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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ar'n't I a Woman? by Deborah Gray White~★★★★

Author: Deborah Gray White
Title: Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South
Release Date: First released in 1985; this book is the Revised Edition, February 17, 1999
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Genre:  Non-Fiction

Book Cover: "Living with the dual burdens of racism and sexism, slave women in the plantation South assumed roles within the family and community that contrasted sharply with traditional female roles in the larger American society.
This new edition of Ar'n't I a Woman? reviews and updates the scholarship on slave women and the slave family, exploring new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender and comparing the myths that stereotyped female slaves with the realities of their lives. Finally, this groundbreaking study shows us how black women experienced freedom in the Reconstruction South---their heroic struggle to gain their right, hold their families together, resist economic and sexual oppression, and maintain their sense of womanhood against all odds." 

Taryn's Review: A book for school! I bet you can't even contain your excitement over historical books, right? There might be a small few who are excited, but maybe I can lure a few you over to the dark side, ha! There will be an assortment of books that I have read for my program (M.A. in history) in the coming months, so I apologize to anyone who is bored with that. Personally, I like to have the book listed here; it helps me remember what I've read when trying to tell someone about it! I'll have other non-history books, too, so hopefully it will be a nice mix of books through May at least.

Deborah Gray White (I love that she has two color names!) was/is a pioneer in history for giving agency to a group of people previous overlooked in historical scholarship: black enslaved women. There had been many books that discussed slavery in the South, but those books mainly focused on men. It wasn't all that along ago that many topics we openly talk about today weren't discussed or even studied in the history. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that subjects like women, gender, race, and ethnicity were acceptable topics of study. This book came out in 1985 and was a direct response to historians like Stanley Elkins, Eugene Genovese, John Blassingame, and others. Not necessarily a bad response, but she disagreed with some historians and elaborated on other historians' works. It was one of the first books on the specific subject of black enslaved women and it's still relevant today.

As White pointed out, these women had two issues facing them: sexism and racism. She focused on the discussion of the myths and stereotypes given to enslaved women like the Jezebel (woman governed by her libido), Mammy (woman who did things better than anyone and lots of emotion attached to this character), and Sambo (slave reduced to child-like perpetual dependency) characters, which was a really enlightening chapter. White included primary examples to highlight her arguments, which brought great depth to the work. She relied heavily on WPA interviews and rightly so, since there aren't many surviving documents pertaining to black enslaved women nor were many written by that specific group for a variety of reasons. She also studied the nature of female enslavement, the life cycle of the women, the network/community of the enslaved, the nuclear family, and Reconstruction. I learned so much from the chapters, but my least favorite was the Reconstruction. I think that section would be best suited for a book that discussed life after slavery with more focus on the Reconstruction South. The change in status for the enslaved, the post-war South, the convict workers, sharecropping...all that needs addressed when discussing life after the war, even in the context of ex-slave identities and attitudes toward the free blacks.

This book is not difficult to read, necessarily, but it incorporates terminology from various disciplines. White has a great vocabulary and a moderately-read person should be able to read the book without a struggle. I sincerely liked this book and I think people interested in the antebellum South, slavery, women, or gender might find it to be an illuminating read.

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