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During the Antebellum period, enslaved women’s duties, rights, and obligations contrasted significantly with those of the free women since the former were confined to the home which was regarded as their place. In factories and other workplaces, women were overworked, and they were expected to carry out heavy tasks but with very little pays. Their rights and legal entitlements were infringed, and they were denied an opportunity to fight against unjust treatment and demand for improved working conditions. Moreover, the unfair treatment was widespread in the acquisition of education, in religious issues, and even in marriage. Deborah White points out that society’s norms towards women were so restrictive that husband and wife relationships were compared to the relationship between a slave and the master. The American master exercised authority over the slaves to the point that slaves had a childlike dependency on their masters. During that period, black women were enslaved, and they were not granted similar privileges as the white women because the former was considered to be owned by someone else. Division of labor was according to age and gender whereby as the women slave advanced in age, their importance also increased according to the slave masters since they improved in knowledge and skills of doing work. Men, on the contrary, were regarded to be less productive as they grew older since they could not perform the onerous tasks that were required of them.
By virtue of being black, possession of that color was the primary rationale behind the black women and men being regarded as slaves in Antebellum America. In the majority of the Southern states, black complexion was the only proof required that one was a slave and being in a white society that was dominated by men as the authority, women slaves were the least advantaged and most vulnerable group. Black slaves, both men, and women had no rights to defend themselves as all power was bestowed upon the masters. At will, the masters could sell off their slaves especially the men hence separating them from their families, and that was a normal trend that the slaves got accustomed to. The work description was dissimilar for the enslaved men and women because women did most of the cultivation and household tasks such as food preparation and household care while men performed heavy labor. When the women gave birth, their offspring automatically became slaves to their white master, and the young girls were taught their roles from a tender age so that when their parents died or if the mother became ill or too aged, the girl took over the role of performing household tasks and looking after children. Enslaved women were sexually abused and tortured amidst having to work under harsh conditions while men were sometimes whipped by their masters.
The white women, who were not enslaved, on the other hand, were obligated to be passive since they were considered females, unlike the black slaves who were forced to submit by virtue of being black and slaves. Free women and men served as the owners of slaves in most households, and they were granted rights and privileges which were denied to the black population. White women did not carry out any roles in the community other than managing their slaves who did literally all kinds of work for them. The sex roles differed considerably between black and white women, and the society granted them different obligations and different outcomes were expected from the two groups. Black women could not access education while the whites went to good institutions and in the use of social amenities, whites were the only privileged population that used high-quality amenities such as schools, buses, public restrooms, and social structures. The white males dealt in lucrative businesses and operated huge plantations and industries where they had no worries of labor since the slaves offered free labor during that period. Wealth was measured by the number of slaves that a white man had because then, he could have sufficient workers and laborers for his numerous plantations and industries.
During the Civil War and towards its end, Tera Hunter delves into the ways through which slaves attempted to end slavery and change their status as they began to craft out ideas of shaping their lives. Black women adopted a culture whereby they portrayed a behavior which gave the impression of candidness but in the actual sense, concealed the actuality of their real lives and beings from their masters. The women were tired of being home workers, and they wanted to have control over their lives by emancipating themselves from slavery. Enslaved workers started shifting gradually from slavery to wage-based labor where they demanded compensation for work done, blacks began developing their neighborhoods, but the wealthy white community still made attempts to exercise control over the blacks. With the changes gradually picking up, the blacks turned to each other for support by setting up small businesses to sustain them. Women set up shops, cafes, schools, and beauty shops and started to drop the title of slaves. Within such businesses, the black community discussed their significant challenges and possible measures that they could use to curb the challenges, and they planned peaceful protests. The protests were mostly organized by urban black women who doubled up as house workers as they aired out their concerns about enslavement. Women also improved their job prospects by leaving their jobs and gaining knowledge to improve their literacy levels.
In the midst of their efforts to improve their status, Deborah White illustrates how black women were faced with challenges posed by the white community who tried as much as possible to control every dimension of their lives. Whites intentionally delayed the wages of their black workers to keep them in debt and magnify their struggles with creditors so that their desire to gain social mobility could be thwarted. She also illustrates that the whites expressed anger at black women dancing, arguing that workers who failed to rest well would not be efficient at performing their duties the following day. Another obstacle to their efforts was the partiality laws which were existent until 1965 that exposed blacks to even more struggle since there were discrimination and segregation of amenities such as buses, restrooms, and carriages. The blacks faced prejudice and were compelled to use inferior quality facilities as compared to those of the white population. Blacks were pushed towards harsh and overcrowded sections of land to settle there while the whites grabbed the best pieces of land which were located near conveniences and built their properties on such lands. Due to the harsh living conditions, diseases spread rapidly among the blacks hence becoming a primary concern since they were blamed for transferring illnesses to the homes of white men who were their masters. The women were criticized continuously and classified as less feminine as compared to the white women, but the flip side of such criticism was that the criticism only challenged the women to push on further in their pursuit of status improvement. As the civil war drew to a close, more opportunities were available for the southern women in other cities, especially to the North and with the presence of new jobs, the women took up the chance to branch out their skills and simultaneously, a champion for freedom of the black community across the country. Their choice to diversify their knowledge enabled them to evade the harsh laws that had been imposed which fueled racial segregation in the South.
After the emancipation of the southern women, they experienced a period of political, social and economic changes as well as opportunities and several challenges pertaining to legal rights, work, and family. Victimization of black women was still prevalent several years after regaining their freedom and the years were characterized by negligent optimism. They had to struggle for jobs and to acquire literacy which was made worse by discrimination which prevailed in the society, creating a struggle such that only a small percentage of women were able to take up roles, distinct from those they were doing as slaves. Job opportunities, though limited, were available and the women worked to supplement their husbands’ income while in some instances, their earning was the only income to sustain the families. Since the black women had been exposed to sexual abuse and negative labeling by their masters, the myths of black womanhood persisted for years even after they had been freed from slavery. Whites still viewed them as people who greatly desired promiscuous relationships, and that notion made them quite susceptible to sexual abuse and crimes.
According to Deborah White, intra-racial bias and class prejudice impacted on the black women after slavery because everything did not change at once. The whites were not for the idea that after the end of slavery, blacks would be equal to them and would be entitled to the same rights and privileges as the whites. Superiority complex was typical of the whites hence they could not allow the blacks to equate themselves regarding the class. Although cases of slavery were gradually receding and labor were compensated, black women still felt oppressed, and it impacted on them and their families since they were still regarded as people of low class in the society.
The networks of women and families as discussed by Deborah White and Angela Davis proceeded into Reconstruction period and extended beyond into the 20th century since the black population showed unity amongst themselves. At the end of the Civil War, the networks that had been formed during the struggle for emancipation were maintained because they had served as the stepping stones towards attaining freedom. The groups were used to share ideas and innovations on how to empower one another as the oppressed community. They started businesses on a small scale such as small shops, cafes, stores and beauty stores and towards the 20th century, they diversified into thinking of innovative ways of venturing into bigger businesses, getting better jobs, and acquiring education. As Deborah Gray White illustrates, the networks had been molded in the face of oppression hence they had to keep empowering each other and continue fighting for equality and abolishment of racial prejudice.
Later on, the networks diversified, and the significant difference was that the systems and links led to the formation of movements and groups that aimed at restoring the dignity of black people and abolishing slavery completely. The families teamed together to advocate for equality for all races and gender, especially in the acquisition of quality education. They also campaigned for replacement of enslavement with paid labor and abolishment of sexual abuse towards the black women. Moreover, the groups played significant roles in carrying out peaceful protests against mistreatment and oppression by the white masters. In the 20th century, the networks of women and families grew to become populations of black individuals with decent jobs and people whose objective was to promote equality in the society.
One of the common themes in the literary works and speeches of the most prominent black female post-bellum activists with our readings is gender inequality. Publications by Hunter and Deborah White both speak of the similar theme. One activist, Anna Julia Cooper’s publication was a review of the condition of African Americans. The theme of her writing was gender inequality since she had been born a slave and her experiences about male privilege prompted her to speak about gender equality, specifically in the field of education. She talked about the oppressed status of black women and stated that black women had a primary role to play in speaking out and defending themselves rather than allowing other people, including black men to speak on their behalf. Cooper fiercely advocated for the liberation of black women and expressed more concern on the accessibility of higher education for the oppressed women, a move that would improve the status of the black community as a whole. Mary Church Terrell also championed feminist ideas when giving speeches and in her articles. Just like Cooper, she criticized black men who were opposed to black women equality and believed that women were supposed to take a leading role in fighting for racial equality. She condemned sexism and advocated for equality for all genders and all races. Ida Wells Barnett was a strong advocate for anti-lynching, and she stated in her articles and speeches because she believed in equal rights for everyone and condemned racial bias.
Black female empowerment, feminism, impartiality based on race, gender inequality, and fair treatment were some of the themes that the feminist activists tackled in their speeches and articles. These themes are similar to the main themes encountered in our readings whereby the authors were against racial discrimination, slavery, sexism, and gender imbalance. Even though both men and women of the black community were enslaved, the women were subjected to more suffering and abuse and had no access to education. However, a slightly different theme is higher education for the females that was advocated for by Anna Cooper. The theme is significantly absent or slightly tackled in the class readings because the primary focus of the texts is the liberation of blacks and the abolishment of slavery.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. Words of fire: An anthology of African-American feminist thought. The New Press, 1995.
Hunter, Tera W. To'joy my freedom: Southern Black women's lives and labors after the Civil War. Harvard University Press, 1997.
White, Deborah Gray. "Ain't IA Woman'. Slaves in the Plantation South."(1985).
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