My history teacher rationed high marks as if in the midst of a war. This probably explains why the ten out of ten he scrawled beneath my careful little drawing of the Spinning Jenny has stuck so firmly in my memory. “In 1764,” I’d written in my neatest handwriting, “James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny. It was an improvement on the spinning wheel because it could spin several balls of yarn at the same time, which meant the mills could produce more cotton. Inventions like this contributed to Britain’s Industrial Revolution.”
Or words to that effect.
It was 1961 and I was nine years old. In those days, children were expected to quietly copy what was written on the blackboard and underline the most important words in red so we wouldn’t forget them. Our teacher, a bulbous-eyed Mr Hode, renowned for his dislike of children, was in the habit of rapping you over the knuckles with a 12-inch wooden ruler if you forgot this sacred requirement.
And if your attention wandered during one of his sermon-like ramblings, his board cleaner, a vicious block of wood lined on one side with felt, would whizz past your ear, trailing a toxic cloud of chalk dust. There was no window gazing or idle doodling in his class. If you valued your playtime, you gave him your undivided attention as soon as he strode into the room.
The Toad, as he was dubbed in the playground, terrified me. Aside from his general tyranny, I was the only “colored” girl in my class, which made me horribly conspicuous. Yet for some reason, I grew to love history. The bizarre antics of kings (and the occasional queen) must have captured my imagination. Plus, learning about the past, albeit about people who were long since dead, beat geography, hands down. “Ghana: (capital city Accra): main exports peanuts and cocoa.” Even then, young as I was, that tired old map on the wall with Britain’s colonial conquests marked out in pink left me cold.
Instead of battles and general mayhem, the Industrial Revolution turned out to be disappointingly bloodless. A whole lesson was devoted to the curious contraption we were instructed to copy into our exercise books. Yet there was no mention of the fact that Mr. Hargreaves’s bold new invention relied on a continuous supply of raw cotton; not so much as a whisper about the enforced labor of millions of enslaved and brutalized Africans.
The Toad kept quiet about that little piece of the jigsaw. The way he saw it, history was all about Britain and empire. He fed us a diet of glorious white conquest and, in our innocence, we swallowed it whole.
This wasn’t just happening in our history classes, though—the entire curriculum was biased. Words like “primitive” or “underdeveloped” slipped readily from our teachers’ tongues, whatever their subject. Non-white people, if not invisible, were either savage, stupid or irrelevant. The idea that anyone black or non-white might have contributed to our understanding of math, science or literature was never even considered. Meanwhile, in music, we were encouraged to sing Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory until we knew the words by heart.It made no sense whatsoever to talk of “slaves” or “abolitionists” as homogenous groups who had acted in unison or spoken with a unanimous voice.
It was a good ten years before I began to understand the link between Mr Hargreaves’s Spinning Jenny and the slaves captured a mere stone’s throw from the village where my father was born. Like its wars and revolutions, Britain’s industrialization had been presented as a series of unconnected events in which only powerful or infamous white men played any meaningful part. The Toad never once mentioned anyone brown or female like me, and in a world where knowledge and power were so firmly located behind the teacher’s desk, who was I to ask why?
It was only with the rise of the American civil rights movement and its more militant alter ego, Black Power, that my understanding of the history I’d been taught began to evolve. I chanced across George Jackson’s Soledad Brother in a public library one rainy afternoon and became well and truly hooked. Books by Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and (joy of joys!) Angela Davis fed a hunger I didn’t even know I’d possessed.
I read everything I could lay my hands on, especially history books. But as I searched for the missing pieces of the jigsaw, my suspicions were confirmed. Black people had literally been airbrushed out of the picture.
They were not alone. Feminists like Sheila Rowbotham were busy arguing that women had been “hidden from history” almost as successfully, while Marx and Engels had long since come to similar conclusions about the working class. Apparently, the names history had chosen to remember were highly selective—more about who wielded the most political clout at the time.
No surprise, then, that my efforts to locate black women in this gaping void proved doubly fruitless. If the achievements of working-class white people were peripheral to those of kings and princes, women of African descent with their triple burden of gender, class and race hardly got a look-in. I felt a growing urge to name some names, and maybe pour a libation or two to honor their memory.
I was a working mother before I could indulge this sentiment in any meaningful way. Armed with a distant “O” Level in history class, a sabbatical year at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies gave me the chance to explore at a postgraduate level questions that had been bothering me since primary school. With the writings of men like Franz Fanon, Eric Williams, C. L. R. James and Walter Rodney tucked under my belt, I came armed with a healthy Afrocentric take on the subject and a tendency to side with the underdog. Both proved indispensable.
The challenge, as I saw it then, was to not get sidetracked by all the academic claptrap. My tutors had their clever postmodernist theories to mystify us with, but I could draw from real, lived experience. By then I had visited Saltpond, my father’s village in Ghana, and spent time traveling around Jamaica. Nothing about the vibrant, creative people I’d encountered in either country suggested dumb acquiescence.
My thesis seemed pretty straightforward: it was the struggles between white masters and black slaves, oppressors and oppressed, that had led to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, and this in turn had paved the way for the slaves’ eventual emancipation a quarter of a century later. To credit Wilberforce with this victory, as if he alone were responsible, was like crediting Christopher Columbus with the discovery of America—”a dyam, blasted lie.”
Of course, the deeper I delved, the more I realized things weren’t that simple. To view history in terms of absolutes, whether absolute truths or absolute lies, was to oversimplify a complex set of forces and circumstances that historians, if they are honest, can only ever guess at. It made no sense whatsoever to talk of “slaves” or “abolitionists” as homogenous groups who had acted in unison or spoken with a unanimous voice. Even established notions of race, class and gender proved a blur of contradictions.
By the end of that sabbatical year, the only conclusion I could embrace with any certainty was that the respective actions of the enslaved and those who championed their emancipation—diverse and disparate as they were—had combined with the economic imperatives of the day to work like a pincer until the abolition of the Africa trade became an increasingly urgent and persuasive option.
I came to realize that studying history was like detective work. However bloodied or one-sided the evidence, it could be interrogated and interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Then as now, lying by omission was common practice, and nowhere was this more apparent than in regard to black and brown-skinned women. The records, diaries, plantation inventories, abolitionist debates, much of the primary evidence, in fact, had either been written, compiled or interpreted by white males who assumed their experience was not only central but all-embracing.
So, despite immersing myself in specialist history texts for months on end, my question continued to rankle: in over 400 years of slavery, with all of its documented horrors, what happened to the women?The realities of ordinary enslaved women have stayed mostly off-screen.
I soon discovered that a growing number of Afrocentric historians, many of them based in the Caribbean, had been asking the selfsame question—women like Lucille Mathurin Mair, Barbara Bush, Pat Bishop, Erna Brodber, Mavis Campbell, Beverly Carey, Elsa Goveia, Olive Senior, Monica Schuler, Verene Shepherd and Sylvia Wynter, to name a few. Men like Hilary Beckles, Edward Kamau Braithwaite, Richard Sheridan and Michael Craton had also been doing invaluable research in this area.
By delving into surviving medical and plantation records, reviewing parliamentary reports and newspaper archives, rereading old diaries and trawling through private letters, they had unearthed insights into the experience of enslaved women that not only challenged prevailing stereotypes but might otherwise never have seen the light of day. Their work has also helped to challenge the notion that the experience of enslaved people in the American South was all-encompassing, for while it was similar in many respects, it was by no means the same.
Thanks to this pioneering research, the extent to which Africa’s enslaved peoples were agents in their own emancipation is finally acknowledged, if only in specialist academic circles. How women contributed to this process is also increasingly documented, although the full extent and precise nature of their role is still debated. Strange, then, that over 200 years after abolition, despite this important sea change, our popular media remain fixated on the achievements of a handful of conscience-stricken white men, with the odd black man thrown in for good measure.
If Hollywood is to be believed, enslaved people in the Americas owed their freedom to Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce and a gun-wielding cowboy named Django.
The realities of ordinary enslaved women have stayed mostly off-screen, and but for the few notable exceptions mentioned earlier, the same has been true of established historical texts on the subject, specifically those written by white male historians. From the earliest European descriptions of intransigent Maroons heading for the hills to latter-day accounts of slave rebellions, black women have been largely conspicuous by their absence.
On the rare occasions when they are mentioned, they tend to be viewed through the lens of a depressingly long tradition of academic misogyny, bolstered by some pretty crude and predictable sexual stereotypes. Such perspectives have fueled the notion of enslaved women as wanton and compliant—exotic mistresses or brazen hussies who pandered willingly to massah’s sexual whims, so hopelessly promiscuous that (ironically) they had no time left to breed.
Today’s black “hoes and bitches,” in other words, whose enduring appeal is all too evident in music, fashion and endless popular media productions.
Competing with the idea that women had it easier under slavery because they spent so much of it on their backs is the equally dubious notion of the long-suffering, broad-backed matriarch, eminently suited to the rigours of slavery on account of her African ancestry. Archetypal mother figure, she seems capable of overcoming all odds, stoically raising her brood of fatherless children with barely a murmur of complaint.
This idealized, one-dimensional image takes scant account of the complexity of the different rankings and functions of enslaved women, much less the range and sophistication of their responses. Like all stereotypes, it relies on a kernel of truth; but by buying into it wholesale, we risk losing sight of many alternative narratives.
With little historical identity beyond these two limited roles, it is small wonder that the nameless female casualties of plantation violence come across as little more than passive onlookers. It’s as if enslaved women were somehow caught up by default in confrontations from which only men could emerge as heroes. With very few exceptions (and we could literally count them on the fingers of one hand), enslaved women who fought back have been relegated to the role of invisible camp followers.
His-story has a convenient and highly selective memory, this much we know, but if we sift through the evidence, a far more complex picture begins to emerge. The canvas may be worn, the paint may be cracked and faded, but there are women in the foreground and they do not look happy. Look closer and you’ll see them more clearly. Their bodies are bent, their feet callused and swollen. They are menstruating, giving birth, collapsing from fatigue and dying from abuse or hideous diseases.
Across their backs, thick keloid scars are clearly visible, as are the suppurating wounds left by brandings, collars and leg irons. The few who are clothed sport dark sweat stains under their armpits. Some look half-crazed with the horror of it all, some seem resigned to the prospect of an untimely death. But others are watching, waiting, biding their time, plotting their escape or dreaming of revenge. Occasionally the glint of a weapon or a barely concealed vial of poison hints at more ominous practices.
Against this backdrop of unrelenting misery, some women have found ways to make their lives more tolerable. At first glance, they do not look like women who would willingly trade their bodies for trinkets or treats. Without doubt, there are some favored concubines among them, women who have learnt to play the few cards they were dealt by opting to collude or comply.
They stand haughty and erect, ever mindful of their perilous status. Yet those who seek favor rather than endure the miserable fate of their mothers and grandmothers are in a distinct minority. The numbers speak for themselves, they are the exception to the rule.
Move closer and our picture becomes even more intriguing. Away from the fields, some women can be seen dusting the silver or waiting at table with lowered eyes and pricked ears. Others are busy hauling produce to market or hiring out their skills as cooks, seamstresses, laundresses, nurses and midwives. Their mobility is a godsend, particularly for those with clandestine messages or overheard news to relay.
A handful of female entrepreneurs, having acquired or purchased their freedom, have opened lodging houses, supplementing their precarious income by administering to the sick or tending to the needs of passing travelers. With their keen, well-tuned ears, they too have a role to play in this vast, subversive grapevine.
A majority of the women are toiling in the fields and mill-houses. Many have an angry glint in their eyes as they feed the huge rollers or squint skyward at the merciless sun. Beyond them, in the distant mountains and forests, hard to detect in the dense foliage, we may even catch the occasional tantalizing glimpse of a female Maroon—proud, ferocious women, so intent on a self-determined life that they prefer the risk of a brutal death to the prospect of recapture.
With this more nuanced image of female resistance in mind, it cannot be right that their historical legacy is so one-dimensional. As the planter “Monk” Lewis observed, black women were “kicked in the belly” throughout the period of slavery. Yet in many ways, these women’s response can be seen as a metaphorical kick in the belly for those who tried and failed to dehumanize them. To deny them their rightful place in history simply adds insult to a 400-year-long injury.
Excerpted from A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance by Stella Dadzie, offered with permission from Verso Books.