Ar'n't I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White
Celebrating Black History Month at the VCU Libraries
Reviewed by Patricia Selinger, Head of Preservation
It was a tense moment. Sojourner Truth was about to speak at the second Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Truth had been making many Americans uncomfortable as she spoke publicly of the hypocrisy of democracy when racism and sexism were tearing the country apart. Her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, was published the year before and she had joined an abolitionist speakers bureau. Her supporters secured her a place on the program. As soon as she spoke, ongoing discussions halted. The elegant, privileged white feminist women at the meeting, who thought they could speak authentically for slave women, were quiet. Truth’s life stood in stark contrast to theirs, and she spoke much more persuasively than they could. She called on women who did not want her to speak or join the discussions to face their hypocrisy. She denounced men in the audience for withholding rights from their mothers, sisters, and wives. The question, “Ar’n’t I A Woman” perfectly captured the difference between black and white antebellum women.
Deborah White, a distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University, wrote a concise book on the development of stereotypes of slave women as well the horrors they were forced to face in their daily life. She describes well the issues and differences between slave and free women. While all women of the time were powerless and exploited to a degree, black women experienced an extreme form of persecution. Extensive footnotes authenticate her research and work. White proposed that the female slave trade had little to do with the woman’s ability to work; instead, it had everything to do with physical attractiveness and the black woman’s ability to have children -- children to benefit the slave owner alone. In essence, slave women were little more than sexual objects. White persuasively documents how the stigma persists to modern times. Black women have no era in history where they were respected or held privilege as a class in American society.
Nine years later Sojourner Truth was speaking again, this time on the abolition of slavery. Rumors circulated in the audience that Truth was actually a man posing as a woman. Men demanded that she show her breasts to prove she was a woman. She did, saying that it was to their shame that she did so. At that time, “No” seemed to be the answer to the question “Ar’n’t I A Woman”. White argues that the black woman is still waiting for an affirmative answer.
The text of the speech “Ar’n’t [Ain’t] I A Woman?” can be found online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.html. The book was White’s first publication and won the Letitia Brown Memorial Book Prize.