History, Race, and Violence in the Arena of Reproduction Enslavement.

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History, Race, and Violence in the Arena of Reproduction Enslavement.

In 1997, Dorothy Roberts wrote a salient book titled Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Roberts explicates the crusade to punish Black women—especially the destitute—for having children. The exploitation of Black women in the U.S. began in the days of slavery and, appropriately enough, Roberts introduces her first chapter with an illustrative story:

When Rose Williams was sixteen years old, her master sent her to live in a cabin with a male slave named Rufus. It did not matter that Rose disliked Rufus "cause he a bully." At first Rose thought that her role was just to perform household chores for Rufus and a few other slaves. But she learned the true nature of her assignment when Rufus crawled into her bunk one night: "I says , ‘What you means, you fool nigger?' He say for me to hush de mouth. ‘Dis my bunk, too,' he say." When Rose fended off Rufus's sexual advances with a poker, she was reported to Master Hawkins. Hawkins made it clear that she had no choice in the matter:

De nex' day de massa call me and tell me, "Woman, I's pay big money for you,and I's done dat for de cause I wants yous to raise me chillens. I's put you to live with Rufus for dat purpose. Now, if you doesn't want whippin' at de stake, yous do what I wants.

Rose reluctantly acceded to her master's demands:

I thinks ‘bout massa buyin' me offen de block and savin' me from bein' sep'rated from my folks and ‘bout bein' whipped at de stake. Dere it am. What am I's to do? So I ‘cides to do as de massa wish and so I yields.

The story of control of Black reproduction begins with the experiences of slave women like Rose Williams. Black procreation helped to sustain slavery, giving slave masters an economic incentive to govern Black women's reproductive lives. Slave women's childbearing replenished the enslaved labor force: Black women bore children who belonged to the slaveowner from the moment of their conception. This feature of slavery made control of reproduction a central aspect of white's subjugation of African people in America. It marked Black women from the beginning as objects whose decisions about reproduction should be subject to social regulation rather than to their own will. (22-23)

Once slavery was abolished Black people no longer had to worry about their children being the property of slaveowners, or anyone else.

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