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Journal Article

Mothering the "Useless": Black Motherhood, Disability, and Slavery

Jenifer L. Barclay
Women, Gender, and Families of Color
Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 115-140
DOI: 10.5406/womgenfamcol.2.2.0115
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/womgenfamcol.2.2.0115
Page Count: 26
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Mothering the "Useless":
Black Motherhood, Disability, and Slavery
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Abstract

For decades, scholars have studied virtually every aspect of day-to-day enslaved life in antebellum America, giving particular attention to the nuances and intricacies of slave family and community life. Yet few have considered the social relations of disabilities in these most intimate and closely guarded spaces or questioned, in particular, the challenges that women faced navigating the complex experience of enslaved motherhood when their children lived with disabilities. Since the United States's economically driven regime of chattel slavery reduced human beings to property valued according to their ability to labor, slaveholders categorized those with disabilities as "useless" and sometimes even "chargeable" (negatively valued because the cost of their care was a financial liability). This pragmatic, calculated reasoning left disabled, enslaved children particularly vulnerable because slaveholders devalued them as property and potential future laborers, privileging mothers' labor over their disabled children's presumably irrelevant needs. But these beliefs also sometimes worked to enslaved mothers' advantage since disabled children were less likely to be bought or sold away. Even then, however, women still confronted a myriad of challenges in meeting their children's daily needs and facing other unusual, often emotionally charged situations. For instance, owners sometimes sent their children elsewhere for surgeries to "correct" their disabilities, while others simply refused to invest in their medical needs. Disability also intersected with enslaved motherhood when women experienced disabilities, which sometimes helped them avoid separation from their children, though often as a result of extremely disturbing circumstances. Finally, because mothers were forced to rely on others for childcare while they worked, bondspeople with disabilities oftentimes took on this important task and social role. The presence of disabilities among enslaved people, then, shaped many aspects of mothers' and children's relationships to one another in ways that were both positive and negative. Grappling with the complex realities of enslaved motherhood through the lens of disability reveals that women rejected slaveholders' definitions of their children; they adapted, resisted, and persevered to ensure that they mothered their "useless" children to the best of their ability, despite living under an institution that inherently devalued them.

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