essential paradigm of the slave system, and it shaped the consciousness of all those involved.


Second half:

New protocol. Group secretary records questions, themes, is first to post (should do so as quickly as possible—that night). List all group members who were present.

Review other historical categories.

Historical thinking:

Continuity and change—what existed, what changed, what stayed the same?

Cause and effect—What/who caused changes, and what was exact effect? What/who kept change from occurring? What were the multiple sources or causation, and how were they interrelated?

Historical Agency—How much control/power did individuals/organizations have in causing/stopping something from happening?

Distribution of power—Who possess power in what areas of life, and does this power get redistributed and/or does it get challenged but regained?

Compare and contrast—Compare two events/phenomena using the above criteria. What is different and what is the same, and why?

Add historiography. Graph out historiography of slavery (white) and add in Stevenson. What is behind White’s and Stevenson’s concerns? How characterize (possibilities vs. limitations) How can we use them to capture complexity of situation?


Later—what can we take from earlier readings?
What are own assumptions?


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