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Outline and Summary of Diana Ramey Berry’s Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Georgia, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on March 28, 2011 at 8:17 am

Allen Mendenhall

Book Theses

Quotation: Swing the Sickle seeks to break down binary opposites such as house labor equals skilled work and field labor equals unskilled work to explore more subtle dynamics that involve skill, talent, seniority, experience, personal relationships, and circumstance.  Building on recent scholarship on various aspects of slave labor from organizational structures to occupational hierarchies, this book examines the intricacies of enslaved labor, family, community, and economy.” (2)

Quotation: Swing the Sickle explores the ways different crops created a social hierarchy among the enslaved and the effect of such power dynamics within the quarters.” (3)


Southern planters generally divided labor by skill, not by sex.  Specialized labor crossed gender lines.  This book explores this fact while paying attention to the quotidian operations of enslaved persons and slaveholders in Georgia.  What constituted skilled labor differed from plantation to plantation and crop to crop.  Labor itself defined slave life and community.  For that reason, the author uses the term “working social” to refer to “public work environments where bondpeople labored to complete a task and used the balance of the evening for socializing” (3).  Examining working socials gives us insights into the private lives of slaves.  Slavery was not just about producing for masters; it was also a way of life.  Although labor was always connected to the public world of commerce, agriculture, and politics, it was first a private, family, familial, and familiar institution in which slaves were subject to exploitation.  This book focuses on two regions of Georgia: the upcountry and piedmont county of Wilkes, and the lowcountry and tidewater county of Glynn.  These counties are representative of the general development of open and closed systems of slavery.  Glynn County was marked by large plantation settings, and Wilkes County by farms and smaller slave-holding units. 

Quotation: “[S]tudying gender allows us to identify the numerous ways bondspeople experienced slavery in addition to regional variance. […] We cannot understand slavery until we know more about the work that men and women performed.” (8)      

Chapter One

This chapter argues that, despite common assumptions, women field hands were specialized workers just like male slaves.  Many women were skilled cotton pickers.  Skilled labor could be agricultural or non-agricultural; it was any activity that a man or woman mastered with his or her hands or body.  Gender patterns developed along the relation of work to particular crops.  Women were especially involved in labor over cotton.  Lowcountry slave women also cultivated rice.

            Chapter thesis (quotation): “This chapter examines agricultural labor from the perspective of the enslaved worker, both male and female, and from the perspective of the planter.  It also expands the concept of what constitutes skilled labor and develops a complex picture of women’s contributions to the plantation economy.  Equal consideration of female and male workers broadens our understanding of slave labor and reshapes discussions of the enslaved family, community, and economy; all are inextricably linked to work.  By highlighting contributions of women and men to the plantation workforce, it becomes clear that the sex of the worker was connected to perceptions of ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ labor.” (14)

            Chapter summary (quotation): “By expanding the definition of skill beyond that which has traditionally linked women to unskilled labor and men to skilled labor, male and female work patterns become more clearly defined.  Plantation owners, whether they were growing cotton or cultivating rice, understood that skilled agricultural labor, much of which was done by women, was of the utmost importance to the plantation’s economy.  By examining various plantations that grew different types of crops and used different tasking systems, it becomes clear that skilled labor crossed gender lines and that the agricultural labor regime involved skilled work.” (34)

Chapter Two

This chapter explores skilled labor in non-agricultural settings beyond homes, plantations, and farms.  It examines work sites requiring commute or travel as well as work-related geographic mobility.

            Chapter thesis (quotation): “This chapter examines household workers, how gender and age affected nonagricultural laborers, the value slaveholders placed on their skills, and bondpeoples’ perceptions of labor.  Enslaved men and women used their talents in nonagricultural settings to secure material advantages unavailable to field hands.  Their skills were more clearly defined than those of agricultural laborers, and nonagricultural laborers sometimes boasted about their superior abilities and privileges.  Close contact with planter families afforded geographic mobility to a select few—they ran errands, accompanied white families on vacations, and administered or received medical treatment.  Depending on the enslaved person’s age and gender as well as the location and demographics of the plantation, nonagricultural laborers received advantages and disadvantages from the planter class in both upcountry and lowcountry locales.” (36)

            Chapter summary (quotation): “Nonagricultural laborers had several valuable skills that slaveholders often appreciated and utilized.  As with agricultural work, gender and age influenced the tasks and occupations certain bondwomen and bondmen completed.  Elderly bondpeople and children were assigned light housework, gardening, and yard work.  Women usually did most of the cooking, cleaning, and sewing, while men generally worked as artisans or house servants.  Nonagricultural laborers received benefits such as more desirable living conditions, privileges, and prestige than their agricultural counterparts.  A select few had the opportunity to travel beyond the plantation, forcing us to re-examine the notion of ‘containment’ and to ask questions about the geographic boundaries of skilled laborers.  Despite these advantages, nonagricultural workers also had disadvantages.  Working in close proximity to their slaveholders often resulted in sexual exploitation and abuse that few if any could escape.  In order to combat these realities, enslaved laborers turned to their families and communities for emotional support.” (51)

Chapter Three

This chapter argues that working socials were both public and private spaces and that labor and social interaction were bound up with each other.  This chapter compares life in the quarters and work settings.

Chapter thesis (quotation): “[T]his chapter shifts the discussion to family and community life among the enslaved.  Although studies of enslaved families have devoted considerable attention to the structural analysis which is useful and included here, the primary objective of this chapter is to define and explore the opportunities for the creation and maintenance of families and communities in antebellum Georgia.  To maintain family and social bonds, bondpeople interacted in work-related environments such as working socials, and in non-work related environments such as religious services (in interracial settings) and holiday festivals (within the enslaved community).  Of course, it is difficult to think of anyone enslaved as having an ideal family situation when the reality of their experience involved the constant fear of separation and sale.” (53)

Chapter summary (quotation): “Bondwomen and men created, maintained, and interacted with their families and communities despite spending most of their time working for their slaveholders.  Bondpeople nurtured familial and communal connections during working socials and during periods of rest (i.e., holidays, religious services, weddings, and dances).  They had fond recollections of these interactions because relatives helped them deal with the hardships of their condition.  They used this space to express love for one another, to hope for a better day, and to dream of freedom.  On small holdings in Wilkes County, the opportunities to create families differed from those on large plantations because bondpeople had to select a mate from another farm or estate.  Enslaved men and women on small holdings were often involved in abroad relationships and were at the mercy of their owners for visitation.  Large holdings were conducive to stable family formation on the home estate.  Once slaves found partners, either on or off their home plantation, they married and usually had children.  Families enjoyed participation in communal activities, but the reality of their enslaved status was always present.” (75)

Chapter Four

This chapter explores rape, domestic violence, and physical abuse in the context of slave families.  Hard labor and the interference of slaveowners in slave relationships affected slave families.  Most of all, slave sale and separation strained slave family relationships.  Planters tried to control private lives of slaves by pairing them off and by forcing breeding. 

Chapter thesis (quotation): “This chapter examines the realities of enslaved families through an exploration of their inner lives.  Bondpeople experienced several challenges to their family stability: forced breeding, domestic conflict, interference, separation, and sale.  No matter how well-liked they were in the eyes of their slaveholders, their lives were altered when their owner’s situation or circumstances changed as a result of illness, death, financial hardship, marriage, divorce, or legal action.  Enslaved couples fortunate enough to marry and lead relatively autonomous lives in the quarters still had to contend with domestic disruptions from their slaveholders, overseers, and drivers.  The only alternative to submission was resistance; as a result, some ran away to find relatives or to establish new family ties elsewhere.” (77)

Chapter summary (quotation): “Although the pressures of forced breeding/rape marked part of their everyday lives, bondpeople were hardly ever free from their owner’s interference in their relationships.  Slaveholders constantly exercised their authority over these interactions and expressed their patriarchy by establishing strict rules of conduct and separating families through sales, auctions, and estate divisions.  But slaves challenged these boundaries when they ran away or otherwise attempted to reunite with other family members; even if they were not always successful, enslaved males and females sought to resist their situations and break free from slavery’s yoke.” (103)

Chapter Five

This chapter investigates the ways in which hiring out bondpeople created family instability.  Although this practice destabilized family life, it created new forms of economic agency that improved slave living conditions.

            Chapter thesis (quotation): “Enslaved men and women with provision grounds or small gardens often sold the goods they produced at local markets and received financial compensation or traded items of equivalent value for these goods.  Those involved in hiring contracts were also paid for their services; however, they rarely received direct financial compensation for their labor.  By comparing these two types of economies [direct market activities and indirect market activities], this chapter explores the conditions, patterns, and circumstances involving labor through the ‘secondary institutions’ of the informal economy and hiring.  Examining labor in these settings allows for a deeper understanding of how the situations bondpeople endured and the restrictions placed on their economic activities affected not only bondpeople but also their families.” (105) 

            Chapter summary (quotation): “Examining the secondary institutions of slave hiring and the informal economy provides rich evidence to explore gender distinctions in enslaved work and family settings.  Determining male and female access to these activities and the impact on family relations shows how these economic endeavors affected family development.  If informal economic activities gave enslaved families the opportunity to provide a modicum of material comfort to their meager conditions, then it was likely an institution in which bondwomen and bondmen preferred to participate, whether given permission or not.  Certainly there were benefits to these activities including travel privileges, the chance to interact with other groups of people (free blacks, Native Americans, whites, and other bondmen and bondwomen), and additional dietary supplements, all of which created certain luxuries that otherwise might not have been available to them.  Likewise, informal economic activities reinforced interactions with their owners as they bartered, sold, and exchanged money and miscellaneous goods for their services.  Bondpeople in Wilkes and Glynn Counties received wages for some of their labor during slavery, and they demanded payment after abolition.

            Looking at the market endeavors of bondwomen and bondmen in both regions confirms that each county developed its own set of patterns.  For the most part, coastal slaves actively participated in an informal economy because regional demographics such as a dual-crop economy, the task system, and positive planter philosophies supported these endeavors.  Enslaved women and men in Wilkes County, on the other hand, rarely received payment for their labor because their owners controlled hiring contracts.  Upcountry laborers remained on the periphery of financial transactions and had little control over their time because the gang labor system kept them busy from dawn to dusk.  When they entered hiring contracts, it was usually with another Wilkes County resident, and it required the hireling to change environments on an annual basis.

            Whereas the informal economy benefited the enslaved families that were able to participate, the practice of hiring tore families apart.  Upcountry bondwomen and bondmen found themselves traded each year to work in the homes and farms of planters throughout the county.  This constant removal and replacement took its toll on the development of cohesive families in an environment that depended on abroad relationships.  Lowcountry hiring practices, by contrast, involved intense labor in the urban areas of Brunswick and Darian, but the closed system prevented those on large plantations from extensive travel to work under yearlong hiring contracts.  By the early 1840s, however, much of this work was reserved for men.

            Considering the stories of bondwomen and bondmen under hiring contracts and those who participated in informal economies enables us to answer old questions and present new ones; in doing so, we complicate the history of slavery and provide another view into the inner lives of the enslaved.” (128)


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