Most people know of slavery, but we don’t know about slavery. Specifically, we don’t know how dehumanizing it was to be a slave.
We might understand what it’s like to be denied freedom or dignity at an intellectual level. But for many of us, we don’t have a grasp on how horrible the institution was, in the day to day life of an enslaved person. Most of us don’t “get” what it was about inhuman bondage that made it so inhuman.
For example: what was it like to be slave mother?
Some insights on this are given in the book Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. The book tells the history of a somewhat esoteric subject: the need of slaveholders, and the doctors they hired, to control and manage the bodies and reproductive lives of slave women.
But while the subject is esoteric, the details of how this played out in plantation life are chilling and disturbing.
Cover of Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz.
The first chapter of the book, titled “Procreation,” has a gripping account of the stakes involved in the reproductive ability of slave women. I’ve provided some excerpts from that chapter below. Upon reading this, you will understand how lacking in humanity and dignity this peculiar institution was:
…an important aspect of slavery… has been all too often ignored: slaveholders expected to appropriate and exploit the reproductive lives of enslaved women. Control of one’s body was not a fundamental right of slaves. Emboldened by law and custom to do with human chattels as they wished, (slave) owners felt entitled to intervene in even the most intimate of matters. Women’s childbearing capacity became a commodity that could be traded on the open market.
During the antebellum era the expectation increased among members of the owning class that enslaved women would contribute to the economic success of the plantation not only through productive labor but also through procreation. The idea was at once both powerful and seductive and shaped the way women experienced enslavement, the way owners thought about the future of slavery, and the way doctors practiced medicine.
As of 1808, when Congress ended the nation’s participation in the international slave trade… the only practical way of increasing the number of slave laborers was through new births. If enslaved mothers did not bear sufficient numbers of children to take the place of aged and dying workers, the South could not continue as a slave society.
Women entering their childbearing years-especially those who had proven their fertility through the birth of a baby-sold easily and for a high price. Former slave Boston Blackwell, who witnessed the sale of two women in Memphis, Tennessee, reported that a girl of fifteen who had no children sold for $800, but a breeding woman sold for $1,500.
Human reproduction was so important to the continuation of slavery that members of the South’s ruling class willed their heirs the unborn children of slaves as well as living people. Anna Matilda King of Georgia assured her daughter that she would inherit not only the slave Christiann but also “her child and future children.” This wish to benefit future generations of slaveholding families pressed owners to look for ways of ensuring that enslaved mothers bore plenty of children. “If it was not for my children I would not care what became of the negroes,” Elizabeth Scott Neblett wrote her absent husband during the Civil War… Neblett maintained that she would gladly do without slaves to save the bother of managing them, but for her children’s sake she could not let them go.
The Octoroon is a tragic mulatto play by Irish playwright and actor Dion Boucicault. It opened on Broadway in 1859, just a few years before the American Civil War. The play was based on Mayne Reid’s novel, The Quadroon, and the incidents relating to the murder of the slave in Albany Fonblanque’s novel, The Filibuster.
Wikipedia describes the tragic mulatto genre:
The Tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. The “tragic mulatto” is an archetypical mixed race person (a “mulatto”), who is assumed to be sad or even suicidal because he/she fails to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”. As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society he/she lives in, a society divided by race. Because of society’s reluctance to acknowledge ambiguity in racial classifications, this character is particularly vulnerable.
The “tragic mulatta” figure is a woman of biracial heritage who must endure the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end.
Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:
• A woman who can “pass” for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
• A woman appears to be white. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing.
• A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.
The play centers around its heroine Zoe, a Louisiana octoroon in the pre-Civil War era. An octoroon is a person who has one biracial grandparent, while the other three grandparents are white. An octoroon is the child of a white parent and a quadroon parent. A quadroon is the child of a white parent and a biracial parent.
Octoroons are very often light enough to appear white. However, under the era’s one-drop rule, they were considered black. Additionally, any child born to a slave was automatically considered a slave. So, an octoroon born to a quadroon mother, where the quadroon mother was born to a biracial slave mother, was herself a slave.
Zoe lives on the Louisiana slave plantation of the late Judge Peyton and his wife, Mrs. Peyton. Due to financial problems, Mrs. Peyton is being forced to sell the plantation and its slaves. Zoe is the daughter of Judge Peyton through one of the slaves. Zoe is light enough that she appears white. Zoe was raised as, and grew-up believing, she was a freewoman, but learns during the play that she is legally a slave.
The hero of the play is George, the nephew of Mrs. Peyton, who visits the plantation after an extended stay in France. George falls in love with Zoe, and he proposes to her. However, Zoe rejects the proposition, pointing out that the law prevents a white man from marrying a “black” woman. George offers to take her to a different country, but Zoe says wishes to stay with the plantation.
The villain of the play is Jacob McClosky, a scoundrel whose under-handed dealings with the late Judge Peyton led to the plantation’s financial problems. McClosky desires Zoe for himself, but she rejects him. He plots to have her sold with the plantation and the rest of the slaves, and then buy her and make her his mistress.