Outskirts online journal

Helen Johnson



Helen Johnson lectures in Anthropology and Women's Studies and is Graduate Coordinator of Women's Studies, at Monash University. She has received Visiting Scholarships at the French University of the Pacific in New Caledonia, as well as the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her articles have appeared in Les Nouvelles-Calédoniennes, The Australian Journal of Anthropology, she has contributed to a U.S. publication A Reader's Guide to Women's Studies, and to a U.S. political studies work examining changing feminist pedagogies. She is fascinated by the epistemological issues of feminist anthropology and finds her work with her Women's Studies colleagues stimulating in this regard.

Publication details

Volume 4, May 1999

Power, Race and Reproduction

Dorothy Roberts. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.

In her authoritative and forceful review of state sanctioned reproductive control of Black women Dorothy Roberts uses the astute academic perceptions of a law professor coupled with, and strengthened by, argumentation that is politically grounded in her specific Black feminism. She examines the oppressive social and political tyrannies that target poor Black women in particular, as perpetuators of deviant lifestyles and social problems that are seen to corrupt the wider American community. Her analysis of the politics of blame deconstructs, in turn, both the rhetoric of reality and the actual social policies that act to diminish and degrade Black women's capacities to make decisions concerning their reproductive corporeality.

Through her examination of the political implications of women's unique reproductive capacities Roberts contends that racial injustice must not be perceived to be an abstract social issue. Rather, she argues for the need to encounter, confront and resist coercive policies which shape Black women's freedom to procreate. In her philosophical and political grounding in Black women's need for reproductive liberty Roberts' narrative is radically different to mainstream perceptions of women's liberties in the United States. She substantiates her contemporary political stance by a tracing of the dehumanisation of women's bodies during the period of slavery when, through the 'monstrous combination of racial and gender domination', Black procreation sustained slavery, enhanced White plantation owners' profits, and established a social order in which powerful White men were legitimately enabled to abase Africans on the basis of race and by their control of women's sexuality and reproduction. Her legal acuity details how legal doctrine reinforced the sexual abuse of slave women by deeming children who resulted from rape to be slaves and, at the same time, neglecting to recognise rape of slave women as a criminal act. In concurrence with the institutionalised denigration caused by low or non-existent legal status, Roberts contends that Black slave women were also denied their rights to motherhood, for slave owners owned both the mother and the child. In constructing mothers as property and their children as future goods, she alleges that U.S. law ensured that the relationship between master and slave was preeminent over that of mother and child. Nonetheless, from this grim period the author gleefully excavates and recounts those instances when slave women resisted with force their master's advances, documenting also their use of illness, their direct refusal to bear children using primitive yet effective abortive techniques, and in extremes, their use of infanticide.

While arguing for the need to comprehend the historical bases which have shaped present ideologies and practices against Black women, Roberts pivots forward chronologically to an examination of institutionalised denials of reproductive choice constructed through eugenicism. As eugenic debates have shaped social perceptions of 'acceptable motherhood' in many Western countries, Roberts traces their popularity early this century and the continuing power of eugenic thinking as a mode of scientific racism to model contemporary birth-control campaigns. Using the 1990s example of the injection of young Black women with birth-control drugs, she substantiates her argument that mainstream reproductive rights debates have disregarded Black women's particular concerns. Roberts also contests White feminists' privileging of the need for abortion, a perceived need that, she argues, remains a strong and emotive issue obscuring other aspects of reproductive rights that should be addressed.

Reproductive repression is, Roberts asserts, as important in discussions of racism as examining the issue of gender and articulating male dominance. For Roberts, mainstream social policies persuade people that racial inequality is perpetuated by Black people, that Black actions and attitudes maintain their social and economic inequality. By linking the ideal of social justice to the concrete issue of reproductive freedom, the author thematically examines how the regulation of Black women's procreative decisions has been an essential element of racial oppression and the ways that control of Black women's reproduction has shaped broader perceptions of reproductive freedom.

However, Roberts does not construct Black women as passive victims of nation-state and/or biomedical oppression, nor does she deny the active agency of Black women and the political activism they have generated to confront and resist demeaning policies. Highlighting the ways that White women's childbearing is regarded as a joyful activity that adds to national 'wealth', Roberts explores the manner in which Black reproduction is treated as a form of degeneracy. Segregation laws that quarantined Black peoples, derogatory stereotypes of Black women that (mis)inform the wider populace about Black women's capabilities, myths of lascivious, sexualised and promiscuous Black female bodies enmesh Black women into White models of dangerous and degenerate mothering.

Typifications of negligent Black slave mothers are contrasted by Roberts with popular figurings of Mammies, those pliable Black women who cared for White children, accepted their inferior place and still loved Whites. She then examines media images of Black motherhood, in which Black children are portrayed as unable to contribute positively to society. Analysing media caricatures of 'crack babies' as a symbol of Black maternal negligence she explores the power relations implicit in sensationalised portraits of the Black community and their imbrication with invidious social moves towards new forms of biodeterminism. She links these repellent power relations to the observation that many Black people see White-dominated family-planning programmes as racial genocide, a position of resistance that acts to elucidate the ways that an unjust social order is perpetuated by blaming Black people for socially constructed and propagated racial inequalities.

Whilst Robert's work does not specifically address non-U.S. regions due to her focus upon African-American women, it is an excellent addition to Gisela Bock's (1983) examination of ideas about 'motherhood' and the ways in which women have been socially and biologically categorised as acceptable or unacceptable mothers. Placing Robert's work in the continuities and discontinuities of slavery in the U.S. and class oppression in Europe, in the sexist racism of eugenic theories which have shaped Western nation-states' constructions of communities that are imagined to be superior, and being informed by her examination of how the trope of race hygiene surfaces to demean and degrade certain kinds of social groups figured as deviants from social norms, help the reader to comprehend the offensive yet unrelenting formation of concepts, categories, edifices and policies that act to oppress and to limit reproductive choice and liberties. Her work joins that of Gisela Bock (1983), Geraldine Heng and Janades Devan (1992), Ingrid Markus (1996), and Kalpana Ram and Margaret Jolly's (1998) recent edited collection of essays to provide a confronting yet timely reminder that gender and racial oppression can metamorphose into sanitised institutional policies that diminish the human dignity of all.


Bock, Gisela, 'Racism and Sexism in Nazi Germany: motherhood, compulsory sterilisation and the state' in SIGNS. 8, 3 (1983), pp. 400 - 421.

Heng, Geraldine and Janades Devan, 'State Fatherhood: the politics of Nationalism, Sexuality and Race in Singapore' in Parker, A. et al (Eds). Nationalisms and Sexualities. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Makus, Ingrid. Women, Politics and Reproduction: The Liberal Legacy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Ram, Kalpana and Margaret Jolly (eds). Maternities and Modernities: colonial and postcolonial experiences in Asia and the Pacific. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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