Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Black feminist book club: The power not to reproduce

This year, I pledged to read more black feminist writing and I invited What Tami Said readers to join me. Right now, our Black Feminist Book Club is reading When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings. I welcome guest submissions on the content and themes of this book.

Below is a powerful excerpt about how enslaved women refused to comply with the directive to produce more slaves.

Perhaps the most dramatic and least known act of resistance was the refusal of slave women to perform their most essential role, producing baby slaves, for which they were rewarded. "Every woman who is pregnant," observes plantation mistress Frances Kemble, "is relieved of a certain portion of her work in the field...Certain additions of clothing and an additonal weekly ration are bestowed upon the family...The more frequently she adds to the number of her master's livestock by bringing new slaves into the world, the more claims she will have upon his consideration and good will." [Emphasis mine.]
Even so, a Texas slave by the name of Rose Williams tried to resist a forcible mating. When her master placed a healthy specimen by the name of Rufus in her cabin for this purpose, she chased him out with a three-foot poker. Subsequent visits by Rufus met with the same response. Rose Williams finally relented when the master threateningly reminded her that he had purchased her entire family to save them from being separated.
Some slave women, perhaps a significant number, did not bear offspring for the system at all. They used contraceptives and abortives in an attempt to resist the system, and to gain control over their bodies.


Another physician, writing in a Nashville, Tennessee, medical journal, told of a planter who kept between four and six slave women "of the proper age to breed," but in twenty-five years only two children had been born on the plantation. When the slave owner purchased new slaves, every pregnancy miscarried by the fourth month. Finally it was discovered that the women were taking "medicine" supplied by an old slave woman to induce abortions.


LilySea said...

This is one of my top favorite books and I recommend it to folks constantly.
Giddings is fab.
As for using reproduction to claim some power--do you remember the scene in the Armistad movie in which the enslaved woman on the ship slips overboard with her baby?
I was kind of annoyed that the movie seemed to portray it as an act of despair rather than agency and resistance.
I mean, it's a pretty sad thing, to be sure, but women who refused to give their bodies or their children to slavery were making brave, bold decisions.
Especially when you take into consideration that some believed death would take them back to Africa.

navelgazingbajan said...

This book definitely has me thinking about reproductive rights, particularly in regard to black women. I think this particularly excerpt is interesting in light of the recent racialized anti-choice rhetoric aimed at black women.

Tami said...

LilySea, yes I do see these as acts of empowerment--for the women and their children.

Navelgazingbajan, that is exactly what I thought about when reading this--the racializing of anti-choice rhetoric and how ahistorical it truly is.


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