“Without any account being had”: Black women and disposibility then and now

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“I argue that enslaved women entered the [Civil] War already abandoned– as outside war. Despite pro slavery narratives of Black loyalty, Black women’s resistance to slavery had already marked them as inside war…as enemies of the state. The War elaborated that position. Their flight, fight did not go unmarked as Confederate forces targeted them for torture, massacre and re-enslavement.”–Duke historian, Thavolia Glymph

I have been thinking of these words, taken from a 2011 lecture, by historian Thavolia Glymph for the last few days. Speaking, she names three Civil War battles I know little about, save for their names, their memorials, their state parks—Mark’s Mills, Goodrich’s Landing, and Miliken’s Bend. Her words depict the landscape of violence that was these famous battles between 1863 and 1864, the gratuitous color of red nothing new, in particular. I imagine, through her descriptions, the families of Black plantation women and children at Goodrich’s Landing bolted inside of cabins for the sole purpose of live incineration. In this lecture as with the bulk of her work, she sorts out Black women, names them, then speaks of the ways in which their bodies were used and disposed during these campaigns or placed intentionally on plantations by Union officials who knew well in advance that Confederate soldiers would attack those same plantations with the intentions of either killing or re-enslaving Black women who had sought asylum and safety.

There is something breaking in me this morning, a tiny yet permanent rupture, thinking about her descriptions of Black female disposibility and erasure during the Civil War—this treatment, because, as Glymph argues, Black women were described as burdensome, inconsequential in official federal records and exchanges between army officials during the war. I am thinking about the two women she names, left still clutching one another at the side of the road in makeshift dresses, with their necks slit and left to rot against the earth. These Black women’s bodies become documented through the eyes of white soldiers on horseback passing through and thus, become a part of our historical records—our primary sources, if you will. Glymph, in every Q&A I have watched over the last few months, responds to the very same question, the very same way: We do not have a problem with the material, she says when inquired about her sources; we have a problem with the people using the materials and extracting particular kinds of information from the materials—while clearly, in fantastic repetition, ignoring the information about Black women and violence contained in them. I am thinking, as Glymph says, of the historicity of this fact and the way that our histories—both named and ignored—bleed into our present.

Months ago, I met with a Black woman to share news with her that I knew would similarly cause a permanent rupture within her.   I watched her head fall into her hands, her elbows resting on tightly pressed knees, as I described a community accountability process I was co-leading with another Black woman who had been sexually assaulted by a man we both knew—an academic mentor to me, a lifelong friend and father-figure to her. A brilliant Black man, community activist, and scholar. As I watched her body fold in half, I immediately wished to take back my words. I remember the length of her silence, our stillness, and then, later, her words as the reason why she would never return to him to encourage his atonement: “Black women,” she said softly, “are never made the center of anyone’s story.”

This week, I watched a custody hearing between this man and the woman he harmed unfold into a spectacle of violence when he petitioned over three days in court to bring her sexual assault history into court and spoke–openly, irrelevantly–about both her sexuality and sexual history. He named her father, falsely, as a rapist, accused her of naming him as a rapist to their 12-year-old daughter, and subpoenaed a mutual friend struggling with mental health issues to testify on the stand about this fact. She chose not to show up.

We are lucky as Black women that we have one another, that we have a bit of knowledge, experience, some education to remain unshook. Unintimidated. Last week, as this morning, I am reflecting upon this assertion that Black women are never made the center of anyone’s story and thinking about what, in the present, it means to confront Dr. Glymph’s history head on and pull its historical line forward to this moment. And, as I watch Dr. Glymph’s face closely in her lectures, I wonder–with no small amazement– what kind of fortitude it takes to spend a lifetime with a historical record that names Black women as disposable and disappears them “without any account being had of them,” then as it does now.

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