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Author: Sara Messervey

(I can’t believe I have to say this:) Black Women are Human, Too

In part one of Beloved, I was horrified by the description of the enslaved men who raped cows in place of women. It was horrific, because the act felt so against nature, and so violent. Yet, what these enslaved Black men did pales in comparison to the rape perpetrated against enslaved Black women by White slaveowners. The story seamlessly glides between the two horrors, with the Sweet Home men and the cattle and Mr. Garner and Baby Suggs, daring us to blanch at the idea of fucking cows, but not at that of raping Black women.

It’s so easy to look back at slavery from a place of White privilege and pass judgement upon the behavior of those our ancestors enslaved. I found myself disgusted yet again in the second chapter, reading Paul D’s perspective of resentment toward Sethe for not being a more worthy “lay.” The idea that women weren’t seen as fully human, but as fuckable things, and in the case of Black women, deserving only slightly more respect than the cattle (if that), was revolting. And yet, that is how Whites treated Black men and women for centuries. Our ancestors taught them that they were violable things, and in spite of being raised with that understanding of themselves and their place in the world, the fact that the Sweet Home men could treat Sethe with such delicacy and kindness is a testament to these men’s humanity and goodness in the face of such depravity.

That alone can’t change the experience of enslaved Black women like Sethe and Baby Suggs though, which is why an understanding of intersectionality is so important. Not only were Black women treated as inhuman for their race by White men and women, but they were also stripped of their humanity yet again by men–Black and White–who saw them as violable, fuckable objects because they were women. It’s hard to read a book like this, knowing the humanity these women (and the Sweet Home men) deserved to be treated with, but were denied on the basis of characteristics that should not ever have defined them.

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Women’s Suffrage: Breaking Out of the Yellow Wall-Paper

Women’s right to vote was obtained through no easy feat. Patriarchy was established to keep us in check, crippling women financially, civically, and most importantly, socially. Without the financial means (fair and equal access to work, personal accounts, and loans) and civic power (the right to vote and hold office) to protect our rights and personal interests, women were left entirely at the mercy of men, at a societal level and within the home. This system was justified through the disparagement of the “fairer” [read: female] sex, and it became socially instilled into men and women that women were inherently biologically different from men to the point of being “irrational” beings who should not be left in command of themselves for their own protection.

Overall, this strategy was very effective. Through social/pseudo-scientifc posturing about the way women are, and through complete financial and legal domination, women were either without the means to advocate for their own rights or pitted against their oppressors (men) and “science” in trying to fight it. Patriarchy not only stripped women of their power, but also of their voices and ability to be taken seriously. This is showcased very effectively in the work The Yellow Wall-Paper, by Charlotte Stetson, where the female protagonist is constantly forced to question her own perspective and experience of reality due to what may be mental illness but what is also certainly gaslighting by the husband who controls every aspect of her being (down to where she is allowed to be and what she is allowed to think).

Given the patriarchal norms that stripped women of the power to speak and be believed, it is impossible for them to have received their right to vote in any way other than fighting, and working alongside the Civil Rights movement for Black Americans. It is also understandable (though still wrong) that this movement became co-opted by racist white women who sought to gain power comparatively by stealing rank from black men (and obviously black women doubly so). While the narrator of The Yellow Wall-Paper may not have truly gained power by the end of the story (like women), she managed to break out of the initial binds of the wall-paper (gain the right to vote) which was certainly a first step.

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Intersectionality and Blackness in a Post-Slavery Society (9/4; Post #1)

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is a powerful memoir documenting the life of a slave in the mid-eighteenth century. Olaudah Equiano tells the story of his abuses–from his kidnapping and separation from his sister, through the loss of his close friend and abuses of each master. His story is painful to read, even with his almost jovial writing style. The abuses he faces are harrowing, and yet delivered dispassionately as if his experiences were not traumatic and disturbing in the slightest. The way he found the bright side of each situation he was in–feeling close with and unwilling to leave the captain who literally beat him to strip him of his African name and identity, to the point of feeling betrayed when sold; being grateful for the occasional “kindness” from his masters and abusers, who were participating in a system to oppress Olaudah to begin with–challenged my emotions constantly. It leaves me to wonder whether he actually believes that small acts of kindness were all that he was entitled to from his white oppressors as an African man.

Recognizing the context of the time period this work was created within, I can only guess at Olaudah’s intentions without further research into the matter. But it’s not difficult to ascertain that this book was written with the purpose of humanizing black people to an audience of white people. Olaudah’s story had to be told within a framework of white saviorship in order to remain palatable to white readers. Kindness and recognition of slaves as somewhere on the spectrum of “human” was all that was required to not be the villain of Olaudah’s story, a small step given that the enslavement and disenfranchisement of his people and all who still share any semblance of his skin color is entirely due to the direct action and complicity of white people then and today. His story could not be too real, because then it would have been rejected before it could impact the masses. He was unable to be too angry, or else he would be written off as another hyperaggressive (“savage”) black man. And in this way, Olaudah was partially invisible.

But as we learned from our reading on intersectionality, black men were not the only ones made invisible. The traumas experienced by Olaudah were most frequently shared, as it is the stories of black men that were recognized by white people throughout history in comparison to black women. We fail to hear the personal accounts of black women, who were not only objectified as laborers, but also as tools for sexual gratification. And recognition of that reality is what makes accounts like this even harder to read and to attempt to bring to life within our imagination. Those stories are likely too dark for people now (particularly white people) to fully comprehend.

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