16th to 19th century Americas and Europe

In the American South in the decades before the Civil War, there were around one million enslaved girls under the age of 16. Their girlhood was a unique construction where race, age, and gender under slavery had an intertwined influnced on their everyday lives.

In her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, British abolitionist Mary Prince talked about the hardships that she, as a young enslaved girl, suffered and the brutalities of enslavement. Enslaved girls received harsh punishments similar to those carried out to adults. If they made a mistake when working in cotton or tobacco plantations, they could be whipped brutally. Another mistreatment they frequently faced was sexual exploitation. These abuses, like Mary Prince said, were both physically and emotionally tormenting.

Escaping slavery was of course very difficult, and compared to enslaved boys, enslaved girls had even fewer opportunities to attain freedom. Instead, they learned to fake illness or work slowly to show their resistance. Stories and games also became a way for young people to resist their enslavement. Younger enslaved girls sometimes transformed old games by adding transgressive messages into them. For example, a jumping rope song from enslaved girls went, “My old mistress promised me/Before she dies she would set me free/Now she’s dead and gone to hell/I hope the devil will burn her well.”

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