Introduction-Women, Slavery, and Historical Research

By Stevenson, Brenda E. | The Journal of African American History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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Introduction-Women, Slavery, and Historical Research


Stevenson, Brenda E., The Journal of African American History


More than twenty years ago, Deborah Gray White began a serious, fully documented study of enslaved women in the antebellum South. The eventual book-length study Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, published in 1985, was the first of its kind. It is still one of only a few such studies. What was, and remains, important about Professor White's work, however, is not only its status as the "first," but also the quality of her work as a research monograph. Few pioneering studies have stood the test of time as well as White's Ar'n't I a Woman?.

Most of the findings that White presents in her brilliant description of female slave life and its delineation from the lives of enslaved men, the standard focus of social histories of slavery, remain uncontested. Whether it is her analyses of African American female stereotypes in the public imagination; the central importance of childbearing, rearing, and socialization to women's sense of self and their identity as females; the immense importance of their labor in the field and the domestic sphere; or the social lives, spheres, and networks of these women; White provides a veritable road map for any future study of enslaved females.

The contributors to this Special Issue of The Journal of African American History salute Deborah White's enormous contribution by continuing her legacy of inquiry and excellence in the pursuit of enslaved women's lived experiences. These essays, including that of Deborah Gray White, are part of a number of papers given at a commemorative conference that I convened, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Ar'n't I a Woman? The conference was funded by and held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, in May 2005.

Deborah Gray White, of course, contributes an essential essay in this collection--her thoughts on the production of her book. White's "'Matter Out of Place': Ar'n't I a Woman? Black Female Scholars and the Academy," is an eloquent explication of the origins of her book, the hostile response from almost every academic venue, and the toll that this endeavor, and her courageous life as an African American female historian of African American females, has taken. She is, as ever, in this essay honest, bold, and uncompromising in her attempt to come to terms with the pain, and the pleasure, of being the pioneer, the "matter out of place," that she is.

Darlene Clark Hine's retrospective essay "Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South--Twenty Years After" comprehensively recounts the many contributions that White's book has made to the historiography of African Americans, southern history, American social history, and women's history. As the true "mother" of African American women's history, Professor Hine's comments are more than celebration. They are testimony to the enormous importance of White's work as the foundation of much that has followed and that will come. The other four essays in this Special Issue embrace Professor White's conclusions as they move on to address some of the questions she explicitly and implicitly explored in Ar'n't I a Woman?

Daina Ramey Berry's "'In Pressing Need of Cash': Gender, Skill, and Family Persistence in the Domestic Slave Trade" is an important expansion of White's discussion of the labor and perceived value of enslaved women. Indeed, Berry takes up new questions regarding the monetary worth of enslaved females and the variables, including a female's age, skill, assumed fertility, and general physical and mental health, along with an owner's financial needs, as well as market forces, that determine this value. Beginning with the traditional belief that the domestic slave market centered on the buying and selling of enslaved "prime men," Berry's meticulous investigation proves otherwise. By canvassing an array of primary documents representing the Upper and Lower South, Berry is able to document that female prices, and therefore the value of their labor, were often equal to those of males.

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