[Editor's Note] Living in Hell | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Editor's Note] Living in Hell


JFP Editor Donna Ladd

I just finished reading a chilling historical novel, "The Healing," which resoundingly answered an oft-debated question: "What was the Civil War really about?"

When the oddly apologist "it was about economics" crowd tries to downplay the fact that the war was fought to preserve (and spread) slavery, I trot out the Mississippi Articles of Secession, which explains the state's decision to leave the union and join the Confederacy clearly: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery--the greatest material interest of the world." It then explains that their products "are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun."

Therefore, it said, "a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization."

I'm well aware of the routine rape of women slaves by white masters, but "The Healing" helped put it into jarring perspective. It is obvious, yet mind-blowing: It was imperative for plantation masters to keep reproducing the slaves who would, in turn, help them keep building their wealth. It was, thus, vital for slave women to repeatedly breed, and as this research-based novel by Mississippi native Jonathan Odell shows, the master would go to any length to make that happen, including regularly raping slave women they owned.

No doubt, this rape was for the plantation masters' personal enjoyment--shudder--but they also institutionalized rape of black women to ensure a robust output of babies who would help work the fields or assist in the big house as soon as they were big enough. When a slave woman birthed a new child (whether the master's or not), it was often taken immediately from her, or it was sold later.

In Odell's book, slave woman Rubina was the master's choice (and likely his daughter). Starting when she was barely a teenager, he visited her at night after she worked in the fields all day, keeping her pregnant. He then sold each of her babies as they were born.

My epiphany, when finishing Odell's book with tears streaming down my face, was just how rooted in history the economic battles to control women's wombs really are.

Margaret Atwood's powerful "The Handmaid's Tale" is another book about controlling women's wombs. In that book--much better than the movie--we meet a previously independent, professional young white woman struggling for survival in a dystopian United States run by the radical right and its so-called "values." The theocrats spout religion while "handmaids" are enslaved to be baby machines and their prostitutes while miserable wives take care of the home front (a similar dynamic to plantation life, which the white matriarch in Odell's novel called living "in hell.")

I hadn't thought much about Atwood's book in years until all the recent posturing by white male conservatives across America not only against abortion rights--but against contraception. It's about as surreal and frightening as scenes in those two books to see these men stand up across America and in Mississippi and attack reproductive rights in nearly every form. Then, inevitably, many of the same ones start slamming "welfare mothers" and all the single women trying to raise children alone--while seldom calling for male responsibility. (I just Googled "teenage fathers" and got 182,000 results; "teenage mothers" brought 2,180,000.)

Then, of course, the nonsensical personhood campaign is back, complete with man after man spouting about "life" and what's right for women and family. (Leaving me to wonder just how many of them have ever paid for abortions themselves. My email address is [e-mail missing], by the way.)

My intense desire to out hypocrites aside, let's break this illogical mess down: These guys don't want the government to pay to help single mothers and needy children. They don't want to provide either preventive health care or pay for emergency medical needs. They don't want teenagers to learn to use a condom, or have access to other birth control methods (because we know all of these role models were disciplined virgins until they married and have only slept with one woman, ever).

They don't want to fund early children education, and Head Start is a source of ridicule for them (ahem, lobbyist Barbour) because it tends to help black kids. They don't want a woman to choose whether to have a child, even if she and her husband are unemployed and have five kids, or regardless of whether she can afford to feed the child without public assistance after he bolted. Oh, and they want to ensure that rape victims must give birth to babies that might result from the crime, and that women who are likely to die from childbirth must give birth anyway, even if she's the sole breadwinner of her family, and even if she already has three children to feed and clothe.

She just better not ask for public assistance because, if these guys have their way, that's going the way of the IUD.

The part I find the sickest is the bald greed that undergirds this war on half our population. Clearly, some Republican (or Tea Party) genius has decided that this kind of attack on women, our choices and our ability to keep loved ones fed, is a way to get votes. And what do they want votes for? In many cases, the corporations that are funding them want more lawsuit damage caps (so they can cut a certain number of people's arms off before they have to fund expensive safety measures). Or they want to drill off the shore of a coast already devastated by a hurricane and an oil spill. Or they want to frack for natural gas without telling us what's in the chemicals that might end up in our drinking water.

Many of these men believe that womb politics are a way to deliver the goods. I suspect many of them are praying that the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Roe v. Wade (you know, just in case their friends get in "trouble")--but they are going to play the sexual woman card until the "values" votes come rolling in on their (and their benefactors') behalf, thus bolstering what they consider "commerce and civilization" for them and theirs.

Fellas, you've chosen the wrong strategy. If you were shocked that 60 percent of Mississippians turned back the Personhood Initiative last fall, just wait to see what rains down on earth when women across America join together to fight your attempts to use our wombs to further the cause of naked greed.

We are not your political toys, and we are not going back to living in hell.

Legacy Comments

Good article Ladd, I like how you called out the hypocrisy of "conservatives" today.

Duan C.2012-02-22T12:36:56-06:00

Great column. The wealthy have always had access to birth control and abortion. Criminalizing these practices basically just means taking them away from everyone else. When it comes to national politics, "values" voters should remember what happened under the Bush administration, which championed culture war only until it won the election. Then, it went ahead with its big business agenda, throwing them scraps like the Terry Schiavo circus. It's a cynical exploitation of people who are mostly genuine in their beliefs--genuine but grossly misguided. The problem for the true believers is that a jihad against women's rights can't actually win in the long run. It can't win because it's incredibly unpopular. Why haven't they passed a constitutional amendment banning abortion? Because such an amendment cannot pass. At the same time, I have to imagine that business interests are getting awfully queasy about the Santorum surge, because he would almost certainly lose badly in a national election and take down the Republican House with him. Conservatives use dog whistle politics because coming right out in the open with such views destroys their chances with the 60+ percent of the population who disagree. But now a lot of this stuff is coming out into the open, and they will reap the whirlwind.

Brian C Johnson2012-02-22T14:02:49-06:00

Great column as well. I hadn't thought about the slavery angle to this debate over women's rights, but if you think about it, it's pretty much all men who're trying to make women second-class citizens. Why else were no women called to testify in front of Congressman Darrell Issa's dog-and-pony show, er, committee hearing last week? Why else would the commonwealth of Virginia even consider forcing women who wanted an abortion to go through an extremely invasive, medically unnecessary ultrasound? All the while, these are the same conservatives who rail against government intrusion into our lives. I don't know why the GOP chooses to fight such a losing battle.

golden eagle2012-02-22T22:30:11-06:00

The Civil War was about preservation of the union in the north; in the south it was about slavery. The abrogation of women's rights is about foisting an ill thought, narrow minded misconception of religious ideas to some legislators and state politicians. But to women, and to my more enlightened and thoughtful fellow men, it is about nothing more than the abrogation of women's rights. That's a kind assessment. The more draconian interpretation is, it's still about slavery. Women are not property that can be regulated by legislative fiat. To the politicians I say, get your context right.


Great Article, Ladd. Your analysis of this attempt by these men as "womb politics" is right on the money. I also believe that this movement is about wealth, greed. power and control. MS has a Republican controlled House and Senate. Our Governor is Republican and so is the LT. Gov. Women of all races, creed and color must join forces with other women in the US to stop this madness. This is a war that women can and WILL WIN. Have you noticed the number of male sexual enhancement products that are on the market and with almost constant TV Ad coverage? From Cealis(sp) to Elongate...all the way to the bath tub. These products are paid for by most insurance companies,yet, women are having to fight a war to be able to have family planning methods.


Outstanding article Donna! I continue to be amazed at how stupid the Koch brothers and other powers in the Republican Party assume we are! We can't continue down the road much longer as sheeple for the profits of the few.

Barnes Thomas2012-02-25T16:59:03-06:00

Keep hate... er I mean hope alive right Donna? You and the CL share the same mission statement of dividing the races. Every once in a while I come over here and it's the same thing, you as the self appointed condecending champion of the black race in Mississippi. Draggin up the past if you can't find something today. Ignoring the facts, statistics and most of all anyone with a different opinion as you'll exhibit here as soon as you read this if you print it. I don't think anyone needs you to speak for them but you seem to think they cannot speak for themselves so have at it sister. I'll be back in a few months if you haven't cancelled me.


Alex, first, I appreciate your permission to "have at it," but I don't need your blessing to talk about my rights, or to speak frankly about history, race or otherwise. Draggin up the past if you can't find something today. With due respect, that is the language of bigots and apologists (or both, if the shoe fits) and the ignorant who don't want us talking about history that makes you uncomfortable. That is EXACTLY the history we need to talk about—the kind that wadn't put in our history books because it makes dudes like you uncomfortable. Your response is exactly why we must and will keep talking about history until far more people are educated about the effects of it. The irony of this particular whine of yours is that I'm using facts about the past to be anything but divisive—women of all races in America have much in common, and a whole lot of it has to do with (some) men using our bodies for their own political and economic purposes. I hate to tell you this, but you can't erase (or make us not talk about history) just because you say we shouldn't. And guess what? Everything I wrote about in that column is NOT just black history, nor does it have anything to do with just being a "champion of the black race in Mississippi," even though I sure don't take that as an insult. (Reminds me of when Richard Barrett called me an "integrationist" on his website, presumably as an insult. Joke on him.) Let me be clear, Alex, so you get it right going forward; I am a critic of white supremacy in Mississippi and what it has done to every single damn one of us. Many white people still benefit from it, and thus discussion of the real history is going to make those folks uncomfortable or even angry, or they're so ashamed of the past that they think we should put our shared history in a lockbox. So be it. There are much bigger concerns here than whether or not discussing history makes someone uncomfortable. That is the least of my worries, and it will never guide my editorial decisions or my work. The really tragic approach of your desire—that we bury our race history back in the past—is that is also buries the complexity and allows so many people (especially African Americans) to think that every white person was complicit. We don't talk about our real history, and we have no understanding. We have no idea why things are the way they are now, and why some folks have been able to build more wealth than others. Often, it's because they stole the land, or bought it from someone who stole it, and then used and bred slave labor to develop it. And that land, friend, has never become a level playing field. Learning and/or admitting that is a form of love and compassion and a way to figure out how to solve our state's problems and divides -- not further "division" or hate. Only someone who thinks that divisiveness is cured by lies and ignorance would dare charge such a thing. (And if you read "The Healing," which I reference above, you will see how everyone involved really was living "in hell," even if it financially benefitted the planter; what a horrible, stupid, cruel life those fools led. There is nothing glorious about the Old South and its ways; nothing to be proud of there.) We must move forward—by using our history to inform the how and the why and the what-next. If not, we will continue stumbling in the dark, divide firmly in place, as we keep our position at the bottom of the U.S. barrel. THAT is not OK with me, no matter how many of you there are still out there trying to forget the past. So come on back any time. We'll be here having the same level of in-depth conversation, steeped in the context of history. I urge you to join in rather than trying to hush us. Because, you know, that ain't gonna happen.


BTW, I doubt seriously that the mission statements of The Clarion-Ledger and the JFP have anything in common. They've done some good work in the past to help put old Klansmen in jail, but I can't think of anything substantive I've read there (or seen reported) that really puts our complex history in context or that does anything to actually further racial reconciliation. In fact, quite the opposite. The Clarion-Ledger's mission, clearly, is to make as much money off the poor ignorant fools down here in Mississippi to send back to Virginia and Gannett's shareholders, and that applies to their free and party-pic publications such as VIP Jackson. If they gave a damn about what Mississippians think, there is no way they would have pushed out the Clevelands: one of the dumbest business moves I've ever seen. Oh, and we find plenty to report and discuss today (including the personhood/birth control efforts the above column is actually about). Let's see: flood control, the mess that was Melton, development, arenas, ridiculous politicians of all parties, corruption, school discipline ... I could go on. And trust me, our coverage on those issues and many others have left some folks of all races mad at us. Your defensive dog just don't hunt, Alex.


I was having a very interesting conversation with a co-worker last week about generational shame being passed down from mother to daughter. She asked a question that I answered and then not an hour later I read this column and it was about this very thing! She asked me "What do you think was handed down generationally that makes it easier for AA women to, at times, put a man before their children?" I told her the story of slaves having their babies taken from them. How horrific that must have been as a mother. How one probably almost couldn't take the pain of that...constantly giving birth to have it wrenched from you over and over again. It would almost make you stop even trying to love them, wouldn't it? Just to protect that fragile part of every mother that breaks when their baby is taken. The women would be emotionally crippled. As a mother, I cry thinking about it. And then people do not get how this has been handed down and played out. In order to move on in this life, and to help others move on, we have to accept that we caused that. Every single time a white man or a white woman questions the behavior of an African American woman they must know and understand how all of their pasts entertwined in order to created the very behavior they question. Clear as mud?

Lori G2012-02-27T12:05:48-06:00

So.......... because of the babies being taken from their mothers, today, black women pick men over their babies. Basically hardening our hearts toward babies because we know the massa gone come take the baby away. So then generations later, we still don't love our babies and thus pick men over the babies. Is that it in a nutshell? And white women don't do this because they never had to have their babies taken away, right? White women don't have this issue with picking men over their babies....just black women. It's not a woman thing....it's a black woman thing. Right? Am I understanding the struggle of the black woman correctly?


Nope. I'm talking about possible generational effects. White people, women, men have their own--in fact I think men's generational issues were explored by you in your column this week, right?. My example was just from a conversation I was having with a person getting their PhD in AA women and the history of HIV/AIDS epidemic and how generational issues related to health (women's health in particular) affected that. I was just throwing another example out there. Feel free to explore your own.

Lori G2012-02-27T14:17:37-06:00

Not to mention the generational effects of being the mistress or master, and what that would do to your own children and generations to come. We see it play out all the time if we will notice. It's so horrifying. Living in hell, indeed.


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