AN OPEN LETTER TO BLACK MEN TO RECKON WITH BLACK WOMEN'S SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE LABOR: GENDERIN
“I think about the Black women who never landed who are still swimming with their eyes opened in the sea…” -Toni Morrison, What Moves at the Margins: Selected Nonfiction
The U.S. masses are aware of the historical atrocities—racialized and sexualized in nature—that have taken place within American borders as the nation state laid claim to independence for white citizens, while proliferating an extortionist enterprise which annihilated indigenous lives, colonized and extracted natural resources, and enslaved, coerced and forcibly bred African human beings.
The 1619 Project, a major initiative of The New York Times by Nikole Hannah Jones, the Year of Return “a landmark spiritual and birth-right journey by the nation of Ghana marking 400 years of the departure of the first slave-ship and the arrival of that ship with enslaved African to Jamestown, Virginia has reinvigorated a campaign for reparations that was catalyzed by Black women over a century ago. In My Face is Black is True, Callie House called for reparations as the leader of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Callie House’s reparations movement was modernized by Audley Moore, through the founding and organizing of several grassroots movements such as National Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Observance Committee and Reparations Committee Inc.
Today, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Juneteenth testimony on Reparations at a subcommittee of the House Judiciary in a historic hearing on reparations for slavery—the first of its kind in over a decade made a clear case for H.R. 40, a bill which would establish a formal commission on reparations in the U.S. However, the Black-woman question was barely addressed.
The United States is one of the few places in the world where mass rapes and brutal reproductive labor and exploitation have occurred systematically against an entire race of people—enslaved African women and girls from sea to shining sea, yet there have been little to no public outcry. There have been no formal governmental processes of recognition, no national process for justice or acknowledgement of such violations and the ongoing post-war, post-traumatic impact on survivors and their descendants. The case of Harriet Jacobs, Celia and other Black women under chattel slavery are among hundreds which can be found in U.S. archives. Thousands more have been buried without having spoken their testimonies. The rape and reproductive atrocities experienced by Recy Taylor, the rape-murder case of Joan Little and other Black women under Jim Crow are stark examples of this erasure.
Black Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Labor Under Chattel Slavery
For women of African descent (used here interchangeably with “Black” as an identity marker), their physical, sexual and reproductive labor began from the moment Europeans seized upon the continent, misconstruing “semi-nudity” for “lewdness” instead. That forced labor continued on slave ships and on plantations. In Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, Black feminist scholar Deborah Gray White discusses how male and female slavery were different from the very beginning. Women didn’t generally travel in the holds of slave ships, not like the men. They took the dreaded journey right there in the open, and on the quarter deck, unshackled, purposefully, intentionally “making their bodies accessible to criminal whims and vile sexual desires of slavers, accessible to the entire crew of slave ships for raping, humiliating and molesting, for brutal excesses that disgrace human nature.”
Travel accounts contained analyses of African life and conclusions about the character of Black women—as “fiery”, and “warm” and “so much hotter than their men”. Others wrote back about “hot ladies” who “are always contriving strategies so they could gain a lover”. One such report even said that orangutan like creatures “often attack and use violence on the Black woman whenever they meet her alone in the woods.”
Such descriptions are found in the writings of North American and White Caribbean travelers and planters. From Haiti, to Cuba, South and Central America and specifically from Jamaica came a poem dedicated to “the Stable Venus”, in which “Black dames well versed in Venus school make love an art.“
Dorothy Roberts in Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty describes that by 1736, the South Carolina Gazette advertisements read--“African ladies” of “strong robust constitution” who were “not easily jaded out” but able to serve their lovers “all day and all night”. By the nineteenth century, coarse jokes about “negro wenches” were commonplace. Everybody accepted the premise upon which they rested.
White poets wrote from all corners of the world -- “The sexual habits of Black women render the men callous to all the finer sensations of love and female excellence”. “In almost every house there are negro women, slaves, who count it an honor to bring a mulatto into the world”. Even abolitionists wrote that mulatto women were “gratified by the criminal advances of Saxons”.
The ways in which Black women moved and danced, their very embodiment of culture, music and art was reframed. As one White writer illucidates “Black women went into vulgar hysterics when dancing with members of the opposite sex.”
A project of slander convinced slave-ship investors, purveyors of auction houses, slavers, plantation owners and breeders that slave women, Black women were lewd and lascivious, that they invited sexual violence from white men, and that any resistance they displayed was false.
State Sanctioned Rape, Reproduction and Black Babies as Product
In 1662 The General Assembly of Virginia decreed that any child born to an enslaved woman would be a slave. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, introduced in 1791, passed in Parliament in 1807. It abolished the slave trade in British colonies rendering it illegal to carry enslaved people in British ships as cargo. This enforced an already aggressive campaign of state sanctioned rape of Black women. American slavery became entirely dependent on a steady increase of the slave population through forced reproduction. However, since correlations have always been drawn between sensuality and womb productivity, the increase of slave populations on any plantation only served as more evidence of the enslaved woman’s “natural” lust.
Forced sexual and reproductive labor began as early as or before the onset of menstruation. Slave masters predicated their violence on the idea that reproduction was a result of Black women’s hypersexuality, linking high birthrates on their plantations to the early onset of sexual activity among the young Black girls they raped or forced into “marriages” with enslaved men. Major periodicals carried articles detailing optimal conditions under which Black women were known to reproduce, and the merits of the particular breeder was often the topic of parlor or dinner table conversations.
Just as with reproduction, that which was private and personal became public and familiar. On the auction block, Black women’s bodies were exposed and handled to determine their capacity for child bearing. Slave buyers sometimes squeezed women’s stomachs in an attempt to determine how many children a Black woman could have. They exposed breasts, thighs, buttocks. Research by Black feminist scholars and historians reveal that advertisements and bulletins promoted graphic detail about enslaved women up for auction.
Black feminist historians report that women became the priority as commodity on auction blocks. Often, whether or not they were purchased at auction, depended on the buyer's judgment of the size, shape and color of the enslaved Black woman's vagina and labia, or the width of their hips which they would measure on site. These physical characteristics were interpreted as indicators for how many children enslaved Black women could produce. When enslaved Black women were not purchased, the seller would beat them for failing to accentuate their hips, their breasts, or their buttocks.
In Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, Black feminist scholar Deborah Gray White describes Black women on rice plantations working in water with their dresses “reefed up around their hips.” Many female field hands worked with their skirts up to keep them out of dirt and mud, and house servants pulled up their skirts to wash and polish floors. Whippings, drunken rage, vicious, sexualized whippings were commonplace. During these whippings Black women were laid out on the ground, on benches, tied to posts or on tables, their skirts lifted over their heads and clothes ripped off their backs. “Folks used to recall the whipping of a 13 year old Black girl in Georgia which had particular disturbing sexual overtones--the girl was put on all fours, sometimes head down, sometimes head up and beaten, until froth ran from her mouth.”
This among many other accounts drives home the necessity for Black women to be central to this conversation.
Gender Matters in Reparations
The legacy of slavery lives on in how Black women are compelled to navigate the disjuncture between their disparate geographic locations, and their attempts to organize nationally against a shared social location of strife, vulnerability, neglect, and abuse inflicted by state and private market actors alike. The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination’s asserts in its General Comment No. 25 that it is important to consider how issues of gender are interlinked with race to “only or primarily affects women...affects women in a different ways, or to a different degree than men.”
Black Women's Blueprint launched this campaign to gender the debate on reparations as an effort by Black women in the United States to mobilize together, countering four centuries of enforced (and embodied interpolation) nationalist ideologies of “divide and conquer” designed to prevent meaningful resistance by Black collectivities on plantations, during and after the slave trade, during Jim Crow and present day Unitied States. That is, in order for the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (BWTRC) of 2010-2016 to fulfill its last mandate of reparations and reconciliation, fully realizing its vision for justice and healing, each and any of its efforts must empower participation from, and place in conversation, all genders, Black women and Black men across the country who have honed, in their own localities, specific techniques and technologies which promote reparative justice.
In 2011 The UN General Assembly declared 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent with the theme “People of African descent: recognition, justice and development”. Therefore, the failure by present-day advocates to meaningful gender the dialogue on reparations and center Black women’s lived experiences, situating them in historical and contemporary contexts is egregious.
Black women are too often pushed-out or excluded from designing and influencing the policies that have direct impact on their lives. The mass movement for Reparations is no exception. The current national call for Reparations led by several prominent black male public figures, must gi