Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South

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Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South. By V. Lynn Kennedy. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c. 2010. Pp. [x], 277. $65.00, ISBN 978-0-8018-9417-6.)

After reading V. Lynn Kennedy's Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South, one woman's words, in particular, still linger. Lizzie Neblett, a white slaveholding woman in Texas, wrote in her journal: "sometimes I think I had rather bury my daughters now than to live to see them mothers" (p. 40). As Kennedy notes, such a comment spoke not only to Neblett's desire to spare her girls the inconvenience and pain of pregnancy and childbirth but also to her frustration with the duties of motherhood to which she was fled.

What is perhaps even more intriguing about this confession, however, is that it would seem to be closer to the sentiments of an enslaved black woman than a free white one--that is, a woman who knew well the misery of mothering children she could not protect. As we learn here, the experiences of white women and black women in the antebellum South overlapped on the issues of childbirth and motherhood but also diverged, often in painful ways.

The author finds multiple examples of the interdependent nature of black and white women's social roles, and "the limits of racial difference and gender commonality" (p. 144). Gertrude Thomas, a female slave owner, for instance, recorded that some of her enslaved women "have had babies," but after giving birth herself a short while later, she noted proudly that she had "become a Mother" (p. 83). Southern medical doctors performed gruesome experiments on enslaved women in an effort to improve the practice of obstetrics and medical care for white women. Only such cruelties exceeded the punishing workloads given to many pregnant enslaved women in their final weeks, or even hours, of pregnancy, while elite white women spent the last weeks of their term in "confinement" on account of their "delicate" natures (pp. 80, 70).

While the event of childbirth literally brought black and white southern women together in a common cause, the patriarchal slaveholding society in which they lived depended on the reiteration of racial difference. …