Recovering Southern Women: A Report from the OAH

Recovering Southern Women: A Report from the OAH

In recent weeks, activists have spotlighted the disappearance of numerous young women of color from the District of Columbia and its environs—a reality, they allege, that was long underreported by public functionaries and local media.[1] Intentionally or neglectfully, these women’s voices and those of their communities were long silenced. As a roundtable of leading scholars convened at the Organization of American Historians 2017 Annual Meeting noted, such silencing is not a recent phenomenon. The session, entitled “Pioneers and New Scholarship on Women in the Pre-Civil War South,” argued that until relatively recently, historical condescension, lack of interest, and unquestioned assumptions regarding archival limitations collectively suppressed the historical voices, stories, and lived experiences of African-American women. Only in the last few decades have scholars deployed new and rigorous research methodologies to find their voices amidst this silence and begun to recover them; in doing so, they have reiterated with every discovery that black women’s lives did and do matter, that their names must be said, and that their voices must be heard.

The starting point for this roundtable—comprised of Drs. Deborah Gray White, Catherine Clinton, Jennifer Morgan, Daina Ramey Berry, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers, and chaired by Dr. Brenda Stevenson—was Deborah Gray White’s groundbreaking Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Norton, 1985). White (currently the Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University) informed the audience that when she began the project, she was told it could not be done because the requisite sources for a history of enslaved women simply did not exist: a refrain that became all too familiar as the session proceeded. To the degree that black women appeared in prior histories of slavery, White argued, they were bit players in a historical drama that emphasized black masculinity amidst the historical, social, and political debates swirling during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they were often reduced to sexual points of contention between white and black men. Lacking language for what we would now term intersectionality, early scholars of enslaved women laid the groundwork for those who would come after by opening new archives and indicating voids yet to be filled. Catherine Clinton, Denman Endowed Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of (among many others) The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (Pantheon. 1982) and Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little, Brown & Co., 2004), largely affirmed White’s retrospective. Scholarship on black women produced during the late 1970s primarily emphasized their sexuality, whether as a factor in the construction of black masculinity or as a means of understanding the white plantation household—and further explorations were widely discouraged.

The roundtable’s other scholars reflected on the ways in which they had taken up White’s call for closer scrutiny of claims that the archive was truly devoid of black women. Jennifer Morgan, a Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery (Pennsylvania, 2004), recalled also having been met with skepticism regarding the possibility that her dissertation could even be written; nevertheless, she found rich new sources that placed women—and particularly the reproductive labor of enslaved women—at the center of the colonial experience in the New World. Morgan affirmed that historical inquiries can and should be rooted in the archives, but called for historians to be critical of the power dynamics and historical oppressions on which archives are constructed (a call reminiscent of those by Kathryn Burns, Yael Sternhell, and Marisa Fuentes to look at the archive as well as in it, and to give particular emphasis to those places where there are pronounced silences).[2]

Daina Ramey Berry (Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin) reflected on how the need to read archival sources afresh (and skeptically) proved fruitful in her work. She emphasized that in Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Illinois, 2007), she chose to go where enslaved women were in the archives rather than where others expected her to go, and in doing so found women’s own assessments and valuations of their work as well as the values masters placed on their unique laboring capacities—particularly in reproduction. More recently, her The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017), studiously juxtaposed enslaved voices and their self-determined soul values with the commodification forced on them by their masters.

Finally Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California-Berkeley, whose forthcoming book, Mistresses of the Market: White Women and the Economy of American Slavery (under contract with Yale) examines the role of women in the business of slavery, recounted her own experiences pursuing female voices overlooked and disregarded in the archive. Historians long assumed that while women participated in the slave system, their involvement was largely limited to household management and domestic economy. Jones-Rogers’s research recovered the myriad ways in which they engaged in all aspects of antebellum slave commerce, and in doing so she advanced the inclusion of women in the story of the slavery’s expansion during the antebellum period.

The assembled scholars celebrated strides made over the last thirty years in recovering voices long assumed to be lost, applauding the ways in which careful observation and reading sources against the grain have populated scholarship on the antebellum South with unprecedented numbers of women—and particularly black women. They also provided instructive cautionary tales. Popular depictions of the enslaved, Clinton and White argued, have not kept pace with scholarship; while White compared Lupita Nyong’o’s exemplary portrayal of Patsey in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave to 2016’s Birth of a Nation’s retrograde use of black women’s sexuality as a foil for black masculinity, Clinton cited a request that she consult on a reality show recalling the plantation South. Berry’s experience on the 2016 remake of Roots suggested that many shows wish to incorporate cutting-edge scholarship, a positive step that must be set alongside arguments Clinton recalled, witnessing against Harriet Tubman’s inclusion on the twenty dollar bill. Popular mythmaking, the panelists concurred, can inaccurately shape scholars’ expectations about what they might find in the archive (many cited the elusive “Mammy” figure—long assumed to be a prominent part of the enslaved experience, but absent from the sources). Rather, historians must enter the archive and write what they find there: acknowledging historically created silences and lacunae, recovering and deploying the voices of the enslaved, expanding access to the archives for all, and encouraging deeper exploration of them by the next generation of scholars—all of which will allow new voices to resound out of present silences.

[1] Laura Jarrett, Samantha Reyes, and David Shortell, “Missing Black Girls in DC Spark Outrage, Prompt Calls for Federal Help,” CNN, (accessed April 14, 2017); Shaun King, “It’s No Accident That We Hear So Little About Missing Black Girls In This Country,” New York Daily News, (accessed April 14, 2017).

[2] Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Yael Sternhell, “The Afterlives of a Confederate Archive: Civil War Documents and the Making of Sectional Reconciliation” Journal of American History 102, no. 4 (March 2016): 1025-1050; Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Robert Colby

Robert Colby is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His dissertation, "The Continuance of an Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South," examines the ways in which the domestic slave trade shaped the course of the Civil War and the experience of emancipation. You can follow him on Twitter, @rkdcolby86.

One Reply to “Recovering Southern Women: A Report from the OAH”

  1. Reading this article leaves me simply ill. We have to do better. Military history needs a much larger tent, for sure.

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