News

January 3, 2008

The Progression of African American Women Through History

Ashley Gray ’09 provides her perspective on the course “The Black Experience”

Ashley Gray ’09 (Bethlehem, Pa.) is double-majoring in international affairs and Spanish. During the fall semester, she took The Black Experience, taught by John McCartney, professor of government and law and head of Africana studies. The following is a first-hand account of Gray’s experiences with the course.

“Shadowed by masculinity” is a phrase that connotes the manner in which society places black women in the historical context of slavery. Through my study of Angela Davis, my knowledge base of black women has expanded. In her essay entitled “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” Davis is able to argue that black female slaves should be classified not as matriarchs, but rather as warriors of sexual oppression. This forces the reader to ponder the hypothesis that modern sexual misogyny towards black women began during slavery as their bodies were raped and pillaged by landowners.

Although Davis’ analysis of black female slaves stretches beyond sexual oppression, it is this element that has forced me to question the black woman’s role in slavery. The course entitled “The Black Experience” challenges students to assess the role of black women in slavery that is so often masked.

In an effort to concentrate the historical portion of the coursework, Professor McCartney assigned the class readings from a work entitled A Turbulent Voyage. It was in this source that Davis’ essay can be found. She writes, “As it will be seen, black women often poisoned the food and set fire to the houses of their masters. For those who were also employed as domestics, these particular overt forms of resistance were especially available.”

As the reading progressed, I realized that this was a minimal exhortation of Davis’ argument. In an effort to draw attention to the sexual war that ensued during slavery, Davis states that, “Given the already terroristic texture of plantation life, it would be as potential victim of rape that the slave woman would be most unguarded. Further, she might be most conveniently manipulable if the master contrived a ransom system of sorts, forcing her to pay with her body for food, diminished severity in treatment, the safety of her children, etc.”

This payment system not only degraded women, but debased the black man as well. Davis points out that in many cases, masters raped black female slaves with the dual purpose of not only physically harming them, but emotionally paralyzing black male slaves who were seemingly unable to come to the aid of their wives and daughters.

It was after this portion of the text that I realized how misogyny was manifested in the treatment of black female slaves. Most importantly, I came to realize the scope of the black woman’s role in slavery. No longer did my elementary school adaptation of slavery solely characterize black female slaves as caretakers of their master’s households. Now, I was able to view black female slaves as conquerors of their situation and warriors of sexual oppression. With this, I confidently stand on the knowledge that many depictions of black women during slavery are factually inaccurate.

Although the coursework of The Black Experience included a wide-ranging literature base that successfully contextualizes other points in history, it is Davis’ essay that I have most identified with. As a black woman, I am continually forced to combat many of the media’s negative depictions of black women in music videos and other types of broadcast television. However, this is more easily accomplished if one has a detailed knowledge of where this fallacy originated. The Black Experience has allowed me to more clearly understand the role of black women during slavery and how this affects me in the 21st century.

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