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More Than Chains and Toil: A Christian Work Ethic of Enslaved Women

By Joan M. Martin.
WJKP. 2000. 190 pp. Pb. $24.95. ISBN 0-664-2580-0

— reviewed by Portia Turner Williamson, Durham, N.C.

What a well-crafted volume, significantly advancing the discussion concerning slavery in America! Joan Martin is a theological ethicist who employs womanist methodology to discover the meaning of work in this context.

"Discovery" is a technique that renders the internal as external. By means of this method, she examines the social, theological and political aspects of blackwomen’s antebellum work.

Martin does not avoid the obvious conundrum of the conflict between chattel productivity and work as a life-enhancing operation. Furthermore, she lays this dichotomy against the backdrop of the American dream crashing full force into the nightmarish reality of an American elitist slavocracy and the rippling aftershocks. The wreckage from such a collision seems daunting and insurmountable, but clarity is achieved as she unravels the complexities of the slave woman.

Martin rejects the assertion that Africans were stripped of all cultural vestiges. She contends that aboard the slave ship, the captives socially reconfigured themselves into one protesting body by crossing previously held tribal barriers.

This transcendence of circumstances continued throughout slavery, and it was especially the case for the blackwoman. Female slaves were exploited in a threefold manner — “racially black, sexually women and as degraded workers.” Even after the Atlantic slave trade was legally banned, the blackwoman’s body (womb) became valued as a vehicle of human chattel repopulation. Her breasts often wet-nursed the master’s children (future oppressors). Simultaneously she lovingly suckled her own offspring, strengthening them to become future enslaved workers.

Faced with these devastating and seemingly irreconcilable factors, the slave woman did not succumb. Martin contends that the blackwoman was never really servile, or at peace in her condition of servitude. In a truly heroic and phoenix-like way, she rose from the ashes of intended perpetual serfdom to become a shrewd architect, building a new society in the midst of a horrific slave régime. In addition to the role of bondwoman laborer, she functioned as midwife, family priest, culinary expert and wise negotiator. The divinely inspired antebellum blackwoman transformed a community of horror and holocaust into an oasis of survival and hope.

To understand better this period of reimagining one’s universe, Martin uses a variety of sources and elevates slave narratives to the rank of sacred texts. One of the greatest gifts she offers the reader is to introduce us to a whole new resource reservoir — the African-American womanist library of writers, from Bethany Veney in the 19th century to Katie Cannon in the 21st century. She writes them into history as valued colleagues and takes her own place in history as well by continuing the process of defining, transcending and transforming. This work is indeed a jewel of immeasurable degree.