The cultural roles of men and women, black and white, free and slave, in the slave South were a product of the conditions in which they found themselves. Racial and class distinctions shaped the interactions between the genders. Over time gender roles in the slave South were both reinforced and resourcefully reinvented which created some peculiar contradictions in the region and thus produced some glaring characteristics of life in the lives of both men and women, black and white, free and slave. Ultimately, gender relations in the slave South were inextricably linked with the economic nature of the southern slave system. In this essay, I intend to demonstrate the main distinguishing features that shaped the lives of those living within this economic environment and explain how such cultural norms functioned to bolster the nature of the southern slave system, inevitably those at the top of such a system. In doing so, I will be drawing arguments and evidence from several works specialising in the subject as well as historical representations depicted in the film “Glory” and the narratives of former slaves’ accounts documented in the documentary “Unchained Memories.”
The denial of liberty through slavery produced a unique outcome and had a significant impact on the family life of slaves and even on the lives of free blacks whose family members remained in bondage. Slave masters deliberately, and systematically, eroded every sense of independence and autonomy of the slave. Even life that resided outside the sphere of forced labour was, and in the eyes of slave masters had to be, controlled. Any degree of independence or autonomy, no matter how slight, was considered, if not only an opportunity wasted but, counterproductive unless it fitted with the slave master’s end goal. The entire existence of the slave was designed to produce economic output. As a result, slave masters embarked on a strategy that grinded down the manhood of black slave men and commanded the biological best from black slave women.
Rather than black slave men respected as fathers and black slave women respected as mothers, the slave master positioned himself at the head of all slave life, his own home but also that at the home of the slave family. This slave master paternalism took many forms but ultimately resulted in pursing his own economic, social and political agenda.
For children, this form of paternalism imposed by the slave master resulted in their naming by him rather than their mothers and fathers. Throughout the slave south era too, almost a third of slave families were broken up via the buying and selling of family members. This was particularly the case for many slaves with the expansion of slave states to the south and southwest. Slave children, as former James Green (Volume 16, Texas) and Jenny Proctor (Volume 16, Texas) confirm, were no exception to the slave market. Around one-fifth of slave children were bought and sold away on the slave market from one or both parents. Slave children were purchased almost exclusively as playmates for the white children of a slave master, as Francis Black (Volume 16, Texas) proves, and by the age of twelve, it was common for most slave children to be put to work on the plantation fields. Only a minority of slave children, as was the case for former slaves Martin Jackson (Volume 16, Texas) and Caro Carter (Volume 16, Texas), remained as house servants.
For at a time when men were considered the masters own their own households, leaving aside for the moment the racial implication of the time, black slave men saw their manhood being directly undercut. This attack upon the manhood of black slave men would play a significant role of the psyche of black men. Added to this attack on the manhood of black slave men were the punishments that came with it. As former slave, William Colbert (Volume 1, Alabama) described, slave masters, and overseers on the order of the slave master, would enact the public humiliation of black slave men not only as a means for punishing but as a control mechanism toward all on-looking slaves.
Indirect attacks against the manhood of black slave men were also implemented which were direct attacks against black slave women. As Rev. Ishrael Massie of Virginia, explained, slave masters and overseers frequently committed sexual violence against enslaved black women “to undermine the integrity of the slave family.” Rape, however, whilst a common practice among the southern slaveholding whites against black women, was not always committed with the awareness of the slaveholding family. As former slave Mary Estes Paters (Volume 2, Arkansas) revealed, she was the product of her mother’s rape by the three sons of a white southern plantation mistress and were subsequently punished via whipping for the act by their slaveholding mother. It is unclear, however, whether their punishment was born of compassion for Peters’ slave mother or born out of a desire to reaffirm the plantation mistress’ position of hierarchy.
Mary Reynolds’ (Volume 16, Texas) time as a slave also sheds light on the peculiar dynamic of interracial gender relations. Describing how her father was in fact her slave master, how he seemingly engaged in an extra-marital affair with her enslaved mother, how he brought his slave children “fancy clothes from town” and how they called him “daddy”, reveals the unique developments in the relationship between, not only white southern men and black slave women, but also the wider gender relations occurring. Moreover, this distinctive development is reinforced further by Reynolds’ revelation of how her slave master father granted Reynolds’ mother marriage to a free black only under the condition that her step-father give up his freedom and work on the plantation her mother was enslaved. This decision by the slave master thus kept Reynolds’ mother in her father’s life whilst also allowing him to maintain his slave workforce with a new addition, thus increasing his slave labour output.
Indeed, slave labour output had a distinctive role in the development of gender relations between black slave men and black slave women. Most black slave women carried out the same manual slave labour that their slave male counterparts did. As Sarah Gudger (Volume 11, North Carolina) explained in defining her time as a plantation slave working the cotton fields and chopping wood, for many slave women it was “just work, work and work. I never knowed nothing but work. I never knowed what it was to rest.” Whilst field work was demandingly harsh, picking 300lbs of cotton on a daily basis as Sarah Ashley (Volume 16, Texas did, Elizabeth Sparks (Volume 17, Virginia) also described the intense work of the house servant.
However, domination over black slave men and black slave women was not always practised as overtly and crudely as this. With the growth of the southern slave populous, and particularly events such as Gabriel’s Conspiracy and Nat Turner’s Rebellion, brought new control tactics. Whilst presented as an act of concession and autonomy, the granting of slave marriages and opportunities to court were in fact a means to pacify potential rebellion, real or perceived, and was therefore explicitly toward the advantage of furthering the slave master’s interest rather than the slaves’. As former slaves Marshal Butler (Volume 4, Georgia) and Temple Herndon Durham (Volume 11, North Carolina) described, courting and slave marriage were restricted at the slave master’s will. Whilst Butler’s slave master allowed him to participate in “trial marriage” by courting a female slave on a different plantation several miles away he was only granted permission to visit his partner with the slave master’s authorisation. As Butler explained, when he recurrently went to visit his partner he was frequently subject to the violence exerted by paddle-rollers and his slave master accordingly. Whilst Durham’s slave master willingly participated in her marriage ceremony and the subsequent celebration of it, her newlywed husband was exempt from stay on her plantation, only granted a one-night pass every weekend, due to her husband being the slave of a different plantation master. The description provided by former slave Rose Williams (Volume 16, Texas) better brings clarity to the genuine motive of the paternalistic slave master. As Williams explained, her subjection to a forced marriage, insisted upon by, and resulting upon, her slave master’s desire for her to produce for him strong and able-bodied slave children, slave masters were unequivocally motivated by economic self-interest, and hence social and political self-interest, in “pairing” off slaves.
Like courting and marriage, another important event in the family life of slaves that was controlled by, and curtailed at the will of, the southern slave master was slave funerals. As Willis Coffer (Volume 4, Georgia) explained, the holding of a funeral for a fellow slave, particularly a fellow family member, played, as it does for anyone, a role in offering “a sense of community.” For the slave master to deny the slave community, particularly the slave family, nothing more than an impromptu and improper funeral ceremony and burial, the refusal had an extremely crushing impact upon the psyche of slave family life, and the slave community at large.
The gender role imposed upon black slave men by white slave masters in the slave south naturally produced an inferiority complex among black slave men and as a result, many black slave men endeavoured to assert their masculinity by resisting their feminization, as they saw it. For skilled black slave men, as well as free black men, southern towns, cities and ports provided a greater opportunity to assert and reaffirm their manhood away from the control of the slave master back on the plantation. For many skilled black slave men and free black men, Louisiana and Mississippi provided the perfect place to do this – the Mississippi river economy in particular. Life on the Mississippi River, predominantly the steamboats, was seen to be a growing ground for resisting the South’s carefully constructed system of racial control. Whilst not quite revolutionaries like Gabriel and Turner, the black boatmen did engage in “rascality” which they “directed at the region’s elites.” As a direct attack against the patriarchal nature inherent in the southern slave system, the black boatmen sought out sexual liaisons with white southern women and “traded information and laughed together about their defiance of the law and taboo.” In taking “advantage of the weaknesses of the slave economy” these black men carved out a distinct identity that ultimately resulted in causing fear among the southern white populous. Essentially, the free mobility the river economy provided them with allowed these black men to reconstruct themselves. As the slave south became ever more linked to the transportation offered by the Mississippi River, it gave these black men increased freedom from their masters, the opportunity to meet northern collaborators who sought to undermine the southern slave system and ultimately the social space to craft new identities that challenged the southern ruling class. The actions of these black men resulted in judicial attempts to imprison and fine them while docked in port, however, such legal action proved to be counterproductive as an increasing amount of white southern employers came forward to challenge and ultimately curtail the judicial challenge to the, albeit limited, empowerment gained by black males.
In the latter years of the antebellum south, black male consciousness asserted itself once again as northern challenges to the southern slave system picked up momentum. The southern construction of black male identity increasingly fell into crisis as black men volunteered for the Union Army in their droves following the Emancipation Proclamation. Seeking to overturn not only slavery but also the inherent gender role distinctions it produced, black men, free and slave, actively embarked on passage to render void their subjugation as emasculated property. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment provided the perfect opportunity for such an expedition. This journey, as black men saw it, as well as the tensions it exposed, is represented in the film “Glory”. Frequently portrayed as emasculated, the character Thomas Searles experiences a rite of passage in his search for manhood, which supplements the later developments of escaped slave, Trip. Searles faces a small number of trials, such as being ordered to return to his bayonet training after being publically humiliated as a “prissy little schoolgirl” by his drill captain and later taunted and challenged to a fight by Trip subsequent to Trip being called a “boy” by white Union soldiers passing by the regiment’s camp. Only after coming to Trip’s aide whilst injured himself during the repelling of a Confederate advance in South Carolina does Searles earn in the eyes of Trip, Shaw and ultimately himself, his manhood, successfully soliciting Shaw’s promise that he not be returned to Boston regardless of not being able-bodied for service at the front. The role of gender in the mentality of black Union soldiers is enhanced through the character, Trip, an escaped slave. Throughout “Glory” Trip represents the collective black resistance to feminization, denied manhood and the atypical gender role imposed upon him by the white male-dominated cultural norms of the time, born out of slavery. When appealed to “bear the regimental colours” by Robert Gould Shaw, Trip declines declaring his battle against the Confederacy to be a personal one and one he’d rather, as a man, face upright. Despite his failure to convince Trip to carry the United States flag, Shaw emphasises with Trip that whilst the battle may seem point futile when fellow Union soldiers practice racism too, “you won’t get anything if we lose”, suggesting to Trip that at least he will have confirmed to himself his own manhood by fighting. The night preceding the march on Fort Wagner, during the campfire entertainment, Trip, prompted to make a short speech by Rawlins, echoes the thoughts and feelings of his fellow black infantrymen by asking, “Ain’t matter much what happens tomorrow, we’re men, aren’t we?” and in response is heartened in agreement. Therefore, for black men, as “Glory” conveys, the American Civil War granted black men the opportunity to express their manhood as they saw it.
The latter years of the antebellum south, however, did not only produce a crisis in the identity of black men but also white southerners, men and women. For southerners, chiefly those whites of the slaveholding class, slave emancipation posed a threat to both their economic interests and patriarchal interests. Nevertheless, emancipation, manhood for black men, generally translated for all white males in the south a loss of their own manhood. The southern slave system was collapsing and with it their ideas about themselves. Yet, the male plantation ruling class of the south continued to exert hegemony at this time of crisis. Having already created the founding cultural norms relating to gender, “The fusion of the national and the feminine” played an imperative role in recruiting support from white southerners. Whilst it was not strictly distinctive to the slave south for connotations relating to gender, specifically female connotations, to be attached to southern territory, the attachment of such connotations reinforces the hegemonic influence white slaveholding men had when we reflect historically on the social position of white southern women in the slave south. Such emblematic rhetoric of the mounting “rape” of the south derived substantial contributions from white southern women, to the war effort of the Confederacy during the Civil War years.
For white southern women, the imminent collapse of the slave south produced contradictions about their own position and gender identity. Unlike the slave south, women’s rights were developing in the north and “…Nowhere in the nineteenth century United States did any women’s right, not to mention demands for the vote, emerge outside of the context of anti-slavery politics.” Many white southern women knew this self-evident fact and as is revealed from Rebecca Latimer Felton, a planter-class woman from Georgia, many southern believed the white slaveholding men “deserved to have their entire system collapse.” Yet Felton, like so many white southern women of the planter class, refused to be disloyal to the very system that subjugated her by wishing for the collapse of the slave south. For white planter class women such as Felton, despite the slave south failing to benefit her existence as a woman, the existence of the Confederacy did benefit her class interests – especially at a time when the profit derived from cotton export was at its height. Whilst there may have been white southern women who opposed the patriarchy inherent in the southern slave system whilst their sisters in the north were forming political organisations seeking reform and suffrage, white southern women appear to have generally pledged support with their silent complicity, or were externally silenced into conformity by the dominant cultural forces. Instead, white southern women shouldered the responsibility for the war effort hoping, as they had always done, that the undertakings demanded of them by their men in high office would enhance their status toward social, political and economic independence. They domestically manufactured practical needs for the war effort and publically used their assigned gender role to recruit the freemen of the south, including their own sons, by reinforcing manhood as a virtue.
In final analysis, the southern slave system, as with any system, produced cultural norms – including cultural norms on gender identities and roles. What was distinctive about these cultural norms in relation to gender identity and the subsequent roles it cultivated was that the southern slave system both reinforced traditional concepts about masculinity and femininity whilst simultaneously reinventing these very same concepts and producing glaring contradictions when the ruling economic, social and political class required it to maximise profit from the slave system. For black slave women in the south, slave masters did not find it ideologically problematic to impose on them a deformed standard of equality with their enslaved male equivalents. Nor did slave masters in the south find fault in defining black slave men as property and consequentially deny them the right to reap the fruits of their own labour, as men. For white women of the planter class, the freemen of the slaveholding master class enjoyed their silent support they derived even though the seemingly vain hope that the patriarchal theme of the system may wither away.