The era of slavery was one of the most controversial and sad pages in American history. This period was associated with the lack of social freedoms and the violation of the human rights of thousands of people. A personal assessment of this topic is presented in the book by Deborah White (1999) called “Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South.” This work is the author’s fundamental monograph in which she paid particular attention to the life and cultural environment of forced slaves living in the south of the United States, with a special emphasis on the image of a female slave. The purpose of this paper is to identify the key points from the book under review and evaluate its features while taking into account the author’s style, the topics raised, and the underlying theses.
Particular attention in the monograph under consideration was paid to the details describing the characteristic differences between the life of the slave population in the south of the country and the free one. White (1999) brought together several significant themes in one book, thus presenting a comprehensive era assessment. The beginning of the monograph touched on the basic conventions that characterized female slavery. A wide period has been affected; from the 18th century to the second 20th century, the special conditions of slave life and oppression were examined through the examples of individual women and their families. The author not only paid attention to the typical differences between black women and white women but also divided the slave population of the south according to relevant criteria (White, 1999). For instance, when describing southern slave women who were treated as family members and were not aggressed, she noted that “such women were distinguished by their dress and manners” (White, 1999, p. 30). However, these cases were infrequent, and black women’s challenges of that time were, as a rule, an integral part of their lives.
The details given in the book dealt with both everyday aspects and more general topics, including the nationwide system for the supply of slaves to the south, the principles of punishment, and other aspects. The focus on the familial nature of slavery helped White (1999) describe how generations of bonded people grew up and lived. Although the author herself did not live in the era of legalized slavery, she found a time when black citizens of the country were oppressed and limited in social rights. In her description of the historical stage of the transition from slavery to free life, she focused on the political changes in the country, particularly in the southern states. White (1999) mentioned attempts to “defeminize black women” at the legislative level (p. 136). However, she noted that, despite the first real steps towards liberation, many representatives of the black southern population were not ready for possible freedom. The reason for that lay in the long history of slavery, and the struggle for personal independence required courage that many families lacked.
Despite the cruelty of many slave owners, the crimes committed against female slaves were not singled out as a separate topic. Humiliation and outright aggression were woven into the overall narrative and not discussed individually, which was explained by the natural context of white dominance over blacks. Particular attention was paid to the Civil War and its impact on the beginning of real shifts towards abolishing slavery. Numerous references to the laws and regulations of the time helped White (1999) describe events validly and identify those socio-political trends that were key in the formation of stereotyping and discrimination of a certain race.
Review of the Book
Since the book was a monograph, I concluded that White (1999) had combined her contributions to summarize the work done and describe her findings in the context of a larger topic. I could not say that the reading had changed my worldview or influenced my attitude towards the problem of slavery. In the past, I read much about that period and its difficulties for the individual segments of the population. However, after reading White’s (1999) work, I gained a wealth of experience. The author had managed to combine different aspects of the life of southern slaves and describe not only their routine but also the accompanying events that influenced the course of history (White, 1999). The book could not fail to please someone because it was not a work of art in which the writer fantasized and fictionalized the plot. The narrative touched our history directly, which was the main reason to like the monograph. No matter what views a person supported, accepting the division of society and the infringement of the rights of one class by the other was natural, particularly after studying the details of all events.
Discussing cultural differences between slaves and free people of that time would be richer if it included not only family distinctions but also other ones. For instance, White (1999) mentioned “culturally defined feminine roles,” but these aspects, as a rule, concerned everyday nuances and did not suggest accompanying trends (p. 73). African-American culture was and continued to exist even in the era of complete suppression of the black race, and the author could highlight the characteristics, for instance, art tastes, to contrast the two social classes. At the same time, White (1999) paid much attention to the aspect of cultural development in captivity, which made it possible to better understand the distinctive nature of the development of the common African American idea. Therefore, the events presented were crucial, although they could be supplemented by related facts.
I would recommend this book to both ordinary people who wanted to get acquainted with the history of American slavery and to people studying this topic from a professional perspective, for example, sociologists. The monograph included an extensive list of prejudices that could be seen as a vivid example of the class stratification of society where characteristic signs of dominance and subordination were common. Moreover, for historians, this source might become a valuable resource to identify the specific stages of the anti-slavery movements and the preconditions for them. Thus, the monograph was difficult to describe as the one that would be of interest only to a narrow circle of readers.
One of the key findings I took from this book was how closely intertwined family ties were in the slave generations of African American families. White (1999) gave examples of the traditional values that black women held in their homelands; she noted that these women did not stop respecting their culture even after being forced into slavery. The corresponding customs and principles were passed down from generation to generation, thus creating a special cultural layer in which people, despite their oppressed status, promoted characteristic norms that differed from those of the Americans. The more actively the freedom movement developed, the more open these traditions were becoming. The emergence of new trends in the national American culture was largely due to borrowings from African Americans. These facts helped me compare the experience of past generations with what people observe today when mentioning the term of mixing cultures.
I liked the author’s style, largely because it was open-minded and did not contain overt and preconceived personal views. This book included the topics of the course, particularly discrimination, class division, inequality, and social bias. While touching on these nuances, White (1999) showed a deep commitment to the topic and included not only social but also political factors that were associated with the events described. Furthermore, her work concerned social justice, which was also part of the course readings. As a result, the monograph turned out to be rich in details, which, in turn, characterized the book as a credible source for review.
The review of White’s (1999) monograph made it possible to identify the characteristic themes raised by the author, as well as emphasize her style and approach to evaluating the materials cited. The book was valuable not only for ordinary readers but also for specialists involved in the study of sociology because it included a wide range of concepts and ideas on class inequality. Female slavery was a key theme, and the hereditary nature of this phenomenon was presented in detail. More attention to the accompanying cultural aspects could have widened the perception of the African American liberation idea. The connection of the monograph with the topics of the course allowed obtaining additional information about such concepts as bias, discrimination, and other social barriers. The book might be used as an auxiliary manual on the history of American slavery and its manifestations in families.
White, D. G. (1999). Ar’n’t I a woman? Female slaves in the plantation South. W. W. Norton & Company.