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February 27, 2014

Guest Post by Tonya Cherie Hegamin - 1848 Girl Power, or the Rise of Sexy Dancing Smarty-No-Pants

In WILLOW, the title character is an educated slave girl in 1848 and must face a difficult choice --- between bondage and freedom, family and love. As Tonya Cherie Hegamin explains in her guest post, at first she didn’t think the choice would be difficult at all --- why on earth would people run plantations for months, sometimes years, if they didn’t have to? But after researching further and thinking more about another important issue --- gender equality --- she understood the complexities of slavery and freedom. Touching on everything from 1848 Persian Conference of Badasht to Beyonce, Tonya’s thought-provoking blog post delves into race, gender and the themes of her new book.

When I started out writing WILLOW, I was really into the idea of writing a story about familial relationships between whites and blacks in the mid 1800s, before the Civil War. I was fascinated by some research I had done about “voluntary” slavery, where slaves would run plantations for months, sometimes years, by themselves, even in the “deep South.” I couldn’t imagine why they wouldn’t just let the place go to hell and leave. However, as I wrote the book, I came to understand this type of enslavement as I studied more about gender equality history.

Although I have a certificate in Women’s Studies and knew about the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Conference, I had never been formally taught about the first Persian (Iranian) Conference of Badasht  that took place that same exact time (June/July 1848). Devout Muslim women at that conference unveiled themselves as a campaign to raise the social status of women in a highly political and religiously charged era. It was said that some of the men at that conference went raving mad, and one might have even tried to kill himself --- just for seeing a respected and eloquent woman without a veil in a public forum.

Apparently men of all races had a hard time seeing women as anything but baby machines and homemakers.

Apparently men of all races had a hard time seeing women as anything but baby machines and homemakers. Any woman speaking her mind in public was dangerous; an educated woman was basically seen as a ticking time bomb (although there were no time bombs back then!). Most women were educated by the men in their families, not for their own benefit, often it was for entertainment. Even the men who supposedly supported women’s rights had a hard time taking women seriously.

As much as I respect Fredrick Douglass and admire his support for the Seneca Falls convention, I can’t help but feel a little bitchy about the comments he made about it. Basically, he equated the attainment of women’s rights as important as animal rights. Today, that might not seem so insulting, but at that time, no one was saving the dolphins or putting their dogs in Louis Vuitton carriers and sunglasses. Animals were, in 1848, only valued for their labor and rarely seen as loving, intelligent creatures.

Now, think of all the women in the world --- white, black, yellow and brown --- who were happy to accept the status quo in 1848. I mean, the handful of women who facilitated these momentous events and demanded equal treatment were absolutely, positively RADICAL, which means that the general consensus of women was that it was OK to be seen as, well, voluntary slaves.

I actually think that’s still true. I think that although we like to slap a “Girl Power” label on popular culture, that label often ends up on a woman’s bare behind.  We still think it’s OK for women to be viewed as objects, even if they have a degree from Harvard like Tyra Banks, whose business is objectifying women for mass advertising consumption. In fact, Beyonce would not exist if we as women didn’t also get excited by the sight of a sexy, dancing smarty-no-pants.  We crave the attention that objectification brings, yet we want to be paid just as much as our male co-workers. We want to have paid maternity leave, yet we don’t lobby for paternity leave --- in effect, silently agreeing that men can’t and shouldn’t take care of children and the house. We still support the idea that men have no control over their sexuality even though women are shamed for having sex.

So my protagonist, Willow, is black, enslaved and a woman. So was her mother and her grandmother. In fact, her mistress was a slave, too, even though she was white. I specifically chose to write about white women who were also trapped by their social status: one is forced into indentured servitude and the other becomes addicted to Laudenum (opium) in order to forget the fact that she’s “damaged goods” if found out as being shamefully divorced.  Willow witnesses all of this --- she finds out that her enslavement runs deeper than the color of her skin. In the end, she finally understands that love can be a dangerous thing for a girl who yearns for true freedom and the priceless privilege of autonomy.    

Tonya Hegamin was born in Westchester, Pennsylvania, and later moved to Rochester, New York. After college, she was heavily involved in social justice work, and she also owned two small businesses for vintage clothes and vegan food. In 2003, she received her MFA in Writing for Children from the New School University. She put together a Multicultural Children's Literature conference, where she was introduced through friends to Andrea Davis Pinkney, who bought her first work. Her books include M+O 4EVER, PEMBRA'S SONG: A Ghost Story and MOST LOVED IN ALL THE WORLD: A Story of Freedom.