My Problem with “Slave Rape,” or Why I Love the Story of Sukie

Early in the new year, a black woman student at my university invited me to guest lecture for a special Black History Month event that would highlight the history of black women. My heart leaped.

“I would be delighted to participate,” I said. “What would you like me to discuss?”

She was very specific: She wanted me to discuss how black women suffered more than black men under slavery since they were always getting raped. My heart sank.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire to downplay or misrepresent this particular history of racialized sexual oppression under slavery, one which basically institutionalized the practice of rape for both economic incentives (the increase in slave labor) and white supremacy (the sexual policing and exploitation of bodies). However, for a month that is designed to celebrate the achievements of black people in history, I was flabbergasted that this particular story was asked of me.

Curiously, I received this request around the same time that I came across on the Internet Quentin Tarantino’s script for his yet-to-be-released film Django Unchained, in which the main black woman character, Broomhilda (to be played by Kerry Washington), gets raped, then beaten, then raped again. While I could take issue with a white male filmmaker’s failure of imagination in accessing an enslaved black woman’s full humanity, bell hooks had already criticized the failure of black male filmmakers for pretty much offering the same narrative, as Haile Gerima did in his 1993 film Sankofa. It is the same fetishization of black women as rape victims that fueled the abolitionist rhetoric and imagery of the black body in pain during the 18th and 19th centuries, that shaped ’70s blaxploitation flicks (to which Tarantino is obviously paying homage), that popularized the sexually titillating silhouettes in Kara Walker’s art and that drives much of the interracial Internet porn sites focused on black women’s bodies.

As my former professor Frances Smith Foster argued in her pivotal essay, “Ultimate Victims: Black Women in Slave Narratives,” to focus on the black female rape victim in narratives of slavery is to rob black women of their agency and their full humanity. It invariably creates a dichotomy in which we have those strong, exceptional heroic figures, such as Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, who emancipated themselves from slavery, while all the other nameless enslaved women are only getting raped. As if Tubman, who once described slavery as “the next thing to hell” (what made her experience so “hellish,” I wonder?), and Truth (“where did she get her 13 children?” Foster asked our class) could not possibly have suffered similar fates. As if the power dynamics of rape didn’t also include black male rape victims or white female perpetrators (as was Truth’s own experience, according to her biographer Nell Irvin Painter) or even black-on-black sexual violence (heterosexual and same-sex).

That is the power of fetishization: We only get one kind of narrative when we imagine the past, while we fail to honestly explore why rapes happened back then and why they continue to happen now.

Still, those black women who were able to tell their own stories often self-fashioned themselves as impenetrable, liberated subjects, who rightly avoided the details of their own “hellish” experience, hence creating what Toni Morrison describes in her novel Beloved as “unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.” The problem, of course, is that while black women remained silent about rape or merely offered “whisperings,” the rest of our culture aggrandized the experience through the pornographic imagination. How does one strike a balance between the “unspeakable” and the pornographic?

This brings me to the story of Sukie.

I first learned of Sukie in a play that I saw performed on my undergraduate campus during a series of Black History Month programs. The play, Do Lord, Remember Me, was a reenactment of different scenarios offered in the 1930s’ WPA slave narratives, an initiative during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that employed academics, writers and artists to collect oral histories from former slaves in an attempt to preserve their stories before their generation died out. As a doctoral student, while researching 19th-century black women’s representations, I came upon Sukie’s story again, this time as told by an ex-slave named Fannie Berry in the historical collection Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves, based on the 1937 WPA slave narratives. When I read the account of Sukie in this book, I was so excited to have re-encountered this fierce woman.

Fannie Berry, who tells her story to a black female interviewer (for what it’s worth, we may want to think whether or not Ms. Berry would have been as forthcoming to a white and/or male interviewer), remembers Sukie as a strong and willful slave woman who flat-out resisted her master’s sexual advances. As Berry put it: “She tole him no,” which led to a fight between the two parties:

Den dat black gal got mad. She took an’ punch ole Marsa an’ made him break loose an’ den she gave him a shove an’ push his hindparts down in de hot pot o’ soap … It burnt him near to death… Marsa never did bother slave gals no mo’.

For this little insurrection, according to Berry, Sukie was sold off. But the strong-minded woman would not be bothered. On the auction block, as potential buyers were examining her–including prying into her mouth to check her teeth, as was routine–Sukie abruptly lifted up her dress and told her audience to “see if dey could fine any teef down dere.”

I like Sukie. I admit it. I like her brazenness, I like her self-possession. I like that she was able to tell her master “No!” even if it meant the punishment of being sold away from her loved ones. Even if it meant further humiliation on the slave auction block, which she then turned on its head by volunteering self-exposure as a clear act of defiance and a subversive embrace of the vulgar–or what the Crunk Feminist Collective calls “disrespectability politics.”

But notice: Sukie’s actions of resistance prevented the master from trying to sexually assault another slave (according to Berry, he “never did bother slave gals no mo’”). Moreover, Sukie clearly warns her future “master” that he’s going to be in for some serious violence if he tries to subdue her like her former master.

We will probably never know the full story behind Sukie’s actions and what finally happened to her or where she lived out the rest of her life. Maybe she was able to run off, maybe she didn’t survive, maybe she was eventually freed during emancipation, as Berry was. What we do know is that other slaves (and a future generation of black women, as represented by Berry’s interviewer) took solace in her story.

And that for me is the point of remembering stories like Sukie’s. She offers us protest strategies and reminds us that, even within an institutionalized system of slave rape, we can still reclaim our bodies. Neither “ultimate victim” nor “porn fetish,” Sukie subverts the tools of sexual violence and the auction block to make her own claim for full womanhood and full humanity.

While I prefer the story of when Sukie resisted rape (versus the “unspeakable” stories of the times when she couldn’t), hers becomes a healing story of sorts. The 400-year-old trauma of “slave rape” requires cathartic release, in which the subjugated body can be reclaimed in stories of resistance.

Poster from a 2011 performance of “Do Lord Remember Me” at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff.

Comments

  1. Iliana Echo says:

    Quick fact: Sojourner Truth had only five children, by another slave. The “thirteen” number comes from the number of children her mother had. I did a large amount of research on her a few years back.

    Your greater point stands.

  2. Janell Hobson says:

    Yes, I know Sojourner Truth didn’t really have “13″ children (which is why Foster and I put that number in quotation marks). We were aware Truth was only metaphorically linking her body to that of other enslaved women.

    But thanks for pointing this out all the same.

  3. Evelyn Rothstein says:

    Today Rick Santorum would respond: “Rape! Just make the best of it.!” Not much has changed as far as the GOP is concerned.

    And Mr. Romney would add, “I’m not interested in the very poor.”

    And Ron Paul would add: In a libertarian (sic!) society, each person is responsible for himself (“herself” doesn’t even count.)

  4. What a powerful article. I’m so happy to learn about Sukie.

    Rape seems to get glamourized a lot whether or not it is interracial or not.

    We need to tell stories like Sukie’s to our daughters and sons.

  5. Katherine Marie Bowen says:

    Sukie, I admire your courage and spirit in standing up for yourself!
    If I may say so myself, “GO, SUKIE! YOU RULE!”

  6. Janell Hobson says:

    Thanks for all your comments, everyone! :)

  7. So, am I to understand that Black History Month and the recollection of slavery are to only reflect on the happy, cheerful memories? Oh my. White people only have one month of the year to be reminded of their heinous contributions to the treatment of Blacks and you are going to give them a free pass by singing Kumbyah.

  8. Janell Hobson says:

    Scottie, my issue is with HOW rapes of slave women are represented, without giving black women the agency to describe their own experiences and to resist it.

    Where am I giving anybody a “free pass”? Don’t get it twisted!

  9. Thank you for this powerful essay and for the story of Sukie. I will never forget her. I appreciate that you offered us an individual story of an enslaved woman’s resistance, fight, will and strength. Her spirit was so palpable that it became alive in my present. I feel galvanized by it, and as a writer, I am profoundly moved by your statement that “if we ever lose sight of how our past can guide our present and our future, as women, as people of color, as the colonized, as the marginalized, then we concede the power of history to others.” That rings true in my bones.

  10. Thanks for introducing me to Sukie. Some stories inspire us to greatness and others keep us stuck in the black hole of toxic memory. Sukie inspires greatness. Negative experiences should help us live in awareness of what’s possible so that we can prevent the past from becoming a new reality. However, some of us become addicted to the pain of the memory and hold on to it as if it’s a life line. Re-framing a negative experience or forgiving someone who has done you wrong, isn’t for the other person, it’s for your own freedom and empowerment.

  11. David Harkness says:

    You know, the rape might have actually been her fault. Leading experts have conducted surveys on most rape cases, and concluded that only 3% of rape happens outside of the kitchen area in homes. So basically, if she had stayed within the kitchen, she probably wouldn’t have gotten raped.

  12. What’s really interesting is that quite a lot of these slave narratives are public domain. No one needs to ask permission to produce these stories. Any Black actress in Hollywood who has a desire to portray the resistance of the Black female to sociopathy during North America slavery could initiate the process of producing such a film. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, there are many stories available.

  13. What’s going to be more offensive is when Oscar season comes and Quentin Tarantino explains his movie as a light romp. And all praise and fanfare whitewashes the real issue. I’ve heard thru the grapevine an African American exec at Warner Bros put her foot down and said if Warner’s has anything to do with this film ” I Quit”.
    She should get an Oscar for that.

  14. This was a really interesting read. I was pulled in from the first paragraph and dissappointed there wasn’t more to read once I got near the end. Thanks for telling us about Sukie. I am now going to read “Ultimate Victims: Black Women in Slave Narritives” thanks to this essay.

  15. I also thought that this was very interested. I always never new why black women was raped by their so called masters. Back then it was brutal, too many things african americans especially women had to go through. Thank God in this life time we are not going through half the things that our ancestors went through. I feel that there are not enough togetherness with our own people. Sometimes I think that we are still living in the days of slavery because of how alot of our people act towards one another. We need to have some kind of movement. I may be living in my own made up world but, I would like everyone to just love one another.

  16. This fits in nicely with where my head is at the moment; I’m currently reading Thomas Foster’s piece on sexual abuse of black men during slavery.

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