Importance and Impact
In the original edition of her book Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Norton, 1985), Deborah Gray White stated that its aim was “to enrich our knowledge of antebellum black culture and to serve as a chapter in the yet unwritten history of the American black woman” (25). Thanks much in part to this effort by White, an effort that in 1985 was pioneering in its focus on the female slave experience, scholarly endeavors to uncover the history of the American black woman have since multiplied, and much of that history has now been written. In 1999, White revised her book and added an updated introduction to reflect the work that had been done in those fourteen years. Today, Ar’n’t I a Woman? remains important as a text that introduces readers to the reality of slave women’s lives and as a work that provided the foundation upon which historians would begin to reassemble the history of female slaves.
Deborah Gray White wrote Ar’n’t I a Woman? as her doctoral dissertation while attending graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She had previously received her B.A. from Harpur College at the State University of New York at Binghamton and her M.A. from Columbia University. White is now a Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University where she specializes in African American and American Women’s History (Rutgers). She has a number of other published works, including the book Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 (Norton, 1999).
In Ar’n’t I a Woman?, White draws heavily from slave narratives and other primary source material, as well as the work of earlier historians and scholars, in an attempt to restore the true history, and heritage, of American black women. Before this book was published, the experience of slave women had been largely sidelined, misrepresented, and misinterpreted. According to White, “black women were invisible because few historians saw them as important contributors to America’s social, economic, or political development, and few publishers identified an audience for books that connected black women’s thoughts and experiences to the history of other Americans” (3-4). Through the careful study of available source materials, White was able to determine significant roles that black women had in fact played in American history.
Summary and Critical Review
The book is divided into six chapters, the first five of which each cover a separate aspect of the female slave identity, and the last of which discusses the role of black women in the years after slavery was abolished. Topics include the Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes, the differences between male and female slavery, an outline of the typical female slave’s life, relationships between female slaves, and relationships of female slaves to their families and to both black and white men. Every claim is substantiated by multiple firsthand accounts that serve to illustrate the point.
It is apparent that White has been exhaustive in her research. The notes and bibliography in the back of the book take up forty-five pages on their own, and these principally consist of primary sources. Usefully, White has divided these references by chapter and provided additional commentary. Throughout the book, White retells stories and often quotes directly the words of people who were either slaves at the time that their tales were recorded, had been slaves at one time, or had encountered slaves directly. She seems to be mindful of certain biases and the like that might skew the judgment of her sources. Overall, her research is impressive and probably reliable.
On the strength of her research, the conclusions that White reaches about female slaves seem quite reasonable. She sets straight the mythology of the Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes, explaining how and why these images were created in white minds and exposing the reality of who these women were and what the stereotypes meant for them. She also lays out, in detail, the various roles that slave women either embraced or were forced into. She describes the particular hardships of women, especially in regard to bearing and raising children and the unique difficulties that arose from this. She gives attention to the expectations placed upon women of all ages in their roles as workers on the plantations, in their relationships with men, and in other areas of life. She also describes what gave some slave women a sense of self-worth, power, and even some hope for the future. The immense strength of these women becomes clear as White paints a picture of slave women who were made to suffer unutterable hardships but still managed to find ways of resisting and coping.
A Recurring Theme
One theme that White returns to repeatedly in Ar’n’t I a Woman? is that of black women, under slavery and afterward, who were robbed of their femininity. The white concept of a woman at that time in America was of a delicate flower, needing to be protected and cared for. Slave women were treated as the opposite of this and were therefore obviously not seen as women. In the first edition of the book, White stated that “history is supposed to give people a sense of identity, a feeling for who they were, who they are, and how far they have come. . . One hopes that it will do this for black women, who have been given more myth than history” (3). She ended that edition with the claim that “the American black woman is still waiting for an affirmative answer to the plaintive question asked over a century ago: ‘Ar’n’t I a woman?'” (3).
It seems that White had hope that her efforts to recover the history of American black women would help them to unearth a lost identity. At the very least, she has certainly provided them with a much more complete and accurate understanding of their roots in America. White herself, in the revised edition of her book, seems to believe that black women in America had indeed been able to reclaim their identities, particularly as women, since she wrote the original in 1985. She revised the ending of her book to emphasize the womanhood of black women, “a womanhood that could answer a confident and assertive ‘yes’ to the persistent question: ‘Ar’n’t I a woman?'” (190).
Overall, Ar’n’t I a Woman? is a clearly written and thoroughly researched work of considerable importance. At the time of its original publication, there was clearly an extreme need for work in this area, and White gave the history of female slaves the attention that it was due. She has cut no corners, providing more than enough evidence to support each and every claim. She has made sure to address a range of issues concerning slave women, so that the result is a complete, if broad, picture of female slave life and related issues of significance. With Ar’n’t I a Woman?, White succeeded in revealing a previously untold history and in opening up the field for new work to be done.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1999.
“White, Deborah”. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences. 29 Oct. 2010. http://history.rutgers.edu/faculty-directory/56-professors/192-white-deborah.