Figurations of Race and Ethnicity
Session 7.5
2004 NEMLA Meeting
Pittsburgh, PA
06 March


John S. Honerkamp
New York University

Mothers of Color: Partus Sequitur Ventrem and the Birth of African-American Identity

Do not cite without permission of the author.

Slave narratives written by African-American women, the principal concern of this paper, must confront and negotiate a legal doctrine which held that the condition of the child follows the condition of the mother. The doctrine partus sequitur ventrem sought to guarantee the perpetuation of the Southern slave economy by: (1) making slave status in the American slave system a matter of genealogy, thereby making chattel status coterminous with racial status; and (2) stripping slave of all legal rights to their embryos, fetuses, and children. The doctrine then gave white male slaveowners the legal authority to control mothering as biological function and deny it as social practice. This paper argues that partus sequitur ventrem is of central importance to the construction of American and African-American identity because it expresses elements of what is for most or all of American history the dominant ideology of American national belonging, an ideology which derives its force from scientific and legal discourses of essentialism.

The doctrine partus sequitur ventrem sought to reinforce essentialist logic, and racial hierarchies, by imposing mother-bound kinship on the one hand and denigrating African-American maternity on the other. The slave narratives examined in this paper, most notably Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , all contend with such a matrifocal inheritance. They help us to understand better the effects of American slavery on African American mothers and also to identify a rare form of agency available to the slave, the survival of nurturance and family bonds.