Demanding to Be Heard: African American Women’s Voices from Slave Narratives to #MeToo

The #Metoo movement has made public what women have long known: that sexual assault and harassment are endemic in many workplaces. Using the power of social media, brave women have revealed the abuses men in positions of power have inflicted on the women who worked for them. Women have been revealing the abuses of powerful men for centuries, and at a few points in history — like the moment we are in — their voices have been heard by the wider public. It is important to acknowledge that many of these moments have been started by African American women who risked their lives and reputations to expose the abuses of men.

Like Tarana Burke, whose tweet began the #Metoo movement, Harriet Jacobs, writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, wrote a book that ripped open the depravities of slavery for public view. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published on the eve of the Civil War, and details Jacobs’ abuse at the hands of a man she called Dr. Flint, who we now know to be Dr. James Norcom of Edenton, North Carolina. Unlike earlier slave narrative authors, Jacobs did not simply allude to the vile assaults and harassment Norcom inflicted on her, but instead described in detail how he pressed her for sex, touched her inappropriately and punished her for refusing to submit to his demands. Jacobs managed to resist her master’s pressure by entering into a relationship with another white man, with whom she eventually bore two children.

In writing a memoir, Jacobs’ goal was to use her story “to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse…Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations.”1 By revealing her experiences to the world, Jacobs risked her own reputation.

Harriet Jacobs sits for a portrait in a fancy wooden chair. She is advanced in years in this photo.
Harriet Jacobs. (elycefeliz/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When Incidents was published, the Civil War had begun and she was not in danger of being recaptured by Norcom, but by admitting she had had an extramarital relationship and borne two children out of wedlock, she risked being labeled a woman of loose morals by a society that did not understand the choice of the lesser of two evils.

Beyond concerns about her morals, the book also was problematic in its reception. Jacobs’ editor, Lydia Maria Child, a noted antislavery and children’s author, was long thought to be the actual author of the book, and the power of the story it tells was diminished by the illusion that the book was fictitious. Although Child was listed as the editor, many contemporary readers and scholars insisted that the book could not be true and the story was Child’s invention. It was not until historian Jean Fagan Yellin published a biography of Jacobs that historians fully accepted the text as at least semi-autobiographical.2

Jacobs’ experience was not unusual; sexual assault under slavery was widespread and common. Historians have written of the open secret of white men fathering enslaved women’s children, and travelers to the south in the nineteenth century could not ignore the resemblance of some of the enslaved children to white men on plantations. In her 1990 article “’Us Colored Women had to Go Through a Plenty’: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,” Thelma Jennings documented the extent of sexual assault under slavery for women, noting that almost all enslaved women had to deal with sexual assault of one kind or another.3

Enslaved women who left behind records of their lives and experiences told, sometimes reluctantly or partially, of their own experiences and those of friends and family. When the Works Progress Administration project recorded the stories of formerly enslaved people in the 1930s, a substantial number of women who had been enslaved as children and teenagers recounted stories of sexual assault and forced marriage under slavery. Elderly women, speaking to much younger and mostly white male interviewers nearly seventy years after the end of slavery, may have also been reluctant to tell the full story of what they witnessed and experienced, but enough women did discuss sexual assault to make clear that it was frequent and not uncommon.

Portraits of African American ex-slaves from the U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives collections. (Library of Congress)

 

Enslaved women exposed their abusers in the courtroom as well. Women like Celia, an enslaved woman who killed her owner while resisting assault, told her story in a Missouri courtroom in 1855.4 Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman from Kentucky who tried, with her husband and children, to escape to freedom in 1856 told a packed courtroom in Cincinnati, Ohio about the abuse she and her mother had endured at the hands of the Gaines men. Garner killed two of her children to prevent them from being re-enslaved, and faced both murder charges and a return to slavery when she was tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Abolitionists in Cincinnati wrote letters alluding to the “pollutions and horrors” of slavery, and that she saved her children from “the lash and the lust” of the slaveholder.5

Although the individuals who reported on the trial did not capture Garner’s own words, the letters from those who witnessed her testimony make clear that she spoke at least indirectly of the sexual abuse she faced and that she feared her daughters would endure. Her abuse became another line in abolitionists’ litany of abuses against enslaved people, but those abolitionists were unable to assist the Garners in escaping slavery. Garner’s bravery in telling her story did not relieve her of the burden of slavery or her master’s attentions; instead, it only resulted in the sale of her entire family to Mississippi once they were remanded to slavery after the trial.

Although Garner’s story did not capture the attention of the larger public outside of the antislavery movement, her willingness to tell her story, even if it did not result in her freedom or the freedom of her children, was an act of courage. Her courage and her desperation captured the attention of author Toni Morrison, who loosely based her novel Beloved on Garner’s story.

African American women have been struggling to have their experiences of sexual assault heard and their abusers held accountable for over two centuries. The #Metoo movement is just the newest wave of calls for justice for sexual assault. As in the past, white women have joined in the movement and their participation threatens to overshadow that of the women who began the effort to be heard.

By remembering the experiences and bravery of African American women who called attention to the abuse they endured and demanded that the public take notice without success, we can build a community of support that recognizes and pushes back against the racism that pervades our society. White women’s privilege does not insulate them from sexual assault, but African American women face both sexual assault and the erasure of their pain by white women whose voices drown out or discount the experiences of minority women. It remains to be seen if this wave of calling out abusers will result in lasting change either in men’s behavior or in the broader culture that prioritizes white women’s voices.

Notes

  1. Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston, 1861), 6. Return to text.
  2. Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs, A Life (New York: Basic Books, 2004), xvi-xvii. Return to text.
  3. Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Through A Plenty’: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,” Journal of Women’s History 1, no. 3 (Winter 1990), 61. Return to text.
  4. Melton A. McLaurin, Celia, A Slave (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991). Return to text.
  5. Henry C. Wright, “Letter from Henry C. Wright,” The Liberator April 11, 1856. Return to text.

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