The Double Oppression of Black Women in America
BY SOCIALIST ACTION- MARCH 2001
"Dat man ober dar say dat woman needs to be lifted ober ditches, and to have de best place every whar. Nobody eber helped me into carriages, or ober mud puddles, or gives me any best place and ar'n't I a woman?
"Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me-and ar'n't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well-and ar'n't I a woman?
"I have born 13 chilern and seen em mos all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard-and ar'n't I a woman?"
-Sojourner Truth, at the women's rights convention of 1851 in Akron, Ohio, after being greeted with boos and hisses. According to her 1878 narrative, she used the word "ar'n't" instead of "ain't," as it has appeared in nearly all publications since then.
By TOM SANDERS
The reproductive rights of African American women have been under attack, one way or another, ever since they were first brought to America. The method of assault has changed from time to time, but it has continued without let up to the present day.
"While slave owners profited from encouraging slave women to bear many children, modern-day taxpayers believe they save money by discouraging poor Black women from having children," states Dorothy Roberts in her book "Killing the Black Body" (Pantheon Books, 1997). "But these practices share the common theme of denying a woman's freedom to control her own reproductive life because of her race.
"Poor crack addicts and welfare mothers are punished for having babies because they fail to measure up to the state's ideal of motherhood. These women are not penalized simply because they may harm their unborn children or because their childbearing will cost taxpayers money. They are penalized because the combination of their poverty, race, and marital status is seen to make them unworthy of procreating."
However, Black women were considered to be very worthy of having children when they were slaves-so much so that the white master himself often fathered as many Black babies as he could. We know this to be true not only because history covers it very well, but because some of these babies, in their old age, were interviewed by various government agencies.
In 1934 the Federal Emergency Relief Administration began to collect the testimony of ex-slaves in the Ohio River Valley and in the lower South. In 1936 the Works Progress Administration took charge of the project and broadened it to all of the Southern states as well as Indiana, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
One elderly ex-slave, whose name was not given, had this to say about her white father: "Well, you know, Uncle Stephen, he kinda overseer for some widow womans. He mama' husband. He come to see my mama any time he gits ready. But I find out he ain't my pappy. I knowed that since I's a little thing.
"I used to go over to Massa Daniels' plantation. They tell me all 'bout it. The folks over there they used to say to me: 'Who's your pappy? Who's your pappy?' I just say: 'Turkey buzzard lay me and the sun hatch me,' and then go on 'bout my business. Course all the time they knows and I knows, too, that Massa Daniels was my pappy" (B.A. Botkin, editor, "Lay my Burden Down," University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958).
During slavery times African American slave women were considered to be very worthy of having babies. In fact, most white men, even Northerners and foreigners thought that Black women were so worthy as willing mothers that a foreign visitor, Johann Schoepf, wrote that "in almost every house there are negresses, slaves, who count it an honor to bring a mulatto into the world." Even the abolitionist James Redpath wrote that mulatto women were gratified by the criminal advances of Saxons (Deborah Gray White, "Ar'n't I a Woman?" W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1987).
Since foreign visitors and northern abolitionists felt this way we can easily imagine how most of the Southern whites must have felt about it.
Research shows that most slave children began work in the fields by the age of 11 and many began work there at the age of six. They were usually placed in the "trash gang" that pulled weeds, cleaned up, hoed, or picked cotton. This means that the ex-slave who helped raise me as a very young child was not as old as I've long thought she was.
Thus, much of the United States wealth was built by child labor-a fact that few people are willing to acknowledge. Most also prefer to ignore the fact that the pace of scientific and technological change destroys the lower rungs of the economic ladder just as most African Americans begin to reach them. This tends to keep most Blacks not much higher in labor skills than the youngest Black slave children in the old plantation fields-by the standards of today's modern "computer revolution."
The rapid changes occurring in society, with the development of a new "educated" elite, has resulted in a new change of attitude on the part of people in various positions of power, even those with very limited power. One example is the effort to control the Black population growth through a form of carefully concealed violence perpetrated upon helpless medical patients.
Dorothy Roberts reports in "Killing the Black Body" that during the 1970s sterilization became the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980.
"It was a common belief among Blacks in the South," Roberts writes, "that Black women were routinely sterilized without their informed consent and for no valid medical reason. Teaching hospitals performed. unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for their medical residents. This sort of abuse was so widespread in the South that these operations came to be known as 'Mississippi appendectomies.'
"In 1975, a hysterectomy cost $800 compared to a tubal ligation, giving surgeons, who were reimbursed by Medicaid, a financial incentive to perform the more extensive operation-despite its 20 times greater risk of killing the patient.
"Fannie Lou Hamer, the leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, informed a Washington, D.C., audience in 1965 that 60 percent of the Black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi, were subjected to postpartum sterilizations at Sunflower City Hospital without their permission. Hamer had suffered this violation herself when she went to the hospital for the removal of a small uterine tumor in 1961. The doctor took the liberty of performing a complete hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. This practice of sterilizing Southern Black women through trickery or deceit was confirmed by a number of physicians who examined these women after the procedure was performed."
"Sterilization abuse was not confined to hospitals in the South," Roberts continues. "In April 1872, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story reporting the complaint by a group of medical students that Boston City Hospital was performing excessive and medically unnecessary hysterectomies on Black patients. Among the charges were: surgeries were performed for 'training purposes'; radical and dangerous procedures were used when alternatives were available; medical records did not reflect what had really been done to patients; patients were pressured into signing consent forms without adequate explanation; and doctors treated patients callously, adding to the women's anguish."
The attitude expressed by these illegal sterilizations is very similar to the distorted attitudes towards Black females in general, regardless of their ages, 150 years ago. For example: When George, a Mississippi slave, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1859 for the rape of a 10-year-old female slave, Judge Harris reversed the decision and released George. According to Harris the original indictment could not be sustained under common law or under the statutes of Mississippi because 'it charges no offense known to either system. ... There is no act which embraces either the attempted or actual commission of a rape by a slave on a female slave.'
A Tennessee judge made this latter point when he remanded a slave named Grandison to jail for attempting to rape a white woman named Mary Douglas. According to Judge Green, what gave 'the offense its enormity' was the fact that Douglass was white. 'Such an act committed on a BLACK WOMAN, would not,' he noted, 'be punished with death'" (Deborah Gray White, "Ar'n't I a Woman?").
Since recorded history, women of all ethnic groups have been have been made victims because of their sex. This has been true even though some women are physically stronger than men, have more endurance than men, and are capable of doing manual labor even better than men.
Such a woman was the slave Susan Mabry of Virginia, who could pick 400 or 500 pounds of cotton a day. However, 150 to 200 pounds was considered respectable for an average worker; when this writer was a teenager I found it very hard to pick 200 pounds in one day and rarely ever did.
Jacqueline Jones in "Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (Vintage Books, 198), writes: "Together with their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons, black women spent up to fourteen hours a day toiling out of doors, often under a blazing sun. In the Cotton Belt they plowed fields; dropped seed; and hoed, picked, ginned, sorted, and moted cotton. On farms in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, women hoed tobacco; laid worm fences; and threshed, raked, and bound wheat.
"For those on the Sea Islands and in coastal areas, rice culture included raking and burning the stubble from the previous year's crop; ditching; sowing seed; plowing, listing, and hoeing fields; and harvesting, stacking, and threshing the rice. In the bayou region of Louisiana, women planted sugar cane cuttings, plowed, and helped to harvest and gin the cane.
"During the winter, they performed a myriad of tasks necessary on nineteenth century farms. ... During the busy harvest season, everyone was forced to labor up to sixteen hours at a time-after sunset by the light of candles or burning pine knots. ... It is significant that overseers ordered and supervised much of the punishment in the field, for their disciplinary techniques were calculated to 'get as much work out of the slaves as they can possibly perform' ....
"Consequently, many slave women were driven and beaten mercilessly, and some achieved respite only in return for sexual submission. To a white man, a black women was not only a worker who needed prodding, but also a female capable of fulfilling his sexual or aggressive desires. For this reason, a fine line existed between work-related punishment and rape...."
The mold was already formed when slavery "officially" ended. For many years it was nearly impossible for Black women to assume roles other than those they had held in slavery. Many white Americans, even today, continue to perceive African American women as individuals who can be worked hard, treated rudely, and who desire promiscious relationships.
From the official end of slavery in 1865 through almost all of the 20th century, no southern white male was convicted of raping or attempting to rape a Black woman. And if the perpetrator was Black, the Black woman had no hope for justice either. When a Black man raped a Black woman, police nearly always reported the crime as "unfounded," and in the few cases that reached the courts, the testimony of Black female victims was seldom believed by white juries.
Unbelievable as it may seem, one of the reasons given as proof that Black women in the United States are naturally promiscuous is the fact that prior to the American Revolution the female slave population grew more as a result of natural increase than by importation. Unlike the other Western Hemisphere countries with slavery, the United States achieved a one to one sex ratio-the same number of women as men, although far more men were brought from Africa.
One reason for this was the creation of monogamous families in this country, while in Latin America and the Caribbean Black men were forced to live in barracks-like environments away from the women.
However, this fact did not make the U.S. slaves as well off as it may appear. The North American male slaves were more easily manipulated since their spouses and children could be held hostage and compelled to answer for their "transgressions."
During the 19th century, when "protecting women" was almost a part of the national religion, only slave women were so totally unprotected by men or the law. Only African American women had their womanhood so totally denied.
Yet, in spite of the great gulf between white and Black women at the time, their lives were paradoxically similar. All women were overwhelmed by work. Slave and free women alike had no visible control over reproduction. Both were forced to relinquish control over this highly personal aspect of female life to white males, who made all crucial decisions regarding the future of the children.
They even decided whether or not there would be an abortion. Have the times changed very much today?
"Relative to white men all women were powerless and exploited," says Deborah Gray White. "The powerlessness and exploitation of black women was an extreme form of what all women experienced, because racism, although just as pervasive as sexism, was more virulent. Slave women suffered from the malevolence that flowed from both racism and sexism."
Of all large groupings of people in the United States today, Black women are treated the worst, any way you look at it. There's less respect for them, fewer jobs, less of everything that is needed for an even half-way decent life. An increasing proportion of them, as well as Black men, in future generations will exist outside the world of gainful employment as long as the capitalist system prevails in this country
It is our task today to see to it that this system is replaced by a new society run by and for working people and their allies-by socialism.
History is supposed to give people a sense of identity, a knowledge of who they are and why they are living like they are. It should also act as a springboard for the future. History must replace myths with facts. We Americans of all colors have had enough myths, and especially African American women.
Despite all that she has lived through and accomplished, the Black woman today is still waiting for an affirmative answer to the plaintive question asked 150 years ago: "Ar'n't I a woman?"