Delores M. Walters is a cultural anthropologist who directs the Southern Rhode Island Area Health Education Center at the University of Rhode Island. The Center aims to alleviate health disparities and increase diversity and cultural competency.
Mary E. Frederickson is a professor of history at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and a visiting professor in The Graduate Institute for Liberal Arts at Emory University.
The editors of Gendered Resistance: Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner answered some questions about the book.
Q: How have do most people know about Margaret Garner and her story?
Delores Walters: Most people know about the enslaved mother who killed her very young daughter to prevent her from being returned to slavery from Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Beloved. Most do not realize that the novel, and Oprah Winfrey’s motion picture adaptation are fictionalized versions of an actual family’s pursuit of freedom that ended tragically. The escape and infanticide are real events that occurred in the heroic, tragic and short life of Margaret Garner.
Q: Broadly, what was the 19th century media’s characterization of Garner’s actions?
Walters: The Garner family’s failed escape attempt and its horrific outcome became front-page headlines in both pro-slavery and anti-slavery media of the 19th century. As the different factions revealed themselves in the press, Cincinnati, where the Garners sought refuge after fleeing Kentucky, became the center of the debate on slavery, although news outlets in other parts of the country carried details and commentary on the story as well. Garner’s story was carried well beyond the trial, not for murder, but for theft (and destruction) of the slaveholder’s “property.” While Margaret Garner had calmly and repeatedly acknowledged choosing death for her children and herself rather than a life in slavery, pro-slavery newspapers portrayed her as a savage hysteric. “Stampede of Slaves: A Tale of Horror! . . . A Negro Child’s Throat Cut from Ear to Ear,” read one pro-slavery headline. The anti-slavery press was more subdued. A typical headline read, “The Fugitive Slave Case. The First Day of the Trial of the Mother and her Children.” Pro-slavery proponents considered Margaret’s act of infanticide evidence of the savagery of Black women, thus justifying slavery, while anti-slavery activists vilified slavery itself, not its victims.
Slave labor and the slave trade were the backbone of the nation’s economic and social development, but it remains difficult for Americans, both Black and White to reconcile their identities with this negative past. In the Ohio-Kentucky borderlands, descendants of slaveholders portray slavery as being more humane than in the Deeper South while in the North, slavery is largely absent from depictions of America’s past. Because the enslavement era is underplayed in public education, relevant aspects of that history—resistance by Black women, men, children and families—also tend to remain marginal in our understanding of the foundation of American economy and society.
Q: Did those 19th century characterizations have implications that are reflected in modern views regarding women’s resistance?
Walters: A 2005 editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer prior to the opening of the Margaret Garner opera stated, “Enslaved women like Garner were the property of their masters and didn’t have the power to say ‘no.’ They were rape victims.” Besides its bold recognition of slavery as a violent institution, particularly as it was experienced by women and girls, what is also noteworthy is that during Garner’s time in the mid 19th century, the Cincinnati Enquirer was a pro-slavery newspaper. The nature of slavery in both the South and the North would have to be acknowledged before ignorance and narrow conceptualizations of women’s opposition to brutal oppression can be replaced with more enlightened views. In her chapter, psychologist Cathy McDaniels-Wilson, who has analyzed the long-term psychological consequences of trauma and sexual violence on women in the twenty-first century, points out that the contexts of racialized sexual violence on enslaved women and girls in the nineteen-century are remarkably similar.
During their enslavement, Black women such as Margaret Garner used various tactics for evading rapes and sexual exploitation by White slaveholders. Similar strategies are evident in contemporary lives. For example, Black women and poor women prevented attempts by the press to portray them simply as victims in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These modern-era women avoided being further stigmatized by choosing to circumvent full disclosure of their experience as people living in abject poverty under enslavement-era conditions in the regions most vulnerable to natural disasters and most neglected by the Bush administration’s inadequate response to the crisis. Black women whose access to the means of recovery in the disaster zone was the most limited maintained their silence, particularly regarding the sexual abuse to which their race, class and gender made them susceptible. Parallel-lived experiences help illuminate the largely unspoken story of Margaret Garner and render it more accessible for contemporary understanding.
Q: Aside from Garner, who are some of the other women whose stories are featured in this anthology?
Walters: Although Margaret Garner was unable to speak out regarding her own sexual violation, she had a benefactor who was indeed outspoken on her behalf. Lucy Stone, a prominent White feminist and abolitionist, electrified the courtroom with allegations that until then had remained unspoken in an extraordinary speech she delivered on the last day of the Garners’ trial. Stone alluded to the slaveholder’s paternity of Margaret’s children resulting from persistent rape, suggesting that the audience look at Margaret’s mulatto children as “evidence.” The only allusion to the rape of Margaret Garner by the slaveholder and the likelihood that he fathered three, perhaps four of her children, was made by Lucy Stone. Along with Frances E.W. Harper, who is featured in Chapter 4 of Gendered Resistance, Stone bridged the first and second generation of feminists. Following such first generation women orators as the Grimke sisters and Sojourner Truth, between 1830 and the 1850s, Stone assumed that Blacks and Whites were equal citizens, which was not a position consistently held by all who wanted to abolish slavery. I discuss Lucy Stone’s advocacy for Margaret Garner in the introductory chapter.
Part One of the Gendered Resistance anthology highlights stories of resistance, escape, freedom and transformation by women, both familiar and unfamiliar, during the first half of the nineteenth century. Part Two focuses on contemporary global slavery and examines the psychological consequences of and recovery from trauma and sexual violence. Mary E. Frederickson reconstructs the circuitous road to freedom traveled by Elizabeth Clark Gaines in the early nineteenth century. Cheryl La Roche explores the importance of family in shaping the route to freedom, revealing that women escaped from every conceivable context. She details the stories of Ellen Craft and Anna Marie Weems who disguised themselves to complete their escapes and compares Harriet Tubman’s escape strategy to that of Margaret Garner. The stories of Craft, Weems and Tubman will not be new to those acquainted with Underground Railroad lore while the challenges faced by Jane Moore, “Maria,” Annas,” “Molly,” “Juana” and nameless others will largely be unknown. Veta Tucker also explores “the multiple and varied forms of abolitionist resistance to labor and sexual abuse” undertaken by the four women, “secret agents,” she discusses—Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Harriet Tubman, Mary Ellen Pleasant and Margaret Garner. Kristine Yohe examines enslaved women’s resistance through the literary works of Toni Morrison and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Diana Williams, while not naming the “fancy” women who negotiated complex boundaries in nineteenth century quadroon balls, determines that race was more important than a woman’s free or slave status. Were the balls just another form of slave-market, the author asks?
The essays on contemporary global slavery may or may not name the courageous women resistors they discuss. Jolene Smith, a co-founder of the non-partisan, non-political international organization, Free the Slaves, tells the story of Suraj Kali who liberated women in her village in India from a lifetime of enslaved labor. Spirit possession is the means of resistance from economic, social and religious domination for marginalized and racialized women in Yemen according to the chapter by Huda Seif. Raquel de Souza argues that Chica da Silva, a woman born into slavery in eighteenth Brazil, but who has become a cultural icon in film and the media, warrants a more nuanced assessment of her long-term relationship with a wealthy Portuguese official as a means of resistance to subjugation.
Q: This collection of essays examines both 19th century slavery as well as 21st century global slavery. Is the issue of modern slavery understood?
Mary Frederickson: No, because it is almost impossible to believe that in 2014 there are 27 million enslaved women, men, and children in dozens of nations around the world. Jolene Smith’s essay provides an overview of modern- day slavery revealing that impoverished women who are forced into the global economy of the twenty-first century as migrant laborers, particularly as domestic workers, are as vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse as Margaret Garner was during her enslavement more than one hundred and fifty years ago. By focusing on the life of Indian born Suraj Kali, Smith reveals the connection between individual agency and collective action in contemporary gendered resistance to enslavement. Figures on modern slavery from Free the Slaves, the organization Jolene Smith co-founded, reveal that slavery generates $32 billion for traffickers each year. Women and girls make up 55 percent of the 21st century enslaved population; men and boys 45 percent. Twenty-six percent of slaves today are children under 18. Unlike in Margaret Garner’s era when slavery was legal, slavery today is not legal anywhere in the world, but it happens everywhere. The US has 60,000 enslaved people and ranks 134th out of 162 countries for slavery prevalence. India has the largest number of people in slavery at 14 million. Included among the top ten nations with the highest per-capita number of slaves, are: Mauritania, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Haiti and Gabon. Modern day slaves work on farms, in factories, in mines, restaurants, construction sites, hotels, brothels and private homes. Free the Slaves is one group among many working to end slavery. Understanding the scope of this problem is the crucial first step that individuals, governments, businesses, investors, international organizations and consumers must take before resistance efforts can be effective.
Q: What are some of the commonalities that characterize gendered resistance across cultural, geographic and historical domains?
Walters: Gendered resistance in general and Margaret Garner’s resistance in particular have the potential of motivating others to advocate for themselves and others. It is this potential to motivate that is a characteristic of women’s opposition to oppression and that crosses cultural, geographic and historical domains. Unprotected against sexual violence, exploitation and rape, Margaret Garner nevertheless resisted her enslavement and that of her children. Her courageous stance can now become an inspiration for women of all races/ ethnicities/classes and sexual orientations to reject domestic violence, for example. Garner’s brave resistance provides an invaluable lesson from the past about strength and resilience in overcoming marginalization, including inequitable access to health care in the present—another example applicable to both national and international settings. Taken from an historic standpoint, stories of gendered resistance serve to empower new health care professionals and through them individuals in underserved communities.
Q: What role have representations of gendered resistance in literature, film or art had in influencing the public perception and knowledge of the treatment of enslaved women?
Walters: Arguably, it is through artistic expressions—visual and performance art as well as fictional adaptations—that the unspeakable, horrific stories of resistance of women such as Margaret Garner can most effectively be conveyed and understood. Most recently, Toni Morrison revived the story in her libretto for the opera Margaret Garner. Morrison uses her imagination to recollect this tale of survival, resistance and courageous self- determination. Her opera story also extends beyond the actual historical setting to reflect our ability to oppose subjugation, to assert our individuality and differences—and reclaim ourselves.
In the concluding chapter of Gendered Resistance, five artists reflect on memory and the role that art can play in healing from the cultural trauma of slavery. Invariably they convey a message of empowerment through their art. Through her stunning quilts that utilize many “Africanisms,” Carolyn Mazloomi reminds women worldwide that they have power despite being denied equal pay for equal work, or equal access to education or equal entrée to advancement. Through dance, Nailah Randall Bellinger tells the story of Beloved using a non-verbal path to historical knowledge, remembrance and self-affirmation. Through her documentary film, The Healing Passage/Voices from the Water, S. Pearl Sharp reveals the past and present simultaneously: “we project a correlation between the sale of women today via a media auction block . . . When screening the film, I challenge teens and young adults in the audience to acknowledge and respond to their manipulation by and submission to the media. Cognizance precedes resistance.” Olivia Cousins, medical sociologist, who introduced The Healing Passage at the conference that preceded the compilation of articles for Gendered Resistance shared her profound sense of re-emergence and healing induced by the film. For her, the recovery begins with the collective stories, especially of women in general, and Black women in particular. Finally, Cathy Roma and the MUSE, Cincinnati Women’s Choir she directs, spoke of celebrating women overcoming multiple forms of oppression in their singing at the Gendered Resistance Conference.