The Magnolias were Steelier Than You Think
I have to admit it, I was hesitant to read this book because I thought it was going to be another compendium of the horrors done to enslaved people. It’s not that I’m offended by reading about these things, of course. They were terrible, and the truth needs to be out there so that no one can ever say it didn’t happen or that it wasn’t so bad.
But I prefer to focus on African-American people as I know them now rather than focusing on an existence they were forced into 150 years ago.
Because of its good reviews however, I decided to give it a try, and I must say, I was surprised and impressed. I was actually kind of riveted by this book.
They Were Her Property starts with the assumption that women mourned the loss of the “Old South” because women were protected from the reality of slavery…and turns it on its ear. Instead, author Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers posits that opposite: women were very aware of the reality of slavery because women owned enslaved people. They owned them as single women, and even when married, they frequently owned people in their own name, using contracts to keep their own property, including humans, separate from their husbands’. In fact, the problem…the reason women opposed emancipation…is because they might have had as much, or more, to lose than their husbands, since women were less likely to own other kinds of property, such as animals or land.
So there’s a shocker.
She goes on to compare women as slave owners with men, and concludes that they were neither no better nor no worse. Or more precisely, some women were better, and some were worse…and the ones who were better often were because they realized that healthy people are more valuable than sick or malnourished people…in this case, literally. Some women even treated their homes as sort of perverse training schools; they trained enslaved people as servants or for different trades, and then sold them at a profit.
So basically, emancipation ended one of the few ways that a woman could make money independently. Imagine…during roughly the same time period women in England were writing novels to survive!
In a twisted way, They Were Her Property is kind of a story of twisted feminine liberation…through the “peculiar institution”, women were able to achieve economic independence in a way that was lost to them after the war.
Besides the compelling story the research tells us, the second astounding thing about this book is that much of the data comes straight out of the mouths of formerly enslaved people.
One of the things that can be frustrating about reading about historical people who were (mostly) not literate, and if they were, had little means for writing, is that the story gets mediated through their oppressors. You know the old saying about the “winners” being the ones who write history? Well, it’s also the oppressors, especially when they take the voice of literacy from those they oppress.
In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reid does a great job of avoiding putting thoughts in the enslaved members of the Hemings-Jefferson family’s heads through what Thomas Jefferson and the other literate members of the family wrote. In Truevine, on the other hand, I was frustrated because Sue Macy relied too often on documents left by people who may not have accurately reflected the events Macy describes because her primary subjects weren’t literate.
Jones-Rogers’ Compelling Research
Although Jones-Rogers uses many types of documents to piece together her story, one of the most engaging sources she had access to were the WPA interviews done with formerly enslaved people in the 1930’s.
The WPA was a federal program designed to provide jobs for people during the Great Depression, and there were projects designed to employ writers, which means that that a treasure trove of people were able to leave testimony for posterity which would have long since gone to the grave with them. So Jones-Rogers was able to corroborate data drawn from newspapers, invoices, and other documents with these interviews.
The formerly enslaved Americans interviewed corroborated what Jones-Rogers found: women were involved in all aspects of slavery, including buying and selling and punishment and discipline.
They Were Her Property is an eye-opening peek into what the antebellum Southern U.S. was really like, and ironically, why its end was harder in some ways for the women than for the men.
More “Steel Magnolias”
You can read the original manuscripts for all 17 volumes of Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 at the Library of Congress website. They are organized by state, and I was able to easily find interviews with people who lived near my hometown.
I read The Hemingses of Monticello several years ago, and I remember it for, among other things, the care Gordon-Reed takes for not assuming she could infer about the people who left no records behind.
As it says in the title, the events in Truevine happened well after the Civil War ended. It is about a pair of brothers who were kidnapped from their mother and toured the U.S. in old timey “Freak shows.” It’s a very interesting book except for the fact that the perspective of the story gets skewed since the main characters were illiterate.
For the truth about mammies in the Old South: