I am starting to question my limited knowledge of the contribution of black women in challenging inequality. Have I been relying on accounts that perhaps too often exclude their work and experiences? If included, rarely painted as leaders? As role models? Accounts that imply black women have had no significant role in the freedoms we all enjoy today.
I believe this limited account is intensified by our reliance on others to interpret things for us. A reliance on newspapers and historians to tells us what and who is important. How events impact our lives. But if those doing the interpreting are predominately men who assume male dominance, can we realistically rely on them to direct our attention to events and individuals that effectively work challenge inequality?
Take, for example, historical accounts of the slave trade and those who contributed to its demise.
What do we know of the enslaved women’s role in this?
A quick search on the internet for key contributors may look something like this list of 27 individuals. It includes Lord Mansfield, a former slave owner and judge. The same man who supported the ruling in the insurance case whereby a Liverpool owned ship had thrown slaves overboard in order to make a claim. Mansfield agreed this wasn’t murder because black people were no different to horses.This list tells me its author believes those who contributed most were white men. With black women contributing the least given only two are listed, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.
What are we to deduce from this? That, and as important as these white men may have been, they were more motivated to end the system than those who experienced it? That the women, who suffered so uniquely, had the least influence?
Looking elsewhere for a more substantial account, I base the following views on two literatures. John Newsingerand his chapter “The Jamaican rebellion and the overthrow of slavery”. And Angela Davisand her chapter “The Legacy of Slavery: Standards of a new Womanhood”.
From these, I have learned three things; the enslaved women were equal to the enslaved men, rape was a weapon of control and to question the absence of black women in any discussion on resistance.
The enslaved woman was an equal to the enslaved man
What Newsinger and Davis agree on is that enslaved women were workers. Not cooks and wet nurses as popular caricatures tend to depict. Such as the Mammy character in Gone with the Wind. But workers in fields, mining and railways. They worked as hard, alongside the men, and received the same violent treatment (the flogging and mutilation) in policing that work. Gender was irrelevant for slaves were not seen as human, but “chattels”. This leads Davis to conclude the enslaved woman was an equal in her community.
Rape was a considered weapon against enslaved women
Newsinger covers the sexual violence against women too briefly. Merely pointing out a fact without conveying interest to understand what it meant for those abusing and those abused. His reasoning for the practice due to unrestrained lust and sadistic tendencies is frustrating. Altogether, an unenlightening examination that fails to capture the purpose of that specific violence.
Davis takes more interest and offers a direct approach in her study. Pointing to a use of rape that served an important purpose. One that had little to do with white owner’s lust for enslaved women. But a system of rape about dominance. The daily brutality all slaves were subjected to went to terrorising them, to killing dreams of freedom so to protect the planter’s economic wealth. The use of rape on the other hand went to breaking the spirit of enslaved women. Killing the women’s fight. Their resistance!
A system therefore that demonstrated the owner’s control over enslaved women. Extremely effective because it also discouraged patriarchy within the slave community.
Resistance recounted as a man only business
Both the first and second points set strong premise for a resistant enslaved woman. One that you imagine plotted and fought alongside the men just as she worked alongside them and highly motivated to bring an end to the inhuman system.
However, Newsinger, in exploring the “full scale rebellions”, makes little mention of enslaved women. What their role was in these. He offers little in explanation of where they were when the ‘men’ were plotting and rebelling.
What are we to learn from this absence? Could it be that women played no role in these rebellions? Or is their absence here a reflection of Newsinger’s perception of women? A perception that takes women to mean weak and passive? And therefore have no role in battles?
Davis again offers more insight on women’s role in the resistance. Describing women who fought the system from all angles. Women who resisted their rapists, refusing to submit even when subjected to the most extreme forms of violence. Who were caged to prevent their continued attempts to run away. Women who successfully run to their freedom. Women impatient for an end to the inhuman system and thus took the view, it was their freedom or death.
Women like Harriet Tubman who didn’t end her resistance upon her escape but led it. Making dangerous journeys back to Maryland and other places 19 times as a ‘conductor’ for the Underground Railroad network. Leading her family and many slaves to their freedom.
Davis speaks of women who taught themselves to read. A skill they stealthily shared with others. And of women who saw no end to the system, killing their babies to ensure they didn’t grow up in slavery. Showing the extent to which they found the system unfit for human existence. Overall, giving an impression of women who were anything but weak and passive.
Three conclusions I draw from this, limited but, helpful account;
Firstly, accounts like Newsinger’s are likely to be borne out of a male supremacy stance. With the absence of a conscious and direct effort to detach himself from this, it could explain the scant attention to women in his chapter.
Additionally, if male supremacy is understood as white, it is possible to see how this stance could lead to a propensity for historians to trivialise the role of black women. Especially if these are women who, as Davis points out, challenged expected traits of a woman. As workers and thus equals within their community, the system inadvertently encouraged independence and self-reliance in the enslaved women. Unlike their white counterparts, encouraged to be dependent on men, by existing within the boundaries of wife and motherhood. Newsinger offers far too little to contradict this explanation.
Secondly, this approach to the role of black women seems to be mimicked by a white centred feminism. A feminism that takes limited interest in black women’s voices. Taking the stance that movements like Black Lives Matter, are separate to women’s interest. Instead of what they should be seen as, warning that women’s progression is tenuous at best.
Bringing me to my third conclusion. This perpetual lack of attention to black women means important lessons are missed. Missing these, in my view, helps to uphold male supremacy.
In Davis’ chapter, our attention is drawn to the use of rape in more recent times. The Vietnam war. Describing an implied but established practice by the US army in fighting Vietnamese women. Soldiers given permission to “search women with their penises”. Thus using rape as a political weapon. Refuting the belief that rape is an individual’s unrestrained lust. Rather the opposite. A considered weapon taken by men intended to put women back in their place. A weapon that works to control not only the women but a community.
We see the rape system used in the DRC since the 1990s. A system so wide spread that the United Nations declared it a weapon of war in 2008. The practice continues however, take the kidnapping and rape of girls in Nigerian in 2014 and the Rohingya women in Mynamar in 2017. The call for the UN to take the declaration further, to hold “sexual terrorists accountable” at an international level, remains unanswered. I imagine there is little incentive to sanction the use of this weapon as it serves male supremacy so effectively.
In conclusion, I believe the limited account on the role black women in challenging inequality is no accident. Our reliance on others to make sense of the context around us means our view of the world is largely through the perspective of male dominance. A perspective that examines women’s roles against a set standard of a woman. There are many reasons why black women are excluded from this stereotype. From the superficial, to the more helpful possibility that their experiences expose an unrelenting male dominance.
John Newsinger, The blood Never dried, 2013, a critical look at the British Empire and its deep involvement in key episodes in British imperial history.
John Newsinger (as above).
Angela Davis, Women, Race & Class, 1981. A comprehensive study of the women’s right movement in the US.