Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

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

Article excerpt


Nineteenth century American society provides a clear example of the way in which oppression, bondage, and capitalism interacted to redefine, shape, and determine the lives of black Americans. There have been numerous accounts defining the context of slavery for blacks and how black women operated in slave society (Frazier; Gutman; White; and Jones). These accounts often represent motherhood as one of many roles for slave women, not as the defining content for the lives of these women. Motherhood, however, represented a unique position for black women, as these women were also laborers, breeders, and concubines in 19th century American society. Black women's response to these multiple and often conflicting roles was to create a new meaning of black womanhood, one which placed motherhood at the center of black women's existence. Using black women's autobiographies, speeches, and other writings published in and around the 19th century, this article attempts to highlight the complex nature of black motherhood in nineteenth century American society. Hence, this paper is organized around the themes of black women's roles in 19th century American society; black women's response to motherhood; the importance of motherhood for black family life; and finds that black women's motherhood challenged hegemonic constructions of race, gender, and class in 19th century American society.

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). …

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