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Vernellia R. Randall
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The University of Dayton

 

   
   

 

 

 

 Pamela D. Bridgewater

Excerpted from: Pamela D. Bridgewater, AIN'T I A SLAVE: Slavery, Reproductive Abuse, and Reparations, 14 UCLA Women's Law Journal 89-161, 89-90, 153-161 (Fall/Winter 2005)(350 Footnotes)


Prologue

"Brothers, I want to say something about this matter of reparations. I am for the slave's rights to be paid for the years of toil and labor done without the benefit of pay. The slavery you know is the slavery I know. It is the slavery that we women and you men shared. We slaves, men and women, shared many sorrows: the sorrow of back breaking work from sun up to sun down, the sorrow of not having a say in where we laid our heads or who could have our bodies, the sorrow of knowing our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were not ours at all. We know the heartbreak of having to say goodbye to too many babies and children torn from our arms and hearts. But brothers, I am also for a woman's rights in this matter of reparations because there are some parts of slavery that we women bore alone, or at least bore different. That slavery only a woman slave can know. Slavery for a woman meant that we plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed and were forced to be what only a wife was meant to be. But we ain't been no wife to no man. To be a wife we first have to be a woman and for what we been forced to do we ain't never been seen as no woman. Women needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and they get to have the best places everywhere. Nobody ever helped the slave woman into carriages or over ditches or over mud-puddles or gives us any best place! All I ever been is a woman slave which is worst than a woman and worst than a slave. I don't think that the white man will ever see me as a woman so I turn to you brothers and ask you to look at my back with the same raised stripes as yours, and look at my eyes with the same sadness of slavery and look at my breasts low from the weight of wet nursing, which have had baby after baby torn away from each teet. Look also at my belly stretched and pulled from the thirteen children I have borne and seen almost all them sold off to slavery and when I cried out with a mother's grief none but Jesus heard me! So, brothers, when you think about reparations, I ask you, Ain't I A Slave?"

* * *

The following section builds on the broader historiography of the slave experience and identified models of successful reparations frameworks for reproductive and sexual abuse. In it, I offer suggestions for incorporating the female slave experience into the demand for reparations for slavery using the successful models for similar experiences. The suggestions build upon one another, beginning with inclusion in the reparations advocates' discourse and ending with a suggested demand for reparations.

A. Inclusion

Despite the references to the female slave experience in abolitionist literature, Congressional debates, and the work of historians on slave breeding and reproductive and sexual abuse of female slaves, the experience of female slaves remains largely invisible in many structural remedial or protective frameworks. Sadly, the current reparations movement continues this marginalization. To refrain from exacerbating the effects of omitting the female slave experience from the demands for reparations for slavery, reparations advocates must first incorporate the issue into their discourse. It must become a part of the accepted definition of slavery and its vestiges. Reparations advocates must research and become well versed in the effects of slave breeding and other forms of reproductive and sexual exploitation during slavery. In much the same way that reparations proponents commission studies and devote research resources to better understanding the institution of slavery and other forms of institutional abuse, advocates must commit to exploring the female slave experience in detail.

One approach to this would be to include those who study the female slave experience, specifically the reproductive and sexual aspects of the experience, in national conferences. It should no longer be acceptable to hold gatherings to discuss slavery and reparations without dedicating time and space to considering and discussing the experiences of female slaves and including those findings in drafting a strategy for inclusion. Further, reparations proponents should engage scholars and theorists of reparations to include in their work the work of historians on slave breeding and other less formal practices of sexual abuse and reproductive exploitation. Finally, those with the power to do so should form commissions to study the experience of female slaves in order to facilitate the development of a strategy for reparations.

Assuming members of the reparations movement view inclusion as an important objective, their commitment to incorporate the female slave experience of reproductive and sexual exploitation is necessary in developing a claim for reparations. As reparationists well know, the conditions of slavery are not easy to discuss. Descriptions of beatings, forced labor, denial of rights are hard to articulate and they are also hard to hear. The difficulty of discussing the particulars of sexual abuse and reproductive exploitation is exponentially greater. Yet, as reparationists also know, their ability to provide sound historigraphical data as to the conditions of slavery is critical to the success of the movement. As such, reparationists will certainly need to be well versed in the female slave experience, its implications and legacy, before setting strategy and appropriate remedy.

Only upon including the experiences of female slaves in the discussions within the reparations movement can one hope to progress to a point where it is possible to begin to think about how to craft a claim for reparations for the sexual and reproductive exploitation during slavery, the Jim Crow era, and beyond. The following discussion explores the possible claims for reparations once this initial inclusion has taken place within the movement.

B. Reparations Demands

1. Apology

As shown above, there exists sufficient evidence of the role of the state governments and the federal government, either complicity or affirmatively, in the sexual and reproductive exploitation of female slaves. Thus, an apology should top the lists of demands that advocates make to those public entities. Also, apologies appear to be an essential part of most successful reparations movements' list of demands.



In framing a request for an apology for sexual abuse and reproductive exploitation of female slaves, advocates should highlight status-of-the-mother laws, which relegated children born of female slaves impregnated by their owners to a life of slavery. This strategy would integrate the accountability of private actors and state actors in creating a system of sexual and reproductive oppression for female slaves. This is an important step because showing that but-for the legislation that relegated the children of female slaves to slavery regardless of the father, the wholesale exploitation of the reproductive capacities of slaves would not have been possible. Further, an apology is due for the lack of criminal or civil laws protecting female slaves from sexual abuse. By holding that female slaves lacked standing to charge their owners with rape, the legal culture adopted and perpetuated stereotypes that female slaves were lascivious and possessed unending sexual desires--a stereotype that persisted through the Jim Crow era and is alive and well today.

In addition to the persistent harm of the stereotypes cultivated during slavery and Jim Crow, legislation and private conduct created a climate where sexual and reproductive abuse became an investment strategy, as well as a way to maintain the system of subordination for generations. Reparationists should therefore demand an official and public apology for the continuum of sexual and reproductive subordination made possible by the collaborative efforts of legislation and private acts.

2. Research

Although no additional research is needed to support a claim for an apology for slave breeding and sexual and reproductive abuse of female slaves and victims of reproductive oppression during Jim Crow, research is necessary to explore the lasting implications of the experience in order to develop appropriate protections and remedies for these abuses. Given the role of state and federal legislatures in creating and supporting the landscape necessary for the exploitation, these entities should be presented with the demand to fund further research into implications of slave breeding and its legacy. Some scholars have focused on the historiography of reproductive and sexual abuse, but relatively few begin with slavery. As a result, little is known about the lasting effects slave breeding has had on society in general and on descendants of slaves specifically. Thus, it would be appropriate for government agencies to fund this type of research as a precursor to determining the need for protective legislation and/or compensation.

3. Private Accountability and the Dead Beat Dad Statute

The issue of private accountability for sexual and reproductive subordination may be the most difficult issue for advocates to develop into a request for reparations. Unlike other instances of abuse for which reparations were provided, to date, no corporate entities have been shown to have participated in slave breeding or other forms or sexual or reproductive abuse. Therefore, the only area where private litigation can be reached is when it is intersected with public accountability to create an opportunity for reparations specific to the experience of sexual and reproductive exploitation, as it did within the context of inheritance. By narrowing the pool of appropriate beneficiaries, state inheritance laws', along with the status of the mother laws', lack of criminal sanction for raping one's slave, forced sterilizations under eugenics laws, and under-enforcement of rape laws during the Jim Crow era all combine support a culture of sexual and reproductive subordination for historically vulnerable groups.

By amending inheritance laws to enable parties who can establish a genetic relation to a common ancestor from slavery to participate in benefits, such as memberships in foundations, being named beneficiaries of trusts and connection to name, that continue to flow to the descendants of that common ancestor, state legislatures would finally and formally acknowledge that many of the descendants of slaves are the descendants of slave owners.

A presumption in inheritance law that would allow genetic relatives to participate in any group benefits would combine private and public accountability for the generations of descendants of slaves and slave owners who were not recognized for purposes of estate distribution. Establishing a genetic connection via DNA testing would enable a claimant-descendant to participate in the estate in a way that was precluded under slavery. A statute which would include descendants of slaves would go a long way in remedying the exclusion of the children of slaves who were often also the children of slave owners from participating in the distribution of the estates of their predeceasing ancestor.

Two recent situations offer useful examples to illustrate where such a statute would be appropriate: the case of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, and the case of the late Senator Strom Thurman and his biological daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams. In the case of Jefferson/Hemings, claimant-descendants established a genetic connection that would suffice in any probate court. However, the officially recognized descendant group (the Jefferson Foundation), was allowed to decide whether the Jefferson/Hemings descendants would receive official status benefits. A dispute amongst the members of the Jefferson Foundation resulted in the organization placing limitations on the Jefferson/Hemings descendants By enabling this unusual exertion of power by already "formally" recognized descendants, the state (via probate court) continues to sanction the harm rooted in the history of reproductive and sexual exploitation.

The case of Washington-Williams, concerns the sexual relationship between a black domestic worker (Washington-Williams' mother) and her white male boss (Strom Thurmond) during the Jim Crow era. After Thurmond's death, Washington-Williams acknowledged that she was his biological daughter and sought admission to United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). She desired membership so she could learn more about her heritage, given that she and her mother are the descendants of slaves and, had their lineage "broken by the course of events." To date, Ms. Washington-Williams has not experienced any resistance to her petition to the organization. Still, an amendment to the probate law of South Carolina, once a major slave-breeding state, precluding organizations such as the UDC from requiring more than proof of lineage, would empower descendants who have not been traditionally recognized and allowed to enjoy the rightful benefits of their ancestry.

The idea behind such a statute would be to incorporate the private conduct and public role in creating the experience of reproductive and sexual subordination for female slaves and for perpetuating the legacy of that experience. The statute would highlight how, even today, some Americans continue to enjoy the benefits that were created by the reproductive and sexual abuse of female slaves, and how some have been drastically harmed by its legacy. As such, the statute could determine the extent that reparations could appropriately address those benefits and harms.

Epilogue: An Inclusive Reparations Movement Is Successful By Definition

This Article has highlighted the movement's failure, to date, to incorporate the experiences of female slaves in discourse, individual lawsuits and discussions with state and federal entities. This failure is a continuation of the failings of previous social justice movements to give the experience of female slaves a central role in the movement. With the reparations movement, this historical failure can be remedied, thus transforming the movement into one that is successful in ways that none of its predecessors have been. Further, the movement should adopt this objective because reparations advocates are best positioned to assist the country to face its slave history, reconcile with and remedy, where possible, the wrongs of that history, and move forward.

Despite the omission of the female slave experience, the fight for reparations in the United States is laudable. It has pulled together many leading scholars, academics and activists in a common enterprise. It also has sparked a national, and international at times, discourse on how societies view and possibly remedy past wrongs. The movement has had a few successes that have proved important in keeping the fight alive and proponents engaged. It has also had many setbacks, but it continues to move forward with an eye on attaining redress for the wrong of slavery. The promise of reparations is that the country will face its history and move forward. Yet, the promise of reparations can not be fully achieved if the story of slavery is incomplete. Reparations advocates must take the time to include the experiences of female slaves in their demands for reparations because not doing so will impede our ability to hear and understand the experiences of female slaves. It will also continue the vulnerability to reproductive policies that target or disparately impact black women.

Once the movement has encompassed the experiences of female slaves, success will be measured not by whether reparations are given but by the fact that a more inclusive story was told and an awareness and appreciation of the experiences female slaves will result. It will help women today who are faced with oppressive reproductive policies or sexual abuse to understand that their reproductive lives are a part of a historical continuum beginning with slavery. To be included in the discourse will bring women historians and activists to the table to focus on the experience of female slaves. It will spark conversations of the nature of slavery that is more nuanced than chains and shackles. We will come to understand more fully the relationship between slavery, Jim Crow, eugenics and the restrictive reproductive policies of today.

These are all a part of the promise of the reparations, and if accomplished, inclusion will be a great deal more than has ever been done and will ensure that the reparations movement realizes its promise.

 

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