My first post on the blog! I am excited to study and work alongside these exuberant scholars as we implore on the multifaceted experiences of American women.
Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Traditional studies of the slave-holding and postbellum South often emphasize power relations amongst slaves vs. male slaveholders and men vs. women. It has only been in the last few decades that the emergence of scholarship on the power dynamics between white and black women have materialized in the historian’s purview. Thavolia Glymph in her book Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household explores the power relations between Southern mistresses and black women within the plantation household before, during, and after the Civil War. Ultimately, the effects of emancipation led to the transformation of the plantation household that saw black women establishing their own homes and mistresses wielding little control over their commandment of black women’s labor. These ever changing contours of the plantation household saw white women’s attempt to dissipate the effects of emancipation while concurrently black women’s day-to-day resistance leading to the plantation household’s demise. Through her narrative, it is clear to see that one of Glymph’s main purposes is to revise common misconceptions of the plantation household and both white and black women’s role within it. Such myths Glymph punctures include the notion that the plantation household was encapsulated in the private sphere (immune to the economic and political world around it), the gendered assumption that plantation mistresses yielded little to no power, and the disvalue of black women’s resistance and agency during this time period.
To construct her narrative, Glymph primarily utilizes a micro-history approach by outlining various individual stories of mistresses and black women in order to reveal the larger picture of Southern plantation power dynamics. This includes the diaries and letters of mistresses as well as, most notably, the recollection of slaves through the Worker’s Progress Administration’s Slave Narrative Collection. This project, enacted from 1936-1938, documented over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and would thus be an invaluable resource for any scholar studying 19th century African American history. Furthermore, Glymph expands on existing southern women’s historical scholarship such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988) through the conception of the plantation household as an analytical construct.
Most notable in Glymph’s book is her deep-seated analysis of the everyday actions of both mistresses and black women. In Glymph’s view, every action has a symbolic significance in revealing power dynamics as well as the differing views of freedom and womanhood amongst white and black women. This line of thinking clearly aligns with Michel Foucault’s view that there is power within everyday actions. For example, freed Jane McLeod Wilburn recollected her enthusiasm over buying her own cloth and quilts. While some scholars might glance over this seemingly ordinary action, Glymph argues that this action symbolized black women’s independent purchasing power and freedom over their own lives. Glymph states, “Even evidence that seems explicitly imitative deserves deeper study” (pg. 206). This led me to recollect what evidence have scholars – including myself – often overlook when we construct our narratives?
As stated above, Glymph re-conceptualizes many prevailing notions of the plantation household, southern womanhood, and the agency of black women that is often lost within Lost Cause and gendered ideologies. One common misconception is that Southern ladies were ‘fragile flowers’ detached from the plantation’s economic and political arena and ‘soft’ on slavery and violence due to their gender. Rather, Glymph asserts that mistresses yielded a great amount of power on the plantation and often inflicted psychological and physical violence on slave women. Thus, mistresses were a crucial component in constructing the plantation household under the labors of slave women. However, this created a paradox of sorts for these white women: they were called to be gentle and lady-like while simultaneously filling the role of domestic manager for slaves.
Just as mistresses were responsible for constructing the plantation household, black women were crucial in either supporting or resisting this southern domestic ideology white women were pressured to conform to. Thus, mistresses’ identity was dependent – whether acknowledged or not – on the cooperation of slave women.Ultimately, black women’s noncooperation and the establishment of their own homes led to the destruction of the antebellum slave society that mistresses were so desperate to hold on to. This noncooperation took the form of free labor relations, including black women deciding for themselves the hours of work and what type of work they wanted to do. Black women often resorted to tasked work as this led to greater flexibility over their time and lives. Within these labor negotiations, Glymph argues that black women had the advantage as they knew exactly how long a task would take due to their own slave experiences.
However, while black women attempted to forge their own independence in an emancipated world, Glymph alludes to the notion of de jure vs. de facto segregation in her narrative. While black women now had the flexibility to move freely and establish their own households due to emancipation, what of the small “civic capacities and everyday norms of respect” (pg. 133)? This is a struggle both African American men and women would endure for decades to come. Nonetheless, the power relations amongst mistresses and black women not only transformed the plantation household but had larger implications that resulted in the transformation of southern womanhood, power relations across racial and gender lines, and ultimately laid bare the ever changing definitions of freedom and citizenship.
For more information on the WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection, click on the link here: https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/