Slavery and the Making of AmericaPolitical caricature depicting black and white men and women interacting
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Men, Women & Gender
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Slave Clothing Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Men, Women & Gender
Men, Women, & Gender
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The slave owner's exploitation of the black woman's sexuality was one of the most significant factors differentiating the experience of slavery for males and females.
An illustration depicting slaves exposed for sale
Slaves exposed for sale. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
The white man's claim to the slave body, male as well as female, was inherent in the concept of the slave trade and was tangibly realized perhaps no where more than on the auction block, where captive Africans were stripped of their clothing, oiled down, and poked and prodded by potential buyers. The erotic undertones of such scenes were particularly pronounced in the case of black women.

Throughout the period of slavery in America, white society believed black women to be innately lustful beings. Because the ideal white woman was pure and, in the nineteenth century, modest to the degree of prudishness, the perception of the African woman as hyper-sexual made her both the object of white man's abhorrence and his fantasy. Within the bonds of slavery, masters often felt it their right to engage in sexual activity with black women. Sometimes, female slaves acquiesced to advances hoping that such relationships would increase the chances that they or their children would be liberated by the master. Most of the time, however, slave owners took slaves by force.

For the most part, masters made young, single slaves the objects of their sexual pursuits. However, they did on occasion rape married women. The inability of the slave husband to protect his wife from such violation points to another fundamental aspect of the relationship between enslaved men and women. The paternalistic language of slavery, the restrictions of slave law, and the circumstances of slave life created a sense of parity between black wives and husbands.

A master's control over both spouses reduced the black male's potential for dominance over his wife. Married slaves, whose union was not legally recognized, held no joint property in common. What is more, labor segregation by sex and the frequency with which male slaves were sold meant women were not only left to raise their children alone, but also to rely on female friends and relations above husbands.
'Oh Miss Jinny ... ' p.23 in THE STORY OF A SLAVE
"Oh Miss Jinny ... " p.23 in THE STORY OF A SLAVE (Chicago: Wesley, Elmore & Benson, 1894.) Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
In consequence, black slave women were autonomous in ways that white women could not be. Like the attention the master sometimes aimed at female slaves, the perceived "freedoms" of the black woman sometimes provoked the resentment of mistresses. At the same time, the agency conferred on female slaves also helped to reinforce the notion that they were inherently depraved.

Whenever possible, black slave women manipulated their unique circumstances in the struggle for their personal dignity and that of their families. As often as black men, black women rebelled against the inhumanities of slave owners.
Photo of Harriet Jones with her daughter and granddaughter
Harriet Jones with her daughter and granddaughter. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
Like their ancestors and counterparts in Africa, most slave women took their motherhood seriously. They put their responsibilities for their children before their own safety and freedom, provided for children not their own, and gave love even to those babies born from violence. For their experience and knowledge as caregivers, elderly women were among the most revered slaves on Southern plantations. For enslaved men, escape to freedom was the most promising avenue for preserving masculine identity and individual humanity. For the slave woman, faced with the double onus of being black and female and the added burden of dependent children, womanhood and personhood were easier gained within the slave community.

Jennifer Hallam holds a doctorate in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania. Her studies focus on issues of sex and gender as they are manifest in material culture. She is currently working in documentary film production in New York City.
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