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Black and White Women of the Old South

Oct 08, 1999 1629 Words
Minrose Gwin‘s book, Black and White Women of the Old South, argues that history has problems with objectiveness. Her book brings to life interesting interpretations on the view of the women of the old south and chattel slavery in historical American fiction and autobiography. Gwin's main arguments discussed how the white women of the south in no way wanted to display any kind of compassion for a fellow woman of African descent. Gwin described the "sisterhood" between black and white women as a "violent connection"(pg 4). Not only that, Gwin's book discusses the idea that for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a black woman usually got subjected to displacement of sexual and mental frustration of white women. Gwin discusses how these black women, because of the sexual and mental abuse, felt looked down on more by whites and therefore reduced to even a lower level than that of white women‘s status of being a woman. .

A southern white female slave owner only saw black women as another slave, or worse. White women needed to do this in order to keep themselves from feeling that they were of higher status than every one else except for their husband. White women as, Gwin describes, always proved that they had complete control and black women needed to bow to them. Gwin's book discusses that the white male slave owners brought this onto the black women on the plantation. They would rape black women, and then instead of the white women dealing with their husbands. They would go after the black women only since the wives had no power over the husbands, but they maintained total control of the slaves, the white women would attack the black women and make their lives very diffucult. The white women would make sure that the black women understood that the white women completely hated the black women for being raped and wanted only pain for the them. This is how the black women of that time got the stereotypes of being very sexual beings and hated by there oppressors. You can see evidence of this when Gwin discussed the realities of such hatred in the book Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner. The main character, Clytie, sexual assaults by her male master upsets her because she doesn't desire to be involved with him, but her female master feels that she should be punished for it. So the white female slave owner beats her and abuses her as much as possible. The passage goes on to show how rape, gets Clytie labeled as a whore.

The book discussed how one of the principle reasons as to how the white woman or mistress and the black women got along, depends on whether or not the slave women appeared to threaten the social status of the women. When the white men tried to rape the black women it made the white women socially look like nothing more than a slave. This made the white women feel forced to prove to the black women that power still remained in the white woman's corner regardless of the master's sexual desires. The mistresses made sure that the slave women understood that they valued less than any white women, for the main reason that the white woman had true power as long as the main wanted her. An example of this that I read would be when a white woman outwardly expressed that she worried mainly about her loss of power, not actually about marriage. Saphire, a fictional character that Gwin analyzes, says "...mainly concerned with her power... she views her husbands affections for a slave as an undercutting of her power over him in their relationship which. As the husband himself describes as, what makes her the master and him the miller." (pg 133) The slave that caused this upset usually received many beatings and unnecessary overworking of the slave. At the time, this treatment was not unheard of and needed, the white slave owners used it as an example to show all slaves that they were not worth the air they breath except in the fields.

And even those who were not involved were treated as sub-human and found that life remained hard for them. Gwin describes the black communications with their oppressors as a surrogate mother and her children that need guidance, looking after, and strong discipline. The black women knew that no matter what she did she would get beatings from the white women and their mistresses, they took chattel slavery to its boundaries in how the women treated the black women when they felt threatened. White women didn't just physically abuse the black woman they also mentally abused her. The slave women were "associated with sex and loss of control, sexually suggestive, and wild Negroes."(pg 119) These derogatory names were what most white women came to stereotype as being the definition of the average black woman. So they to had it hard when they were being worked by the woman of the house. Being that the mere idea that if you were a black woman your mistress or lady of the house felt threatened by your presence, so they did there best to make sure the black women got to tired and to low of self-esteem to do anything.

In are class we discussed how women, during the 1700's & 1800‘s, began to conflict with their roles in society. Our class observed how women's lives began to change during this time period. The women of this time period were raised to believe in a patriarcle system because it promised to protect, privilege, and subordinate them. We took note in our class room lectures that ultimately this system gave women a great amount of power being they had what their husband wanted. This book gives good examples of what happened to this system and how it starts to change from its way. The slave women's sexual relationship with the white husbands had made it very hard for the women to have the power they had in their homes, and the system was not serving them as it should, so the women made a change. This example of how the women had gone from a lifestyle that they enjoyed to taking some responsibility over their life. The women had to begin make sure for herself that she still remained at her proper lady status no matter what her husband does, and that is why they beat and made the lives of African women much harder. But more importantly you can see how the white women of the south were beginning to make the changes needed to get what they needed from society, by using their own system that works the best for them. This shows the change from total power to obtaining things on their own. Because of these changes in their lifestyles women found they needed change their identity in order to keep some kind of power. Gwin's book goes on to talk about how the white woman's lifestyle changes. And how they got directly involved in their lives, and start looking out for themselves, being that the system of the husband looking out for her began to disappear. The white women of the south felt threatened by what they felt could be a definite challenge to their power and they needed to begin to change so that they could still be able to achieve the goals that they need fulfilled in life. The southern women during this time period were having to become much independent and begin to get jobs and all become more active in the ways of working because the south could not remain the same with the release of the slaves. Women had began to get jobs and work along side of her husband, and begin to become more involved in the everyday ways of life.

I think that Gwin's book is a good illustration of what has and still is happening to women. Their lifestyle is always changing. Gwin's argument that life was never a sisterhood between the blacks and white in the so-called American fiction and autobiography seems prove true. These women were very much different and the ethnocentrism in a white woman keeps her from ever getting past the dark skin, and makes the white women feel more like the Africans were more of an animal then an actual person. The white women always feels that the slave must understand that the man may rank higher than her but even if her husband wants to mess around then fault goes to the slave not the husbands. And the slave will never be to her level, because the black slave will never be a lady.

And in the book you can see how the white women lost there power in the house and that their system of life that they received didn't prove to work out anymore for them so they had to attempt to adjust to a way life took would take them. I feel that Gwin argues that the main reason for the confrontations for the struggle of power became evident in that it had gotten to point that certain black women would not let their own female owners hit them. This is an example of how not only how the whites women challenged the system, but also how the slave women started to make changes in how they willed to be treated.

 

 

Bibliographical citation

Gwin, Minrose. Black And White Women Of The Old South. Knoxville: Tennessee Press, 1985.

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