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The Effect of Social Stratification Among Female Slaves

by N’yah Coley

Critical Essay Winner, 2020 VSU Student Writing Contest

Social stratification, which is defined as a society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, race, education, income, and power; played a critical role in the practice and structure of slavery. The concept of social stratification is demonstrated within any culture, however; there are different social tiers in those cultures that determine the status for its people. Slavery in America is a palpable example of social stratification being utilized by slave holders to shape and determine the status of those enslaved. In African American activist Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, and in author Harriet Jacobs’ novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, the negative effects of obtaining a low hierarchical social status is discussed in detail. Both Truth and Jacobs were enslaved black women, which is the lowest social status one could acquire during the era of American slavery. Within their writings, Truth and Jacobs discuss the effects of being enslaved black women, by making gendered statements that support the impact that having the lowest social status had on their psychological, emotional, and physical well-being.

In Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, Truth discusses the negative effects of being a black woman sold into slavery. In the speech, Truth also argues that both white and black women should not only be equal to each other, but equal to men in terms of social status; and expresses this by using gendered statements to back her stance. Firstly, from Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, you can infer that the actual name of the speech is an example of a gendered statement. The tone of the speech is already presented by the name which enables the idea of power struggles of a woman being the primary theme of the text. The name of the speech being a question and a question that includes the examination of the identity of a woman at that, is a gendered statement made to express the components of a larger topic about women and the role women play within society during this time period.

In terms of the social climate during slavery, women, especially black women, were discriminated against and had their livelihood negatively affected. Truth expresses this through making the gendered statement; “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?” Truth says this to show the effects of slavery, and to also show the feelings of not having the same rights as men. Truth follows that gendered statement with the additional statement, “I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” (Truth). This statement conveys the emotional effects of slavery since Truth had her children taken and forced into enslavement just as she was. She mentions this in her speech to emphasize how her negative experiences as a black woman, and as a woman who bore children, have been invalidated and dismissed by men. All of these gendered statements are used as representations of the psychological, emotional, and physical hardship that Sojourner Truth and many other women faced as a result of being enslaved black women.

Another demonstration of gendered statements in a writing to express the negative psychological, emotional, and physical effects of being an enslaved black woman, would be in Harriet Jacobs’ novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”. In the preface of Jacobs’ novel, she states; Neither do I care to excite sympathy for my own sufferings. But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse” (Jacobs- preface). Jacobs says this to first express her desire of receiving empathy from women who haven’t experienced slavery, and to secondly share her detrimental experiences with the masses to educate.

Through Jacobs’ childhood and adolescent years, she was treated relatively well considering she was a slave. However, when Jacobs began to grow into womanhood, the way she was treated gradually started to become harsh. Jacobs communicates the relationship with her and her master through the somewhat gendered statement; “I was indebted to her for all my comforts, spiritual or temporal. It was her labor that supplied my scanty wardrobe. I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery” (Jacobs 7). Jacobs places emphasis on the word “her” to express how the person who negatively impacted her life was also a woman—which can be viewed as ironic. One can infer that through this statement, Jacobs was trying to get women to empathize with her situation. An additional gendered statement used by Jacobs to show the negative effects of black women being enslaved is, “but where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress”. This statement was displaying the hard feelings that black women faced whether extremely dark or almost white-passing as a result of their status. This shows that she had nowhere to go and it resulted in her being in emotional turmoil. Jacobs was also psychologically and physically abused being that her master’s wife would verbally harass her in her sleep, and she was sexually assaulted by her master. These conditions all tie into Jacobs’ usage of gendered statements to express the difficulties of being a black woman who was a slave.

Through the usage of gendered statements by both activist Sojourner Truth and author Harriet Jacobs, they were able to express the negative impact that being enslaved black women had on them psychologically, emotionally, and physically. In Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, and Harriet Jacobs’ novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” the social status of black women during slavery was described in a way that was receptive to readers. Ultimately, both women conveyed a general message of a collective difficult experience that many women encountered as a result of their social status in the slave era of America.

Works Cited

Jacobs, H. (2003). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl(2nd ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.

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