Often times, when we talk about history, it is told through a Eurocentric view. As a result, the amount of curriculum that focuses on African Americans has been limited. In history, we focus on the roles that men, specifically white men have played in establishing this nation. Even when we talk about Black history specifically, we center on Black men and the roles that they have taken to liberate Black individuals during the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights and the Post Civil Rights movements. It is imperative that history acknowledges the roles that black women have played in history. It is important that we understand violence was not limited to Black men; Black women have experienced violence in the forms of physical violence, labor and sexual exploitation. For this Blog Assignment, I created a collage of paintings and images that represent the violence and exploitation that Black women faced during slavery.
The cultural artifact that I am using for this Blog Assignment is a collage of paintings and images that display the exploitation of Black slave women. I decided to combine these various artifacts into a collage because there wasn’t a single picture that embodied the oppression, violence and exploitation that African American women experienced during slavery. Initially, I was drawn to the two images of the wet nurses because I immediately thought about the lecture where we discussed the restrictions placed on slave women’s ability to be mothers. These images speak to the fact that black women were not given the opportunity to properly take care of their children because they had to prioritize nursing white children. As wet nurses, these women were only allowed to breastfeed their own children when given permission from their masters. Ultimately, the inability to provide for their children physically and emotionally had a psychological impact on the mother and the child.
While creating this collage, I had the greatest reaction to the image in the top right corner, where the Black woman is being raped and the last image of Sarah Baartman. For me, these images truly speak to the sexual violence that Black slave women experienced at the hand of their white masters’. Because the images are graphic, they force the viewer to acknowledge the reality of sexual violence that slave women faced. The image in the top right is depicting the rape of a Black slave woman by three white men. It is unclear as to why this painting was created, but it has become an important part of history because it provides visual proof of sexual violence against Black women during slavery. The last picture is a depiction of a woman named Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman. She was sold to London where she was “exhibited as a freak show”(Wikipedia), forced into prostitution and subject to other forms of physical and sexual violence because of her large buttocks, thick legs and large breasts. Her story speaks to the experiences of many slave women. Throughout history, Black women’s bodies have been over-sexualized, which has been used as a way for white men to justify raping and abusing slave women.
The final four images illustrate the various forms of physical violence Black women faced. In the first image, where the woman is hanging from a tree, Stedman, the painter witnessed the 18-year-old slave girl receiving “20 lashes for having refused to have intercourse with an overseer” (Then and Now). The next image shows a slave woman being hung by one leg and tortured. The captain of the ship, John Kimber, whipped the woman and then “dropped her to the deck of the ship (Wikipedia). Ultimately, this violence led to her death. For the image where the woman is holding the weight on her head, she is being punished for “not speaking when spoken to by a white person” (Then and Now). Her unwillingness to submit to a white person resulted in her receiving 200 lashes and being forced to carry around that weight for months. Lastly, the woman who was hung, Laura Nelson, was hung because she was accused of “killing a deputy sheriff who supposedly stumbled on some stolen goods in her house” (Davis, Henrietta). Before being hung “the mob raped and dragged her six miles from her home…” (Davis, Henrietta). In texts that heavily focus on men, we often forget about these Black women; however, these images remind us that Black women did experience many forms of violence.
Since the paintings were created during the era of racialized slavery, many of the authors were unknown. The inspiration behind some of these images is unclear; however, I would hypothesize that the images were created to degrade and humiliate the victims. Because of the racial tension during this time, whites perceived themselves as superior to Blacks. This superiority was then used to justify their abusive treatment of Blacks. For the image in the top right corner, a woman named Marie Guillemine Benoist created the painting. Marie was a French painter during the 19th Century. Her reasoning for creating the painting is not specified; however, she did receive a lot of backlash from the painting. Many French individuals were upset that she took the time to paint the Black woman. They viewed the Black woman in the painting “as a unclean object, a blot devoid of noteworthy human presence” (Smalls, James). Her image captures the moment, but it also portrays these violent situations as humorous. This same idea can be applied to the image of the slave woman who was hung upside and tortured. Isaac Cruikshank the Scottish painter, who was specifically known for his caricatures, is the author of that painting. Both of these images show a complete disregard of the victims in the paintings. This lack of empathy with the Black women in these paintings speaks to the dehumanization of Blacks by Whites.
The images in this collage were created between the late 18th Century and the early 20th Century. During this time frame, slavery emerged and became a major institution in the U.S. economics, cultural and political landscape. Racialized slavery in the United States was an institution that enslaved Africans and forced them to work under brutal conditions. It was a total institution that consumed every aspect of slaves’ lives. Since this institution was driven by profit and racism, slavery became prominent. Additionally, the evolution of slavery was “large and gradual” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Oct. 8th, 2015). It took time to create laws and convince whites that Africans were inferior. By focusing on unchangeable features like skin color, body shape, lip size etc., white elites used these features to create “division among mankind” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Oct. 8th, 2015). For example, the image of Sara Baartman being viewed and violated like and animal and the painting of the black victim being raped furthers this need to separate the Whites from Blacks.
Furthermore, Whites created laws, known as slave codes, to police every aspect of slaves’ lives. Slaves were not allowed to “earn wages, move about freely, congregate in groups, seek education, get married” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Oct. 8th, 2015) and much more. Additionally, the fact that the slaves were literally shackled echoed this point. Restricting slaves from engaging in basic human activities forced them into a subordinate status. Even after slavery officially ended, African Americans were still forced into other forms of slavery, such as cottage tenancy, sharecropping, the peonage system and convict leasing. Sexual and physical exploitation remained a common aspect of these institutions and systems because Black women were not seen as human and their bodies were seen as something that could be abused and violated
Each artifact within this collage is significant to the time period because they’re documenting the suffering that Black women faced during slavery. For slaves, especially slave women “all aspects of their lives were conducted in the same place and under the same single authority” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Nov. 11th, 2015), which meant that slaves were under constant surveillance. This is especially true for slave women. “Most of those (slave) women were employed as domestics in their masters households or at hired locations” (Dunaway 163). Being under constant surveillance by white masters and overseers created an environment where it was easy to sexually exploit Black women. Additionally, “women were disproportionately represented on plantations” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Oct. 21st, 2015), which allowed for increased sexual exploitation by white males. Slave women also “worked longer hours than males each day” (Dunaway 164), which meant that they were forced to interact with their master more. Overtime, I do believe that these images become more significant because there are very little visual representation of the exploitation of Black slave women. These images provide a voice for the voiceless. Many of these women were unable to tell their stories, but these images preserve their memory and acknowledge the suffering they endured.
In class, we have talked about various forms of sexual exploitation that Black women and girls were subjected too. This cultural artifact relates to the course because it adds a visual element to the text we have been reading in class. Black women have never had complete agency over their bodies. During slavery, “Black women belonged to the men on the plantation” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Oct. 21st, 2015). Both field slaves and house slaves experienced sexual and physical exploitation; however, “when women were selected to live in the big house, it was for easy reach of sexual exploitation” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Oct. 21st, 2015). There is an inaccurate view that slave women in the big house were treated better because they were given “better clothes” (Dr. LaShawnda Pittman, AFRAM 101, Oct. 21st, 2015), but this ignores the fact that these women were forced to deal with the entire family, which included sexual violence from the master, his son(s) and physical violence from the wives. We’ve also learned that sexual violence was not limited to rape. Young girls were forced to marry early and begin having children. On average, slave women had about 10.4 children, but many of them died because Black women were not allowed to properly care for their children.
Within the collage, physical violence is only portrayed through the images of torture, lynching and whipping; however, it was not limited to these three forms. Labor exploitation was an important in that it kept Black women in a subordinate status to both White and Black men. It is clear that the institution of slavery was able to survive because of the Black female body. Even though “slave women worked alongside men at the most productive economic tasks” (Dunaway 164) they were forced to do the “dirtiest, least-skilled, most back-braking tasks” (Dunaway 164). White men, White women or Black men did not value the work that Black women did. Black women were seen as the most inferior groups, which is why it is important to capture the violence that Black slave women experienced.
Davis, Henrietta. “Black Women Who Were Lynched in America.” Henrietta Vinton Davis’s Weblog. Digital Media Rights, 1 Aug. 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.<https://henriettavintondavis.wordpress.com/2008/08/01/black-women-who-were-lynched-in-america/>.
Dunaway, Wilma A. “Slave Household Subsistence and Women’s Work.” The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. New York: Maison Des Sciences De L’homme/Cambridge UP, 2003. 150-78. Print.
“US Slave.” Blogger. Blogspot.com, 30 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.<http://usslave.blogspot.com/2013_03_01_archive.html>.
Smalls, James. “Slavery Is a Woman – “Race, Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist’s
Portrait D’une Négresse (1800)” – The Art History Archive.” Slavery Is a Woman – “Race, Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist’s Portrait D’une Négresse (1800)” – The Art History Archive. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/Slavery-is-a-Woman.html>.
“Then and Now.” Blogger. Blogspot.com. 19 Nov. 2015.< http://pazhayathu.blogspot.com >.
“Isaac Cruikshank.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Apr. 2015. 19 Nov. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Cruikshank>.
“Saartjie Baartman.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Nov. 2015. 19 Nov. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saartjie_Baartman>.