Ar'n't I A Woman? Ar'n't I a Woman? Written by, Deborah Gray White shows the trials and hardships that African American Women faced during the years of the infamous plantations up to the civil war. In this book White describes how the images of "Jezebel" and the "Mammy" and how they were the most vulnerable group with the least amount of formal power in Antebellum America. She compares the life of men and women in the slave society, and how truly different they were. The roles of women are shown through the slaves' life cycle, family life, slave society networks, and the civil war.
Each of these various aspects of life are discussed very vividly in the book, and serve purpose in showing how African American women were treated so unjustly not only because of their skin color but the fact that they were women, therefore they were the most discriminated against in Antebellum America. Though they were discriminated against their nature proved them to not be submissive and subordinate in all aspects. The terms "Jezebel" and "Mammy" refer to African American women in this time period. There is a stark difference between the two and they were treated very differently. This is apparent in that the "Jezebel" refers to "the sexual exploitation of black women, and the mulatto population" (61). Meaning that these were the women that were taken advantage of, and also considered a slut at heart.
These women would be anyone essentially below the Mammy; they were field hands, and house servants as well as anything in between. This is not to say that both types of women were taken advantage of, they were, but in different ways. The "Mammy" is more of a deeply religious type, who was entrusted with the plantation owners' children, and they were basically the highest maids who knew all and could do anything better than anyone else. There were others below her who answered to her in all matters (47). They would confide in her and listen to her, she was basically part of the family, so much that even the master and mistresses got attached to her along with the children. The life cycle of a slave woman was wrought with many changes and problems along the way.
As children growing up they were rarely in contact with the adult slaves, but rather with the elder slaves who looked after them. As children to the age of sixteen they did various chores and jobs along with the boys. They would often do the same type of chores and games they would do later on in life when they were no longer considered children. They would complete tasks such as looking after the babies, getting the mail, giving water to thirsty field hands, and tending to the livestock (92). Some would also hunt rabbits, coons, and turtles with each other. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen however, they would start being more segregated by the girls getting skirts and dresses while the boys would receive pants.
During their teen years they would get into more of what they would be assigned to as adults as far as jobs go. They would be put into groups called "trash gangs", these groups were predominantly female dominated groups and this is when the girls would be put into a more female world learning about marriage and sex. They started to become interested in boys as they would start to catch the eyes of various boys and in turn their mothers would then become worrisome as to all the downfalls that came with attracting boys / men , such as rape. In the end all the mother could do is hope their child makes the right decisions and do not get taken advantage of. When the women did find mates and get married, they were expected to have children, "some masters figured that at least five to six percent of their profit would accrue from natural increase" (98). Women were encouraged to have children, and they were often times rewarded if they did and had the children.
Due to the fact that a plantation owner expected to gain profits from the women with the children they had, infertile women were not wanted at all. There would be women who were falsely advertised as fertile and when the masters found out they would be turned away. These women had an atrocious time being traded from plantation to plantation. The fact that women were having children and were married was not enough, if there was to be a separation for some reason the women was expected to find another mate and continue to have more children.
When women were pregnant they depended more on the females than the males, they were the ones who helped them through the pregnancy, and delivered the babies. As women grew older they were more of sewing, weaving, and spinning, but they would also look after the children of whose parents were out in the fields working. They were also sometimes in the position of folk doctors and nursery supervisors, however, "At no stage in her life cycle was the plantation slave woman immune to the brutality of the system" (118). The slaves' family life was a very important thing in their life, but often times to relieve the heartache of one spouse or the other from being beaten and having to protect one another, often times the male would refuse to marry. When they would marry, the males would frequently live on separate farms or plantations and were owned by different individuals. This meant that the slave father could only visit his family when permitted to by the master.
Some slave fathers tried to visit their families without permission and, if they were caught, they faced often-brutal punishment. Sometimes the parents were sold, if any relative lived on that plantation such as grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins that family member would take on the role of parent. If no blood relatives were present then strangers cared for and protected children. Slave children were taught to call all adult slaves "aunt" and "uncle" and to refer to all younger slaves as "brother" and "sister." This means young slaves were taught a sense of community, that all slaves whether related or not, had an obligation to be responsible for others. The mother remained the most stable and dependable element during the entire period of slavery, she often times had wonderful relationships with her children and was always there for them. Some families were fortunate enough to stay together, but these also had problems that went along with them, such as verbal and physical abuse wrought by the husband.
Women were also not safe from rape when they were married both by black and white men; they were easily taken advantage of. Unfortunately women could not depend on their husbands for anything; they did not share any of their belongings, so they were able to find ways to provide for themselves. Family life had its good and bad times, the woman was able to try and make the best of it. The slave society networks were extremely important for support among the slaves, "slave women have often been characterized as self-reliant and self-sufficient because, lacking black male protection, they had to develop their own means of resistance and survival" (119). Since the females were often placed in groups with other females most of the day they were burdened with the same kind of responsibility and problems as one another, which made their bonds stronger and it was sort of like their own female culture. They also spent a lot of their free time together gathered around a fire telling stories and gossiping.
Because of their strong bond they could depend on each other in certain instances such as, childbirth where the midwife or "doctor woman" would deliver the baby, and they would also help with certain sicknesses. Some men doctors did help, but it was mainly the women who took care of the women. With this slave network came resistance, "slave owners suspected that midwives conspired with their female patients to induce abortions" (125), there were many accounts of this happening and with that came severe punishment, since the plantations owner were looking for a profit, and they were taking it away. When the mothers did however have the children there was always someone there to help her out, and if something happened to the mother there would be someone there to take the child as their own.
Another part of the network was that of witch craft, many were believed to be witches and were thought to have conjured up spells and place them on people, this form of resistance proved to be successful because it offered a safety net for women who did not want to be treated unjustly. What also helped was the pecking order of women, they had certain women who were above one another and this helped with the conflicts that might occur between the women, they had someone who was able to make things right between the women. During the age of the civil war women began to learn the lessons that they indeed were women and deserved respect in turn however the civil war years still brought with it discrimination of African American women, "They were targets of brutality, the butt of jokes and ridicule, and their womanhood was denied over and over. It was a struggle just to stay free, and an even greater struggle to define womanhood" (162). As the men fought the war the women who were now dependent upon themselves more than ever had to take on the role of the father. The Mammy figure now stood up for herself and would often times leave the white family, the family they left would often have feelings of remorse for their tremendous loss.
Women were standing up for themselves and where now the maker of their own destiny, but with that still came the harsh reality that they would be still the most vulnerable group in antebellum America. Many single African American women were faced with poverty and had a really hard time dealing with the war and depending on themselves. Deborah Gray White's view of slave women shows us that their role was truly unique, they faced the harsh reality that they were not only women or African American, they were both, so therefore their experience was one of a kind and they lived through it, triumphed, and finally won their freedom.