the dignity of womanhood

“In the Quiet, Undisputed Dignity of My Womanhood”


—Anna Julia Cooper, “A Voice From the South By a Black Woman of the South” (1892)1


 Decolonizing and reclaiming history means understanding that the process of telling history and preserving it for our communities and our descendants is a process that depends on who matters and who doesn’t. If  you don’t matter to the people who get to tell your story, your story won’t get told.

Our world has been patriarchal for centuries (though it wasn’t always that way), so the people who matter the most in the history we pass along are men, and the people who matter the least are women.

Those who control the telling of history are the ones who decide which stories to preserve and which ones to erase. Decolonizing history means understanding that sometimes the stories that don’t get told are the most important stories of all.

The legacy of the narrow, male-centric interpretation of history is most glaringly apparent in the erasure of perhaps the single most important aspect of slavery: the deliberate, wholesale rape of black women as a primary means of increasing productive capacity.

The practice of rape was not a sometime, collateral by-product of slavery; it was a very methodical, deliberate, and institutionalized system. It was what enabled the slaveowner to literally produce huge numbers of slaves at no additional cost—enslaved people who were either sold for pure profit or added to his continually growing labor force. It was a system of mass rape on an industrial scale.

The term commonly used was “breeder slave,” and black women were often bought and sold solely for their perceived ability to bear lots of children, children who the slaveowner thought of merely as additional slave stock. The historian Lerone Bennett wrote about this erased history in his book, Before the Mayflower, and he quoted a letter written by a Southern slaveowner describing the industry:

In the states of Md., Va., N.C., Ky., Tenn. and Mo., as much attention is paid to the breeding and growth of negroes as to that of horses and mules. Further South, we raise them both for use and for market. Planters command their girls and women (married or unmarried) to have children; and I have known a great many negro girls to be sold off, because they did not have children. A breeding woman is worth from one-sixth to one-fourth more than one that does not breed.2

Bennett described the “shop talk” that plantation owners engaged in with each other:

When they discussed shop with other planters, the talk often turned to “rattlin’ good breeders” and “the annual rate of increase.” John C. Reed, a Georgia lawyer who had access to high planter circles, said “the greatest profit of all was what the master thought of and talked of all the day long,—the natural increase of his slaves, as he called it.”3

Bennett also wrote about one Virginia planter who boasted to a Northern reporter that:

[H]is slave women “were uncommonly good breeders; he did not suppose there was a lot of women anywhere that bred faster than his; he never heard of babies coming so fast as they did on his plantations…and every one of them…was worth two hundred dollars…the moment it drew breath.”4

No doubt some of this bragging was the Southern planter version of locker room talk; after all, rape’s other primary purpose is to conquer and destroy the woman. When rape is additionally used as a weapon of war and ethnic or cultural subjugation, its purpose also is to destroy the entire people that the woman gives life to. There is a Cheyenne saying: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”5

Nevertheless, in order to ensure maximum “productivity,” planters had to get females impregnated as quickly and as young as possible. As Bennett pointed out, “On some plantations, it was common for girls of sixteen to have children…some slave women began their families at the age of thirteen and begat thirteen, fourteen and fifteen children.”6

Bennett described “a court record of a woman named Nancy who bore seventeen children in eighteen or nineteen years,” and a notice from a Lynchburg, Virginia, newspaper about “a woman who probably established a record”:

VERY REMARKABLE: There is now living in the vicinity of Campbell, a negro woman belonging to a gentleman by the name of Todd; this woman is in her forty-second year and has had forty-one children and at this time is pregnant with her forty-second child, and possibly with her forty-third, as she has frequently had doublets.7

Not all slaveowners were inclined to personally rape the women they owned, so they used enslaved black men, who were also forced into the slave-breeding industry and who were referred to as “stud Negroes.” As a typical example of how the system was forced on both women and men, Bennett cites the testimony of Charles Grandy, an ex-slave from Virginia:

Marsa…used to sometimes pick our wives fo’ us. If he didn’t have on his place enough women for the men, he would wait on de side of de road till a big wagon loaded with slaves came by. Den Marsa would stop de ole n—-r-trader and buy you a woman. Wasn’t no use tryin’ to pick one, ‘cause Marsa wasn’t gonna pay but so much for her. All he wanted was a young healthy one who looked like she could have children.8

On plantations not characterized by inhumane brutality, women were rewarded for having babies; the more she had, the more she was rewarded, generally in the form of extra food, clothes, and a little time off. Freedom was even offered as an incentive to bear lots of children. Bennett writes that “Ten was the usual figure; but when the market value of Negroes was high, some planters settled for five.”9

The pervasive normality of breeding enslaved women like animals becomes evident in reading through the accounts and memoirs of slaves themselves. Mary Reynolds recalled the time her owner, Dr. Kilpatrick, went to Baton Rouge:

[He] brung back a yellow gal dressed in fine style.…Us n—-rs knowed the doctor took a black woman as quick as he did a white and took any on his place he wanted, and took them often.…Aunt Cheney always say four of hers was master’s, but he didn’t give them no mind. But this yellow gal breeds so fast and gets a mess of white young’uns.10

Fannie Moore talked about the times the “speculators” would come to the plantation:

Dey would go through de fields and buy de slaves dey wanted.…When de speculators come all de slaves start a-shakin’. No one know who is a-goin’.

Den sometimes dey take ‘em and sell ‘em on de block. De “breed woman” always bring more money den de rest, even de men. When dey put her on de block dey put all her chillen around her to show folks how fast she can have chillen. When she sold, her family never see her again…Sometime she have colored chillen and sometimes white. ‘Tain’t no use to say anything, ‘cause if she do she just get whipped.11

W. L. Bost spent his years of slavery in North Carolina, and he described how the code of silence and shame helped perpetuate the industry of rape:

Plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. She know better than to not do what he say.…[The white men] take them very same children what have they own blood and make slaves out of them. If the missus find out she raise revolution. But she hardly find out. The white men not going to tell and the n—-r women were always afraid to. So they just go on hopin’ that things won’t be that way always.12