The Black female experience during reconstruction was a unique one in the way that slavery was perpetuated through it. After emancipation, white people still sought control over the movement and freedom of Black bodies and did so through public expositions known as lynchings, but also through more subliminal methods which this reflection aims to discuss. Prisons and convict farms quickly become another space of confinement for Black people and even “reports of the prison officials [that show] large numbers killed in attempting to escape,” evoke a visual of the slave ship where escape is equivalent to death, and freedom can sometimes mean having control over how you die (Wells, 2). Yet, the White home becomes another space of confinement and the Black body itself becomes a prison for the women who inhabit it.
Specifically, the reaction to Black women insisting freedom was torturous and lethal, as Black women continue to receive the brunt of the white man’s hatred for emancipation. “Rape was a powerful weapon and tool of debasement,” often used by white men to exercise and reinforce their “right” to control Black female bodies (LeFlouria, 28). Debasement is a term used in relation to coins or commodities which involves the reduction in quality and value; to lower in rank, dignity or significance. White men during reconstruction sought to debase Black women, and Black bodies in general, as an expression of their belief that if Black bodies cannot be used to white benefit then they serve no purpose; thus, have no value. Rape, sexual mutilation, and “whippings were highly sexualized rituals that customarily involved forcibly stripping victims before or during a Klan attack,” as in the case of Mary Brown (LeFlouria, 29).
White people aimed to debase the entire Black population in America post-emancipation with the main purpose to “[reassert] their authority over former slaves,” (LeFlouria, 28). Post-slavery structures that mirror slavery and the actions that took place during, such as the slave-master relationship enforced between white men and Black women. Wells spoke about the young Black woman who received a six month sentence to a Mississippi convict farm for fighting, and expressed that “[this woman] and other women testified that they were forced to criminal intimacy with the guards and cook to get food to eat,” which we can connect to a slave-master dynamic that still existed for Black woman on convict farms (Wells, 2). This dynamic also existed at work for Black women because “more than 90% of female wage earners in Atlanta engaged in some form of household work,” (LeFlouria, 31). Remnants of slavery become evident during reconstruction and beyond, such as the idea that Black women belong in the house as a tool for the white family. “Domestic service placed African American women in close proximity to white families and perpetuated the antebellum master-slave relationship,” (LeFlouria, 32) while also maintaining those lingering elements of slavery that allow us to remain a commodity and central function in the white household.
Another remnant of slavery that still exists is the Black woman as the reproducer of slavery. The Black female body is abused because it is seen as the powerhouse of our race, and whether we are sterilized or forcibly bred, “the consistent factor was white control,” (Washington, 205). Margaret Sanger, the woman responsible for the development of birth control believed in preventing Black women from procreating because we are the root of a dysfunctional family. By proving the criminal nature of Black women one is allowed to make a conclusion of our whole race since, “the ‘Negro district’ itself, we are told, is ‘headquarters for the criminal element,’” (Washington, 196). If the Black woman is the site of reproducing slavery, criminal nature and inherent feebleness, then it is easy to convince the public that she should be sterilized. This is done in an effort to preserve the purity that is white society, just as Black men are typically lynched on accusations of rape, while Black women, who suffer silently and repeatedly from sexual terror, were most likely to be lynched for attacking a white person or “resisting rape – daring to testify against white male terrorists,” because she is the criminal (LeFlouria, 29).
The key to detoxifying a nation of its biggest pests is by criminalizing them, as they are, and using their nature as grounds for their expulsion. For example, since “eugenic scientists and their disciples constantly confused the concepts of biological hereditary fitness with those of class and race,” there would be cases, such as the complaint filed with the National Institutes of Health, in which Black women who’d gone to the hospital for prenatal care and advice, but instead were tested “for drugs without their consent, then reported  to the police,” (Washington, 191) (Washington, 211). There is also the reality that forced sterilization is a form of punishment and a way to reprimand Black women who exercised their criminality – such as the fact that “black women who abuse drugs are ten times more likely than white women to be subjected to court-ordered long-term contraceptives or sterilization,” (Washington, 211).
Our bodies can be manipulated and reduced to the myths of Mammy or Jezebel to compartmentalize an identity that is still used by the white man and the white household; the presence of these myths are an attempt to justify a Black woman’s existence.The sexual revolution sought to divide sex from procreation; ideally the hypersexed and vile Jezebel could persist in her inherent sexual nature without polluting the American population or the white race. However, this division really means that the white race does not have to suffer pollution as a result of a white man’s lack of self-control in the presence of a Black woman.
After Sanger’s influence became more obvious, the idea arose that “federally financed birth-control clinics in their neighborhoods were attempts to discover the best way to limit or even to erase the Black presence in America,” (Washington, 198). This effort is rooted in the post-slavery idea that if Black bodies can no longer be federally recognized as commodities, then there is no need for them here. Our lives become disposable once they cease to be useful.
When our bodies are manipulated, this manipulation determines the fate of Black presence in America, but white life also depends very much upon it. The voice and power of white men bury themselves in “the judge, juries and other officials of the courts [who] are white men who share these prejudices. They also make the laws,” and these laws govern the most private parts of our body (Wells, 1). Through insidious forms of policing our bodies, our sexual organs remain commodified by the system. Our vagina is the avenue through which Black life can be nourished or strangled. While punishment for Black men was lethal and emasculating, punishment for Black women was also defeminating and dehumanizing. As in, the very function that we’ve always been told determines our existence, that makes us female and human, can be controlled and regulated by white men.
LeFlouria, Talitha L. “The Gendered Anatomy of ‘Negro Crime.’” Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South. University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 21-60. Print.
Wells, Ida B. “The Convict Lease System.” The Reason Why The Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American’s Contribution to Columbian Literature. Chicago, 1893. Print.
Washington, Harriet A. “The Black Stork.” Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Anchor Books, 2006. 189-215. Print.