The legacy of the slave family haunts the status of black Americans in modern U.S. society. Stereotypes that first entered the popular imagination in the form of plantation lore have continued to distort the African American social identity. In What Sorrows Labour in My Parents' Breast?, Brenda Stevenson provides a long overdue concise history to help the reader understand this vitally important African American institution as it evolved and survived under the extreme opposition that the institution of slavery imposed. The themes of this work center on the multifaceted reality of loss, recovery, resilience and resistance embedded in the desire of African/African descended people to experience family life despite their enslavement. These themes look back to the critical loss that Africans, both those taken and those who remained, endured, as the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley honors in the line—“What sorrows labour in my parents’ breast?,” and look forward to the generations of slaves born through the Civil War era who struggled to realize their humanity in the recreation of family ties that tied them, through blood and emotion, to a reality beyond their legal bondage to masters and mistresses. Stevenson pays particular attention to the ways in which gender, generation, location, slave labor, the economic status of slaveholders and slave societies’ laws affected the black family in slavery.
Brenda E. Stevenson is the Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History at Oxford and the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair of History at UCLA. Her previous works include What is Slavery? and the prize-winning monographs Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South and The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots.
Introduction: The Black Family in the Public Imagination: What’s Slavery and Slavery Scholarship Got to Do with It?
Chapter One: Traditions from Whence They Came: Marriage and Family in Western/Central Africa at the Time of the Atlantic Slave Trade
Chapter Two: The Colonial Slave Family: Foundations and Creations
Chapter Three: Traditions of Resistance and Family
The Antebellum Familial Experience
Chapter Four: Antebellum Courtship and Marital Rituals
Chapter Five: Antebellum Family Life
Chapter Six: Death and Resurrection
Conclusion: Bob Samuels’ American Family
This remarkably concise history of family among the enslaved explores diverse family practices from the 17th century through Reconstruction. Its title comes from a Phillis Wheatley poem expressing the trauma of family formations among enslaved persons. Captors set arduous conditions of compulsory labor, torture, sexual violence, and forcible relocation as ongoing structural challenges to family formation and maintenance. This tension between the desires of enslaved persons to create family and the power of captors to exploit and destroy it shapes the book's six splendidly written chapters. Stevenson exquisitely deploys the biographies of specific enslaved persons to illustrate her deeply researched thesis about family diversity and resilience, reflecting differing cultural legacies imported from the African continent to the differing colonial and antebellum societies in the US. These range from the well-known sagas of Wheatley and Elizabeth Keckley to less familiar stories such as that of Chloe Spear. Splendidly contextualizing her argument within the evolving historiography and the persistent stereotype of the Black family as defective and dysfunctional, Stevenson demonstrates not only the centrality of family in the African American experience but also the resilience and resistance of African American actors across time. Highly recommended. General readers through faculty.
Brenda E. Stevenson’s What Sorrows Labour in My Parents’ Breast provides a thorough and comprehensive analysis of African and enslaved African American family life from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. The prodigious documentation fully supports her conclusion that despite the violence and brutality of enslavement, Black families were the often-unacknowledged source of happiness, personal identity, spiritual well-being, and a sense of self-worth and purpose. Stevenson elegantly describes the social and economic circumstances that produced the distinctive African-centered cultural beliefs and practices that sustained enslaved African American families. We gain new understandings of family formations, kinship relations, labor conditions, courtship and marriage rituals, parenthood, communal activities, and the terrifying impact of the domestic slave trade on the families of the enslaved. The sale of family members and unrestrained brutality prompted innumerable acts of resistance and revolt. Sweeping in scope, powerfully written, and overflowing in dramatic insight, What Sorrows Labour in My Parents’ Breast is a major contribution to U. S. Family Studies and African American social and cultural history.
While revisiting the debates about the nature of the black family in slavery and freedom, Professor Stevenson deftly shows how kinship patterns born in Africa, and reshaped by the enslaved, became the foundation of African American survival and culture. What Sorrows Labour in My Parents’ Breast? shows how African Americans lived family; how it structured religion, resistance, recreation, sex, separation and death. It is an essential read for those seeking to understand African American history and identity.
Written by one of the most distinguished scholars of African American history, What Sorrows Labor in My Parent’s Breast offers a definitive portrait of enslaved Black family life across North America from the early colonial period to post-Civil War emancipation. This remarkable book documents the wide-ranging struggles of captive Africans and their descendants to claim kinship amidst a system of chattel slavery that denied Black families access to both legal protections and privacy in their most intimate relations. Brenda Stevenson’s erudite exploration of a vast array of sources – legal records, archaeological evidence, visual sources, and the testimony of enslaved people -- conveys the diversity, complexity, and persistence of Black family forms across centuries of bondage under multiple colonial systems. Accessible and recommended to scholars and general readers alike, this book powerfully refutes toxic historical myths about Black families in US history. Story by story, readers instead come to understand how kinship ties, both inherited and chosen, have proved essential to all dimensions of Black life and survival.
2/2/23, Choice: This book was included in a roundup of forthcoming titles in African American studies.
6/7/23, The Nation’s Start Making Sense podcast: Brenda Stevenson discussed the book with host Jon Wiener.