The Illegitimacy of Devaluation
While citizenship matters because it is a category of belonging through which we make claims upon each other and the state, it can also be problematic if the state believes that the claimants are illegitimate. This lack of legitimacy has been (and continues to be) a core problem for people of color in the United States.
The issue of legitimacy also goes to the core of how patriarchal social paradigms structure their hierarchies and how their economic systems (like capitalism) function, reinforce, and perpetuate the hierarchies.
The period of Reconstruction was a moment in our nation’s that was a turning point: The old patriarchal hierarchies of Southern mercantilism lost out to the newly-emerging Northern capitalism. Lost in that battle was the legitimate concerns and rights of the women and men who had built the wealth of this nation and paid for every square inch of productive land with their freedom and their lives. What they wanted—and what they deserved by all that is moral and just —was the land they had farmed and made productive for two hundred years. What they deserved, by all that was decent and humane, was the freedom to labor under their own governance and independence.
But in the eyes of a patriarchal, exploitative system, possession is everything, and these were people who had been dispossessed of their humanity from the moment they were forced onto the shores of this continent. In the eyes of a white capitalist nation, neither their claims nor they as a people were legitimate. In his book, Reconstruction, historian Eric Foner writes:
Most white Republicans…while perfectly willing to guarantee the freedmen [sic] their rights as free laborers and equal citizens, opposed using the power of the state to redistribute property. Reconstruction, declared one Southern Republican newspaper, meant “protection and fair play,” not “free gifts of land or money.”36
And yet, free gifts of land and money were routinely given to white planters and Northern capitalists. It was the free gifts of land and money to railroad companies and factories and other capitalist enterprises that allowed a corrupt, unjust system of exploitation to flourish. Fair play and equal treatment were irrelevant—and non-existent.
It was a matter of legitimacy, and it is still a matter of legitimacy, as to who rightfully deserves “entitlements.” Citizens of lesser value—most especially, women and people of color— are not entitled to welfare and other aid from the state. In fact, the more legitimate a class is, the more a government (and society) structures itself to support it financially, legally, constitutionally, and morally.
As a result, monetary entitlements and other forms of public assistance (like lowered or eliminated taxes, preferential treatment, lucrative contracts, and deregulation) that are given to the corporate elite and wealthy 1% are seen as the normal functioning of government, while assistance to all other groups is viewed in increasingly negative and vilifying ways in direct proportion to that group’s perceived illegitimacy.
Unemployment compensation and social security—while stigmatized as “entitlements”—are accepted, for the most part, as a responsibility of governments, while food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children—programs that are incorrectly perceived as benefiting primarily black women—are considered the most intolerable and wasteful of all government programs.
Perhaps more than anything else, this tells us which social group in America is the most despised, the most oppressed, and the most dispossessed of their humanity and civil rights.
The illegitimacy in the public and social sphere of black women has not changed so very much from 1619 when twenty African slaves were taken off a Dutch ship in Jamestown harbor and sold to the English colony. There would’ve been twenty-four, but there’d been an attempted revolt on board the ship by four men and one woman, so the captain whipped and scarred two of the men. The other three men “he sentenced to cruel Deaths; making them first eat the Heart and Liver of one of them killed. The Woman he hoisted up by the Thumbs, whipped, and slashed her with knives, before the other slaves till she died.”37
And so began an institution of brutality and inhumanity that has defined our nation ever since. Worse, the additional level of barbarism and violence directed at black women because of the additional oppression of misogyny continues to keep black women invisible, marginalized, and illegitimate.
As a nation, failing to acknowledge the enormity of the industrialized, systematic institution of rape has meant we have failed to understand our own history. Without this system of brutal exploitation, the institution of slavery could not have remained economically viable.
Women, contrary to society’s notion of them as passive, helpless creatures, resisted enslavement and fought back in every way they could. Historian Paula Giddings, in her book When and Where I Enter, describes the various ways that black women resisted being turned into breeding animals, from the use of contraceptives like camphor and abortifacients to more extreme measures like infanticide, attempted escape, and suicide. She cites an article from a Nashville medical journal that described the case “of a planter who kept between four and six slave women ‘of the proper age to breed.’”
[B]ut 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.
At least one slave narrative indicates that the women understood the larger significance of their act. “If all bond women had been of the same mind,” wrote the slave Jane Blake, “how soon the institution could have vanished from the earth.”38
If the enormity of the systematic rape of black women were brought from the margins, if, as historian Deborah Gray White writes in her book Ar’n’t I A Woman?, it were “pursued with the rigor that the subject demands, the violence done to black women might well de-center lynching as the primary site and preeminent expression” of racial hate and violence against blacks in America.39 Centralizing the institution of rape has enormous implications for reconceptualizing our nation’s history—not just the telling of it, but the creation of it, too. We would have to legitimize black women and, in doing so, reframe history and the way history is framed; we would have to step out into a far wider, far deeper, and far more complex understanding than we currently have of how history is written and how it is erased.
Centralizing the place of black women in America is what decolonizing history is all about: It is a process of stripping away the history imposed by the conqueror, the slaveowner, the patriarchal rapist to see behind the curtain of someone else’s history. Next, it is discovering what was deliberately erased, hidden or distorted. Finally, it is the epiphany of reclaiming, legitimizing, and centralizing the history that was taken from us.
Decolonizing and centralizing the history and place of black women in America brings us to the realization that their very illegitimacy is what fuels the prejudices and the social policies of our culture. Our obsession with cutting off the “welfare queens”—i.e., the black women who have so little legitimacy in our society—has determined the fate of elections, has controlled national policy and budget priorities, and has created an economic disaster.
Rather than telling the corporations and wealthy 1% to “tighten their belts” and “pull themselves up by their own damned bootstraps,” we give them billions in entitlements every year. Rather than centralizing the issue of child hunger in America and the extraordinarily high rates of infant mortality in America’s black communities, we continue to perpetuate the rape culture of slavery, a culture that has created a monstrous multi-billion-dollar industry to “entertain” us with violent and pornified images and expectations of black women and girls.
Had we been paying better attention to the margins and the history of those made illegitimate, how soon the institutions of patriarchy and capitalism could have vanished from the earth.
Just as the history of slavery is the history of black women, the history of the world is the history of women. Centralizing women is antithetical to capitalism and patriarchy, but essential to the survival of humanity. Anna Julia Cooper understood the central role of black women, without whom the race collapses. What she wrote in 1892 holds true also for the role black women play for all of humanity:
Only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”40
The Black Women’s Club Movement
The Myth of Black Women’s “Withdrawal” From Labor After Slavery
19th Century African American Feminist Women