No Mercy Here

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Alice Ragland

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity
By Sarah Hayley
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 260 pages,
$35.95 paperback.

WRITTEN BY Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here provides a sociohistorical account of Black women under the penal control of convict camps, parole, and chain gangs in the early 20th century.

It delivers detailed descriptions of the gendered violence perpetrated against Black women by state penal institutions during that era. It also describes the back-breaking labor that Black women were forced to do once trapped in the system of carceral control, which contributed significantly to the creation of the modern infrastructure of the U.S. South.

The book highlights the resistance that Black women showed during their time in captivity, including work slowdowns and stoppages, theft, outright sabotage and feigning illness. These resistance strategies strongly resemble those utilized during American chattel slavery. It was well chosen for inclusion in the National Book Foundation’s 2020-2021 Literature for Justice Reading List.

An assistant professor of gender studies and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Haley offers historical accounts of Black women under penal control in the early 1900s.

Haley emphasizes the “othering” of Black women, buttressed by white supremacy, which resulted in their super-exploitation and various forms of violence. The “ungendering” that she describes refers to the historic depiction of Black women as less than (white) women, but not quite men.

White women were constructed by white supremacy as helpless, in need of protection, chaste, and frail in order to build white solidarity across class lines. This view justified violence against Black men through the myth of the Black male rapist; it justified violence to solidify the superior economic and social positions of whites.

By focusing on Black women in chain gangs and in convict camps, Hayley provides ample contrast between this perception of white female fragility and how Black women were portrayed. Black women were not afforded the same sympathy as white women (convicts or not), as they had to perform labor that was as strenuous as the labor that male convicts were forced to perform. Myths of their limited sentience were combined with stereotypes of their unlimited physical strength to justify the harsh labor conditions.

These depictions of “unfeeling” Black women also subjected them to extreme violence and torture in penal institutions that would have been seen as an outrage if done to white women.

This violence and torture, performed by white guards in what strongly resembles pre-emancipation plantation relations, was essential to maintaining order and control over Black women’s bodies. Even though the labor they had to do was on par with men, they faced the double burden of forced domestic servitude and sexual violence.

Hayley also details another way that penal institutions maintained control over Black women’s bodies and restricted their freedom of movement: forced labor as domestic servants in white homes while on parole.  White women were usually set free after serving their time (though very few white women were under carceral control to begin with).

By contrast, Black women stayed in a position of servitude and deplorable working conditions after they left the convict camps.

Domestic service was one of the only accessible career options even for Southern Black women who were not under penal control during this time period, another indication of the continuation of a social order that resembled chattel slavery. To rationalize the sexual violence that often took place in the domestic sphere, Black women were seem as deviant and hypersexual.

Through her historical journey into the lives of Black women under penal control in the early 1900s, Hayley delves into themes of state-enforced objectification and dehumanization, the denial of Black women’s rights to motherhood and familial relations, and physical and sexual violence. These are couched in depictions and stereotypes of these women as criminals, prostitutes, and “not quite women.” In fact, harmful narratives undergird many of the current issues that Black women and their communities face, including policing, surveillance, mass incarceration, and the labor exploitation necessary to maintain racial capitalism.

May-June 2023, ATC 224

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *