Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present.

Jacqueline Jones

Excerpt: pages 149-151

The call for white men to protect their ladies from "insolent" black girls revealed a growing preoccupation with the "virtue" of white women as a pretext for the persecution of blacks of both sexes.

The racial caste system of the nineteenth-century South strictly regulated sociosexual relations between black and white men and women. White men considered free and uninhibited access to black women as their prerogative and at the same time declared taboo any sexual activity between black men and white women. Under slavery, this code was enforced through the use of violence and intimidation. When, during the Reconstruction period, white men lost such hght control over black women, they feared that black men would "naturally" begin to sexually harass their former mistresses; after all (whites realized), the sexual abuse of women had always signified the hatred men of one race felt toward members of the other. Thus any hint of sexual impropriety on the part of black men, and, indeed, the slightest possible pretext of any kind, met with swift retribution, and provided white men as a group with an opportunity to reaffirm their own sense of racial superiority and "manhood." The mutilation and castration of Iynching victims (invariably accused of raping white women) brought into explicit focus the tangle of "hate and guilt and sex and fear" that enmeshed all southerners well into the twentieth century.

White men's persistent violation of black women constituted a more common phenomenon that served as a backdrop for periodic Iynchings throughout the South, especially during the years 1890 to 1910. A woman or girl found herself in danger of being attacked whenever she walked down a country road-"The poorest type of white man feels at liberty to accost her and follow her, and force her." But her employer's home remained the source of her greatest fears. A Georgia servant, whose story was recorded by a correspondent for the Independent in 1912, told of her attempt to resist the aggressive behavior of a white household head. While she was in the kitchen, "he walked up to me, and was in the act of kissing me, when I demanded to know what he meant, and shoved him away." She told her husband about the incident, but when the black man confronted her tormentor, the white man "cursed him, and slapped him, and-had him arrested!" Declaring: "This court will never take the word of a nigger against the word of a white man," the judge who presided over the case fined the black husband $25 and thereby made manifest a fact of domestic service--"that a colored woman's virtue in this part of the country has no protection."

Black domestics and their employers daily lived out the paradoxical southern system of public segregation and private integration. Whites lacked an interest in-as well as access to- the dynamics of black families and communities; the group life of blacks ". . . touches that of the white people only in economic matters," in the words of DuBois. The races remained largely segregated in public pursuits. Yet black women constantly worked in the presence of whites of both sexes and all ages. A black newspaper in Orangeburg, South Carolina, highlighted the irony in 1889. The blackest woman, it noted, can "cook the food for prejudiced throats" and hold "the whitest, cleanest baby," "but the angry passions rise when a well-dressed, educated, refined negro pays his own fare and seats himself quietly in a public conveyance." In the end, dejure segregation was a move designed to limit the political power of blacks as a group, rather than to curtail personal contact between members of the two races.

The nonrural economy transformed the nature and significance of black women's work, whether for their families or for the black community at large. In the process their various workplaces became more highly politicized, refecting the intensity of reaction among whites to the selfassertion of blacks at all levels of urban society. Middle-class black women began to challenge the eternal verities of southern life through social reform, but many of their working- class sisters decided to give up the old struggle in the South and embrace a new one in the North. They were all too familiar with the fate of elderly women like Elviry Magee, "po' now an'...po' den" while her employer "come to be a rich man." The creation of war- industry jobs in the Midwest and Northeast after 1916 released the floodgates of migration and revealed a wellspring of fear and discontent among blacks all over the South. This mass population movement heralded the beginning of a new era, and with it the first evidence of what would become a central fact in the history of blacks and white women during the twenheth century--that they gained greatest access to economic opportunides during periods of worldwide military conflict.


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The Politics of Sex, 1923


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