Ar'n't I A Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South

by Deborah Gray White

Paperback, 1987




W. W. Norton (1987), 216 pages


Living with the dual burdens of racism and sexism, slave women in the plantation South assumed roles within the family and community that contrasted sharply with traditional female roles in the larger American society. This new edition of Ar'n't I a Woman? reviews and updates the scholarship on slave women and the slave family, exploring new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender and comparing the myths that stereotyped female slaves with the realities of their lives. Above all, this groundbreaking study shows us how black women experienced freedom in the Reconstruction South -- their heroic struggle to gain their rights, hold their families together, resist economic and sexual oppression, and maintain their sense of womanhood against all odds.… (more)


½ (40 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rocketjk
Professor Deborah Gray White's study of the particular aspects of the experience of female slaves in the American south was considered a groundbreaking book when it was first published in 1985. Most of the previous studies of the slave experience had either focused especially on the male experience
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or had more or less failed to differentiate significantly between the lives of male and female slaves. The book is still held in very high esteem these 37 years later.

White begins by describing the twin stereotypes of Black women through which became part of the white justification of the slave system and endured well past emancipation. One was the stereotype of the wanton, highly sexualized Jezebel, which was used to help justify the common sexual abuse of female slaves by their white enslavers. And the other was Mammy, the benign, all-knowing raiser of the white children, who ruled the kitchen with a firm hand and identified, so went the stereotype, more with her white masters than with her own black enslaved community. In contrast to Jezebel, Mammy was generally portrayed as essentially asexual, and therefore non-threatening. Here as the personification of the benign aspects of slavery, the supposed strong ties between enslavers and enslaved. This stereotype remained on America's syrup bottles and pancake mix boxes until very shortly ago.

White delves in as detailed a manner as possible into the life of the female slave. Important factors were the value females had within the system for their ability to give birth to babies that had high monetary value to their enslavers, and the resulting pressure to continue reproducing. In the meantime, they were still expected to get their plantation work in, as well. Women were much less likely than male slaves to have the sort of plantation jobs and/or privileges that allowed them to travel between plantations. In addition, because of their value as baby producers, women were much less likely than men to be sold away. Because of this, female slaves' strongest bonds were often to be found within the community of enslaved women. It was to this community that women most often turned for support in times of troubles and for tending in times of illness. Most women's strongest identities were through their roles as mothers rather than as wives.

I've only touched on two of the many important main themes of this book. I will say that the writing style is a bit dry at times, academic in nature, but never to the extent that I was hindered in the reading. Also, when I ordered my copy of the book online, I didn't realize that there was a newer edition which features an additional chapter. So I would recommend anyone thinking of picking this book would want to pick that later edition.
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LibraryThing member mdobe
Major contention of this work is that black slave women in the American south "were not submissive, subordinate, or prudish and that they were not expected to be so." She attacks the black power generation of the 1960s and 70s which put black slave woman in her place to retrieve the black man from
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"Samboism". She attempts to demonstrate that black slave families were characterized by an admirable equality of the sexes. She is insistent that "slave women has a high degree of sex consciousness and that it was encouraged by the plantation regime (p. 22).

She begins by sketching the two polar elements of the myth of the black woman in America. One is the Jezebel, "a person governed almost entirely by her libido" (p. 29), and the other was the Mammy, who was "surrogate mistress and mother" (p. 49). She spends considerable effort showing how the two myths arose and how they did injustice to real slave women, The Jezebel image degraded the slave woman without basis in true excessive sexuality. The Mammy exalted her excessively, when in reality she was still -- like the white woman -- ultimately subordinate to the white male (p. 61).

She then goes on to show how "black males and females did not experience slavery in the same way" (p. 62). Both used intransigent behavior as a means of resistance, but women could use their status as "breeders" (mine) for the plantation owner by "playing the lady (p. 79). She describes the life cycles of the female slave as follows: lack of gender differentiation in childhood (p. 92); gender model differentiation by participation in the "trash gang" (p. 94); marriage and motherhood; middle age and the hardest physical work (p. 114); and finally old age and increased respect amongst the black community because of knowledge and experience (p. 115). Much of the traditions of marriage and motherhood for female slaves can be traced back to Africa, according to White (p. 106).

White points to the development of a mutually supportive female slave network which fostered a strong sense of gendered identity and helped strengthen slave women in their resistance to the system. For instance, female slaves cared for each other when sick (p. 125) and helped out with child care activities (p. 128). Slave women could expect little protection from their husbands, who were themselves abused if they interceded on their wives' behalf (p. 153). Nor did marriage confer any leverage of men over women in the way it did for whites. The sum total of the factors leading to the tenuousness of slave marriage was increased female autonomy.
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