Friday, October 12, 2012

A Slave Mother's Love: Infanticide

Blacks responded to slavery in various ways. Some wrote petitions, revolted, emancipated themselves, built communities, made families, and formed institutions such as churches and schools. Some blacks, however, chose to respond in a more extreme way: infanticide. Infanticide is the intentional killing of infants. In class, we very briefly discussed the desperation of enslaved mothers who resorted to infanticide.  Although it was certainly atypical behavior among the slave population, the fact that even a small number of women chose this fate for their children disturbed and intrigued me.

I believe that mothers are biologically wired to do any and every thing to protect their children. But when a mother is a slave on a plantation with a brutal slave owner who beats and rapes his slaves, how exactly is the mother supposed to protect her children? Some slave mothers, although I am sure it hurt them greatly, were strong enough to see their children being whipped or their little girl being sexually taken advantage of by master. Some slave mothers accepted the fact that it was nothing they could do to protect their children on a plantation. Some, however, thought the only way they could guarantee their children’s protection is by killing them.

Margaret Garner was an enslaved woman in Cincinnati who attempted to escape to Ohio. After failing to escape, she decided to murder her infant. Margaret did not deny that she committed infanticide. In fact, she said it was necessary for numerous reasons. The main reason being her child was of mixed race. She knew her child would endure threats because a mixed child was a constant reminder of infidelity (of the slave master), humiliation (of the slave master’s wife and family), and helplessness (of the slave woman that was raped). Mixed children were evidence that an unspeakable act, a white man and a black woman having sexual intercourse, had taken place. Because of this reason, mixed children were often beaten more and sold faster. This caused enslaved mothers of mixed children to have greater fear of their child’s future and have even more reason to end their child’s life. I am sure that mothers who committed infanticide felt great remorse about what they did. Perhaps they felt less remorse than they would have upon seeing their child whipped, rapped, or sold. I guess the question most slave mothers had to answer is can I relinquish my rights of protecting my children because they are slaves or am I going to protect them the only way I know how, even if that means killing them.


  1. This is one sad concept. Thinking from a slave's viewpoint, I would find this act accepting. I don't agree with it one hundred percent, but I could not handle seeing my child beat, raped, and eventually killed because they are a constant reminder of infidelity committed by the master. Abortion would have been a better and easier solution to this dilemma, but it is questionable about the safety of it during slavery.

  2. I cannot imagine being in a situation where I would even consider killing my own child. If I was put in that situation, however, I am pretty sure that I would take my own life as well. I cannot imagine having to deal with the pain of taking a young life and never let them assert their independence. I know it sounds cheesy, but one person really can have an impact. What if Ida B. Wells’ mother had killed her after birth because she didn’t want her daughter to grow up to face such horrible racism? If this had happened, modern integration would not be what it is today. I realize that a mother wants to protect her child in any way possible. However, I cannot fathom how this translates into killing them. Living with not only the guilt of murdering my own child, but also not knowing what they would become, would drive me past the edge of insanity.