history of black women in america: in depth


At the Intersection of Race and Gender Hatred


 Following Emancipation and Reconstruction, the institution of slavery transitioned to the forced labor contract system, racist Black Codes, the rise of the KKK, and the gradual construction of a “new” Jim Crow South. Throughout it all, black women struggled to maintain their right to be. Like their sisters across the globe and across history, they carried out their three-quarters of the world’s work, both paid and unpaid; they served their families, their menfolk, and still found time to help establish schools, aid associations, and fought alongside their men for equality.

Frances Ellen Watkins-Harper, founder of the National Association of Colored Women, was typical for the black women activists of her day, especially those who had been born free and were educated: she was a feminist abolitionist, advocating equally for the full rights of women and blacks. Like other black feminists, she was well aware of the central role of black women, and in 1878, she wrote:

An acquaintance of mine, who lives in South Carolina, and has been engaged in missionary work, reports that, in supporting the family, women are the mainstay; that two-thirds of the truck gardening is done by them in South Carolina; that in the city they are more industrious than the men.…When the men lose their work through their political affiliations, the women stand by them, and say, “Stand by your principles.”13

Black women also created one of the most important progressive movements in this nation’s history: the Black Women’s Club Movement that began in the 1890s and continued into the 20th century. The Black Women’s Club Movement was responsible for establishing political, educational, and economic aid networks and programs across the country, and provided the foundation for the formation of a number of groups which arose from the activism of these women, including the Urban League and the NAACP. But, as legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, wrote, this movement has been written out of our history: “Sadly, Black club women’s remarkable achievements have been left out of the official history of the women’s movement in the United States, and their vision of child welfare has been omitted from the development of the public child welfare system.”14

The erasure of black women from our nation’s history has erased their crucial role in rebuilding families, rebuilding the race, rebuilding the South, and rebuilding the nation’s economy. It has translated to the loss of brilliant ideas and social policies that would have changed our nation for the better, instead of the venal morass of exploitation politics we find ourselves in. Just erasing one part of that history—the work of  the Black Women’s Club Movement—has resulted in a national child welfare policy that is punitive and divorced from the whole community and culture.15

Instead, mainstream History teaches us that, following the end of slavery, black women withdrew from labor, a myth that further helped to erase black women not just from the collective history, but from any legitimate participation in the civic and historic life of our country.

The elimination of their legitimacy and lives as independent human beings also erased the existence of their anger that rose when they found themselves betrayed by the men they’d fought alongside to achieve equality, dignity, and legitimacy for the entire race. In particular, the decision to exclude women from the expansion of voting rights was a blow to these activists.

One such woman was Sojourner Truth who was outraged that black women would be pushed back into chattel subordination and dispossessed of the same rights as men. She refused to go along with having to give up her rights as a woman in order to gain rights for black men alone. In 1867, in a speech to the Convention of the American Equal Rights Association in New York City, she warned:

There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing [women’s suffrage movement] going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.16

But this was the choice that was essentially created and offered by the opponents of enfranchising either blacks or women, and it was a deliberate “divide-and-conquer” tactic: divide and dramatically weaken the black people, and divide and dramatically weaken the alliance between the suffragists and the abolitionists.

This was a particularly vicious (and ultimately quite successful) tactic since most suffragists were also abolitionists. Moreover, by pitting race against gender, with women on the disadvantaged side, women’s suffragists were made to look as if they were disregarding the importance of race in order to focus solely on gender. In fact, it was those who eliminated black women from black suffrage who turned it into a gender issue.

Sadly, many white feminists took the bait, with result that the women’s suffrage movement became completely racialized, with white racist suffragists turning against black women and black suffragists left with an impossible choice: support your race or support your gender, but not both.

Following Reconstruction, the racist stereotype created by the white slaveowners of the wildly sexualized black woman was only reinforced by this division, and the division reinforced the stereotype. Since black women, according to the myth, were too debased by their primitive sexual desires, they were incapable of understanding politics, much less capable of being independent, autonomous citizens in their own right. As historian Paula Giddings wrote in her book When and Where I Enter, “Society failed to see them as a distinct political and social force.”17  Instead, black women were seen as wards—wards of white men and black men, wards of the state, property of all.

Anna Julia Cooper was one of the activists directly confronting the dehumanizing stereotypes of black women. A brilliant black feminist, scholar, and abolitionist, she devoted much of her activism to “elevating the black woman.” From education to political activism, Cooper advocated for the full participation of black women in all aspects of public life. In her opinion, it was also a matter of race survival: “the regeneration, the re-training of the race, as well as the ground work and starting point of its progress upward, must be the black woman.”18

Cooper rejected the notion that black men (or men of any race) were the primary human and women the subspecies. She also rejected the claim by Martin R. Delany (the “father of black nationalism” and one of the important, pioneering black political leaders of Reconstruction) that “when he entered the council of kings the black race entered with him.” Cooper wrote in 1892, “no man can represent the race. Whatever the attainments of the individual may be…he can never be regarded as identical with or representative of the whole.”19

Yet, the more active black women became in the public sphere, the more repulsive and degrading the propaganda and public vilification became, both in terms of her supposed racially-derived licentiousness and in comparison to white women. As Paula Giddings described:

At a time when their White peers were riding the wave of moral superiority that sanctioned their activism, Black women were seen as immoral scourges. Despite their achievements, they did not have the benefit “of a discriminating judgment concerning their worth as women.”…Assumed to have “low and animalistic urges” that cast them outside the pale of the movement for moral reform, Black women were seen as having all the inferior qualities of White women without any of their virtues. Allegations like those in the popular periodical The Independent typified the prevailing attitudes toward Black women. Like White women, one writer said, “Black women had the brains of a child, the passions of a woman,” but unlike Whites, Black women were “steeped in centuries of ignorance and savagery, and wrapped about with immoral vices.”20

Despite the onslaught of dehumanizing propaganda, and despite the failure of black men to defend or support them, black women continued organizing and in 1892, three activists— Victoria Earle Matthews, Susan McKinney Steward, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin—initiated the Black Women’s Club Movement, one of the most important social reform movements in U.S. history. As Ruffin explained, the purpose of organizing black women’s social aid and advocacy clubs across the country was not “for race work alone, but for work along the lines that make for women’s progress.”21

Nevertheless, by the dawn of the 20th century, the degrading stereotype that branded black women of all classes permeated mainstream American culture. In 1902, another commentator for The Independent wrote, “I sometimes hear of a virtuous Negro woman, but the idea is absolutely inconceivable to me.…I cannot imagine such a creature as a virtuous Negro woman.” And Gertrude Stein’s novel, Three Lives, published in 1909, included the character of Rose, who “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”22

Worse, the very assault and horrific exploitation directed at black women became the rationale for perpetuating her dehumanization: The Northern “liberal” Slater Fund, a foundation that gave money to welfare projects for blacks, stated:

The negro women of the South are subject to temptations…which come to them from the days of their race enslavement.…To meet such temptations the negro woman can only offer the resistance of a low moral standard, an inheritance from the system of slavery, made still lower from a lifelong residence in a one-room cabin.23

The invisibility of black women as legitimate representatives of the race is evident in how we understand and acknowledge the dehumanizing institution and extraordinary violence of slavery. The horrors of slavery are nearly always depicted through the violence perpetrated against black men. It is as if black women were somehow spared the worst of the violence. In fact, black women were not spared the violence borne of racial hatred; they also endured the additional violence reserved for females.

Feminist scholar Gerda Lerner, in Black Women in White America, describes numerous incidents of lynching, riots, and other racial assaults against blacks, and in nearly every case, the violence included the additional assault of rape against the women; black women weren’t just lynched and murdered alongside black men (though lynching was primarily a crime against black men), they were also gang-raped before being murdered.24

This special hatred for females is evident in some of the slave narratives. Frank Bell was the sole slave of a brutal man, Johnson Bell, a violent alcoholic who sometimes “kept me in chains.” When Frank was seventeen, he married a young woman “while Master [was] on a drunk spell.” His new bride came to live with him.

Master he run her off, and I slips off at night to see her, but he finds it out. He takes a big, long knife and cuts her head plumb off, and ties a great, heavy weight to her and makes me throw her in the river. Then he puts me in chains and every night he come give me a whippin’ for a long time.25

Mary Reynolds described what happened to her Aunt Cheney, who already had borne four children from the rapes of her owner, Dr. Kilpatrick:

Aunt Cheney was just out of bed with a sucklin’ baby one time, and she ran away. Some say that was another baby of Master’s breedin’.…Solomon gets the n—-r hounds and takes her trail. They get near her and she grabs a limb and tries to hoist herself in a tree, but them dogs grab her and pull her down. The men hollers them onto her, and the dogs tore her naked and ate the breast plumb off her body. She got well and lived to be an old woman, but another woman has to suck her baby, and she ain’t got no sign of breasts no more.”26

As for her own experience, Mary related what happened when she and another slave were hired out “to work for some ornery white trash name of Kidd.” The other slave finally ran away, and convinced that she was complicit in the escape, Kidd went after her.

Kidd…tied my wrists together and stripped me. He hanged me by the wrists from a limb on a tree and spraddled my legs round the trunk and tied my feet together. Then he beat me. He beats me worser than I ever been beat before, and I faints dead away.

When she was brought back home, her owner, Dr. Kilpatrick, “looks me over good and says I’ll get well, but I’m ruined for breedin’ chillen.”27

Ben Simpson, along with his mother and sister, were handed over to the son of their original owner who’d died. The son was a murderer and a fugitive and took them on a forced march from Norcross, Georgia, to Texas. All the slaves were chained together around their necks and the chains fastened to horses for the entire march to Texas; when it began snowing, they weren’t allowed to wrap their bare feet.

Mother, she give out on the way, about the line of Texas. Her feet got raw and bleeding and her legs swole plumb out of shape. Then Master he just take out he gun and shot her, and whilst she lay dying he kicks her two, three times and say, “Damn a n—-r what can’t stand nothing.”

As for his sister, Emma, she was the only woman: “Emma was wife of all seven Negro slaves. He sold her when she’s about fifteen, just before her baby was born. I never seen her since.”28

Under patriarchy, the shame of rape has always rested on women, and men have always been able to rape with impunity; the industry of rape during slavery was no exception.

In this country, it wasn’t until the 1990s that women began openly talking about the violence perpetrated on them, and even with that monumental change, women who break the silence are still more often than not branded as liars and sluts. Unlike any other crime of violence, it is the women’s actions, her past, and reputation that are put on trial, not the rapist’s.

Imagine what it must have been like for a black woman to speak about the violence done to her routinely and regularly.

Puritan taboos around sex in our culture contributed to the silencing of black women; one never talked about such things. Nevertheless, despite the stigma, the threats of violence, and the ongoing degradation, black women did speak up, even though too few bothered to listen.

Historian Paula Giddings wrote about the 19th century black feminist activist Fannie Barrier Williams who was one of the few to listen and to publicly condemn the pervasive violence against black women, a campaign of demonization and sexual assaults that did not end when slavery was abolished. After Emancipation, as Giddings wrote, “Sexual exploitation was so rampant that it compelled thousands of women to leave the South, or to urge their daughters to do so,”29 and Fannie Barrier Williams wrote:

It is a significant and shameful fact that I am constantly in receipt of letters from the still unprotected women in the South, begging me to find employment for their daughters…to save them from going into the homes of the South as servants as there is nothing to save them from dishonor and degradation.”30

One of the worst legacies of slavery’s rape industry was the myth of the promiscuous black woman, a lasting stereotype that continues to stigmatize and endanger black women and girls everywhere. Men of all races view black women, far more than other women, as “wanting it” and—because of the legacy of slavery and sexual objectification—as being his rightful property.

Black women make up 7% of the population of the U.S., yet account for 18.8% of reported rapes by an intimate.31 But even this high number is lower than what really happens because what really happens is that when a black woman is raped by a black man, the pressure to remain silent is extraordinarily intense—far more so than for women of nearly any other race in this country. The equally damaging myth of the “violent” black man, who is “naturally” prone to rape, keeps black women silent for the good of the race, particularly since, like women everywhere, they are the secondary, subordinate, and more expendable members of their race.

Filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s 2006 film, NO! The Rape Documentary, explores these issues and the untenable position that black women occupy in this country. As gender studies scholar Charlotte Pierce-Baker points out, being under constant siege of racism places African American women in a “‘double-bind’…in which they…have to choose between fighting against either racism or sexism.”32

Another important consideration that is uppermost on the minds of any black woman—long before the murder of Trayvon Martin—is the consequences of calling the police to report the crime or seek protection. For example, in the documentary (and the film’s study guide), the Reverend Reanae McNeal described what happened after her enraged boyfriend became violent, held her captive in her room, and raped her. She did “not consider calling the police to be an option since they were known for their frequent harassment of Black men.”33

There is finally the reality faced by too many women of color who do make the painful decision to report the assault: Their reports are dumped by the police because they’re assumed to be lying. The reality is that there is a wide-spread belief in this country that “black women can’t be raped.”34

As a result, if she reports that she was raped by a black man, it’s seen as a private matter between her and her boyfriend (who she’s probably just getting back at for cheating on her); worse, it’s seen as “a spat between some prostitute and her pimp.” If she says she was raped by a white man, she’s even less believable; unless the white man confesses to his crime, she’s assumed to be far less credible (and probably just getting back at a “john” for not paying her what she wanted). Either way, she runs the risk of being arrested for filing a false police report.

The mythology of the sexualized, promiscuous, and chattelized black woman—the racist and misogynist legacy of racism—persists to a degree that is astonishing and that must be navigated daily by black women in America.


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