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Slavery was inherently cruel and unjust, and it was cruel and unjust to different people in different ways. Today, Clint Smith teaches you about the experience of enslaved women, and how their experience of slavery was different than men. Women had a unique vantage point to understand slavery, and were particularly vulnerable to some terrible abuses under the institution.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

- Samuel H. Williamson & Louis Cain, "Measuring Slavery in 2016 dollars," MeasuringWorth, 2020.
-"A Prelude to War: The 1850s." African American Lives: The Struggle for Freedom, by Clayborne Carson et al., Pearson Longman, 2005, pp. 221-222.
-Modern History Sourcebook: Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a Woman?", December 1851
-Quoted in Deborah Gray White, Ar' n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1999), 102.

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Hi, I’m Clint Smith, this is Crash Course Black American History, and today we’re talking about Black Women’s experiences under the early days of American slavery.

Enslavement, as has been made obvious by now, was inherently cruel to anyone subjected to it. But it is important for us to note, the unique ways that men and women experienced the institution differently because of their sex.

Women’s experiences under slavery gave them specific vantage points from which to observe what was happening around them and also left them particularly vulnerable to some of the most horrific parts of the institution. So we want to spend a little bit of time talking about experiences unique to enslaved women directly. INTRO I want to note that there will be mentions of sexual violence in this episode.

Upon arrival at American ports, African captives were taken to various trading hubs to be auctioned off to the highest bidder for plantation labor. Historian Daina Ramey Berry writes in her book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, that an enslaved person could be worth anywhere from $4 - $94,000 (when adjusted to 2014 numbers). Plantation owners searched for enslaved laborers to cultivate cash crops, the most lucrative of them being cotton, sugar, indigo, tobacco, and rice.

So, when these enslavers came to markets searching for new laborers, they considered several factors before making a bid. Enslavers considered the health and strength of potential laborers. They considered age, height, skin color, and the specific skills an enslaved worker might have had.

But there was another element that shaped the hierarchy of value to prospective enslavers: And that’s gender. Gender placed a figurative price-ceiling on enslaved women’s value, even though as we’ll see, they were often expected to do the exact same labor as enslaved men. The deeply entrenched patriarchy in European cultures extended across racial lines, and played a significant role in shaping African captives' monetary worth.

Even though enslaved women were not sold at the same high price range as enslaved men, their value to those who purchased them, was absolutely clear. In many regions of the colonies, enslaved women’s ability to reproduce was hugely important. Buying a laborer who could bear children meant that once those children got older, the enslavers could either exploit that child’s labor or sell them at a profit.

And as we’ve discussed one of the most consequential laws that developed around slavery in the colonial era was Virginia's use of partus sequitur ventrem, codified by the Virginia Assembly in 1662, which established the legal precedent that defined slavery by the mother's status. Therefore, regardless of the father's race, an enslaved black woman's child would automatically be classified as the property of her enslaver. Meaning the children had from an enslaved woman and the white man who may have enslaved her, would be born into slavery, and owned by their father.

In their jobs on plantations, enslaved women sometimes did domestic labor, which consisted primarily of cooking, cleaning, waiting on the lady of the house, and caring for the children of the estate. New and nursing black mothers would often be forced to prioritize the care of the white children of the estate, even at the expense of their own children. It was not uncommon for enslaved women to breastfeed white infants as it was a task white women on the plantations sometimes preferred not to do.

But while there were many Black women who engaged in domestic labor, in most cases, enslavers directed women to work outside the home, working the land alongside the men and even their children. While women’s field labor was comparable to men’s, they weren’t allowed to take on some artisanal positions, like carpentry. Chattel slavery fundamentally disrupted traditional gender norms within the colonies and in the emerging United States.

Black women were seen in fundamentally different ways than white women, and many of the typical notions around gender roles simply did not apply to them. Sojourner Truth became one of the earliest and foremost speakers to address black women's unique experiences in a racist and sexist society. Spending a bit of time with her can be illuminating because she directly experienced, and spoke about, life as a Black woman in bondage.

Let’s go to the thought bubble. Truth was born Isabella Baumfree aka “Bell” in 1797 in upstate New York. She was purchased and sold four times and was made to do brutal physical labor.

Truth, as we’ve mentioned of other enslaved women before, also attested to having to nurse white babies in place of her own, as a part of her expected chores. She also had to tend to poultry, prepare the ground for the cultivation of corn, pumpkins, or buckwheat, and even cut the grass -- which, at that time, was not as simple as just sitting on a tractor or pushing a lawnmower. It involved a scythe and a lot of upper body strength.

In fact, when enslaver John Dumont offered to free her, she attempted to increase her work product as a show of good will. In the process, she lost her index finger during a work accident. Which, in a situation filled with cruel irony, led Dumont not to keep his promise, claiming that she had become less productive because of the accident.

After realizing that Dumont would not free her, Truth decided she was going to free herself. So, she was just going to walk away. Literally.

She gathered her still nursing child, said her goodbyes to the rest of her family and left before dawn eventually fleeing to a local abolitionist family, the Van Wagenens, who paid Dumont twenty dollars to buy Truth’s labor for the remainder of the year. She remained with the family until she was freed when the New York State Emancipation act went into effect. She’d later successfully sue for the return of her six-year-old-son Peter, who was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama.

Thanks thought bubble. You may have heard of Sojourner Truth because of her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech. ...the one where she said “I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?” Well, it turns out, she might not have ever said exactly that!

She gave a speech in 1851. That’s definite. But as historian Nell Painter explains in her book, Sojourner: A Life, A Symbol, while this is the version that is most widely circulated, it is not one grounded in…well, Truth.

The famous--but inaccurate--version was written and published 12 years later in 1863, by a white abolitionist named Frances Dana Barker Gage. Not only did Gage change or simply make up some of Sojourner’s words, but she also put it in a stereotypical 'southern black slave accent', rather than in Truth’s actual upper New York State, low-Dutch accent which sounded very different. And what’s more, the line Gage originally published was “ar’n’t I a woman” but became widely recast as the “ain’t I a woman” speech in the early 20th century.

It’s a reminder of how, throughout slavery, the testimonies of Black people were often filtered through others, who may or may not have made their own changes along the way. One of the most horrifying parts of Black women’s experience in slavery, was the pervasive sexual violence and harassment they were subjected to. Harriet Jacobs provided a detailed account of the sexual violence that shaped the everyday lives of black women in her 1861 autobiography.

Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, which she published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in order to protect herself. She writes, “My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me.

If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings.” The sexual violence that Black women experienced took on many different forms. There was even a practice called the Fancy Trade designed specifically for the sale of mixed race women for sexual concubinage and prostitution.[1] In 1937, a formerly enslaved man W.

L. Bost explained some of these dynamics to an interviewer for the Federal Writers’ Project, a New. Deal era initiative which recorded the oral testimonies of over 2300 formerly enslaved people in the late 1930s.

When published, these conversations were often written with a heavy dialect attributed to the Black interviewees. Bost said: “Plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. She know better than to not do what he say...they take them very same children what have they own blood and make slaves out of them.” While the use of sexual agency is discussed by many historians and writers as a viable form of resistance, it is important that we not misconstrue it for consent.

Writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman urges us to redefine rape and sexual assault within the context of slavery. Women who were legally defined as property were never in a position to provide consent when, in so many ways, their bodies and their choices did not belong to them in the first place. Relationships with an enslaver--to the extent that any such association can be called a relationship given the power dynamics in place-- could provide some women certain types of protection and some small privileges that other enslaved people did not receive.

That could take many forms. It could mean not having to work in the field. It could mean having slightly better food for one’s family.

It could also mean keeping one's children safe from harm or from being sold away. Black women were presented with a series of impossible choices, and each decided for themselves how to navigate it. Slavery was an oppressive institution and enslaved life and labor were difficult regardless of someone’s sex.

But it did not affect black men and women in the same ways, and it’s important that we be precise about that. Their experiences reveal that as critical as Black women’s labor, and their reproduction, were to the early American economies, they were not valued as such--not on the auction block and certainly not in respect to their womanhood. Black women’s particular experiences during the era of slavery give us insight into the early iterations of racialized and gendered oppression that would continue and evolve in new and insidious ways for centuries to come.

Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next time. Crash Course is made with the help of all these nice people and our animation team is Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production.

If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for everybody, forever, you can support the series at Patreon; a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash Course possible with their continued support. ________________ [1] Findley, Morgan, An Intimate Economy Enslaved. Women, Work, and America's Domestic Slave Trade. (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).