Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Brett  Lott

Kelsey  Ashe 
Gender Relations on Southern Plantations

Biosphere 2 in Historical Context

Gender relations on southern plantations in the nineteenth century included jealousy, intimacy, and violence. Men and women slaves worked in different areas on the plantation. Female slaves could not depend on male slaves for protection and were often helpless in the face of white male sexual aggression. This led to countless births of mulatto children. If women stuck up for themselves in these situations, they suffered beatings and rapes. Despite the abuse they faced, slaves and slave owners still made friendships that could not easily be broken. When slaves became sick and died, slave owners sometimes felt grief and sadness over the loss of an irreplaceable intimate. Whether slaveholding women wanted to acknowledge it or not, slave women created a support network for them, someone for them to rely on. However, white plantation women felt threatened by slave women. This threat was not felt because of fear that the slave women were stronger than the mistresses; it stemmed from the relations slave women had with white males. European men and women viewed the bodies of the slave women as property. The relationships between black women and black men, black women and white men, and black women and white women varied from family life and friendships, to a jealous hatred towards the other. Mistresses usually had strained relationships with slave women because of the underlying knowledge that the mistresses’ husbands were having sexual relations with the helpless female slaves.

Bret Lott’s works reflect the ways in which individuals cope with loss and hardship in life. The choice of how to cope with this sadness influences one’s success or failure. Coping mechanisms either build an individual up or break her down. Not all of Lott’s characters suffer from a physical loss, some encounter a new challenge. Either way, these losses force the realization that life has changed. Jewel tells the story of a family who is unwilling to accept the fact that their lives will become more challenging with the birth of their youngest daughter. When Brenda Kay is born with Down Syndrome, the Hillburns are forced to revisit their priorities. Lott characterizes Jewel and Leston Hilburn as a source of inspiration during times of hardship. They put their family first, knowing that giving up something incredibly important to them and making a necessary move could save the child’s life. Coming to grips with sadness and loss helps people to shape who they are and who they want to become.

Major Works Consulted:

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Lott, Bret. Jewel. New York: Washington Square, 1991.

---. Reed’s Beach. New York: Washington Square, 1991.
Photo Credit: Lott, Bret. Jewel. New York: Washington Square, 1991.