Friday, June 22, 2012

Just Finished Reading

When later research refutes a scholar's previous claim, it is refreshing that they admit their error and attempt to make the earlier mistake well known.  Such was the case with Deborah Gray White's Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. Originally published in 1985, this book was revised in 1999 with a new author's introduction that explained what she would have done differently if she had first published at that later date.

In that revised introduction White mentioned that since the publication of the book it had been found that the title phrase she used, "Ar'n't I a Woman?" was actually not spoken by Sojourner Truth at an 1851 women's rights conference in Akron, Ohio. Apparently, that account was a fiction created by period writer Frances Dana Gage twelve years after it was supposedly uttered by Truth. Among other things, White also explains that if she was publishing in 1999 she would now substitute the word enslaved (verb) for slave (noun) to show more positively that their condition was placed on them, and certainly not self-imposed or in most cases accepted.

When first published, this book, which was White's dissertation, was groundbreaking. Before its publication little attention had been given to the female enslaved population. In the years since much scholarship has been built upon it and has added to our understanding of women slaves' existence.

Ar'n't I a Woman? encompasses five chapters that look at various aspect of antebellum female slavery. The final and sixth chapter examines the transition from enslaved women to freed-women in Reconstruction and beyond. In the first chapter, "Jezebel and Mammy: The Mythology of Female Slavery," White looks at the dichotomy that white America placed on African American women slaves to make stereotyping more applicable. In the second and third chapters the various roles and life cycles of slave women are examined to provide a clearer picture of their daily existence and to refute the Jezebel and Mammy myths. The fourth and fifth chapters look at the relationship of slave women with each other and with men and their children.

White's conclusion is that despite all of the trials and tribulation that enslaved women endured - harassment, both physical and sexual from white owners, sons of white owners and overseers; debilitating and exhaustive labor, separations from family and children - black women have persevered, shown extraordinary resilience and have contributed to American society as few others have that endured similar circumstances.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Ar'n't I a Woman? a 4.75.

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