Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Tragic Story of Margaret Garner

Hey Scholars!

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up there, I learned that the Queen City has a rich history. As I have made my way through undergrad and then two graduate degrees, I have learned so much about my hometown. During Fall semester of 2013, I was able to share some of this history with my classmates in our Research in Local History class. This post is about Margaret Garner, her ties Cincinnati, and her tragic story.

Margaret Garner was born into slavery on June 4, 1834 on the Maplewood plantation in Boone County, Kentucky to a slave mother and a plantation owner father. Working as a house slave for much of her life, Garner often traveled with her masters and even accompanied them on shopping trips to free territories in Cincinnati. She married Robert Garner in 1849. The couple had four children (this piece of information is conflicting because multiple sources claim they had six).

                                         (Photo courtesy of

During the 1850s, the Underground Railroad was at its height helping slaves to escape enslavement. On Sunday January 27th, 1856, the Garners fled with her husband and children from Kentucky to Cincinnati via the Ohio River. The family made it safely to Cincinnati taking refuge in Joseph Kite’s home. Within a couple of hours, Garner’s master A.K. Gaines, and federal marshals stormed Kite’s home with warrants for the Garners. Margaret decided that she would rather take the lives of her children and herself before being enslaved again. The marshals found her and her children in a back room. Margaret had slit the throat of one of her daughter’s, killing her. The other children were on the floor injured but alive.

She was taken into custody and tried. This trial became known as one of the longest fugitive slave trials in history. The Hamilton County Grand jury indicted both parents on charges of murder. A United States commissioner demanded that the Garners be released from jail and returned to their owner. A federal judge agreed with this order and had a Hamilton County sheriff turn them over to a United States marshal who then returned the Garners back to their owner and back to slavery.

                              (Excerpt from the February 2, 1856 issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, detailing the                                             Margaret Garner case. Photo courtesy of Ohio History Host)

Well, the then Governor of Ohio Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, disagreed with this decision. He wanted the Garners to stand trial. His reason was because he did not want a precedent to be set that would allow Kentucky slaveholders to come to Ohio and reclaim their runaway slaves. The Garners owner sold them to a slave owner in New Orleans. On March 11, 1856, on the way to New Orleans, the steamboat the family was on named Henry Lewis collided with another causing one of their children to drown. This story was reported by The Liberator, an African American anti-slavery newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831. 

(Correspondence: excerpt from the indictment papers for Margaret Garner and others. Photo courtesy of Ohio History Host)

In 1858, Robert reported that his wife Margaret Garner died of typhoid fever in Louisiana. It is noted that her last words to him were "never marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom." The story of Margaret Garner quickly gained national attention prior to the Civil War. This tragic story changed how people regarded slavery, especially in Ohio. People began to regard slavery as inhumane and deplorable.

                                              (Photo courtesy of

The story of Margaret Garner has been memorialized in many formats:

Literature- Beloved --Toni Morrison
Film- "Beloved" starring Oprah Winfrey
Poetry- Frances Harper "Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio" (1859)
Opera- Toni Morrison (commissioned by the Cincinnati Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, and Opera Company of Philadelphia)
Painting- Thomas Satterwhite Noble "The Modern Medea" 1867 

Sources Consulted:

Joanne Caputo, Margaret Garner
Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad
Simeon Fess, ed, Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State
Toni Morrison, Beloved 
Steven Weisenburger, Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South

Stereotypes and Images of Black Women in the Media

Hey Scholars!

      So this post is a topic I have discussed numerous times either as a lecture/presentation topic or in conversation. This is a topic that has come up many times. It is also a topic I do not mind discussing because as a black woman I am hyper aware of how the world around me perceives me/us. I am conscious of how images of us (black women) are projected and also how we as black women are either perpetuating stereotypes or using our power to overcome them.


     Last summer, I took a Women's Studies class and the topic was Families and Society in Literature. All of the graduate students had to give a presentation on a topic involving some aspect of society in regards to families. So, I decided that I would discuss Black women, images, and stereotypes and how they affect the black family (community) as a whole.

     What are these images and stereotypes? Where are we seeing these images? Who is responsible for these images? Are their any efforts to overcome these images? How are we as black women working to (re)define ourselves?

     There are five images/stereotypes that will be discussed in this post. They are Mammy, Matriarch, Jezebel, Welfare Queen, and the Angry Black Woman (Sapphire).

                                                           (Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)

(Photo Credit: Lionsgate)

(Photo Credit: Third World Cinema)

(Photo Credit: American International Pictures)

                                                       (Photo Credit: Lionsgate)

     Why are they still so relevant to our culture? Since the days of chattel slavery, these tropes have loomed over America's literary, social, and cultural consciousness for centuries. They have defined Black womanhood transcending race, class, and gender throughout the African diaspora.


                                                 (Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
       The Mammy image can be attributed to female slaves performing domestic duties for the family of the slave owner. Historically, the media has portrayed her as having characteristics that suggest submissiveness towards her owner (during slavery) or employer (following Emancipation). Moreover, her behavior suggests satisfaction and comfort with her station in life, wherein she is consigned to performing domestic duties.

                                           (Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

     Portrayals of Mammy depict her as an obese Black woman, of dark complexion, with very large physical assets. By doing this, male slave-owners could disavow their sexual interests in African American women.
Also, by characterizing Mammy as an asexual, maternal, and deeply religious woman, whose main task was caring for the master's children and running his household, the slave-owner found in her the perfect slave.
She was a loyal, faithful, but still an untrustworthy member of the family who always knew her place.

                                                    (Clip Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)


                                                 (Photo Credit: My Ty.Pe. Productions)

     From the 1960s to the 1990s, the matriarch was one of the main stereotypes about black women, taking the place of Mammy. She is a strong Black woman who acts as both mother and father to her children- either because the father has left or is not living up to his duties. She is pictured as dark, fat, and ugly, as acting and looking much like a man. 

                                                 (Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)

     While mammy typifies the Black mother figure in white homes, the matriarch symbolizes the mother figure in Black homes. Black matriarchal families are seen as an outcome of racial oppression as well as poverty. 

                                                        (Photo Credit: Lionsgate)

Welfare Queen
                                                  (Photo Credit: Lionsgate)

     The term described economic dependency, the lack of a job and or income. It views black women as unwilling to work, unwilling to control their sex drive and unwilling to better themselves. 

                                              (Photo Credit:

     The welfare queen is seen as living comfortably on welfare, raising a big family without a husband, and having many children with different fathers. The welfare queen is described as being content with taking American taxpayers hard earned money.

                                                   (Clip Credit: Lionsgate)


                                        (Photo Credit:

     Whereas the Mammy, Matriarch and Sapphire images were decidedly asexual images, this stereotype image of the "bad Black girl" represented the undeniable sexual side of Black women. During slavery, this image was used to portray black woman as “sexually aggressive wet nurses.” Jezebel has been one of the main stereotypes in Hollywood films since the 1970s, especially with the popularity of Blaxploitation films.  

                                                               (Photo Credit: Lionsgate)

     This image portrays Black women as being loose, immoral, and oversexed. She is named after an evil queen in the Bible; a loose woman who wants sex all the time. She uses sex to draw men in to get what she wants.

                                                   (Clip Credit: American International Pictures)

Angry Black Woman (Sapphire)
                                                    (Photo Credit: Focus Features)

     She is everything the Mammy is not: bitchy, evil, hateful, and stubborn. Unlike the Mammy and Matriarch stereotypes, she has no specific physical characteristics other than her skin tone, which is usually on the darker side.  

                                                      (Photo Credit: Lionsgate)

     She always seems to have her hands on her hips while she is running her mouth – putting down her man, making everything into a fight, never taking anything lying down. This image is the reason why people think that black women are hard to get along with. 

                                                                  (Clip Credit: Lionsgate)

And the Oscar Goes To...

     When black women have won Oscars, the Academy has decided that these images deserve an award. Who makes up the Academy? The Academy of Arts and Sciences is predominantly male and 90% white. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins argues hat “because the authority to define societal values is a major instrument of power, elite groups, in exercising power, manipulate ideas about Black womanhood. They do so by exploiting already existing symbols, or creating new ones.” The exploitation of Black womanhood through roles of mammies, matriarchs, and overly sexual, angry beings. 

(Photo Credit: Essence)
                                                   (Photo Credit: News One) 

                                                  (Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly)

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

                                                       (Photo Credit: Wire Image)

     It is not a coincidence that the writers, directors, and producers of these films (Gone with the Wind, Monster's Ball, Dreamgirls, Precious, and The Help) are all white and male with the exception of Monster's Ball, Lee Daniels was the producer. Daniels was also the director of Precious and a producer along with Tyler Perry among others. 

                                        (Photo Credit: Sisters in Cinema)

   Black women filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Kasi Lemmons, Julie Dash, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Euzhan Palcy has worked to overcome so many obstacles that comes with being black and female in Hollywood as well as using their craft to portray black women in roles that are not destructive to black womanhood. 

   Usually when I read or hear about a study done on black women I huff, puff, and roll my eyes because these so-called "studies" have not been based on some genuine scientific study. Recently, the National Center of Education Statistics have concluded that Black women are the most educated group in America based on college enrollment by race and gender. Yet, somehow, this story did not take off as it should have. However, a few years ago when a Psychology Today blogger by the name of Satoshi Kanazawa posted a piece entitled "A Look at the Hard Truths About Human Nature," this story was everywhere, for a long time. It was constantly discussed whether people were for or against it. In this post he stated that black women were the least physically attractive group of women. The post has since been removed but this Huffington Post article discusses it.    


     Every year I look forward to the "Black Girls Rock" program on BET. I love how it demonstrates and reinforces the importance of black women supporting and loving one another as well as ourselves. It is great to see so many young black girls in the audience each year. It is so important that we pass this message down to them. The "My Black is Beautiful Campaign" is another example of black women celebrating their womanhood and creating a community of support for us. 

    One essential, critical, important lesson I took away from this during my research is that we have to stop allowing others to define us! As an Africana Womanist, a term coined by Dr. Clenora Hudson-Weems, I stand by the concepts of self-naming and self-defining. No one knows you more than you know yourself. With that being said, no one can define you. Audre Lorde once said “ If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

                                          (Jill Scott- Golden courtesy of Hidden Beach Records)


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