Speaking Race to ‘Violence':
The On-Going Creation of an Inclusive Rhetoric of Violence

This paper tells the story of gender and violence from the perspective of urgency, from the perspective of a spectrum of ‘violences’ attained and denied like privileges. Enslaved black women specifically were systematically denied claims to pain, violence, and violation, requiring that this analysis centralize on the experience of such women. This essay traces black women’s relationship to a heavily homosocial female-female violence situated in slavery as it evolves into a sexual and heterosexual violence situated as racialized social warfare. After the 13th amendment’s 1865 ratification, black women’s bodies became the site for white society to assert its dominance in distinctly sexual terms. This mechanism of racialized social control then fractured after the Betty Jean Owen’s trial of 1959 epitomized black women’s testimonial method of organizing. The legacy of black women’s mobilization against sexual violence has thus been both under-acknowledged and fundamental to the nuanced, modern understandings of gender violence that cross racial, class-based, geographical, and political boundaries.

Beginning in the late 15th century, cultural clashes and regimes of colonization produced a narrative of violence in the Americas. With that violence, European colonizers attempted to impose and manufacture the racialized and gendered hierarchies they had carried from their places of origin. The disproportionate skew of European men into the early colonies meant that interpretations of gender and race had an especially pointed ignorance. One ‘mis’observation of Native American women’s bodies (and Black women’s bodies) is my starting place for reading the negotiations of gender and violence throughout U.S. history: Male European judgements and analyses regarding Native women’s and Black women’s experience giving birth. Colonists imposed racialized evaluations of gender through the lens of their own significance-construction regarding the relationship of childbirth pain to gendered identity.

As both Kathleen M. Brown and Jennifer L. Morgan elaborated, European women’s birthing experiences were embedded in Judeo-Christian ideology; their pain evidenced their ancestry to Eve and demonstrated their shared suffering in Eve’s sins (16, 18; 24). Morgan emphasizes, “Early modern European women were so defined by their experience of pain in childbirth that an inability to feel pain was considered evidence of witchcraft” (33 n.25). European men thus claimed that a) Native American and African women did not experience painful childbirths and b) this ease-of-childbirth revealed a naturally, and even divinely, racialized hierarchy. Europeans thus colonized gender in the Americas from an original coding structure built on pain, violence, and the white privilege to the recognition of both of those experiences. This privileging of violence became a mechanism for constructing and maintaining the early colonies’ enslavement and abuse of Black women (and men). Based on the construction of Native and Black women’s ease-of-birth, bodies were racially coded as naturally-laboring. Enslaved Black women suffered simultaneously the violence inflicted on them for their blackness, for their enslaved status, and additionally, for their womanhood.

As the British Colonies developed through the 18th century, houses in the South became grander and farms of no more than ten slaves became plantations of hundreds. Demands for slaves rose along with demands for rice, which had exploded as an industry during the 1700s. By the American Revolution, “exports of rice from South Carolina reached over sixty million pounds annually” which stood in comparison to less than the total export of 500,000 pounds in 1700 (Carney 92). This surge in rice exports was mirrored in the surge in enslaved Black people which in Virginia alone grew from 42,000 people in 1743 to 259,000 people in ~unofficially~ post-war 1782. As slavery continued into the 19th century, it was forced to accommodate the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807, which went into effect in 1808 and fundamentally altered slavery in the U.S.. Plantations became spaces for the reproduction of slave labor itself. While enslaved people were able to create families, communities, and space for cultural expression, any of these opportunities were tempered by the use of these ties as a method of control to keep these people bound to places of violence, abuse, and rape. For enslaved women, these newly reorganized plantations became sites for a redefinition of their identification and non-identification with violence according to the needs of enslaved men.

Plantations were also reorganized in terms of ownership in post-Revolution U.S.. Primogeniture was no longer strictly practiced and white Southern girls became propertied persons as they were gifted and inherited enslaved people (Jones-Rogers 140). Post-Revolution U.S. became a time in which “enslaved and slaveholding women related to each other on the grounds of slavery” (Glymph 148). More importantly, however, was that this homosocial communication took form as violence. Antebellum America became a time in which black and white women were mutually reconstructed around the power to inflict violence vs. the powerlessness from violence. As both Stephanie Jones-Rogers and Thavolia Glymph explained, white mistresses in the South often had more agency than they are attributed and used that agency to be more brutal and violent to enslaved people than the masters themselves.

The plantation became a space for the intense identity formation of white girls into slaveholding mistresses. Glymph describes “the Great House [as] the female side of domination,” and Jones-Rogers claims “’the plantation was a school’ where [white girls newly indicted into slaveowning communities] learned how to be propertied women” (148; 141). The understanding of the plantation house as a site for homosocial violence is essential to understanding the gendered narrative of violence that flourished in Antebellum America. Mistresses used violence as a way to wield power and instill a racialized gender hierarchy as they ‘lost’ legal and political power under coverture (and their slaves and, consequentially, their notion of autonomy) (Jones-Rogers 140). Mistresses constantly threatened and performed violent acts on enslaved men and women in increasingly sadistic, physical and psychological acts of abuse. Even when considering the spectrum of brutality amongst mistresses, even the rare ‘gentle’ mistress found her rooted identity in her right to inflict violence (Glymph 150, 151). In the spirit of Republican Motherhood, these mistresses often reproduced that slaveholding ideology of violence in her children (Jones-Rogers 143)

Enslaved women who suffered the mistreatment, torture, and disfigurement of these mistresses also passed down their experience and their plantation-formed self-identity and relationship to violence to their children in the form of trauma. As Glymph explains, memory of this trauma lives through generations of descendants of enslaved peoples into today (154). This is not to say that white women did not suffer gendered violence themselves. Glymph clarifies that slaveholding women were vulnerable to violence committed by their husbands and fathers and suffered rape or sexual assault. Yet, white women had access to a system of judicial protections that were not accessible for enslaved black women. Thus, violence became the terms in which white women could articulate their superiority/authority over black women. Enslaved women could not make the legal and social claims that the white women could and thus their violence was delegitimized (Glymph 154-155). Antebellum American saw the height of violence inflicted on women by women as a way of manufacturing racialized social order across and within genders. The importance of homosocial violence to the hierarchalization of the plantation evidenced white women’s anxieties about their status as economic and political (in)actors. Glymph reveals the slavery-sourced power of white women: “By the outbreak of the Civil War, slaveholding women had become, in fact if not in law, central partners in slavery’s maintenance and management…” (Glymph 151). White-women-enacted violence-based sociopolitical structures were central to the identification of white women with the privilege of violence, and the ritual reenactment of the enslaved women’s inaccess.

During this same time building up to the Civil War, women in the North seem to be negotiating their identity lesser so in terms of the household as a site of violence and more so in claims to political and economic advances. Post-revolution New Jersey had the vote, white women were moving into factories per the Philadelphia Plan, black and white women were forming benevolence societies, and voices like Mary Wollstonecraft’s were constructing first-wave feminism. The North also saw, however, racialized female labor, class divisions leading to one in three NYC women identifying as “casual prostitutes,” and attacks on black masculinity that destabilized black communities and relationships. Yet, when it comes to tracing the story of gender and violence in the United States, it seems to me that the question must be an interpretation of the classroom permanent “What’s at stake, and for whom?” This is why the turning point I propose—the passage of the 13th amendment—is rooted in the experience of women of color in the South and expands up into the North and across through the West in various reinterpreted ways. The South articulated by racial divisions, the North did so by class divisions. In the inherent nature that racial divisions are naturalized by violence in a way that class tends not to be, the South attracts my most urgent interrogation.

When the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865, the violence of slavery transformed into a new type of racialized social violence. This Reconstruction period saw a movement of Black men, women, and families into cities. In Atlanta, Black women in particular entered the urban population, often becoming in-house domestic laborers and thus entering a liminal space for potential violence (Hunter 278). While African Americans were migrating for economic opportunity, they were also seeking safety from the violent Jim Crow moment soon to be in full force. In this reformulated domestic space of labor, domestics and their employers had to redefine their power relations and ascertain the new legitimacy and function of violence. Wage disputes became episodes of abuse of domestic workers, as well as a site of engagement for the Ku Klux Klan (Hunter 280). The KKK’s use of violence against “noncompliant” domestics reaffirmed the dependency of existing racialized political, economic, and social structures on the privileged access to/safety from violence. The KKK explicitly coded violence as a white privilege especially as they later began to intimidate the abusive husbands of Protestant women.

After the 13th amendment, however, Black women were now able to activate against violence in a new form of agency: the ability to quit and seek employment elsewhere. Atlanta encompassed a tension in the changing relationship of Black women to violence: although the urban location was safer for women fleeing the KKK or general violence, “Black women risked sexual abuse no matter where they live. Domestics in white homes were the most susceptible to attacks” (Hunter 280). The specific use of sexual violence for a racialized notion of conquest is far from new to the narrative of Black (and indigenous) women in the United States.

As early as the first attempts at European colonization, white colonizers used the sexual violation and abuse of other-ed women as a means to articulate control, superiority, and to specifically orient those statements at the men of that society (whether or not those men are recognizing sexuality in the same terms like the story of Powhatan’s complicity in Englishmen’s sexual conquest of indigenous women (Brown 20)). The manipulation of sexual violence as a means for the political, social, and economic articulation of an America in the image of white men evolved in its appearance throughout U.S. history. During slavery, slaveowners abused their positions and explicitly raped enslaved women “sometimes in the presence of their husbands or families” (McGuire 592). White women did face domestic and sexual violence, and servants like Rachel Davis faced sexual coercion in Antebellum U.S., but they could lay claim to legitimizing resources that women like Harriet Jacobs or Sarah Winnemucca were denied (Block, Stremlau). This sexual violence, however, was heavily accompanied by a more general violence of abuse that shifted as previously enslaved women gained autonomy.

As the white social structuring instilled throughout slavery was increasingly threatened by the Civil War and through Reconstruction/Jim Crow, “rape became a ‘weapon of terror’ to dominate the bodies and minds of African American men and women” (McGuire 593). While rape had always existed as such, the 13th amendment stilted opportunities for white society to use brazen violence to articulate their notion of social order. The rape of freed black women and its gendered violence became the predominant mechanism for the control of Black people as a racialized class in general: “sexualized violence served as a ritualistic reenactment of the daily pattern of social dominance” (McGuire 593). Black women, like Harriet Simril in 1871, voiced their rape to committee’s investigating KKK violence, and Black men, like Henry McNeal Turner in 1866, began to campaign against the sexual assault of black women (McGuire 593; Hunter 281) Yet, like Harriet Jacobs’s and Rachel Davis’s paralleling narratives in pre-Civil War times, “rape” as a sociopolitical term was structured by race (Block). ‘Rape,’ as a threat, as an accusation, and as a reality, becomes itself an entity of constant rearticulation along gendered and racialized boundaries.

Hunter continues to explain the social (il)legitimacy of black women’s claims to rape and sexual violence by depicting the white perception of such claims. Most white people refused to frame the rape of black women as rape partially because of the depiction of black women as promiscuous temptresses whose sexual relations with white men were inherently consensual. Hunter concludes, “Rape was a crime defined exclusively, in theory and in practice, as perceived or actual threats against white female virtue by black men, which resulted in the lynching and castrations of numbers of innocent black men” (281). Although white society refused to legitimize black women’s claims of rape and sexual assault, black women self-legitimized their experiences by speaking and writing about them. Linda Brent, also known as Harriet Jacobs, published her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861 detailing how “the slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers” (Brent 206). Roda Ann Childs signed her affidavit in a Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau detailing the actions of multiple men who raped, physically abused and threatened her (Childs 288). Ida B. Wells began publishing pieces regarding the surge of violent racism during Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the 1880s, and published her 1892 Southern Horrors pamphlet which brought specific attention to the practice of lynching and the reality of rape for black women by white men. In doing so, Wells points to the lack of legal and social acknowledgement of black women’s experiences of sexual violence (Wells 328). This social coding of the significance of pain and violence to the racialized female body goes back as far as attitudes toward observed births. Slavery was an enabling legal structure of racial violence and the end of slavery relied on sexual violence as a way to maintain that racialized structure.

After World War II, black women continued this persistence of speaking out and used their voices as a means of organizing around the issue of sexual violence toward black women. This anti-rape organizing raised local and national consciousness at to the degree of targeted sexual suffering borne by black women, yet reflected the political and legal stagnancy of the U.S.’s reaction. In 1944, Recy Taylor was raped by six white men, whose indictment was twice failed in the Alabama courts. In 1949, Gertrude Perkins was raped by two white policemen, who the Alabama courts again failed to indict. This pattern continued until May 2, 1959, when Betty Jean Owen’s was targeted as a black woman by four white men and raped seven times in Tallahassee, Florida (McGuire 592, 594). The 1959 rape Betty Jean Owen’s and her trial that same year mark the second turning point for gender and violence in the U.S.

Florida A&M mobilized immediately: on May 3, 1,500 students announced their plan to petition a trial, and on May 4, 1,000 students protested on the school quad. On May 6, a special grand jury was called and the Owens case was already marked historic as the first time white men charged with raping a black women awaited trial in prison. On June 11, 1959, Owens’s rapists went to trial. Owens persisted in reliving her trauma as she was faced with the burden of recounting her trauma in a white institution to jury of white men. After the jury’s decision of “guilty with a recommendation for mercy” and Judge Walker’s announcement of lifetime sentences, the Owens trial altered the relationship of black women to violence as it is mediated and legitimized through political and legal structures (McGuire 597, 598, 600).

Betty Jean’s trial also exposed a moment of destabilization when it came to white women’s perceptions of gendered, sexual, and racialized violence. Pearlie Collinsworth, the wife of one of Betty Jean’s rapists, gave a supportive court testimony only to write a letter to Judge Walker detailing her husband’s history of domestic violence. Yet women like Laura Cox rejected the court’s decision on the basis that “negro women like to be raped by white men” (McGuire 600, 601). The diverse reactions between white women and within the individual white woman evidenced their ability to simultaneously deeply relate to sexual violence against women as well as confront the racialized borderlands of gender violence.

Betty Jean’s trial became a turning point still mitigated by astounding ignorance toward the racialized sexual abuse of black women. Although legacy of summer convictions in Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina, the 1959 trial still revealed the way the U.S. judicial system legally codified valued womanhoods across race identities (McGuire 601-602). Black women still face a complicated relationship to gender violence as sexual abuse within the black community is silenced because of fears of white abuses like lynching or the violence of poverty (Hicks; Walker; Levenstein). For Clarence Thomas’s to then frame Anita Hill’s accusations as a “high-tech lynching,” weaponized a racially-coded shame against Hill for ‘challenging solidarity.’ Tarana Burke, an African American activist, spawned the #MeToo movement, continuing the legacy of black women testifying against silence; however, her movement has been deracialized and largely adapted by white celebrities. Current movements like “Mute R. Kelly” have attempted to reveal the hidden specificity of sexual abuse of women, but often lose that identity focus in mainstream media. While sexual violence in its most explicit manifestation, rape, is still something that confronts all women, black women who are victims of rape tend to receive less political and legal legitimacy and social attention.

As women of all identities come forward with their stories of rape and sexual abuse, sexual violence is receiving increased attention on university campuses, in the military, in the workplace in increasingly nuanced frameworks. Understandings about how violence articulates itself differently along racial lines begs for an expansion of violence to read other ways women’s ownership of their bodies are destabilized, thus including the forced sterilizations of the seventies disproportionately inflicted on Black and Latinx bodies. By understanding how the narrative of violence has been articulated upon and by black women, the racialized privileging of defining, identity, and responding to violence is revealed.

Works Cited

  1. My professor did not require citations for this essay, instead we pulled on the resources discussed in class. For more information, e-mail me at ipannoshepard@gmail.com.