The Reality of Being a Black Woman in America
Deborah Gray White, celebrated for groundbreaking research that gave a voice to enslaved black women, talks about life today
Before the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements made headlines and brought issues of women's rights back to the forefront, Rutgers scholars had been working for decades as ardent advocates through their research, teaching and outreach. Over the next several weeks, Rutgers Today will be highlighting many of the women whose work is making a noticeable impact.
It would seem to be cause for unequivocal celebration. If you sort Americans by gender and ethnicity and look at the percentage of each group attending some form of higher education, you’ll see that African-American women are enrolled in college at a higher percentage than any other group. And yet Deborah Gray White isn’t celebrating – yet. “Sometimes," she says, “the more success you have, the more threatening you appear.”
White is more than conversant with success. She’s a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and a former chair of the Department of History at the School of Arts and Sciences. She codirected “The Black Atlantic: Race, Nation and Gender” project at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, was a research professor at the Rutgers Institute for Research on Women, and is chair of the Rutgers University Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History.
She’s written widely on the history of black women in America, and her monograph Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South was highly lauded and widely influential. It led to a new subject category (“Woman Slaves”) in the Library of Congress and was voted as being among the 100 most admired American history books by the Organization of American Historians.
All of which makes her uniquely situated to understand what successful African-American women – and all black women – are up against. “People think it’s only black men who appear threatening, and that’s not the case,” she says. “They [black women] have to be fearful of police brutality. They have to be concerned that they don’t appear too aggressive.” Go shopping, and you may be tracked as a potential shoplifter. Walk down the halls of your office, and your coworkers may wonder what right you have to be there.
“Sometimes,” she says, “the more success you have, the more threatening you appear.”
Citing a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she raises the issue of “weathering: the daily minutiae that black women have to deal with in terms of racism,” she says—“weathering,” because it wears you down. And so those promising educational statistics have to be weighed against the realities of day-to-day life for African-American women: they suffer from a different set, and a disproportionate number, of health problems; they’re three times more likely than white women to die during pregnancy and/or childbirth; they’re disproportionately single mothers (67 percent as opposed to 42 percent among Latinas and 25 percent among white women).
Black women have historically been viewed as promiscuous, which made getting legal recourse for rape virtually impossible. “As inconsistent as the law was in regards to white women,” says White, “it was just totally nonexistent for black women.” She notes that raping a black woman wasn’t even against the law in the United States until after the Civil War.
Although White is celebrated for her research and writing on enslaved black women, she’s also an acknowledged expert on African-American history in general, a fact evident in her publications, among them Freedom on My Mind, Volume I: A History of African Americans, With Documents; Let My People Go: African Americans 1804-1860; and Scarlet and Black, Volume I: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History. The last book, which she co-edited with faculty member Marisa J. Fuentes, was the fruit of White’s work as chair of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History (and the work, it should be noted, of the many Rutgers undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty who researched and wrote about the university’s complex and often shadowy relationship with slavery).
Among the book’s revelations are that a founder of Queen’s College, Philip Livingston, was a slave trader and that Henry Rutgers, after whom the university was renamed, was a slaveholder. Both the college’s first president, Jacob Hardenbergh, and its first tutor, Frederick Frelinghuysen, were slaveholders. Like most early American colleges, White pointed out at an event celebrating the book’s publication in 2016, Rutgers depended on slaves to build its campuses and serve its students and faculty and it depended on the sale of black people to fund its existence.
As an initial redress against the ills revealed in Scarlet and Black, Rutgers followed the committee’s urgings to change the name of New Brunswick’s College Avenue Apartments to the Sojourner Truth Apartments, after the celebrated abolitionist and slave whose family was owned by relatives of Hardenbergh; to name the footpath between Old Queens and the Voorhees Mall Will’s Way, after the slave who laid the foundation of Old Queens; and to rename the Kilmer Library on the Livingston campus after James Dickson Carr, Rutgers’ first African-American graduate, who got his degree in 1892 and went on to Columbia Law School.
As to redress for historical (and current) ills against black women, White says she’s hopeful about the future. She notes that it was black women—and LGBTQ women—who founded the movement known as Black Lives Matter. And a black woman was also the driving force behind the #MeToo movement. “These women,” she says, “have stepped up and said, ‘Hey, black lives matter, gay lives matter, they matter, and we’re going to bring it all to the table."
Read the Rutgers Magazine #WeToo story profiling Rutgers scholars here.