lareviewofbooks.org /article/her-sentimental-properties/


By Sarah Mesle
20-25 minutes


Her Sentimental Properties

IN A NOTORIOUS MOMENT in Jordan Peele’s 2017 cinema hit Get Out, a villain shops online for Black people.

The character, Rose (Allison Williams, excellently cast), sits at her laptop on her four-poster bed. Girlishly ponytailed and cross-legged, she clicks through a series of photographs of athletes, choosing the one her family will abduct into bondage. The evil of her intentions sits weirdly alongside the calm focus of her face; she shops for people as if they were Lululemon compression leggings. Which body will be the most flattering, the best fit? Considering, she raises a straw to her lips and sips from a glass of milk, white as her shirt.

Even among the many brilliantly terrifying episodes in Get Out, the “milk scene” is famous for riding the edge of comic absurdity right to the point of terror. What makes this moment so uncanny, its details so vivid?

I think it’s the straw. The straw turns the sipping into a kind of suckling, and the horror comes from watching a grown woman suckle while shopping for a human being, a person who will become both her sexual partner and service vehicle. Rose’s appetites — erotic, gustatory, consumer, infantile, familial — get all mixed up, and the straw asks us to question what might come from blending the all-American “it does a body good” milk media branding with Rose’s vampiric cruelty.

I thought about Get Out again while I was reading a book that was recently awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property: White Woman Slave Owners in the American South. Its revelations have the fiercest urgency for a nation in tumult — a pandemic nation with racially apportioned deaths; a nation where, despite their long history, the racist actions and cruel political decisions of white women manage to continually astonish. A nation considering, one might hope, how it could change.

Get Out is a horror movie; They Were Her Property is historical scholarship. But when it comes to America’s racialized past, horror and history are hard to keep apart. Like Get Out before it, They Were Her Property offers a riveting recent account of how white women’s imagined innocence has been both a weapon and an alibi for the theft of Black lives.

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They Were Her Property rigorously supports the claim asserted by its title: that 19th-century women owned and traded in enslaved people. It’s the archival history of Rose on her four-poster bed: the history of white women shopping for Black people.

For those trying to reckon with America’s racist past, one of the most uncomfortable revelations of the book is that it needed to be written at all, let alone that its claims needed to be advanced with such deliberation. Given the long reality of US slavery, the reputation of women as consumers, and the ample testimony of Black women particularly, wouldn’t this story already be heard?

Jones-Rogers’s care gestures toward the larger significance of the book and the omissions it seeks to remedy. “Historians have neglected these women,” Jones-Rogers writes, “because their behavior toward, and relationships with, their slaves do not conform to prevailing ideas about white women and slave mastery.” Jones-Rogers strategically makes her case by keeping a historian’s laser focus on the archives of her own period. But the atrocities she describes point off the edges of her pages to a world that has allowed white women’s responsibility to be “neglected” for so long.

This is why, I think, it’s so helpful to read Jones-Rogers’s history alongside fictions like Get Out. Both texts use their genres to expose how historiography has been wrapped in its own kind of storytelling, one with complex origins in the very 19th-century moment that Jones-Rogers describes.

Literary critics have a name for this kind of storytelling: it’s called sentimentalism, and I promise you’ve seen it. It became popular during the rise of mass-consumer culture — which was also the height of slavery and all the wealth it produced. It’s the kind of story that takes the classic fairy tale good versus evil and routes it through the newly powerful middle-class home, where the warm mother and the beautiful daughter are always virtuous forces for good, inspiring the hero to protect the suffering, and push back against a dastardly villain — often a brute, or a moneylender, or, now, some powerful corporate entity.

There are many different versions of this story, with many different politics, but some qualities always remain the same. Rarely, for example, is there an example of a mother who puts career before family; nowhere is there an idea of a warm mother who is also a brute. Sentimental stories separate feeling from finance, and put brutality on the financial side.

In the depictions of slavery that have had the most cultural purchase — whether those depictions are historical or fictional — the most violent scenes of slavery are set in the field, the slave pen, and the slave march driven south; the most conspicuous agents of violence are the overseer and the master, and they are usually men. Whether in Eugene Genovese’s foundational and respected history The Political Economy of Slavery or John Jakes’s swashbuckling blockbuster 1980s trilogy North and South, white men enact slavery’s physical and financial violence.

What They Were Her Property shows is that it doesn’t matter whether you choose the serious scholarship or the bodice ripper — when it comes to gender, at base the same kind of storytelling holds sway. The truth about women’s slaveholding has been hiding in plain sight because too many Americans have allowed themselves to believe the story that brutality, like business, is a man’s sphere.

Even in many books where white woman do inflict horrors, for instance Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, true womanhood is benevolent before slavery corrupts it. Douglass, for example, describes his mistress Sophia Auld as an “angel” who, after marrying Douglass’s owner, falls “under the influence” of slavery’s “poison.”

In this story, even a white woman’s abuse of her slaves becomes evidence, ironically, of how much slavery has victimized her. Sentimentalism situates women with the enslaved in a way that erases their structural and ethical differences. The enslaved are bound as chattel, and the women are under the sway of their husband’s decisions. Sometimes, under the system of coverture — the legal code in which, after marriage, women’s personhood was erased and legally covered by her husband ­— they are the husband’s possession as well. Not only are white women not slavery’s consumers, they are the consumed.

In a sense, Jones-Rogers’s project is to show that it’s not white women who fell “under the influence” of slavery — it’s historians who fell under the influence of sentimentalism. Historians, Jones-Rogers argues, have learned to tell a story whereby white women could only be victims, or “fictive masters” in the absence of their husbands.

The story of white women’s innocence has sidelined even the documentary testimony of formerly enslaved people themselves. When WPA interviews with the formerly enslaved describe the power and agency of slaveholding women, historians have discredited these accounts as unreliable evidence, particularly when the testimony is offered by people who were children at the time (as though children would not remember with amplified clarity their formative experiences of trauma). It’s a brutal kind of retrospective gaslighting.

And the significance of Jones-Rogers’s intervention in reclaiming this archive can’t be overestimated. In Get Out, African Americans entrapped in a “sunken place” literally cannot speak of the truths they know. In the records of US slaveholding, however, these witnesses have been speaking all the time: it’s simply that historians were too comfortably swaddled in their own sentimental ideology to listen.

What Jones-Rogers wants to do is “uncover hitherto hidden relationships among gender, slavery, and capitalism” by examining “women’s economic investments in slavery, rather than simply their ideological and sentimental connections to the system.” Doing so, to take her own repeated word, emphatically changes slavery’s historiographic “narrative.”

They Were Her Property brings white women’s economic strategy to the fore. But minimizing sentimentalism does not mean dismissing the emotional intensities of slavery’s consumer. This history rebinds feeling and finance, reorganizing their relation. Jones-Rogers’s careful tracking of the slaveholding rituals of ownership exchange shows how the markers of a white woman’s life that mean one thing in a sentimental plot — her birth, her entry into courtship, her marriage, her mothering — in fact became the occasions when enslaved people, most often women, passed into white women’s possession. The culture of slaveholding made slavery’s economics so intimate they felt biological — beyond question.

Not only were women and the enslaved not united in their oppression, Jones-Rogers shows; white women seized power over the enslaved in order to operate independently, outside of coverture. Through their savvy consumer relation to Black people, white women became the kind of political agents their world could recognize: property owners in their own right. Jones-Rogers makes the stakes crystal clear. For white women, she explains, “slavery was their freedom.”

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Women of color have long described the cruelty inherent in white women’s consumerism. They Were Her Property adds a vital archive to this history. The robustness of this tradition makes the necessity of Jones-Rogers’s book that much more compelling — and, for white women such as myself, it should make it that much more jarring.

Consider the question of coverture. Documenting coverture’s effects has been a central feminist activity since at least Elizabeth Cady Stanton. So how could white feminists have examined coverture so intently and seen only its victimization of “women”? How could they have not seen how coverture divided women along racial lines, as white women used their power over enslaved women to escape its bounds?

They Were Her Property is an incredible work of scholarship, engaging in vital feminist practices. But it’s too simple to consider it “feminist” scholarship without asking what that label might mean. What Jones-Rogers’s archive clearly demonstrates is how profoundly feminist attention to the victimhood of “women” has been inflected by sentimental storytelling — and how, in this story, the more attention you pay to white women’s victimhood, the harder the experience of Black woman is to see.

Misogyny operates perniciously, in the 19th century Jones-Rogers describes and today. The need for a political approach naming misogyny’s power — which is what feminism aims to do — remains urgent. But Jones-Rogers’s book is the latest reminder to white women like myself that we have often coopted the word “feminism,” using its capaciousness as a kind of “cover” to erase our structural privileges and personal complicity. Labeling the problem “white feminism” is a step, but not a solution.

The story of feminist recovery — one that inflects both scholarship and political assertions that we should, for example, #believewomen — likes to think of itself as a progressive enterprise leading toward a more equable world. But, to pose the obvious question, which women should be believed? What Jones-Rogers shows is that if all women were believed, the more equitable world that would emerge is one where white women are brought to face with their horrific culpability for suffering.

And this is not the one that mainstream feminism has thus far produced, because feminism too often lets sentimental narratives perform a kind of ideological laundering. In feminist sentimentalism, the virtuous struggling woman, repressed by the patriarchy — the villain in feminism’s sentimental melodrama — is saved by the feminist scholar or activist, who takes the hero’s role. This is a flattering and exciting story, and it lends itself easily to a kind of “go, girl!” empowerment that fits nicely on a segment of Good Morning America.

But this comfortable version of feminism implies that what the virtuous woman has needed all along is the opportunity to express herself, to have access to political, professional, and economic (all three are often framed as consumer) opportunities. And this version of the story has been built — not coincidentally, but purposefully — to conceal the truth that They Were Her Property looks squarely in the face: that consumer choice and economic power are specifically the tools that white women have long used to procure their political agency at women of color’s expense.

These are not new discoveries. Sojourner Truth describes the racialization of womanhood; so does Hortense Spillers; so do Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective. In various ways, all these thinkers continue to be minimalized by white America and white feminists — Sojourner Truth, for instance, is often cast in a child’s role. In the place of their fiercesome witness remains the pernicious myth of white women’s fundamental innocence.

Some women are good; feminism is often brave. But once activists and scholars have bought into a logic of good and evil, repression and heroic recovery, they have also evoked the patterns of sentimentalism whereby more complex characterizations, particularly of the differences between women, become obscured. This is why it can be the case that “feminism” could have made so much ground and so much of women’s lives — especially women of color — remains so hard to see. What cruelty, what suffering, is squashed under the pedestal erected to white women’s virtue?

To answer this question, scholarship and feminism need what Jones-Rogers models: a kind of witnessing that operates outside the genre of sentimental, melodramatic, rescue.

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This, finally, is where I see Jones-Rogers’s most significant contribution: not only in what she recovers, but the genre she finds for recovering it. This accomplishment becomes most clear in They Were Her Property’s arguably most devastating chapter: its description of the market for enslaved women wet nurses.

In meticulously documenting 1,000-plus advertisements for enslaved wet nurses, almost all of whom were hired and managed specifically by women, Jones-Rogers exposes the complex ways that nursing and slavery came, often gruesomely, to feed each other. These advertisements and other documents chart an economic system of racialized cruelty that operated almost entirely within the domestic sphere and reveal the financial power of women’s information networks. Jones-Rogers, with archival and theoretical forcefulness, claims nursing as skilled labor, essential to the market and the slaveholding (and thus, US) economy. And yet, as Jones-Rogers says with spectacular shade, “many historians still describe the southern slave-hiring marketplace as a male purview.”

With the value of milk to the slave market hidden from normalized history, that milk returns elsewhere in the cultural imaginary: as fiction, and as horror.

Get Out isn’t the only place where a scene of milk horror appears. One of the most familiar may be the heartrending moment in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when the enslaved woman Sethe is forcibly held down by her owner’s henchmen who steal her milk from her breasts — the milk for her baby girl. Sethe, horribly beaten and abused in other ways as well, insists that the taking of her milk, the taking of her ability to feed her child, is the central violation she has experienced, much worse than whipping. Morrison emphasizes the horror of losing the ability to nurse by staging Sethe’s experience explicitly and recognizably as a rape, a woman violated by cruel men.

But the horror of Beloved works almost chiastically with the horror of Get Out. Beloved uses the horror of rape to make slavery’s emotional assault on motherhood visible, while in Get Out the wholesomeness of milk (made uncanny by the straw’s nursing effect) shows how white supremacist appetites for Black caretaking have become normalized. At the intersection of these two metaphorical deployments of milk, and to help explain the relation between them, we find They Were Her Property.

In “Wet Nurse for Sale or Hire,” Jones-Rogers’s chapter, milk is not a metaphor. But it’s also not simply an organic reality. It is a commodity, “like cotton, a product of nature that enslaved people cultivated and produced and white southerners sold,” the location of much care and many horrors. For instance, alongside Beloved or Get Out, consider the story, recounted by Jones-Rogers, of a woman named Louisa Street, who conceived three children by her owner and was required to nurse both her own child and her mistress’s child at the same time. Or this story: of a white mistress learning that a woman she held enslaved had been accused of theft, and thus ordering a whipping that would, Jones-Rogers quotes, “‘spare her breasts, as she is giving suck to a very young child.’”

In Jones-Rogers’s history, then, one has to see the intersection of horrors Jordan Peele’s and Toni Morrison’s fictions map out: milk traumatically stolen, not by a physically violent man but rather by carefully consuming woman.

To see the scope of this world, Jones-Rogers has to recover all of it, outside of a sentimental mode of villains and virtue. Thus, remarkably, she describes women slaveholders’ cruelty without flattening them. Jones-Rogers describes how white women were “summarily shamed” for their nursing choices, that they “suffered” from their problems with milk supply; she describes the pain of their mastitis and “hardened breasts,” their worry about their children and about the money to care for their children.

Meanwhile, Jones-Rogers’s treatment of enslaved women, acknowledging their trauma, also respects their agency: their ability to nurse as a function of talent, skill, strategy, and craft.

Slaveholding women and the women they held in bondage did not find, in breast milk, a sympathetic fluid in the way that tears have often been imaged to be. Motherhood makes no equalizing connection; the opposite is true. Yet between these women nevertheless, an economic model was forged — a milk-to-cotton pipeline — and its making has been almost completely unrecognized by history.

I have read many intense accounts of breastfeeding — fictional, economic, historical, feminist. But Jones-Rogers’s history, which situates women’s racialized transactions about their breasts at the center of the US economy, is the one that will stay with me the longest — the one I will sit with when I try to reckon with the ethics of my own behavior.

In a scathing long sentence, Jones-Rogers writes,

Historians who view nursing a child as “natural” rather than a form of skilled labor ignore the view of the white mothers who sought the services of enslaved wet nurses, of the enslaved mothers themselves, and of the men and women who sold and hired out enslaved mothers for this purpose, all of whom most certainly saw it as such.

What she does not mention explicitly here but is nonetheless the case, is that any historian who views nursing as “naturally” outside the world of economics, skill, and politics ignores not only the clarity of their 19th-century sources, but the fierce, tender, and brutal reality of women today.

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Here is my milk story.

One week, when my younger son was very small and I was, for various reasons, worried, my milk supply dipped dramatically. His Salvadoran nanny, who had raised children of her own, assured me that formula would be okay. But when I came home from work a few days later with my shirt visibly stretched across my engorged chest, her face lit up. “Your milk!” she crowed. Holding my baby with one arm, she reached her other hand and cupped it around my swollen breast, to touch the milk that she would feed my son. I started to cry from the sweetness of the gesture, the messiness it revealed.

Is this a horror story, like Get Out? Sort of. It’s definitely not a sentimental one, despite the sweetness and the tears. Its intimacy is shot through with strategy and cost calculation, and structured at base by what the 15 hourly dollars this woman and I exchanged meant to us both. It was money we both earned through labor and commitment. I invested that money in my professional future and my intellectual life. I can’t speak for her or her choices. I know they were not the same as mine.

It is, I think, a kind of love story, what women have instead of Huck and Jim’s raft: the love that is its own territory but structured by a brutal world and rife with that same brutality. Like Huck, and this is not a compliment, white women have been in the currents of their own need; have purposefully missed every bend in the river that might lead toward a more widely available freedom.

Could there be a new kind of love story, one less easy but more honest; a better genre to pass on? In a more just world, the one They Were Her Property calls for, and one that can be made, this is the story that must be told. White women have not wanted to tell it because the idea of virtuous reward depends on avoiding it. But a more just world requires that white women give up our sentimental storytelling attachments. It is our urgent obligation to face the story that matters.

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Sarah Mesle is co-editor of Avidly and Avidly Reads, senior editor at large of Los Angeles Review of Books, and assistant professor (Teaching) at the University of Southern California.