Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Unknown Tongues: Black Women's Political Activism in the Antebellum Era, 1830-1860

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Unknown Tongues: Black Women's Political Activism in the Antebellum Era, 1830-1860

Article excerpt

Unknown Tongues: Black Women's Political Activism in the Antebellum Era, 1830-1860. By Gayle T. Täte. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003. Pp. x. 290. Cloth, $64.95; paper, $28.95.)

Studies of African Americans in the antebellum period have undergone an evolutionary process from analyzing slaves and slavery to examining the lives and contributions of free blacks. More recently historians have focused on slave and free women. Gayle Täte's work seeks to connect these women by evaluating their political activism. She argues that slavery, abolitionism, and nascent capitalism strengthened the link between slave and free women because both shared a common identity and struggle. In her analysis, two stages of activism emerge: the first, or incipient, stage occurred in slavery, while the second, organizational, stage arose in the northeastern industrial cities occupied by free black women. Tate emphasizes the role of women's labor power and "labor will," which she defined as "black women's attempt to claim agency over their labor activity, transforming labor centers of oppression (that is, farms and plantations) into sites of resistance" (4). By developing their labor power and labor will, black women, first in slavery, and then in freedom, either individually or collectively, empowered themselves to resist slavery, discrimination, sexism, and classism.

Slave women, unlike slave men, were assigned both sex-based and nonsex based labor tasks, which enabled them to exert more labor power than men. Women also provided so-called "voluntary" labor in preparing food for slaves, nurturing children, and providing care for the sick and aged. Yet, unlike in Africa where women's mandatory and voluntary labor were employed to improve the family's well being, all slave labor contributed to the white master's wealth. Women's consciousness of this oppression germinated in women's work collectives and within kinship networks. With their consciousness awakened, women developed resistant strategies to their condition and passed these to younger generations. Resistance could be episodic acts of covert or overt sabotage, subversion, or outright disobedience, or it could be manifested in a more extended struggle. Tate also explores how African traditions and views of the cosmos combined with Christianity to help slaves form an inner source of empowerment, one that questioned and challenged slavery's immorality.

Turning to free black women, mostly residing in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, Tate argues that nascent capitalism stimulated women's economic activity and political consciousness, which blossomed into social protest and abolitionism, the organizational stage of women's political development. Reviewing the role of slave commodity production in creating America's wealth, Tate demonstrates how black women were proscribed from enjoying capitalism's economic fruit as racism precluded them from industrial employment. Yet the increasing white middle and upper classes became more reliant on black women's domestic services as servants and laundresses. Black women, oftentimes the most consistent breadwinners in black families, could then exert their labor will within the autonomous spaces they created either in white homes as servants or as independent laundresses or boardinghouse keepers. In this interpretation, black women, by being barred from industrial labor, were empowered as they were free to create more flexible labor conditions. While economic independence may have created autonomous space for black women, it also contradicted conventional white middle-class values that espoused a cult of true womanhood, an ideology that promoted separate spheres with women in the home, and men in the workplace. While all black women experienced racism and sexism, women laborers bore the additional stigma of class discrimination. …

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