Oppression and Gender Roles in Pre-War African American Society

African American history leading up to the Civil War, and beyond, is most commonly identified by its reaction to oppression from the nation’s white majority. This relationship caused gender roles in African American society to be formed in a similarly reactionary way; the way African American men and women acted in every part of society was a direct response to the way they were treated in society. Therefore, white oppression of both enslaved and free African Americans formed the gender roles in African American society because racism set free African American women apart from the women’s rights movement, gender identities in enslaved societies were intentionally confused by the masters for both African American men and women, and white perceptions of African American men and women became intentionally offensive in order to justify further oppression..

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During the pre-war period, many abolitionist groups were beginning with the purpose of opposing slavery; many were formed by white women, but African American women were excluded from those groups. The most popular example of female abolitionists during this time tends to be the famed Grimke sisters, seen as pioneers of abolition and often credited as the first American women to lecture in public; though this is not true, as Maria Stewart, a free African American woman who wrote for the Liberator, lectured before them, in fact, according to Jone John Lewis, we know of no other American-born [female] public lecturer before Maria Stewart. Maria Stewart’s existence and persistence as a lecturer proves that African American women were a part of the liberation movement, and the credit given to white women indicates that African American women aren’t commonly acknowledged as having a role in abolition. This assertion is also supported by the works of Sojourner Truth, such as in her speech Ain’t I a Woman? which pointed out the disparity between white and African American women in terms of treatment and acceptance, and proclaimed If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! Such biblical arguments were common for the time, and became the basis for moral arguments against racism. This position in society in which African American women found themselves was very different from their position in the family unit; in free African American society, men and women were equal in the household, meaning marriage was much more of a partnership than in white society.

This relationship stemmed from both African American men and women facing injustice and oppression, and with both the husband and the wife needing to work to provide for their family it made sense for such a partnership to exist, which contrasted with many white families where women either couldn’t or didn’t need to work. A good example of the equality found in this relationship would be from Elizabeth Keckley’s account on her life; her husband became a burden on her and she informed him that since he persisted in dissipation [they needed to] separate. Her initiative in being able to leave her husband was uncommon for women at the time, and indicates that free African American women had a lot of power in their marriages. This equality in responsibility is echoed by Frederick Douglass, who once stated I belong to the women, in reference to how much female thinkers guided him, and saw themselves as engaged in the same questions as him. Equality in the home between free African American men and women was a response to white oppression, as was African American activism being inclusive of men and women. Going back to Lewis, Maria Stewart became connected with the work of abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison when he advertised for writings by black women, which indicates that the principle abolitionist movement gave more of a voice to free black women. The role of African American women in free society was created as a response to oppression from the white majority, and it tended to be one of similar stature to free African American men.

The dynamic in enslaved society was not as promising a picture as that of free African American society; sexual abuse was rampant, and little power was in the hands of the enslaved. The dynamic between the slavers and the enslaved is best illustrated in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, with the dynamic between the slave girl Patsy, the master of the plantation Edwin Epps, and the Epps’s wife; Northup explained that her abuse was because it had fallen to her to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. Epps was sexually abusive of Patsy, Mrs. Epps was angry at her husband who raped and abused one of his slaves so she took out her anger on the slave who had no choice but to take abuse from both; this was a very common dynamic in the plantation South. Stephanie Camp, in her book Closer to Freedom, quotes the Reverend Ishrael Massie from an in interview out of the 1930s, who, talking about the high frequency of white abusers of slave women, said, I call em suckers- feel like saying something else but I’ll spec ya, honey. Lord, chile, day wuz common.

There were two reasons behind this abuse; the first, and most obvious, was the more lustful reason, and the second was to mentally break a slave by taking the right to their body away from them. Camp explains the root of taking away slaves’ ownership of themselves by how [planters] often referred to them by their parts: hands was a common term, and heads was not unfamiliar, and by identifying them as one with their farm tools and called, simply, hoes. Calling enslaved women by the names of their body parts and tools weakened the differentiation between them and the tools with which they worked, and furthered enslaved women from their captors. But this use of enslaved women as sex objects went far beyond the rape of workers, it extended into the domestic slave trade, and became nothing better than a means of sex trafficking. Edward E. Baptist, in his essay ‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States, described a correspondence between two slave traders in Louisiana who operated a slave trading business, in this correspondence they mention a fancy maid, which refers to an enslaved woman traded to be used for a master’s sexual pleasures, the business was a slave-trading partnership, and systematic rape and sexual abuse of slave women were part of the normal practice of the men who ran the firm.

The sale of enslaved women as sex objects along with enslaved women being called by the names of their body parts or tools are proof that slave owners viewed slaves entirely as objects, with little regard for their humanity. But enslaved women had strategies to fight back against these practices, and one that directly contradicted the tool label was the use of secret, slave-organized parties. At these parties, enslaved women would dance in an act of self-liberation, in fact, [consistent] with African kinesic morality, slave dancers commonly rejected embracing as immodest and even indecent. This way of freely practicing sexuality without being forced to by masters was a way of regaining control over one’s body, and it allowed enslaved women to rediscover their humanity in the face of being called tools. Enslaved men faced similar hardships on the plantation, though the rape of enslaved men was far less common than the rape of enslaved women, enslaved men would often be forced to rape black women at gunpoint, this served the dual purposes of natural reproduction and emasculating enslaved men. Enslaved men were also emasculated through their clothes; slave children were only given one yard of rough spun fabric, or just enough to make a small shift or gown for an average-sized child.

Enslaved boys didn’t get to wear pants of any kind, in fact enslaved children, both male and female, wore simple gowns throughout much of childhood. Boys wore these garments until they were old enough to be “”breeched,”” or given their first pair of breeches, or short pants, usually between the ages of five and ten. This was a way of confusing growing boys about their gender from a young age, being forced to wear the same clothes as growing girls meant that enslaved boys wouldn’t as easily be able to form their own gender identity as easily, which was another form of emasculating young enslaved men. Enslaved men would be frustrated by their position and their emasculation, which often meant that [some] enslaved men were not above exploiting the positions of relative power that they sometimes enjoyed, and enslaved men who acted as overseers were known to abuse enslaved women likely to relieve some of that frustration. This tenuous relationship between enslaved men and women would be tested in marriage, where enslaved women often played central roles in the black family. The disproportionate sale of men into the slave trade resulted in many female-headed families throughout the antebellum South, which is how white oppression made the enslaved the head of the family. Enslaved families couldn’t count on having a father that would remain with them because of the high likelihood of separation, which is why the slave family as an institution adapted to, even as it was ravaged by, personal loss. With as much sexual abuse as female slaves were known to face, it was a matter of necessity to survive by any means possible for one’s own family; this is what built the black woman in enslaved society, survival for family.

With all these atrocities committed, the question must be asked; how could a people commit such horrific acts and justify them? Many practices were justified through stereotypes that, at times, made African Americans out to be sub-human, and, at their worst, made African Americans out to be dangerous and malicious. These stereotypes started early with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; views on African women were used to justify their harsh treatment and rape using representations of African bodies as inherently laboring ones lacking any hint of sexuality. This became a justification for the forced labor of Africans, as, to Europeans, Africans were fit “ naturally fit “ for demanding agricultural and reproductive labor on the plantations in the Americas. These stereotypes would manifest into caricatures around the antebellum period; many would be created and associated with the Jim Crow caricature, the first blackface character created by one Thomas Dartmouth Daddy Rice. Rice took a song from a black person who happened to be singing about Jim Crow, and in 1828 Rice appeared on stage as “”Jim Crow”” — an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character. Jim Crow portrayed African Americans as lazy, dumb, and subservient, which became another justification for slavery and later Jim Crow laws, other caricatures would follow.

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