Dancing in the Woods: Slave Women Reclaiming their Bodies

          Antebellum Enslaved Women

From the beginning of colonization and the slave trade, Africans’ bodies were perceived as tools built for labor. African women’s physical strength and labor in agriculture set them apart from southern white women.[1] Because of these perceptions, slavery in the antebellum south was centered on the chattel principle. The chattel principle was the idea that slaves were property to their masters. Because the slave trade created a price value for slaves, slaves were seen as commodities, not as individual human beings.[2] As a result, slave masters attempted to suppress the individual identities of slaves in order to create prosperous laborers. As the famous abolitionist, Ida B. Wells said, “It was his [the masters] interest to dwarf the soul and preserve the body.” [3] Although all slaves were subject to this oppression, women were specifically targeted in more ways than one. Female slaves were sexually, physically, and emotionally exploited. As a form of resistance to these exploitations, slave women organized and attended “secret parties” to reclaim their bodies and identities.

One method women used to seek protection and to combat the oppression of their masters was the secret parties they organized and attended. The illegal slave parties consisted of enslaved men and women slipping away at night to indulge in activities. Some of the activities included eating, drinking, dancing, and singing, which were not acceptable on the plantation. All of the activities that took place at the parties were forms of resistance against the master of the plantation. The parties were normally located somewhere on the plantation that was off limits to the slaves. A former slave from Norfolk, VA, Nancy Williams, remembered slipping away from the plantation and going to an old cabin about five miles away to dance in the woods.[4] The act of a slave woman journeying five miles away from the plantation was an act of controlling her own body and feeling a sense of independence for a night.

The activities that took place at the parties required goods that most slaves in the plantation south did not own themselves. Because of the lack of goods, enslaved women turned to stealing from their master to prepare for the secret parties that they planned. Austin Steward, a former slave in Virginia, reflected on the women stealing provisions from the “Big House” to use in preparation for the party they were planning. He justified the slaves behavior by explaining, “that it can not be stealing, because “it belongs to massa, and so do we, and we only use one part of his property to benefit another.”[5] The women took the provisions to a different part of the plantation and cooked the food for the party. Enslaved women were compelled to participate in the secret parties because stealing food from their masters to supply the party was another form of resistance. [6] The act of stealing from their masters gave the enslaved women the power to create an authentic party in the woods for the people in attendance. By providing food for their guests, women hosting the party were able to feel like real hostesses, giving them a sense of identity and self-worth for the night. Steward explained that, “however ill fed they may have been, here, for one, there was plenty.”[7] The delight that the enslaved women felt to have prepared a bountiful meal for their slave community gave them a sense of womanhood that they could not experience outside of the secret parties.

Once the parties commenced, the enslaved women participated in activities, like dancing, as forms of resistance and self-expression that were not permitted on the plantation. Outside of the view of the master, enslaved women could claim their own bodies through dancing. Silvia King, a former slave from Texas, described the “Ring Dance” that slaves participated in at the parties in the woods. She explained that the slaves stand in a circle and shuffle around singing together and holding hands. King said that some slave women would continue singing and dancing all night long until the break of day when they would have to go receive the tasks for the day.[8] The women were able to control their own bodies through dancing until they were brought back to the reality of another working day of labor for their master. Dancing was also a form of resistance to the master because the women were tired the day after the party and could not work as hard.

Nancy Williams described all of the girls having a boy partner to dance with during the secret party dance scenes.[9] The mutual companionship that the enslaved women experienced at the parties was a way for her to choose a partner for herself. At the parties, the enslaved women were not taken advantage of by their masters, but were able to pick their own partner to dance with. Nancy Williams’ ability to chose her own partner was a liberating feeling she never felt on the plantation. The dances also created healthy competition between the enslaved women that gave them pride that they rarely felt in everyday life. The oppressed women were able to control and master their own bodies through dance competitions.[10] Nancy Williams reflects back to the competition between her and Jenny during the outlawed parties. Williams painted the picture of her and Jenny dancing to the violins and cow bones while balancing a glass of water on their heads. She remembers that she won that night and her partner even won five dollars off her from betting with his friend.[11] The friendly competition gave Williams mastery over her own body in contrast to her master always controlling it.

The women used the clothing they wore at the parties to express their self-identity in resistance to the oppressive plantation life. As a part of the chattel principle, the master’s duty was to clothe his property. Slaves were given poor quality clothing. George White, a former slave in Lynchburg, VA, recalled him and his sisters being given shirts made of flax. White remembered that because of the flax they, “didn’t have to scratch their backs; jus’ wiggle an’ our backs was scratched.” [12] He also reflected on the wooden bottom shoes that his family was given during the winter and how uncomfortable they were to work in.[13] While laboring on the plantation, enslaved women also wore hand me down clothes from the Big House. Nancy Williams remembered that each spring “Ant Emma” would bring a sack full of clothes to the slave quarters and the slave children would fight for the items. She recalled that the majority of the clothes did not fit properly and that there were not enough clothes to go around. [14]

The secret parties were a way for women to express themselves through their outfits as a form of resistance to their masters. Women were able to dress lavishly for the parties, which was not allowed on the plantation. Nancy Williams reminisced on her lavish outfits of bright colors at the secret parties. She remembers dying her white dress using the polk berry bush and feeling like a southern mistress for the night. [15]Women wove clothing, dyed clothing, and put designs on their clothing. The women illustrated in the “Lynchburg Negro Dance” illustrate the pride enslaved women took in creating their outfits for the secret parties. For instance, both women have elaborate accessories such as jewelry and headpieces that would not have been worn in front of the master and overseers. Also, in an effort to make her feel pleased with her appearance, the woman in the middle has a blue scarf that was more than likely hand dyed. The enslaved women created their own fancy clothes as a form of self-expression and resistance to the oppression they received on the plantation daily. The women were also able to claim the product of their labor by making party clothing for the parties. They were able to take the cotton that they labored over for their master and use it to produce a dress for their own happiness.[16] The ability for enslaved women to create their own clothes for secret parties and freely express themselves through fashion was another way to reclaim their bodies from the cruelty of their masters.

Enslaved women were able to reclaim their bodies from their exploiting masters through coordinating and attending  secret slave parties outside of oppressive plantation rules and masters. Enslaved women were successful in reclaiming their bodies by physically leaving the plantation and disobeying rules to liberate them from their brutal lifestyles. Stealing food for feasting and cotton for making outfits was another way women resisted the oppression through the secret parties. Dancing at the secret parties was a way for women to reclaim their bodies and master control over the movement of their own bodies. Finally, women’s outfits that they prepared for the secret parties gave them a way to reclaim their bodies and feel beautiful for a night. The secret parties that enslaved women organized and attended were a way for women to keep their soul intact and not have their identities completely dwarfed by their masters.

Heath Beauchamp

Notes to the Text:
[1]Jennifer L. Morgan, “ ‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies and the Gendering of Racial Ideology,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 170.
[2] Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) 21.
[3] Ida B. Wells, A Red Record:Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States. 1895.
[4] Nancy Williams, Interviewed by: Emmy Wilson and Claude W. Anderson. Weevils in the Wheat. Eds. Charles Perdue, Thomas Barden and Robert Phillips, (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1976) 316.
[5] Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, (Rochester: William Alling, Exchange Street: 1857) 29.
[6] Stephanie Camp M.H, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) 69.
[7] Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, 31.
[8] Slivia King, “Ex-Slave Stories.” Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. 16.2 293.
[9] Williams, Weevils in the Wheat, 316.
[10] Camp, Closer to Freedom, 76.
[11] Williams, Weevils in the Wheat, 316.
[12] George White, Interviews by: William T. Lee. Weevils in the Wheat. Eds. Charles Perdue, Thomas Barden and Robert Phillips, (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1976) 309.
[13] Ibid., 309.
[14] Williams, Weevils in the Wheat, 322.
[15] Ibid., 316.
[16] Camp, Closer to Freedom, 85.

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Dancing in the Woods: Slave Women Reclaiming their Bodies

  1. Pingback: Women of the Old South

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