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  • Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South
  • Marie Jenkins Schwartz
Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South. By V. Lynn Kennedy (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) 277. pp $65.00

According to Kennedy, antebellum southerners created, replicated, and justified southern values and a regional identity through discussions [End Page 471] and practices related to childbirth and infant nurture,. Men and women—rich and poor, enslaved and free—all achieved status through birth. Ideas about birth and blood not only established individual identity but also linked people to one another within the South’s hierarchical structure, naturalizing hierarchy in the eyes of elites if not others.

Born Southern is a social history divided into two parts. The first half focuses on childbirth and motherhood in slaveholding households; the second part looks at how childbirth and infant nurture were understood and discussed in the public sphere to construct the professional identities of doctors, lawyers, and planters, as well as the political identities of southern elites. “The language of birth,” Kennedy writes, was used to forge regional identities. It did not cause sectional conflict, but it served as “a powerful symbolic weapon in assertions of sectional difference and superiority by both sides” (187).

Part synthesis and part original research into primary sources, Kennedy mines a wealth of literary sources to understand how different groups of southerners influenced, practiced, and understood childbirth and childrearing. These sources range from elite women’s correspondence and favorite domestic novels to medical and agricultural journals, judicial decisions, and legislative enactments. The result is a chorus of voices, some louder than others. The voices of slaves and poorer whites appear here and there but not consistently throughout the book. Although Kennedy examines interviews with former slaves conducted in the 1930s under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and culls the documents related to emancipation compiled and published by editors of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, black voices are heard mostly in a chapter on motherhood and in a discussion of the nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War.

Kennedy maintains that “the presence of free and enslaved women together in the same household” mattered (1) because it influenced members of the elite and professional classes. The author’s heavy reliance on sources created by elite white women and white professionals, however, shortchanges the agency of blacks and poor whites. Conflict and contestation between slaves and owners are downplayed. For example, a section on the pain of childbirth among slaves focuses on what the owning and professional classes thought about black women’s pain, not on what black women experienced or how they interpreted their own pain.

Born Southern is useful nonetheless. It recognizes that elite southerners were embedded in a social network with others (doctors, lawyers, judges, and legislators included) whose authoritative voices helped them to attribute deviance to others rather than to themselves. When it came to parenting, for example, elite southerners judged enslaved blacks and poor whites as inadequate, conveniently forgetting, in the case of slaves, their own role in establishing policies restricting a slave’s time and resources for child care. They condemned illegitimate births and miscegenation, [End Page 472] blaming both on slaves and poor whites, even when faced with knowledge of children born to elites outside of marriage.

Born Southern will appeal to scholars who want to know how ideas about birth and blood have informed social relations and politics. Although the main audience for the book is likely to be historians, scholars in other fields will find something of interest, particularly political scientists, sociologists who employ historical methodology, and professors of law and medicine who want to introduce students to the ways in which professionals supported the social hierarchy into which they were born.

Marie Jenkins Schwartz
University of Rhode Island


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pp. 471-473
Launched on MUSE
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