Brenda Stevenson is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History at Oxford, a position held in conjunction with a Fellowship at St John’s College. On 28 June, we were excited to launch her new book, What Sorrows Labour in My Parent's Breast? A History of the Enslaved Black Family.
The legacy of the slave family haunts the status of black Americans in modern U.S. society. Stereotypes that first entered the popular imagination in the form of plantation lore have continued to distort the African American social identity. In What Sorrows Labour in My Parents' Breast?, Brenda Stevenson provides a long overdue concise history to help the reader understand this vitally important African American institution as it evolved and survived under the extreme opposition that the institution of slavery imposed. The themes of this work center on the multifaceted reality of loss, recovery, resilience and resistance embedded in the desire of African/African descended people to experience family life despite their enslavement. These themes look back to the critical loss that Africans, both those taken and those who remained, endured, as the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley honors in the line—“What sorrows labour in my parents’ breast?,” and look forward to the generations of slaves born through the Civil War era who struggled to realize their humanity in the recreation of family ties that tied them, through blood and emotion, to a reality beyond their legal bondage to masters and mistresses. Stevenson pays particular attention to the ways in which gender, generation, location, slave labor, the economic status of slaveholders and slave societies’ laws affected the black family in slavery.