Black feminism

“What Free Could Possibly Mean”: The Intimate Sphere in Enslaved Women’s Visions of Freedom

Margaret Garner, an enslaved Black women from Kentucky, inspired a number of modern Black women writers and artists for her daring act in 1856. That year Margaret ran with her husband Robert, their parents, and four children to Ohio. Though Garner had a husband, she had conceived her three children with her owner Archibald K. Gaines. Gaines sent slave catchers after family and the chase culminated in act of violence retold in stories like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Frances Harper’s novel Iola Leroy_. _

While her husband and his father shot back at the slave catchers, Garner attempted to decapitate her daughters, presuming returning to captivity was worse for her children than death. Since then this act of infanticide has served as a symbol of what Shatema Threadcraft describes as “Black freedom coded as female” in her book Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic.

Writers like Morrison, Harper, and Angela Davis note that enslaved women suffered systematic sexual assault. Yet, as Threadcraft writers, Garner’s grab for freedom remains an afterthought in most Afro-Modern political thought despite the resistance and consciousness of oppression demonstrated by enslaved Black women. Instead most thinkers tend to reference the Black political body as male, citing Frederick Douglass for an example. His claiming himself as a Black man linked his violent physical confrontation with White supremacy to heroic and political steps toward freedom. Threadcraft asks in her book, what does it look like when Black women get free?

Reproductive Control as a Form of Bondage

Black women historians have long documented the bondage of reproductive control that ensared enslaved Black women’s lives. Deborah Gray White described Black women’s enslavement as “systemic sexual violence.” Those who fled for their lives most often did so with their children in tow. Jennifer L. Morgan brought to light how slaveowners saw Black women’s bodies as fertile and even engaged in speculative investment based on Black women’s reproduction. They forced Black women to take on multiple husbands all in the pursuit of “fruitful” labor.

The manipulation of Black women’s bodies extended beyond reproduction. For example, J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology” purchased Black women slaves for the purpose of conducting obstetric surgery – without anesthesia. Thus, while Black men saw bondage as foreclosure from civic life, Black women suffered this and reproductive control. So, why Black men like Frederick Douglass found resurrection in reciprocal violence, Black women focused on obtaining reproductive control, child care, and sexual agency.

Harriet Jacobs and the Privatized Slave Narrative

Much of what we know about slaves struggle comes from first-person accounts. The majority of these slave narrative are authored by men with just 12% documenting Black women’s. Harriet Jacobs documented her life in the book Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl. Writing from the perspective of a Black woman, Jacobs wrote what Threadcraft describes as a ‘privatized slave narrative’ by stylizing it after the sentimental fiction popular among women at the time.

In her book Jacobs expounds on the sexual harassment, assault, and complex experience with maternity she faced as a slave. Jacobs saw sexual liberation as part of her freedom and aspired to ensure her children did not suffer under slavery. According to Threadcraft, Jacobs first attempted to marry a free Black man, but her owner refused the marriage, later conceding to her relationship with another White man.

Slavery took away Black women’s power to make meaning of themselves and their family’s lives. Yet women like Jacobs still pursued freedom. However, without taking into account the unique circumstances faced by Black women, we misunderstand what freedom really means:

Freedom for Black women from such severe violations of negative liberty as rape will require positive liberty style support to deconstruct and then reconstruct the meaning of Black womanhood [including transforming Black urban (and rural) space].[^1]

Even today Black women face gender-based constraints disproportionately including police violence, intimate partner violence, and exposure to dangerous environments due to the racialization of space. Additionally, Black women deal with what Dorothy Roberts calls the apartheid system of child welfare. Thus, Black women’s freedom is compromised at the state and societal level through White patriarchally constructed cultural norms.

1 Comment

  • Is this why we prefer Black men as partners and mates today? Most Black women would rather be single than to date wm. That’s the real legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.