It was one part ingeniousness and two parts depravity. As simple as moving a comma in a sentence. Once the initial conquest had subsided there was really no need to restrain with violence. The captors had been co-opted into the subjugation. In a clear and unambiguous motion, Blacks were enlisted as co-conspirators in their own slavery. If property is tantamount to identity, the Black man and woman were stripped essentially and utterly of them both. White landowners and proponents of slavery usurped any interest they had in anything. Blacks had no interest in land. No interest in their own progeny. No interest in the fruits of their own labor. Not interest even in their own bodies. They stood dispossessed of themselves, with the only difference between them and their brothers and sisters in Africa being the distance of the Atlantic. Without ownership of anything, Blacks were without identity.
And the ensuing narrative hereafter became the journey of reclamation. Of property. Of people. Of personhood.
One of the most important distinctions a first-year law student will learn is that property law is not the traditionally held notion of people and the things they own. Rather, property law is about the relationships between people and things (or places). The concept of “ownership” is too banal and simple to discuss the intricacies and complexities that encompass what it means for people to hold property.
Blackstone’s infamous quote regarding property forms the basis for many a first-year casebook:
“There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. And yet there are very few, that will give themselves the trouble to consider the original and foundation of this right.” – William Blackstone
The idea of a “despotic dominion” connotes sovereign rule over (usually real) property. But what does it men in the context of property rights in people?
Obviously, at one point in time, the law cognized that people could have an interest in another person. Slavery, for example, is the penultimate example of people being considered subject to the dominion of another person. But we also have examples in the history of feminism; women, for the greater portion of existence in many cultures, were considered the property of their closest male relative. Fathers claimed dominion over the bodies of their daughters, husbands ruled over their wives, and even brothers, in the absence of a male paternal figure, would assert an interest over their sisters.
Thus, none suffered more from the convergence of this dichotomy than the Black Woman.
In Georgia, like in many states where slavery was lawful (and contrary to popular belief), free people of color were not permitted to own slaves of their own (the statute was enacted in 1818). Likewise, early property law prevented women from owning property independent of their husbands. But take it a step further. Consider the transaction that occurred when a man was attempting a woman’s hand in marriage:
- Man goes to Father.
- Father entertains Man’s business proposal.
- Man brings money or equivalent to Father.
- Father accepts or rejects money.
- If rejected, Man either attempts renegotiation or abandons purchase.
- If accepted, Father turns over property that is purchased to Man.
At first blush, this is almost like any normal business arrangement, until you realize the chattel being purchased (through a dowry) is a Woman. Notice, also, the Woman is conspicuously absent from the transaction. She is not the one negotiating. She is not accepting or rejecting offers. She is a chair, or a car(t), or a table, or a heifer, or some such other thing that can be utilized (read: used).
The Georgia statute and the dowry practice illustrate something that we acknowledge in every day life, but deign to liken to the logical conclusion of personal autonomy: we recognize that Things do not own Things. Though we love our furry babies, our cats and dogs (or other such exotic animals), we know the law does not treat them as people. They are chattels, living sentient property that have no property interests that a recognizable or enforceable.
For a long while in America, Blacks were pets for Whites.
For an even longer time, Women were pets for Men.
So, of course, the idea that your pet could own land, or even have a pet of their own, was laughable.
The Black Woman has had a hard journey… IS having a hard journey… with the reclamation of the dominion of her body. First, the narrative of interracial rape and conquest abounds in the diaspora, with such historic figures as Sally Hemmings influencing the archetype for the depictions of white male/ black female relationships (see “Scandal”; “Monster’s Ball”; “Corrina, Corrina”; “12 Years A Slave”)
Even if a Black Woman overcomes the insurmountable claim to her body because of race, she still is subject to the exercise of control from Black Men. In my honest opinion, the most ardent and subversive support that bolsters this claim is the salacious and misguided translation of the Judeo-Christian faiths that offer as a cornerstone for familial and communal harmony that the Woman is inferior to Man. Though the popular verse in Ephesians 5 talks of ‘wives submitting’ to husbands at verse 22, the preceding verse places a very distinct context for the passage: ‘Submit to one another out of reverence in Christ.’. However, the spiritual and textual content did not comport with the cultural zeitgeist, and so it was translated and taught out of context. Remember, at this time, patrilineal reckoning was the mark of manhood and honor; sons were the currency of the day, and daughters were liabilities. So a patriarchal society was sure to promulgate Scripture that supported this fallacy.
Black Women are in need of a conscious wake-up call.
There is a legal doctrine in property law called “adverse possession”. Essentially, it is a method by which a person can strip the legal ownership of someone from real property by continuous, hostile, and blatant use of the property against the actual owner. The economic consideration of the law precludes the actual owner from asserting rights in the property because it is presumed more advantageous socially for a usurper who will maximize the use of the property to legally own it than for the true owner to idly neglect it. Thus, a person who will use and seize property is given preference in its ownership, and the true owner concedes title because he fails to assert his own rights.
Now imagine, if you will, that you can own a person instead of property.
Own yourself. Assert the autonomy and dominion over your own body. Let that dominion be thorough. Let it be despotic. Let it be absolute.
Moreover, let it be now.
2 thoughts on “Encroachment on All Sides: Dispossessing the Black Woman of Her Body and Property Rights (Guest Post)”
YES, YES, and MORE YES!!!!
There’s so much to love here! Do you have a favorite quote from Vincent’s article?