From the Abolition of the Slave Trade to the Exploitation of Black Women

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ON JANUARY 18, 1808, A FEDERAL LAW ended the trans-
Atlantic importation of slaves intp the United States. So, as
a woman descended from a motherline of Black women, I
am compelled to bear witness to this bicentennial of the
abolition of the U.S. international slave trade. This act,
which resulted from the deals made among white men in
constitutional settings, was thought by some to be the prelude
to the end of this nation’s “peculiar institution.”
It is worth noting here that the British, who ended their
international trade in bonded Africans in 1807, held in
2007 a year long commemoration to the abolition of the
transatlantic trade. As early as mid-year 2006, I began to
receive emails from U.K. associates that documented Black
British community demands for inclusion in the development,
planning and production of events and programs
designed to celebrate this moment in human history.
Today, as I prepared to write this article, I received yet
another email about a last discussion within the British
Black community in December about the “so-called abolition
and its significance to Afrikan struggles for social justice.”
But to date, I’ve seen nothing from Blacks in the U.S.
(or any other groups) calling for recognition of the event,
with the exception of a December 30, 2007 op-ed in the
New York Times, written by historian Eric Foner, calling
the bicentennial a “Forgotten Step Toward Freedom.”
Foner’s perspective, however, as a privileged, white
male obscures his ability to see the truly forgotten side of
this historic moment. For example, although the U.S.
ended their legal transatlantic trade effective January 1,
1808, enslaved Blacks were not “emancipated” until the
ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. So despite
the legal end of the trade, the enslaved population grew
from approximately one million in 1810 to four million by
the end of the Civil War, not to mention a growing free
population of African descendents.
Foner and kindred historians consider this phenomenon
to be the result of “natural” increase, stating that
women reproduced and infants survived “because most of
the South lies outside the tropical environment where diseases
like yellow fever and malaria exacted a huge toll on
whites and Blacks alike.” So according to Foner, married
and unmarried Black women procreated with Black and
white men and carried to term babies who survived infancy,
because slavery in the upper South States created conditions
conducive to such. This “view” of slavery disputes
the many stories harvested from the period. Moreover, it
challenges the historical revisionism of contemporary
scholars of the era.
If the growth of the enslaved population was “natural,”
then I need to question Foner’s definition of the word “natural.”
Abolitionist Theodore Weld, in an effort to gain support
for the movement, gathered testimony from noted
personages in his 1839 book, American Slavery As it Is:
Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. These testimonies supported
the contention that upper South states, like Maryland
and Virginia, were slave-breeding states.
In fact, the Honorable Thomas Mann Randolph, former
governor of Virginia from 1819–1822 and son-in-law of
Thomas Jefferson, further confirmed this in a speech
before the legislature in 1832. The former governor openly
acknowledged that the state-to-state exportation of
enslaved bodies had averaged 8,500 for the previous
twenty years and this traffic was a substantial source of
wealth for the state, after the soil had been depleted by
tobacco and cotton crops.
Hence, the growth rate witnessed from 1810–1860 can
only be explained in one way: the forced breeding of
enslaved Black women. Following the abolition of the
international slave trade in 1808, Black women’s bodies
became the site of increased reproductive labor and
remained so for the 57 years until the ratification of the
13th amendment abolishing slavery in the U.S.
As a Black woman, descendent of Black women, I am
saddened by the lack of attention paid to this history, by
Blacks and whites alike. Foner truly missed an opportunity
to acknowledge the peculiar pain and suffering experienced
by Black women. Women whose reproduction was
commodified in the name of free trade; whose flesh, blood
and bone children were taken to the block and sold along
with produce and cattle. All done without regard to the
mother-child bond or the humanity of the African brought
to America.
As much as we might like to forget this bit of history or
charge as mythology the breeding of Black women, the
truth remains in the words of the dead, who still wait for
their story to be told.

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