As I anxiously await the birth of my first grandchild, I got to thinking about the women in my bloodline… about the strength of these women who remain anonymous and unsung.
For more than 400 years, women of color were made to bear children, through love and through coercion, as property – as chattel. The tiny precious offspring of slaves were conceived to be chattel, brought up to be property, trained as working slaves – the progeny of so many magnificent cultures of pride and honor, reduced to a race of bred minions.
Slave women were “mated” much like the process of animal husbandry in working farms. Slaves were bred to create a stronger, bigger race of humans that could work that much harder and that much longer. On many slave-driven properties, the strongest men were isolated with strong women to bear strong offspring.
African women with extraordinary intelligence were isolated and made to breed with African males of intelligence to bear children with intelligence to fulfill the “in-home” needs of the working plantation: cooking, serving, cleaning, and working as secret mistresses and the like. Slave women whose features were pleasing to the Master, just as the slave men whose features pleased the mistresses, were reserved for the provision of pleasure, often resulting in the absurd predicament of the ruling class having “slaves in the family”…
Sex was for profit, pleasure, as well as procreation. Love? Perhaps, sometimes… Often, love was just a distraction to be ignored. After all, love would cost too much.
Slaveholders were expected to appropriate and exploit the reproductive lives of enslaved women. Control of one’s body was not a fundamental right of a slave. Emboldened by law and sanctioned by their customs, slave owners were entitled to do with human chattels as they wished, slave owners felt entitled to intervene in even the most intimate of matters. For example, women’s childbearing capacity became a commodity that could be traded on the open market. During the antebellum era the expectation increased among members of the owning class that enslaved women would contribute to the economic success of the plantation not only through productive labor but also through procreation.
As of 1808, when Congress ended the nation’s participation in the international slave trade, the only practical way to increase the number of slave laborers was through new births. The fact is that if enslaved mothers did not bear sufficient numbers of children to take the place of aged and dying workers, the South would not be able to continue as a slave society.
Women entering their childbearing years who had already proven their fertility through the birth of a living baby, sold easily and for a high price. The testimony of a former slave named Boston Blackwell, who witnessed the sale of two women in Memphis, Tennessee, reported that, “a girl of fifteen who had no children sold for $800, but a breeding woman sold for $1,500.”
The children of slaves, yet unborn, were so important to the continuation of slavery that members of the South’s ruling class willed their heirs the unborn children of slaves as well as living slaves…
A woman’s uterus was partitioned, as fertile property.
When it came time to purchasing slaves, slave owners calculated their buying to ensure that a plantation owner had a sufficient number of women “of breeding age” and that each woman had a suitable sexual partner at hand. After purchasing “Fanny” from Virginia and “Jim” from Louisiana, a master routinely arranged for them to live together. Slave men were often purchased as a “stud” for an enslaved woman, like cattle and other livestock.
Rewards for motherhood followed the birth of children. These included: “extra clothing”; exemption from harsh treatment; even freedom. One example, Lula Cottonham Walker of Alabama who worked very hard as a slave, gave birth to eight children, and was never beaten. Similarly, if a master had a prized pig that gave birth to a litter of piglets each year, he would not take a stick and beat it. It was the same with prized breeding slaves. The piglets, like the slaves, were sold on the open market or were put immediately to work when strong enough. No bonding permitted, just like the piglet.
Lest we forget the recurring rapes that occurred under cover of night when our women were taken by force and impregnated by accident – bearing children who bore uncanny resemblance to the Master; a slave child, nevertheless. The progeny of these illicit unions are self-evident when you consider the vast range of skin color among the African-American race.
It follows, then, that as women were forced to bear children for any number of reasons, their babies were not always loved or cherished. The by-product of a work related consequence, a ramification of their employment, a reminder of many things to many people – the Mistress was reminded of her husband’s concubines, the spouse of the slave-mother, if she has one, is reminded of his woman’s being taken sexually by another man, and so on down the line. These bastard children of slavery wore the skin of the tragic mulatto, and carried the heart of generations of sexual and societal dysfunction.
And when we wonder why our young mothers, and often not so young mothers are not “taking care of” their children, perhaps the answer lies in our history of arrested motherhood. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that as slaves, mothers bore children in the morning and went back to the field to work by the afternoon. Slave mothers were not given the luxury of bonding with their precious newborns by nursing them at their breasts, unable to naturally empty their lactating breasts of the nutrients that filled them, purposed for their babies.
In most of the larger working plantations there was a lactating woman whose sole job was to nurse the newborns, for years and years she would nurse the babies of others. New mothers were not able to tend to their children, or even raise their children — this was also the job of the women too old to be productive in the fields. Sadly, before the age of four, most children were sold by their owners to other plantations; often never reunited with their birth parents, often never even knowing their given name or identity.
Consider the pain of a mother who has absolutely no knowledge of whether her child is alive or dead, free or enslaved, happy or sad, sick or well. This reality often led mothers to choose not to bond emotionally with their offspring. Emotion equaled pain.
Denied the honor of mothering their children, and denied the honor of being mothered by their mothers, the concept of motherly love became ambiguous, painful, and a heart-wrenching proposition. The concept of parenthood became as foreign to the slave as the shores upon which they landed. In both instances, forced; in both instances, deeply traumatic.
Parenting, therefore, was a function of the entire village. This might be why the village and neighborhood mentality is so strong within the black community. It might also account for the prevalence of gangs in African American blighted areas. Our history disallowed motherhood, as well as fatherhood. In truth, our history disallowed the concept of family as linked by blood. If you trace this dynamic into the 20th century and the welfare state, the fact that government assistance was disallowed for two parent families contributed to the breakdown of the black family. Two parent families were punished as ineligible to receive aid.
We are a vast Diaspora of human beings programmed by habit and culture. We re-circulate our stories from generation to generation. So when we wonder why our precious African American girls are having sex as young as 11 and 12 and bearing children while still children themselves, perhaps we should consider whether this conduct is a remnant of our unfortunate history since America landed upon our people. A remnant of the dirty little secret that seeps out bit by bit until it cannot be hidden or intellectualized as the “hypersexual behavior of black folks” any longer.
For those mothers and grandmothers, let this be the year when our children become the most important people in our lives. Let us begin to reverse the trend towards remote parenting and let us become intensely engaged in their every single day. I will take the first step today in my home with my children; I hope you join me.
I recognize with the gift of every new morning, that each day God gives me is a gift and that I stand on the shoulders of phenomenal men and women who over the past generations each contributed a piece of themselves to the woman I am today. I recognize that their struggles and their triumphs have seasoned my soul; and as a parent, and now soon a grandparent, they will also season the souls of my babies, and their babies, and theirs.
As a tribute to my foremothers’ turbulent and powerful life journeys, it is only right and honorable that I recognize their unsung legacies. The spirits of these women bring me to my knees in reverential respect, knowing that they endured their passages not only to ensure that I could eventually be born to my mother, but to ensure that I could now experience the overwhelming joy and triumph that abides with me today as I anticipate the birth of the first member of yet another generation of Us.