Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Black Women, Mothering, and Protest in 19th Century American Society

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Black Women, Mothering, and Protest in 19th Century American Society

Article excerpt

Antebellum Society and the Construction of Black Motherhood

By definition, motherhood suggests a unique relationship between the mother and child, one which is seen as the basic requirement for child development. Mothers nurse their children, provide love, affection, and guidance, and shape primary development. In 19th century American society, motherhood was seen as a necessary act of procreation that ensured the lineage of a particular family. Motherhood for white women was viewed as the moral role for women. The era between 1820 and 1860, the "cult of true womanhood," was the era in which womanhood was represented as pious, pure, submissive, and domestic (Welter). Women were encouraged to embrace these traits and take their rightful place in the home.

This new way of thinking about women's roles represented a change in American society from a family-based social system to a market-based social system that ultimately undermined the rights and position of white women in society (Farrell). Before industrialization, women were a vital part of the family economy and their labor inside and outside of the home was respected. After industrialization, women's labor in the household was defined as inferior to wage labor and women's position in society was thus diminished (Farrel). The cult of domesticity represented societal attitudes concerning women's roles and their proper place in society. Motherhood and caring for the home was seen as the rightful place of a true woman. Motherhood for white women was viewed in this context, with black women giving birth to property and white women producing heirs and leaders.

The representation of true womanhood as defined by the cult of domesticity excluded black women and placed them in a peculiar position as slaves, not "true" women. In an antebellum novel, this position was thus described: "The idea of modesty and virtue in a Louisiana colored girl might well be ridiculed; as a general thing she has neither" (Carby 26). This idea that black women were not "true" women further established the societal inferiority of black women, placing them in a unique relationship with the slave economy. Womanhood and the experience of motherhood for black women were completely connected to the social system and could not be perceived in the same way as motherhood for white women. In fact, Hazel Carby argues that "two very different but interdependent codes of sexuality operated in the antebellum South, producing opposite definitions of motherhood and womanhood for white and black women which coalesce in the figures of the slave and the mistress" (20). Unlike white women, who could identify motherhood with privilege and social status, motherhood for slave women was connected and rooted in a social system of bondage.

The forced motherhood experienced by black women defined their existence and influenced their survival. One woman interviewed in the Federal Writer's Project comments on this phenomenon: "You know, there was an overseer who used to tie mother up in the barn with a rope around her arms up over her head, while she stood on a block. Soon as they got her tied, this block was moved and her feet dangled, you know, couldn't touch the floor. This old man, now, would start beating her naked until the blood ran down her back to her heels ... I asked mother what she done for them to beat and do her so. She said, 'Nothing other than refuse to be wife to this man'"(Hine and Thompson 79).

Slavery as a system of social stratification in American society defined the social relations of American society. The social hierarchy of American society created a system of apartheid that placed white men at the top and slaves and minorities at the bottom of the social system. In American society, African slaves were at the very bottom and were considered property without legal rights. This caste system of racial inequality, which relegated Africans to inferior positions, was implemented and reinforced by institutional discrimination and became a central way of life in the antebellum South. …

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