by Mimi Yahn
It isn’t that the other parts of Madame Kamala Harris’ heritage don’t matter. It is the significance, specifically, of being a Black Woman in America: It is the fact of her being a woman whose heritage descends, in part, from ancestors who were enslaved in America solely because of their race. More significantly, it is combined with the fact of her being a Black woman, a confluence of factors described by scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw as “intersectionality,” and later coined as “misogynoir” by scholar and queer Black activist Moya Bailey.
The history of Black women in America and the progression of how that history has formed our nation is why it matters deeply that Madame Harris is a Black woman. And it is why her position as the Vice President of the United States is so profoundly significant.
Our nation was formed by White men who were landed gentry, and thus, the structures of governance, of economics, and of the society they built were rooted in a hierarchical, exploitative system. It was a system founded on male supremacy, strict class divisions and, as the conquering race, White European supremacy. The very existence, as well as the success, of those colonies depended solely on the system of indentured servitude. Without the tens of thousands of indentured servants shipped to the colonies, the landed gentry who owned land and stock in the private companies that comprised the colonies would have had no way to clear land and build farms, villages and towns, to grow crops, to wage the invasions and genocidal wars against those already living in these lands. Without indentured servitude, there would be no English-speaking United States of America.
Importantly, while many of the indentured servants were kidnapped and sold into servitude, the vast majority of them were impoverished people whose poverty had intentionally been criminalized in order to establish the pipeline of servant labor needed to build the colonies. Arrested for sleeping under bridges and in alleys, for begging, for petty thefts, for “vagrancy,” for a multitude of “crimes” that arose from poverty, the newly-revised Criminal Code not only created new “crimes,” but turned them into “capital offenses”: crimes that were punishable by decapitation. This is what enabled judges (who owned stock in the various colonies) to offer a “choice” to those standing in terror before them: Death by decapitation or transport to the new colonies as indentured servants for periods ranging from seven to fifteen years, at which point they would be given their freedom along with some land, some food, and a gun.
This corrupt system of exploitation, of creating a nation solely from the forced labor of dehumanized humans tossed to the bottom of a social caste system is what formed our very existence, first as colonies, then as a nation. It was formed by men who would later not view the utter enslavement and trafficking of human beings as anything out of the ordinary, inherently wrong, or fundamentally evil. This was their mindset born of their own privilege, social narcissism and greed.
And this corrupt system grew out of a perfect storm of circumstances: England was spared the slaughter of populations across Europe that resulted from the Thirty Years’ War. In fact, in England, the opposite was occurring. By 1600, there were more than four million people in England and Wales—double the previous century—and the population continued growing. London alone nearly doubled from a quarter of a million people in 1600 to almost a half-million by the end of the century. And it was mostly the very poor who were flocking to the cities, thanks to the fast-growing global market for commodity crops.
It was the wealthy land-owners—the lords and royals—who owned huge tracts of land and they all wanted in on the new markets. And so the Land Enclosures Act was passed, which allowed land-owners to evict the farmers and peasants from their lands. This, in turn, resulted in millions of homeless people converging on cities in search of jobs, houses, and food. As Howard Zinn wrote, “the development of commerce and capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s, the enclosing of land for the production of wool, filled the cities with vagabond poor.”
The other circumstance was the “discovery” of the New World and the prospects of unlimited land and wealth thanks to the enterprising colony companies and the beneficence of a king who granted carte blanche to these companies and their stockholders (a king who reportedly owned substantial shares himself).
What better way to seize, develop and populate these new lands while at the same time dealing with the extreme overcrowding, homelessness and hunger in cities across England than to ship all these lower classes to the colonies?
And so the stage was set—morally, politically and legally—for a social and economic system based on exploitation and rigid hierarchies. The stage was also set for the next, even more venal system of exploitation and social stratification: Slavery.
Although indentured servitude in America remained in force until the 1880s, social, political, and economic changes starting in the 1650s motivated the English to stop relying on White indentured servants as the primary labor force and, instead, to begin exploiting increasing numbers of enslaved Africans. In the 1650s and 1660s, economic conditions, combined with crop failures, rising taxes, and the increasing malfeasance of a corrupt colonial regime, resulted in a growing number of uprisings and rebellions involving White indentured servants joining forces with Black slaves, so the colonial elites began a campaign of racial division which used economic class as a way to pit White servants and against Black slaves. One of the first steps was to begin passing laws, starting in the 1660s, that turned slavery into a legal status based strictly on race. Even worse, not only did these laws state that only Blacks could be slaves, many of these laws also made slavery a permanent condition of Blacks. At the same time, increased legal protections and entitlements were given to White indentured servants. Finally, as law professor Michelle Alexander explains in her book, The New Jim Crow:
“Deliberately and strategically, the [White] planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and the black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias.…Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery.”
Another important factor leading to the decline of the use of White indentured servants is that the scheme had become too successful—not for England, but for the colonies. For more than a hundred and fifty years, indentured servants performed most of the labor in the colonies, first as servants, then as free farmers, craftspeople, artisans, etc. They made plows and wove linens. They tanned leathers and built houses. They were masons, bakers, coopers, distillers, carpenters, and smithies. At a certain point, the goods produced in the colonies began to compete with the goods produced in England. In response, England passed laws in 1718 and 1750 not just restricting the exportation of English indentured servants, but banning all emigration to the colonies by skilled English workers.
Thus, by the late 1600s, the numbers of indentured servants were declining rapidly. At the same time, the international slave trade was becoming a major economic force and a major industry, with England as one of the leaders of that trade. It was only a matter of passing new laws, beginning with Maryland’s 1664 “An Act Concerning Negroes and Other Slaves,” to embed that industry into our political, social, economic and moral structures, structures that remained and thrived well past our birth as a nation.
As instrumental as slavery was to the development of the United States, the single most crucial element was the enslavement of Black women.
From the earliest days of slavery, enslaved women were bought and sold not only for their labor capacity but for their reproductive capacity; in other words, for their ability to expand the slave owner’s labor force and wealth by producing more slaves. In fact—and there should be no polite, euphemistic way of explaining this truth—what evolved over time was an increasingly deliberate practice of raping enslaved Black women and girls for the specific purpose of “breeding,” the term that was used by the slave owners themselves.
Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., uncovered evidence of this widespread practice and in his book, Before the Mayflower, quotes a letter written by a Southern planter (the polite term used to refer to a slave owner) describing the industry:
“In the states of Md., Va., N.C., Ky., Tenn. and Mo., as much attention is paid to the breeding and growth of negroes as to that of horses and mules. Further South, we raise them both for use and for market. Planters command their girls and women (married or unmarried) to have children; and I have known a great many negro girls to be sold off, because they did not have children. A breeding woman is worth from one-sixth to one-fourth more than one that does not breed.”
By 1807, when Great Britain (which controlled the international slave trade) banned slavery, thus ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the structures and practices were already in place throughout the U.S. slave states to formalize and expand the Rape Industry, which was euphemistically referred to as the industry of “increase.” By then, there was little need to import slaves; “home-grown” slaves were already being “produced” in sufficient numbers to continue slavery generation after generation long after the international pipeline was shut down.
In fact, the expansion of domestic enslaved labor is what enabled the White planters to expand their territories and plantations westward into Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas throughout the first half of the 1800s, while the rest of the world was phasing out building their wealth from the forced labor of enslaved humans. It was, in fact, what enabled the Southern “King Cotton”—and later the United States—to become the economic powerhouse of the world.
There were four methods employed by slave owners to ensure the continued operation of the Rape Industry: One was by raping Black women and girls themselves, the second was by using the overseer as their proxy, and the third was by using selected enslaved Black men, who were commonly referred to as “stud Negroes.” Like the Black women marketed as higher-priced “Breed women” and displayed on the auction block surrounded by her children to prove her fertility, enslaved Black men were marketed as higher-priced “stud Negroes” and displayed naked on the auction block. The fourth method was simply the slavers’ expectation of the enslaved men to impregnate enslaved women. As one former enslaved man, Charles Grandy, recalled:
“Marsa…used to sometimes pick our wives for us. If he didn’t have on his place enough women for the men, he would wait on de side of de road till a big wagon loaded with slaves came by. Den Marsa would stop de ole n—r-trader and buy you a woman. Wasn’t no use tryin’ to pick one, ‘cause Marsa wasn’t gonna pay but so much for her. All he wanted was a young healthy one who looked like she could have children.”
That the Rape Industry after 1807 became the sole source of enslaved labor for the southern planters is reflected in population figures: Between 1700 and 1860, the number of domestically-born Whites grew nearly seventy-fold, from 250,000 to approximately 17 million. The number of domestically-born enslaved Blacks, however, over that same period grew from 25,000 to approximately 34.5 million, an increase of nearly 1,400 times. Meanwhile, over the entire period of slavery, as pointed out by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an estimated 450,000 enslaved Africans were brought forcibly to North America. (The remainder of the estimated 10 million people kidnapped from Africa were shipped to South America and the Caribbean.) Thus, somewhere between 1% and 2% of enslaved Blacks were brought forcibly to these shores; the rest were born in the United States.
One of the enduring myths from slavery is the notion that Black women are naturally more fertile than White women. The phenomenon of the extraordinary birthrate of enslaved Blacks was attributed to some mysterious extra fertility of Blacks and to the desires of Black women themselves to have large families, as if women and girls who are forced into slavery have any real choice in determining their pregnancies or would be so anxious to bear children into a lifetime sentence of slavery and violence at the hands of people who despised them. In fact, throughout the entire period of slavery, enslaved women continually sought ways to abort fetuses, fight back and even escape, but the reality that each woman and girl faced was horrific and terrifying: Fight back against the rapist (a nearly impossible feat given who had the guns, whips and attack dogs) and be maimed or killed or sold away from your family; or allow the pregnancies to come to full term or else be sold off to an even worse fate because if you were unable to bear children, you were deemed worthless.
Another enduring myth that began during slavery was the notion that Black women are highly sexualized, promiscuous and unrefined. It was, of course, the White planters who created these two myths in order to hide the Rape Industry and cover up their own horrifying crimes. Casting enslaved Black women as amoral seductresses of White men certainly enabled the White planters to explain to their White wives the obvious resemblance to so many of the enslaved children. But the most damaging aspect of the seductress myth was that, for the first time, a deep wedge was driven between Black and White women. Up till then, throughout the South, it was almost exclusively the White wives of planters who conspired secretly with Black enslaved women, teaching them how to read and write, secretly attending abolitionist meetings, holding bake sales and other fundraisers to fund the Underground Railroad.
In fact, one of the greatest achievements of all for the White rapist planters was the destruction of the natural, growing alliance between Black women and White women which threatened to undermine and dismantle the slave economy. Up till then, the Women’s Suffrage Movement found common cause with the Abolitionist Movement, and most progressive women—both Black and White—were both abolitionist and suffragist. By the end of the Civil War, however, the demonization of Black women had so infected both the Suffrage Movement and the Abolitionist Movement that Abolitionists stopped demanding suffrage for Black women, and White Suffragist women destroyed their own movement by catering to White racist funding sources, with the result that all women were denied the right to vote for another 55 years. By turning their backs on Black women, both progressive movements were severely damaged and a wedge driven between the two that this nation has yet to recover from.
(Yet another enduring, demonizing myth created by the White slaveowners to justify the system of forcing enslaved Black men to be “stud Negroes” was the myth of the Black man as sexual predator, especially preying on White women.)
This debasement of Black women, this myth of a grossly sexualized, animalistic nature placed on Black females manifested itself in ways far beyond the original myth. The degrading stereotype that branded Black females permeated mainstream American society and culture. In her book, When And Where I Enter, scholar Paula Giddings writes that in 1902, a commentator for the popular periodical The Independent wrote, “I sometimes hear of a virtuous Negro woman, but the idea is absolutely inconceivable to me…I cannot imagine such a creature as a virtuous Black woman.” And Gertrude Stein’s novel, Three Lives, published in 1909, included the character of Rose, who “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”
These attitudes persist to this day and still permeate American society and culture. It is manifested in the pornified images and archetypes of Black women in our popular culture. It was manifested in the #MeToo movement which gained no attention when it was started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a Black woman. But when White women began coming forward in 2017, the movement took off. It is only the virtue and the cherished chastity of White women that matter to Americans. And in our criminal justice system, it is also manifested in the widely-held belief that Black women cannot be raped, rendering them unable to seek justice for sexual assaults.
The myth dehumanizes Black females, thus justifying their erasure from society. This erasure was seen in the BLM movement, which focused almost exclusively on police violence against Black males because, in fact, Black women matter less to Americans. And when the African American Policy Forum founded the #SayHerName movement to publicize the murder of Black women and girls at the hands of police across the nation, the name itself was soon co-opted by others and changed to “Say Their Names” and even “Say His Name,” once again rendering Black women invisible and irrelevant. The dehumanizing marginalization is manifested in attitudes about intelligence and inborn traits of Black females. In public schools across the country, Black girls are punished far more severely than White girls because they are seen as dangerous, uncontrollable creatures, and are suspended, physically detained, physically abused, and even arrested and sent to juvenile detention for “crimes” like “acting out,” “talking back,” “acting too boisterous,” and displaying any behavior other than submissiveness. In higher education, women in general are seen as less intelligent, less authoritative and less capable of rigorous scholarship than men, but for Black women, it is even worse. They are subjected to the uniquely virulent bigotry of misogynoir from all others, stripped of their authority and their legitimacy.
The issue of legitimacy is at the heart of why the Blackness of Kamala Harris matters. It is at the heart of our nation’s politics and economic policies. Arising from the horrifying Rape Industry of slavery came the understanding that Black women, due to their “lesser” gender, their “lesser” race and the specific degrading attributes assigned only to them, our nation came to the conclusion that the least deserving group—the group with the least legitimacy—is Black women. The term used to signify this illegitimacy—this least deserving and most reviled group of all in our society—is the “Welfare Queen,” a term that was created specifically to refer to Black women.
Rather than telling the corporations and wealthy 1% to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and pay their fair share, we give them billions in entitlements every year—billions that would easily pay for universal health care, free tuition for all higher education, end hunger and homelessness in America, all while still balancing the national budget—we continue to marginalize, dismiss and degrade Black females, depriving them of legitimacy and their rightful place in our society. Our obsession with cutting off the “Welfare Queen” has determined the fate of elections, has controlled national policy and budget priorities, and has created an economic disaster.
Our nation is still grappling with the impact of slavery’s Rape Industry, a history that remains hidden, secret, at best dismissed as a minor footnote, rather than as the monumental, central cause of why we are crippled by injustice, inequality and broken social paradigms. Our legacy is that we have not dealt with our legacy.
One of the greatest and most brilliant American feminist/abolitionist activists and theorists was a Black woman by the name of Anna Julia Cooper who devoted a great deal of her activism and writing to “elevating the Black woman,” advocating for the full participation of Black women in all aspects of public life. She rejected the notion that Black men—or men of any race—were the primary human and women the subspecies. As she wrote in 1892, “no man can represent the race. Whatever the attainments of the individual may be…he can never be regarded as identical with or representative of the whole.” In her book, A Voice From the South By a Black Woman of the South, Cooper famously wrote: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”
What is understood by women of color across our nation is that Madame Kamala Harris has entered. It is up to the rest of us, as a nation and as individuals, to embrace this moment in its fullness, embracing and building upon this momentous event. Because looking back on the progression of our nation—its history, its legal, political and economic structures, its very soul—it is clear that when and where the Black woman enters, so too does our entire nation.
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posted March 19, 2021