Over the last few weeks I have been focused learning about the history and backgrounds of the families who enslaved my ancestors. Mainly, to learn and understand their stories and how everything affected them.
As a woman, I have to say I am more so interested in the women aka "The Mistress"and women family members -- their feelings, roles and experiences on the farm/plantation.
I remember as a youth reading novels and watching movies such as Gone As The Wind and Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble and other made-for-TV movies and thinking they were extremely nice, protectors of the enslaved - especially of the women and children of the plantation.
I also believed they were adamantly against slavery and were in a way similar to the enslaved - stuck in the middle of loving a man (the plantation owner/husband) and wanting no parts of the institution nor it's rewards/lifestyle.
But, those portrayals I have always believed have turned out to be not representative of the overall truth. The more distributing thing I have been learning is the abuse and utter cruelty many mistresses engaged in - without a blink of an eye.
I understand it was a different time but as a woman - we tend to have a deeper level of emotional empathy and understanding with one another - so I have to admit it's hard to process some of the accounts and things I am learning about.
- In Within the Plantation Household: Black and White by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese states that most white plantation mistresses enjoyed the privileges that slavery provided them with and were not willing or interested in giving up their privileges or trying to rebel against the institution.
- Minrose Gwin: “it is in slave narratives, not in the white women’s journals and reminiscences,
that the jealous mistress springs up to life in all her fury and perversity” (40). Slavery “generates such female monsters, and they are best shown through their relationships with those over whom they exert the most power, yet with whom they should feel the most common bond—black women” (Gwin Black and White Women 36).
- Up until only recently in - when I saw 12 Years A Slave - I personally don't remember seeing a different portrayal or hearing about the internal issues between the women of the plantation + a more realistic view of a common Mistress. Surely, there were some Mistresses who were indeed kind and didn't abuse nor support the institution - but it appears this type was a secondary type of Mistress - and not the common.
- The mistress had a lot on her plate - basically managing the plantation and the enslaved. In The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South by Catherine Clinton she talked about isolation being a major thing the average mistress dealt with and it was a fairly lonely life for many.
- Many women had morphine, opium, laudanum, and cocaine. addictions and very often engaged in violent acts against the enslaved under the influence of their husbands. They were also often respected and admired by others in the community for the how they violently handled their enslaved.
- In speaking of the negro there was one fortunate quality given him that made the unkind treatment many had to bear very much easier for him than it would have been possible for a white man. Requiem for a Lost City: A Memoir of Civil War Atlanta and the Old South.
With all that being said - I know this is the perfect place to inquire about a few things I wanted to learn more about and confirm. I hope that's ok - and I don't mean to offend
1) The mistress was pretty much always presented as a victim of the system - but in academic studies and narratives it shows she was more than often fully complicit in the degradation and abuses of the enslaved. Why do you think the "moonlight and magnolias" myth and "Southern Belle" portrayal of the Mistress and White women during the time of institution of slavery has been allowed to be presented as representation for so long? Even though it's documented as untrue?
2) Were drug addictions and/or severe mental health issues rampant amongst most Mistresses in the South and/or North? Do you know of any known accounts? Source
3) Resentment, jealous, isolation and the need for some type of social status seemed to be the recipe that internally plagued many Mistresses. I often wonder why some took out such evil acts on the enslaved. Did the Mistresses have any extracurricular activities such as exercise or therapy that could help them -- or was journaling their source of release?
4) When mistresses exhibited a pattern of cruel abuse on their enslaved - was there any mental institutions/treatment or jail time? Or was it just seen as the normal thing for some to do?
Here are a two videos I thought were interesting as well.
 Much of what follows draws from Ch. 6 of Made in America.
 Smith, “Anxiety,” Wm. & Mary Quart., 1969.
 McCandless, Moonlight, Magnolias, & Madness, p. 21.
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