Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New---Nannies, Mammies and Birthing Confederates

Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood and Social Networks in the Old South, V. Lynn Kennedy, Johns Hopkins University Press, 277 pp., $65.00.

Reviewed by Anya Jabour for H-Childhood, May 2011; review entitled The Centrality and Complexity of Childbirth in Southern History

Excerpt: In Born Southern, V. Lynn Kennedy offers a sensitive and nuanced exploration of the multiple meanings attached to childbirth, mothering, and child rearing in the antebellum South. While “a person’s birth laid the foundation for the social identity that shaped his or her position and possibilities within antebellum southern society,” and law determined the significance of lineage and race, southern pro-slavery authors used the so-called facts of life to avoid taking responsibility for depriving individuals of human rights by subjecting them, once born to a slave mother, to race-based slavery (p. 22). The customs surrounding childbirth often highlighted and reinforced social hierarchies. For instance, during the recovery period, practical assistance, and child-care alternatives were allotted to new mothers. The birthing chamber was also “a unique social space in southern society,” where black and white women temporarily privileged the commonalities of shared experience over the hierarchies of slaveholding society (p. 57). Even though a “biological mandate” linked black and white women, narratives of childbirth and maternity could be used for a variety of purposes, including defending or critiquing slavery (p. 14). Ultimately, maternal metaphors helped frame the secession crisis and the Civil War in terms of southern-born white sons defending their birthplace and their rhetorical “mother,” the slaveholding South.

Kennedy’s meticulous attention to the nuances of her sources has both benefits and drawbacks. The usefulness of Kennedy’s careful reading of a relatively small collection of sources is evident in her sensitive exploration of the contested issue of “breeding.” Rather than engaging in debate over the extent to which coerced reproduction occurred, Kennedy instead analyzes the language that slaves used to describe--and critique--whites’ interference in the intimate matters of sexuality and reproduction. Offering examples of what were almost surely apocryphal narratives, Kennedy persuasively argues that “the statistical probability of such things happening was clearly less important than individual experiences and perceptions” (p. 151).

. . . Born Southern is an important book that offers a fresh perspective of childbirth and maternity in the antebellum South; transcends the boundaries of social, cultural, legal, and political history; and highlights the value of close readings of sources. Together with such works as Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 (2009), Born Southern places women and children at the center of American history and thereby responds to pioneering women’s historian Gerda Lerner’s call for a truly “holistic history.”

Full text of the review is found at H-Net Reviews Online

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