Domestic Life as a Woman in a Slave Family
I am a black female slave living in Virginia in the late 17th Century. I was born into slavery on a plantation and all I have ever known is slavery. My slavery was passed on to me by my mother, who was raped by the old plantation owner here in 1660 (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, p. 55). I was married to another slave at 15. We had a marriage ceremony but it was not recognized as legal and our vows accurately were “Till death or distance do us part” rather than “Till death do us part,” owing to the propensity of slaveholders to separate black families without regard for our family bonds (Burns, 1990). Before and after our marriage, I work in the fields, manuring and tilling tobacco, alongside my husband (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, p. 54). We were also able to have one child, despite the rough conditions under which we lived (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, p. 58) and despite the deep alienation I felt as a black slave woman (Menard, 2001, p. 41). There is no escape from the slave life I have and the constant use of us like animals; consequently, the fact that I chose to bring a child into this world at all is something of a miracle.
Both my husband and daughter were sold again and I have never seen them since. My husband was sold first. He was “sold south” — a long-distance trade sending him far from us and into a deeper southern state. May slaves were “sold south” because slaves in the deeper southern states vitally needed slaves. As the abolitionist Alvin Stewart stated that in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, “there is such havoc annually by death among the slaves of the great planters … that in less than seven years, if no slave could be imported into those southern regions, one half of the plantations would lie uncultivated for want of slaves” (Tadman, 2005, p. 121). Our family was torn apart and the private sale was just as awful as it would have been at public auction (Tadman, 2005, p. 130). Before my husband was sold, we hoped that any sale would be local and we dreaded a long-distance separation that would be caused by being sold south. We knew other families that were broken up by this and because of that, we all deeply distrusted slave owners in general (Tadman, 2005, p. 131). My daughter was sold after my husband. She was sold in Richmond, Virginia in a private sale between plantation owners, which was more common than public auctions (Tadman, 2005, p. 128). My daughter was also sold without any family because she was of age to have children, which was very common for young black females. (Tadman, 2005, p. 130). Without any concern at all for the fact that we are human beings or for the bonds we have to each other, the plantation owners bought and sold us like we were animals.
The loss of my husband and daughter were not unusual at that time and place. Virginia was one of the “exporting” states that sent slaves to other states. In exporting states, one in five marriages was destroyed and one in three children younger than fourteen years was separated from at least one parent (Tadman, 2005, p. 131). Still, the plantation owners who owned and sold us had to see themselves as benevolent, even as they raped us, separated us and destroyed our families. Consequently, many of slave owners had “key slaves,” certain slaves who received special privileges so the slave owners could deem themselves caring heads of black & white families. With the slave owners’ guilt assuaged, the rest of us could be treated cruelly or indifferently and sold off as people with “little sense of family” (Tadman, 2005, p. 132). The myth of the kindly slave owner has persisted because of their treatment of “key slaves” and because we have no effective voice as slaves.
2. Swap With Woman In English/European Family
I suddenly became an older, white woman who immigrated to the Chesapeake area in the earlier seventeen century when I was twenty years old. I was like most white women who immigrated to Virginia in the seventeenth century in that I came here as an indentured servant (Menard, 2001, p. 46). There was very little opportunity for me in England, so I came to the United States, bound for a four-year term to a tobacco planter near Richmond. I was told that I would not have to work in the fields but did, in fact, had to work very hard in the fields every day, cultivating tobacco (Menard, 2001, p. 46). The planter and I cohabited during my entire four-year contract. In the United States, there were political and religious leaders who insisted on formal marriages but their authority was limited in the backcountry where we lived. Immediately at the end of my contract, we married.
Marriage was very confining for me. The Chesapeake colonies followed coverture, in which my identity was absorbed into my husband’s. I took his name and had no separate legal identity, could not sue or be sued, could not hold public office or vote. My husband had legal control over my property, my children and my body (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, p. 50). My husband was only forty years old when he died. Mortality rates are very high in the Chesapeake region throughout the seventeen century due to harsh conditions and diseases such as malaria and dysentery: men live to an average of forty-eight years and women to an average of thirty-nine. Fortunately, a woman who survives childbearing years tends to live much longer than men (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, p. 48). I had one child, a son, during my marriage, and having survived childbearing years, I am now 51 years old.
When my husband died, I received my dower right — a third of his estate, and my son received two-third of his estate. Now I am feme sole and have at least some rights, making contracts, suing for debts and freely conducting my own business (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, p. 50). After his death, I started cohabiting with another farmer (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, p. 49). Consequently, I have two children, one of which was fathered by my husband and the other fathered by my current companion. I refuse to give up my feme sole rights and never intend to marry again. I am aware that many women who came here by indentured servitude, married, outlived their husbands and inherited by dower right cohabit and marry quickly, creating odd combinations of extended families (Menard, 2001, p. 48); however, I have no intention of losing the few individual rights I have gained and will never remarry. Meeting the black woman slave is a coincidence because I am in the market for my own slave. There is such a demand for indentured labor that the costs are driven up too high for me to comfortably pay. Consequently, much like other growers in the Chesapeake region, I am tapping into the new source of labor: the unfree labor of African slaves (Menard, 2001, p. xxv). Black slaves are a lucrative commodity and I am pursuing the economic benefits of owing some slaves.
3. Learning Taken Back To My Own Family
Reviewing the black female slave and the English indentured servant, it is clear to me that we all work very hard. They worked in literal fields of tobacco; I do not happen to work in a literal field but I certainly work in the difficult field of nursing and am pursuing my BSN, paying for it out-of-pocket while working and supporting my mother. Clearly, all three of us are on the “same page” when it comes to hard work in our fields. Beyond that, I have far less in common with the black female slave. We both have African roots in that her people were brought to America from Africa and I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but that is an accident of birth. I actually look at this black female servant across a wide chasm: I have a “ticket out” of my current life by earning my BSN but she has no way out. Even her closest relationships between her husband and child were trampled by the slave owners who treated them like cattle. Her experience makes me deeply resentful of and resistant to the culture in which she was forced to live. My freedom, my close relationship with my mother, my close relationship with my fiance and his dreams of education and advancement here in the United States, my close relationship with my faith, all make me detest the way she was forced to live for her entire life because other people could make money off her. What would I tell my family about my experience with the other culture? I would say that it was an evil, deadening culture that did not know the true value of a human being and I would say that I am profoundly grateful to be living here and now.
I have more in common with the white English woman. In some ways, she had a minor “ticket out” because she was able to come to America by choice, marry, have children that could not be taken from her, inherit and have some rights pertaining to feme sole. In that culture, it is little wonder that she has no intention of remarrying when coverture subjugates her to her husband. It also makes perfect economic sense in the context of her seventeenth century agricultural region that she would want her own slave. That does not mean I approve of it; I merely understand it. Ultimately, though, even with her modified “ticket out,” the English woman is more constrained than I would ever care to be and that I would ever have to be in modern America. My attitude and behavior toward that culture are somewhat milder than my attitude and behavior toward the black female slave’s predicament. However, I still have disdain for the white English woman’s oppressive culture toward woman and am thrilled and relieved to be living in a modern northern state in America.
Burns, K. (Director). (1990). The Civil War: The Cause [Motion Picture].
DuBois, E. C., & Dumenil, L. (2016). Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents, 4th Ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Menard, R. R. (2001). Migrants, Servants and Slaves: Unfree Labor in Colonial British America. Farnham: Ashgate.
Tadman, M. (2005). The Interregional Slave Trade in the History and Myth-Making of the U.S. South. In W. Johnson, Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas (pp. 117-142). New Haven: Yale University Press.