Summer of 2013, in the wake of three kidnappings, each involving young women of color, Brenda Stevenson offered these comments on ways histories of Atlantic slavery continue to reverberate in violence against women today:
The brutal physical, psychological and sexual abuse that Ariel Castro inflicted on Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina DeJesus was typical of what black enslaved women endured over the generations. Michelle Knight’s description of her life of horrors and how she was able to survive it — through bonding with another slave woman — suggests the strength and importance of communal bonds as survival and resistance strategies of slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Likewise, these women’s belief that they would not remain in slavery, as well as the Kenyan maid’s mad dash for freedom on an Orange County bus, suitcase in tow, underscore the resilience and resistance of past bondsmen and women. They are our contemporary Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Lavinia Bell. Amanda Berry’s determination to shield her daughter from the violence and shame of her conception, and the brutal deaths of her siblings and stepsiblings at the hands of her “father/master,” speaks to the code of silence that many women, and men, evoked in order to shield the devastating experiences of their lives from public view and to protect their children. The “impact statements” that the families of Knight, Berry and DeJesus voiced, echo the sense of loss and devastation that colonial and antebellum slave families experienced when subject to separation and sale; as well as the immense joy they felt when they received word of their kin’s survival or actual return.
Modern-day slaveholders also offer insight that tugs at debates regarding the past institution. Ariel Castro’s courtroom lament that he was not a “monster,” but rather a “good worker” and “father” who took his daughter to church on Sundays, sheds a harsh light on lingering myths of Southern patriarchy and paternalism. His justification of his abuse — that he was only physically violent when provoked and that his sexual acts with his captives were consensual, even requested — echoes apologists theories that the antebellum institution was a “positive good” and that concubinage implied “loving” relationships. The notion that the Kenyan and Filipina workers of Aayban flew first class and attended spas as an example of how well they were treated is reminiscent of the tauted material condition of some past slaves who paid dearly as a result — the domestics, for example, who had better clothing and food than average field slaves, but who spent much of their lives separated from their kin and friends and were much more likely to be physically brutalized by mistresses with whom they worked or sexually assaulted by masters who had close physical proximity.
Brenda E. Stevenson, professor of history at UCLA, is the author of Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (Oxford University Press, 1996). The full essay was published at the History News Network on August 19, 2013.