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Tasha Shermer

Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
Race, Class, and Gender:
American Social Institutions that Shaped the Slave Experience
The institution of slavery was not the only oppressive force that
affected Africans enslaved in the United States. Although slavery may have
been the most obvious form of oppression slaves suffered under, the
hierarchy of privilege that existed in American society, distributed along race
and gender lines, bore weight on what level of hardship a slave could expect
to endure. Whereas male slaves were mainly subjected to the purely physical
abuses of slavery, female slaves could expect to be sexually abused as well.
Both male and female slaves, however, experienced the psychological
trauma of enslavement. As some slaves and former slaves gained a deeper
understanding of American social stratification, the nature of this system of
intersecting oppressions became clearer, and their burden became not only
physical and psychological, but intellectual as well.
Americas racial hierarchy ranked whites at the top, and blacks at the
bottomfree blacks enjoyed more privileges than slaves, of course, due to
their lack of chattel status. But, race was not the only determinant of social
status. Black female slaves ranked lower than both Black male slaves and
white women. Thus, when including gender, white men remained at the top,
with white women ranked next, with black men and black women rounding
out the bottom. After the abolishment of slavery, black men and white
women battled for the second tier spot in the social hierarchy.

Tasha Shermer
Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
Economic class, another component of the American social hierarchy,
shaped the attitudes of both Southern and Northern working class and poor
whites towards slaves, as they felt their livelihoods threatened by a group of
people who could provide labor for little to no pay. So too did they hold
animosity for free black workers based on their racism and the belief that
they were more likely to agree to lower wages, thus ending the dominance of
white men in the trades. Frederick Douglass recalls, All at once, the white
carpenters knocked off, and said they would not work with free colored
workmen. Their reason for this, as alleged, was that if free colored
carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own
hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment (379). Their
fear manifested itself in the form of racist violence, such as that which
occurred in the shipyard where Douglass worked.
To uphold the integrity of the institution of slavery, the inequality
between blacks and whites was codified into law. Racist laws that deemed
blacks as less human than whites allowed for whites to freely commit acts of
violence against slaves and free black people, but the reverse was not the
case. As Douglass states, to strike a white man is death by Lynch law
(379); Lynch law being the right of whites to lynch blacks for alleged crimes
without a trial. Even the murder of a slave was not a punishable offense,
since the life of a slave was not seen as valuable enough to justify the
imprisonment of a white person. Douglass acknowledges this inequality

Tasha Shermer
Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
when he states, I speak advisedly when I say this,that killing a slave, or
any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime,
either by the courts or the community (347).
The patriarchal power structure already in place at the time African
slaves arrived in the United States ensured that black female slaves were
granted even less privilege than black male slaves by virtue of their gender.
Women in general had long been accused of leading men into temptation,
and of inviting sin into the world. Sojourner Truth alluded to this fact when
she declared, I cant read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have
learned that Eve caused man to sin (178). They would find no allies in the
ranks of white women, either, who often displayed brutality towards female
slaves that equaled, if not exceeded, that of white men. White women were
loathe to interfere in the punishment of female slaves, both because they
resented their husbands transgressions with them, and because they
recognized the role of the black female as a replacement lightning rod for
white male misogynist rage. Harriet Jacobs laments the inaction of white
women: No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as
her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from
insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by friends
who bear the shape of men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless
victim, has no other feeling towards her but those of jealousy and rage
(231). The transference of womans inherent sexual impurity onto the black

Tasha Shermer
Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
female allowed for the development of white womens cult of true
womanhood.
Black women were sexually exploited in order to breed more slaves, to
satisfy the sexual appetites of white men, and to enforce the system of
patriarchy. The children borne by female slaves were usually taken from
them at early ages, never to be seen again. A slaveholders economic class
status had an effect on the rape and sexual exploitation of black female
slaves for breeding purposes. If a slaveholder did not have the money to
purchase slaves, he could obtain more by forcing a female slave to produce
them. Douglass recollects the breeding experience of a slave named Caroline
under his master, Mr. Covey: Mr. Covey was a poor man; he was just
commencing in life; he was only able to buy one slave; and shocking as is
the fact, he bought her, as he said, for a breeder After buying her, he hired
a married man of Mr. Samuel Harrison, to live with him one year; and him he
used to fasten up with her every night! The result was that, at the end of the
year, the miserable woman gave birth to twinsThe children were regarded
as being quite an addition to his wealth (364). Black female slaves were
also expected to do the same amount of physical labor as black male slaves.
Yet black women did not receive the same consideration as white women as
to their delicacy and femininity, as Sojourner Truth testifies: Nobody eber
help me into carriages, or ober mud puddles, or gives me any best place
and arnt I a woman? (180). Even more so than black men, black women

Tasha Shermer
Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
were used as beasts of burden, bearing young as a cow and sowing fields as
an ox.
Despite the overwhelming social forces in place to support slavery,
enforce white supremacy, and uphold patriarchy, both male and female
slaves found ways to resist the dehumanizing and demeaning effects of their
condition on a personal level. Although Jacobs despaired at the corruption of
her womanhood and the loss of her purity, she leveraged the sexual desire of
white men as a means to secure freedom for her and her children. On
developing a relationship with Mr. Sands, the white man whose affections she
won in order to obtain freedom from her sexually abusive master, Jacobs
writes, There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave
confuses all principles of morality, and in fact, renders the practice of them
impossible (235). Jacobs acknowledges the possible immorality of her
actions as an individual, but her actions are taken in the context of the
greater immorality of a society that allows slavery to exist. Luke, the slave
Jacobs meets in New York, recouped some of his stolen wages by subverting
traditional morality. Luke knew he would never be gifted anything of value
upon his masters death. To work around this, he placed money in his dead
masters trousers, then requested the trousers as a gift upon his burial.
Jacobs comments on this act of resistance: This is a fair specimen of how
the moral sense is educated by slavery. When a man has his wages stolen
from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how

Tasha Shermer
Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who
robs him? I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree
with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking that he had a right to that
money, as a portion of his unpaid wages (255).
Douglass intellectual resistance to a life of ignorance led him to
physically resist the brutality of his master, and he counts his fight with Mr.
Covey as the point when he regained his humanity. In recalling the incident,
he states, You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a
slave was made a man (360). Although learning to read and write was a
necessary act of resistance for Douglass, his newfound enlightenment as to
the broader social problems slavery represented was the source of much
inner turmoil. Douglass writes, I would at times feel that learning to read
had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my
wretched condition, without the remedy (354). Both Douglass and Jacobs
intellectual defiance later allowed them to political action on a larger scale,
as they risked capture to publicly tell their story of escaping slavery, and
Douglass career as an orator enabled him to speak against the hypocrisy
embodied in American slavery.
The work of Jacobs, Truth and Douglass clearly illustrate how the race,
class and gender hierarchy acted in concert with slavery, and the ways in
which it shaped the disparate experiences of male and female slaves. This
disparity continues today, in the experiences of the descendants of those

Tasha Shermer
Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
slaves, evidence of the sexism, racism and classism that has been built into
the framework of American institutions, and outlasted the abolition of
slavery.

Tasha Shermer
Prof. Banks
English 50
February 15, 2015
WORKS CITED
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Gates Jr.
and Smith 330-393.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis, and Smith, Valerie, eds. The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc., 1997-2014. Print.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Gates Jr. and Smith 224261.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis, and Smith, Valerie, eds. The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc., 1997-2014. Print.

Truth, Sojourner. Arnt I a Woman? Gates Jr. and Smith 178-180.


Gates Jr., Henry Louis, and Smith, Valerie, eds. The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc., 1997-2014. Print.