Slavery, Sex, and Medicine
Before striking me, master questioned me about the girl. . . . I only knew that she had been with child, and that now she was not, but I did not tell them even of that.
—Mrs. John Little, recounting her silence about a bondwoman’s abortion
IN AUGUST 1831, A YOUNG ENSLAVED GIRL, OWNED BY MRS. LEGAY OF Christ Church Parish, South Carolina, underwent one of the most traumatic experiences imaginable: an enslaved man brutally raped and sodomized her. The slave girl’s physical damage was so extensive that she was unable to urinate for a week after her rape, her anus was excoriated, and she experienced symptoms similar to dysentery—severe diarrhea with either blood or mucus in the feces. As many victims of rape do, she kept the tragic event hidden until her body revealed the secrets she had held on to in silence.1 The girl’s health continued to deteriorate quickly, and her owner summoned Dr. R. S. Bailey to treat her. After Bailey’s examination, the young girl revealed the details of her rape, identified her rapist, and told the doctor that he “had since absconded.”2
The sexual exploitation of enslaved women often worked in tandem with physicians’ medical explorations and publications that medicalized sexual assaults and their physical effects on women. In an effort to illustrate this claim, this chapter draws on several oral histories of former slaves, medical case narratives, slave owners’ personal papers, and judicial cases. In the case of Dr. Bailey’s patient, her life is representative of the harrowing experiences that many female slaves endured. This black girl, who was never safe from either black or white male intrusion, shows how deeply sex, slavery, and medicine were entangled in nineteenth-century America. Black women’s rapes, which were private occurrences, were publicized when members of the slave community reported illnesses to one another, owners, and doctors. Additionally, doctors created professional spaces such as medical journals, teaching hospitals, and colleges where the physical symptoms of these assaults were medicalized. The publication of slave women’s rapes in medical writings allowed doctors to learn how to respond to the physical symptoms of sexual assault, such as pregnancy, infertility, venereal disease, and damaged reproductive organs.
Thus when medical men like Dr. Bailey prescribed chemically based medicines for their patients, they were applying the pharmaceutical training many American doctors received in medical colleges. In the case of Bailey’s young patient, he gave her a mixture of 3.58 grams of crushed cinchon (an ingredient used to make quinine), 1.79 grams of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and 2 grams of pulverized opium to treat her symptoms.3 Cinchon aided nausea, opium led to constipation, and saltpeter helped to ease painful urination. Bailey may have included saltpeter in his prescription because American doctors had been giving the medicine to patients suffering from venereal diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis since the beginning of the century. A common symptom of gonorrhea and syphilis was urethritis, the medical term for an inflammation of the urethra that causes difficult urination.4 Most importantly, Bailey pathologized rape and also included black women and girls as victims of rape in a leading medical journal published in a state where they were not legally protected from sexual assault.
Conversely, members of the slave community who lived alongside the victim, particularly black women, would certainly have recognized that the girl had been raped and attempted to comfort her after such a traumatic event. Although Bailey’s journal article is silent on what actions black women took to care for this victim, historical literature on slavery offers abundant examples of the maltreatment young black rape victims received from their owners, mistresses, and doctors. The following case highlights the danger black girls faced from white women who discovered their husbands’ sexual abuse of female slaves. Thirteen-year-old Maria’s mistress caught her in bed with her husband, the girl’s master. Upon discovery, the master escaped, and the mistress beat Maria and later had her imprisoned in a smokehouse for two weeks. Older enslaved women pleaded of behalf of the teen girl but were unable to convince their mistress of Maria’s victimization.5 Unlike Maria, Bailey’s young enslaved patient was not only regarded as a victim of a brutal rape but also given medical treatment. Sadly, despite the doctor’s care and the outpouring of support she received from her community, the girl “died soon after” the rape and subsequent medical intervention made to save her.6 Both her medical case and her death function as a potent reminder of the complexities of sex, slavery, and medicine in the antebellum South for young black girls and women.
Acclaimed ex-slave memoirist and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs wrote, “The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition.”7 Jacobs used a stark metaphor to describe the horrors she had experienced as an enslaved woman. She wrote that she lived “twenty-one years in that cage of obscene birds” while under the auspices of her master.8 In this phrase, Jacobs captured the panic that black women faced as they were subjected to the whims of masters who were often “obscene” in their interactions with black women.
The sexual abuse of black women was also an intraracial problem. Scholarly discussions of enslaved men’s rape of black girls and women have not been entirely muted; however, scholars need to more fully examine intraracial sexual abuse within slave communities. Two other sites that reveal the inner sexual lives of enslaved women are nineteenth-century medical journals and judicial court records. These sources show how physicians and justices treated intraracial sexual violence within enslaved communities. Enslaved women and girls were vulnerable to attack from white and black men with whom they came into contact. Black women had not only to contend with men who preyed on them but also to fight against the ugly stereotypes that many American men, regardless of race, held about them as wanton seductresses. Robert Smalls, who was born enslaved and later became Reconstruction-era South Carolina’s most famous black senator, offered his views on black women’s sexual promiscuity to an American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission member after the Civil War. When his interviewer asked Smalls whether black women were full of lust, he answered affirmatively. Smalls also stated, “[Black women] do not consider intercourse an evil thing. This intercourse is principally with white men with whom they would rather have intercourse than with their own color. The majority of the young girls will for money. . . . as young as twelve years.”9 Although the scholarship is slim on this topic, Robert Smalls’s views on black women’s lustfulness and their supposed preference for engaging in interracial sex for profit, postwar, without regard for their physical and emotional well-being, chastity, and reputations indicate that the sexual terrain for enslaved girls and women was paved with steep hills. Ideologies are formed over time, and Robert Smalls’s beliefs probably did not originate solely in the post-1865 racial milieu but were formed in the age of slavery, when messages about black women’s lasciviousness went unchallenged.
Enslaved women, whose voices have been muted in medical writings, still managed to name and articulate fully their pain. Some of these women courageously informed doctors in explicit language about their sexual abuse. In 1824, an unidentified enslaved midwife informed Dr. John P. Harrison that her enslaved parturient patient, “A.P.,” had been raped and impregnated by a young white man.10 Harrison, however, did not believe the midwife’s account. He wrote in an article published in the American Journal of Medical Sciences that no white man would be attracted to a black slave woman who was depicted as a “short, thick-built, chubby creature, with a large head and neck.”11 The crime of rape did not exist for black women during this era. Yet Harrison included the midwife’s claim, one he negated, that her patient and fellow slave A.P. had been violated sexually, in the journal article. The midwife might not have been aware of legal statutes concerning rape and black women, but she disclosed all the facts of A.P.’s medical case, which was exacerbated by the violent rape she had experienced.
Bondwomen experienced rape and other types of violent sexual assault frequently. The belief that black women were lascivious was so firmly entrenched in the white psyche that some southern states like South Carolina and Mississippi declared black women could not be raped despite the fact that slave children with white fathers were scattered all over the South. In a famous 1859 court ruling, a Mississippi court declared, “The crime of rape does not exist in this State between African slaves. . . . Their intercourse is promiscuous, and the violation of a female slave would be a mere assault and battery.”12 Celia, a nineteen-year-old Missouri slave woman who had been raped by her owner for five years, murdered him after he entered her cabin to have sex. Her attorneys used a Missouri honor code in her case, arguing that Celia defended her honor against her owner through the use of deadly force. She lost the case and was executed because honor was not a privilege that black and enslaved women could access.13
Returning to A.P.’s case, an easy comparison can be drawn between black women’s medical experiences and the physical and emotional impact of the kinds of intense physical labor they performed, especially while pregnant. Surely A.P. had to have experienced emotions ranging from anger and frustration to depression and shame because of her treatment by white southern men. The publication of her medical case in a leading medical journal sent a message about black women’s honesty, attractiveness, and physicality. Additionally, enslaved women had to contend with the emotional pain caused by rape, disapproving doctors, and difficult pregnancies. Last, for pregnant enslaved women such as A.P., they were also beset by the constant threat that pregnancy and childbirth created: the possibility either they or their babies would die.14
What these cases illuminate is that although medicine and law were both sites where “race was made,” U.S. medical discourse was capacious enough to recognize enslaved women’s rape even when the law did not acknowledge their sexual abuse. One reason for this disparity is that doctors who treated the enslaved, especially women and girls, were much more transparent about describing the physical and sometimes psychological effects of rape because they could medicalize it. The courts, in contrast, did not consider the traumatic impact of black women’s rape because of the prevalent ideologies about black women’s immorality, and they were interested almost solely in the possible loss of the slave owner’s property. The sociopolitical world of antebellum-era slavery and medicine further ensured that enslaved black women would continue to be regarded as “superbodies.”
The rape of enslaved women and girls was a component that aided in the continual debasement of black women in American society. Unsurprisingly, black women and girls were denied legal protection by southern states. Historian Sharon Block has argued in her work on rape in early America that for enslaved girls and women, “continuing sexual abuse was often a fact of life.” Additionally, few legal mechanisms existed to protect enslaved girls and women from rape, and this “lack of recourse greatly affected their reaction to sexual attacks.”15 A famous court case that took place in Mississippi in 1859 highlights quite boldly how white people considered rape an oxymoron for black women in early America. The state’s court dismissed rape charges against an enslaved man named George involving the rape of a ten-year-old enslaved girl. The judge further declared, “The crime of rape does not exist in this State between African slaves.”16 The state later overturned the ruling and created a law that allowed a “negro” or “mulatto” enslaved child under the age of twelve to have legal protection as a victim of rape.17
Whether southern legal systems acknowledged the rape of enslaved women and girls or not, the fact remained that this vulnerable population, their owners, and medical doctors had to confront the physical, medical, and psychic realities of rape in enslaved black women’s lives. Slaves were forbidden autonomous mobility; it was illegal without the owner’s consent, so most rape victims stayed put. Thus most enslaved girls and women suffered the physical wounds and illnesses brought on by their sexual assaults in sight of their rapists, and there are medical journal articles that reflect this historical fact.
Alongside women in slave communities who provided healing according to the “relational vision of health” that Sharla Fett articulates, a view of healing that was both sacred and secular, medical doctors administered curative work but relied almost exclusively on chemical medicine to heal black women.18 Black women healers, on the other hand, practiced a relational vision of health anchored in a belief that their healing would be left not solely to human beings but to God and their ancestors. Dreams and signs were just as relevant as any medicine a doctor prescribed, even more so in many slave communities.
The antebellum era was a pivotal moment in the lives of both enslaved black women and white medical men because the landscape for professional women’s health care was in flux. There was an emergent class of male midwives, professed experts in gynecology, and also doctors who began to treat women exclusively; their numbers were small but growing. The following case sheds light on the changes that were occurring. While Fanny, a middle-aged slave, was giving birth, both she and the baby she delivered died under Dr. John A. Wragg’s care. According to the doctor’s subsequent article in the Southern Journal of Medicine and Pharmacy, before his arrival a Savannah, Georgia, plantation “Negro” midwife had treated Fanny. Wragg also wrote that the enslaved midwife’s assessment of Fanny’s condition must “be taken with some degree of caution.” He did add, however, that the midwife’s story should be thought of as “tolerably accurate and trustworthy” because she was intelligent.19 Wragg then posed a question that became foundational for how white medical doctors should assess enslaved black women’s healing work, even tolerably “intelligent” ones. He asked readers, “Could, or rather would the life of this woman have been saved, had a physician been called in earlier?”20 His question indicates a shift from the idea and practice that women were the natural caretakers of pregnant women to one where medical men should attend to all births.
The nature of nineteenth-century medicine was mainly exploratory; searching for the root cause of a medical condition, however, especially surgically based research in gynecological medicine, could be exceedingly dangerous for enslaved patients who were subjected to such operations. Once medical training moved from an apprenticeship culture to one that was more scientifically based in the 1800s, medical research became more important to doctors. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, according to Abraham Flexner’s influential 1910 report on medical education, medical schools “existed as a supplement to the apprenticeship system.”21
As gynecology grew, doctors wrote about nearly every manner of women’s diseases and conditions in medical journals, thereby extending the reach of medical education beyond schools. As these men engaged in finding cures for women’s reproductive illnesses, some surgically based, like the repair of vesico-vaginal fistulae, gynecological medical experimentation increased, especially on enslaved women. In the South, white doctors had a vulnerable and accessible black population on which they could perform operations and test cures. The widely held belief that black women suffered from gynecological diseases disproportionately encouraged such experimentation.22 Historian William Dosite Postell cites an example of such notions, observing that southern doctors believed that “uterine troubles were of common occurrence among slave women.”23
Another manifestation of the distinctions that doctors made between the sexuality of black women and that of white women is the different protocol they followed during physical examinations, based on the patient’s race. Determining the source of gynecological conditions required that doctors examine black women’s naked bodies, even though the practice was rare in medical circles for white women. Medical men generally did not gaze upon their white female patients’ once they had disrobed except during emergencies. In contrast, white physicians generally shared the assumption that black women were immodest about the display of their bodies, and medical doctors examined black women’s breasts, stomachs, and genitalia without reserve. The history of enslaved black women’s handling by white men in the Americas began with the institutionalization of slavery during the early sixteenth century and continued into the nineteenth century. Later, medical doctors were included in the evaluation process and began to examine black women in southern slave markets.24 Concurrently, as gynecology developed and American medicine was formalized, enslaved women’s examinations became part and parcel of doctors’ medical work as they assessed black women’s economic value.
In 1825, Dr. Finley, of Charleston, South Carolina, published an article that detailed his examination of a bondwoman in her midforties who was “menstruating from her mammae.”25 Although Finley did not indicate whether the enslaved woman’s condition was unique, he found it interesting enough to share the case with his peers. He wrote that his patient could not provide an exact date when the discharges had begun; further, she claimed ignorance about the nature of her nipple bleeding. She informed Finley that she suffered pain in her side, experienced anal bleeding, and was fatigued. She stated that above all she wanted to be relieved from her agony. Paradoxically, despite all the symptoms that the enslaved woman shared with Finley, he was unable to diagnose the cause of her condition. He seems not to have considered whether the patient had cancer, a tumor, or even a cyst. Rather, Finley determined that his black patient could experience not only a normal menstrual cycle but also an abnormal one located in her “menstruating breast.”26 The unnamed enslaved patient became another model of black female abnormality, the epitome of the “medical superbody.” In her case, her period could be experienced not only in her uterus and ovaries but also in her breast. Although she was not described as freakish, it was clear that Finley regarded her condition as beyond the scope of a “normal” women’s disease.
In response to her ailment, Finley petitioned other “professional gentleman of this city” to provide him with information concerning her illness in the Carolina Journal of Medicine, Science, and Agriculture.27 He promised that, in return for the medical services he would render to the enslaved patient, he would allow his colleagues to experiment on the bondwoman for pedagogical purposes. As his requests reveal, the slave woman’s recovery was less critical to the attending physician than the medical lessons he and his colleagues could possibly glean from an observation of her “menstruating” breasts.28
James Marion Sims operated as both a doctor and a slave owner. Dr. Sims believed that the survival of black slave women depended on his medical expertise; however, his career proved that the opposite was true: Sims depended on enslaved black women’s bodies to discover cures for vesico-vaginal fistulae and perfect surgical instruments such as the duckbilled speculum, achievements that were responsible for his global status as a pioneering gynecological surgeon. As the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel observed in The Phenomenology of Mind, “The master relates himself to the bondsman immediately through independent existence, for that is precisely what keeps the bondsman in thrall; it is his chain.”29 The enslaved women Sims treated, however, possessed bodies and lives that were not contingent upon the advancement of gynecology. Black women could and did conceive of themselves and their worth without the inclusion of white men.
Black women often continued their midwifery work even after slavery ended, demonstrating they did not want white men’s permission, intrusion, and instruction to perform medical work that they believed they had mastered. While enslaved, Mildred Graves labored for decades as a nurse and midwife in Hanover, Virginia, for her owner, Mr. Tinsley. Graves serviced both black and white women because of her reputation as an exemplary accoucheur and “doctoring woman.” Despite her position, Graves suffered ridicule and shameful debasement by white doctors. She remembered a particularly traumatic episode when her owner sent her to assist Mrs. Leake, a pregnant white patient who was experiencing a protracted labor. Upon reaching Leake, Graves encountered two doctors from Richmond there to assist in the child’s delivery. The doctors informed Graves that they were unable to help Leake. Graves responded, “I could bring her ‘roun’.” As the bondwoman later recalled, the doctors “laugh at me an’ say, ‘Get back, darkie. We mean business an’ don’ wont any witch doctors or hoodoo stuff.’”30 Leake, however, insisted that Graves deliver her baby, and the midwife did so successfully. Mildred Graves reported defiantly that the doctors who condemned her “said many praise fer [her].”31
The enslaved Graves courageously dealt with the doctors’ general hostility toward her race, gender, and enslaved status, their mocking of her African-based medicinal knowledge, and their dismissal of her skill set. The obstetrical case allowed her to transcend, momentarily, the marked racial and gendered boundaries set for her in a racially stratified society. Though her white patient served as the impetus for the exchange to occur, the woman’s delivery was as a potent reminder that enslaved doctoring women could rarely escape the white gaze and condemnation.32
Another site where enslaved women and white men, doctors and slave owners alike, had contested relations was the area of slave family planning. The sexual abuse that enslaved women endured certainly exacted a toll on their bodies and psyches, but the prospect of becoming mothers could often serve as a powerful antidote to their suffering. Sometimes women received gifts as rewards for “breeding” children. During Mary Reynolds’s enslavement, she recalled her owner’s promise to give every woman on the plantation who birthed twins within a year’s time “a outfittin’ of clothes for the twins and a double warm blanket.”33 The owner’s incentive for the women to bear twins, as if they could will themselves to deliver multiple children during a birthing session, emphasizes how ignorant some men were about reproduction. Also, the owner’s promise of an especially warm blanket reveals the scarcity of these essential items for pregnant enslaved women.
Some bondwomen, like Martha Bradley, struck out at white men who offended them by attempting to suggest they enter into sexual unions. Bradley shared a story with her interviewer: “One day I was working in the field, and the overseer he come round and say somep’n to me had no business say. I took my hoe and knocked him plumb down. . . . I say to Marster Lucas what that overseer say to me and Marster Lucas didn’t hit me no more.”34 Her case was highly unusual because of the counternarrative of victimization it provides but also because of the response of her master, who surprisingly ceased whipping her upon learning of the overseer’s transgression. Feminist scholar Saidiya V. Hartman posits, “The enslaved is legally unable to give consent or offer resistance, she is presumed to be always willing.”35 Yet Bradley’s reaction to Lucas informs scholars that some enslaved women, if provoked, readily used violence as a weapon to protect themselves against men who insulted their moral sensibilities by acting on the assumption that black women wanted to sleep with them. More broadly, historian Stephanie Camp has argued that “for bonds-women . . . intimate entities such as the body and the home were instruments of both domination and resistance.”36
Martha Bradley’s story elucidates the disparate methods some enslaved women employed to claim honor for themselves as protection against sexual dominance and exploitation by men, who often viewed them as hypersexualized. Bradley’s recollection of this event to a government worker illustrates two major considerations: First, her case emphasizes that some whites, like Martha’s owner, might have believed that black women could indeed possess honor in their interactions with white men. Second, one can speculate that Bradley offered this story to underscore the meaning she gave to herself in ways that whites did not.
This latter point conveys the role of agency that some formerly enslaved persons sought to insert in the historical record, which reminds us of the importance of historical memory. The übersexuality that white society attributed to the black woman’s body has origins that date back centuries. Winthrop Jordan cites an instance of this historical reality, writing, “By forging a sexual link between Negroes and apes, . . . Englishmen were able to give vent to their feelings that Negroes were a lewd, lascivious, and wanton people.”37
Acts of resistance such as Bradley’s offer us insight into the ways that enslaved women actively sought authority over their lives. Independently choosing and maintaining loving relationships with black men was one of the ways black women resisted white control over the most intimate and personal parts of their lives. Lucy Ann Dunn, a North Carolina enslaved woman, articulated powerfully the love she had for her husband, Jim Dunn, and their eight children. Dunn told her interviewer, “We lived together fifty-five years and . . . I loved him durin’ life and . . . though he’s been dead for twelve years . . . I want to go to Jim . . . when I smell honeysuckles or see a yellow moon.”38 Mrs. Dunn’s memories shine a light on the importance of black male and female romantic partnerships during slavery. Also, having children was essential for black women and the black men they loved because it cemented notions of family and self even on a shaky foundation.
Bondwomen’s actions and testimonies about reproduction and parenting suggest that some enslaved women defined the terms under which they would both birth and parent “their” children.” For example, Mrs. James Seward’s sister, also an enslaved mother, claimed ownership of herself and her infant child in direct defiance of her owner’s wishes. When the toddler began to walk, her master sold the child. Seward explained that her sister “went and got it [her child]” after the sale was finalized.39 Her act of defiance alerted her master that her position as the baby’s mother would trump any decision he made. Further, she proved she would intervene in the child’s life at her discretion.
For those bondwomen who resisted the reproductive control of white men, planned pregnancies were a form of “womb liberation” especially when supportive black midwives offered them prenatal care and used less-intrusive medical treatments. Dellie Lewis, whose grandmother served as a plantation midwife, explained that her grandmother typically gave enslaved obstetrical patients “cloves and whiskey to ease the pain.”40 As gynecology developed, however, white men’s intrusion into black women’s reproductive lives became even more prominent. The contours of enslavement did not grant bondwomen the liberty to prevent physicians from performing risky experimental surgeries on them or giving them dangerous drugs for medical complications that often arose in delivery.
The following case elucidates this point. In August 1819, Nanny, a Columbia, South Carolina, enslaved woman, lay in agony for sixty hours because she was unable to give birth naturally. Despite the presence of a slave midwife, her labor could not be induced. Afraid that Nanny and her child would die, the midwife called Dr. Charles Atkins to intervene in this obstetrical case. After Nanny was examined, she underwent emergency surgeries on her bladder, ruptured cervix, and vagina. She endured the surgeries over a two-day period. Nanny was a high-risk obstetric and gynecologic patient because she was carrying twins who had died in utero. Her doctor removed one stillborn child by “hand art” and the other, the second day, with his surgical blade. As risky as antebellum-era surgeries were, Nanny amazingly survived the procedures.41 Although Nanny represents many antebellum-era enslaved women who lost children during childbirth, the early publication of her medical experiences was not so common.
The nineteenth century was a watershed era in American gynecologic medicine. White men entered a field that had been dominated by women for millennia, but these men also pioneered surgical advances that repaired obstetrical fistulae, removed diseased ovaries, and performed successful cesarean section operations. In the South, as discussed earlier, enslaved women were disproportionately represented in these early surgical experiments. Physicians worked on them in their homes, hospitals, and classrooms. As doctors wrote about black women’s diseases and bodies, their colleagues, perhaps inadvertently, learned how to think about and treat black women from medical journal articles. Doctors created a metanarrative about race, ability, and gender that centered on “black” women. This metanarrative might have been peppered with technical jargon about medical procedures, but their writings unquestionably offered an early “technology” of race through medicine. The technology of race was certainly employed in medical journals and the pedagogical framework of medical training taught in medical hospitals because it, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham argues, “signif[ied] the elaboration and implementation of discourses (classificatory and evaluative) in order to maintain the survival and hegemony of one group over another.”42 The metanarrative was deeply nuanced not because of its foundation in the politics of race and medical knowledge, always a contentious issue in antebellum America, but rather because much of the meta-narrative included enslaved people’s voices. When doctors chose to include their voices in medical literature, their testimony revealed deep fissures in the ideology of white Southern paternalism and black people’s acceptance of this so-called benevolence. In numerous medical case narratives, doctors would write about the soundness and strength that black people possessed despite their illnesses and the ease with which black patients managed pain. Yet, in the same narratives, contradictions appeared that revealed black patients’ frailties and pains. In Nanny’s case, enslaved men and women intervened on her behalf because they witnessed the wasting away of her physical strength and vitality taking place because she “bred” so often.
The narrative of Nanny’s medical case exposed the concerns of the enslaved men and women from her community. They informed Dr. Atkins of their feelings about Nanny’s physical frailty due to her seven former pregnancies.43 They declared Nanny should have never been allowed to “breed” because her body was “too delicate.” Notwithstanding Nanny’s fragility, at least according to the black plantation community, her final prognosis was positive, according to Dr. Atkins. She recovered, having survived a harrowing physical ordeal, and became infertile, a condition that most probably decreased her economic value. Historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz has noted the importance of reproductive health for both the enslaved woman and her master during the antebellum era. She asserts, “A dual approach to the management of women’s health developed on Southern plantations.”44 Although black enslaved women and their white male owners were invested in maintaining black women’s gynecological health, their reasons and methods varied. Nanny’s case demonstrates the saliency of Jenkins Schwartz’s argument because it demonstrates how physicians, like slave owners, were similarly invested in highlighting black women’s “difference” and thus their “inferiority” to white women. Despite her extensive surgeries, seven in all, Nanny’s quick recovery postsurgery and subsequent good health and strength seemed to prove the hardiness of black women, especially those “fit” for labor like bondwomen.
American medicine developed under the expansive influence of European scientific racism. As a consequence, early gynecologists demonstrated their medical knowledge through their treatment of and writings about enslaved women as gynecological patients who purportedly felt little or no pain as they underwent invasive surgical procedures.45 Antebellum-era doctors continued the American tradition of reinforcing prevailing racial stereotypes about “black” women through their writings. These men recognized the importance of medical journals, especially as the field became more legitimized.
As the field of gynecology emerged, enslaved women had to learn to manage growing medical intrusions into their sexual lives, interference that often made them ill. Enslaved women were often forced to have intercourse with men whom their owners chose for them to “marry.” In an interview years after she was freed, Marriah Hines noted that her master had married her to a man of his choosing, and she had “five chullun by him.”46 In cases where women birthed children from rape or were forced to rear children whom they had not borne, they faced a host of complex issues. More amazingly, how did enslaved women negotiate their paths inside the brutal terrain of slavery and maintain a firm hold on their sanity? Bondwomen’s insistence on exercising reproductive autonomy helped form what might be called a liberation doctrine, one that stressed their humanity, strength, resiliency, and intelligence. Their metalanguage, “language that supersedes multiple categories of difference,” was contained within their acts of resistance and survival.47
When Marriah Hines mentioned that her owner married her to a man for whom she bore five children, she also acknowledged that she learned to love and celebrate him. Hines stated that her husband was “one of the best colored man in the world.”48 The larger issue of brutality cannot be overstated when we examine how masters took away enslaved people’s right to choose who they desired romantically. Yet even in the context of Hines’s dehumanization, she chose to celebrate her husband’s manhood and her love for him. Black women’s ability to love romantic partners forced on them was very similar to their choosing to love children resulting from rape or to nurture those they were forced to raise after the children’s parents had been sold away. Bondwomen’s resistance must be read as a central theme critical to understanding the totality of their lives even as they lived within the restrictive contours of slavery and professional medicine. Unfortunately, although gynecologists sometimes included enslaved women’s words in medical narratives, their metanarrative of race and medicine did not take into full account black women’s metalanguage of race. Thus historians of slavery and medicine must continue to examine and interpret how enslaved women responded to the medical treatments and behavior of doctors and slave owners, keeping in mind that these sources were authored solely by white men.49
Metanarratives about black women’s bodies, health, and responses to white people’s medical interventions also crossed gender lines. White plantation women sometimes recorded how black women responded to their illnesses and treatments in their personal writings. Noted diarist and former Georgia plantation mistress, the English-born actress Frances Kemble detailed how her husband, Pierce Butler, routinely treated sick bondwomen on his plantation. Kemble documented a troubling incident that involved Teresa, a woman they owned. She wrote, “With an almost savage vehemence of gesticulation . . . [Teresa] tore her scanty clothing, and exhibited a spectacle . . . which inconceivably shocked and sickened. . . . These are natural results, inevitable and irremediable ones, of improper treatment of the female frame.”50 Kemble sympathized with Teresa’s pain but also expressed her simultaneous amazement and repulsion at the woman’s appearance and behavior. Equally distressing to Kemble was her husband’s ability to carry on his daily duties with neither interruption nor concern for Teresa. Slavery created a space where white people could witness the most horrific acts of sheer brutality and viciousness against other humans, and without a misstep, they could make love, go to church, and kiss their children good night.
Parthena Rollins, an ex-slave from Kentucky, experienced the macabre nature of slavery’s brutality and hesitated to discuss her experiences under the institution nearly seven decades after its abolishment. She shared that the abuses she and other slaves suffered in bondage by stating plainly to her white interviewer that what black slaves endured “would make your hairs stand on ends.”51 Rollins recalled the murder of an enslaved infant before its mother. Slave traders came ready to purchase the seemingly robust and strong young mother; however, they were adamant about not buying her baby. The woman’s owner, wanting to make a sale, quickly beat the child until it died.52 After her sale, the slave woman began to have seizures. According to Rollins, the woman’s “fits” were brought on by her child’s cruel murder. In another act of cruelty, her new master refused to pay the costs involved in providing the bereaved mother with necessary medical treatment and instead returned the woman to her former owner and asked for a full refund. Rollins declared finally, “She could hardly talk of the happenings of the early days because of the awful things her folks had to go through.”53
Although enslaved mothers were aware that they could be sold away from their children, they were not prepared to deal with the murder of their offspring and the trauma following these painful occurrences. Although Rollins’s example is rare, it is deeply significant because of its bold example of black women’s intersecting experiences with sexuality, reproduction, economic value, death, and medicine.
Enslaved mothers often went to great lengths to protect their children from the excessive violence of slave owners and overseers. In doing so, these bondwomen arguably fashioned a form of honor unique to their experiences as reproductive laborers. Fannie Moore offered a moving testimony of maternal protection, describing the punishments that her mother would often suffer to shield her children from the brutality of the plantation overseer. Speaking of her mother with pride, Moore stated, “She stan’ up fo’ her chillun tho’. De ol overseeah he hate my mammy, case she fight him for beatin’ her chillun. Why she git more whuppings for dat den anythin’ else. She hab twelve chillun.”54 As the reaction of Moore’s mother reveals, some enslaved women were willing to attack white men for viciously abusing their children, regardless of the violence inflicted on their own bodies.
The narrative of Canadian refugee Mrs. John Little provides a deeper view of how enslaved women fought back through silence, suffering, and ultimately cunning. She shared her story of being a member of a contingent of Virginia slaves who crafted an escape plan, which initially failed because of the betrayal of a group member. For the two women involved, sex and reproduction were connected to their punishments when caught. Mrs. Little stated, “The master made a remark to the overseer about my shape. Before striking me, master questioned me about the girl. . . . I only knew that she had been with child, and that now she was not, but I did not tell them even of that. I was ashamed of my situation, they remarking upon me.”55 The other woman Mrs. Little mentioned received an abortion from an enslaved woman who was made aware of their escape plan. Perhaps it was an enslaved midwife who provided Little’s comrade with the abortion, but all the women decided it was the most appropriate medical action to take before they escaped.
The work of renowned natural scientist Louis Agassiz stands as a testament to how black women lacked control of their bodies and images in almost every conceivable way. Drana was an enslaved South Carolinian whose father was Congo born. Agassiz commissioned South Carolina daguerreotypist J. T. Zealy to capture Drana’s image for observation and educational purposes. Agassiz was a firm believer in polygenism, the theory that racial groups did not share a common ancestor as the Bible asserted, and these pictures would help to prove the validity of his belief.56 Drana was photographed both frontally and sideways with her breasts bared. It was clear that these daguerreotypes were meant to document black people as scientific specimens, wholly distinct from white people. Figure 3.1 is a daguerreotype taken in 1850 when the emergence of Americans interest in scientific racism had crystallized with the emergence of the American school of ethnology, advanced by physicians Samuel Cartwright and Josiah Nott and early ethnologist Samuel Morton, among others.57 The American school was decidedly antiblack.
In slavery and in the annals of antebellum-era medical education, the representations of and writings about the black female body had been used to shame black people. Further, these writings situated black women as the diametric opposite of white women, who, though still viewed as the abnormal sex, were considered virginal and virtuous. Slave owners and medical doctors inscribed the enslaved black female body not only to reflect gendered notions of racial resiliency but also to aid in the commodification of slavery. Enslaved women’s anatomies would determine if an owner’s wealth increased through her sale or whether a physician’s good reputation stayed intact, and her fertility could supposedly be determined by the appearance of her reproductive organs. In the North, however, another dispossessed group of women shared similar medical and racialized experiences: poor Irish immigrant women. If there was one thing that linked the medical experiences of enslaved and Irish women, it was the notion that blackness, the ultimate mark of difference and inferiority in America, could be mapped onto bodies that were deemed degraded. Between 1800 and 1865, an important historical period in the development of modern gynecology and obstetrics, medical and scientific research on the racialized body reached its apogee.
FIGURE 3.1. Daguerreotype of Drana, a South Carolina slave, by J. T. Zealy, commissioned by Louis Agassiz, 1850. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Photographic Archives Collection, Harvard University.