Partus Sequitur Ventrum "That Which is Born Follows the Womb"
Partus Sequitur Ventrum, Latin for “that which is born follows the womb,” was established as law in Virginia in 1662. This law broke from the British custom of patrilineal heredity and made enslavement a function of maternal inheritance, thereby perpetually enslaving children born to enslaved mothers. How were the lives of enslaved Black women further complicated by this law? And what was the relationship between this law and the alleged infanticides enslaved Black women were accused of? We know this law ensured the stability of the colonial slave economy through the commodification of black births, but how have its remnants continued to impact the descendants enslaved women?
The legacies of slavery are baked into Black maternal health outcomes and its implications continue to reverberate. Today, of the 3.7 million births annually in the US, births by Black women account for 15%, roughly 550,000, but make up over 35% of the maternal deaths. And while there are many factors that contribute to maternal health outcomes, medical racism is the explanation often overlooked. Can we connect the violent legacy of slavery to present day outcomes by interrogating Partus Sequitur Ventrum?
In the video clip below, Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of The 1619 Project, speaks with historian Dr. Diana Berry about the implications of this law on enslaved Black women. As a warning, they are discussing the violent acts of forced reproduction and breeding synonymous with chattel slavery, particularly after 1808. I am using their short conversation to create a framework for this project and underscore forthcoming discussions of infanticide.
The 1619 Project
History reveals the brutal ways enslaved Black women were bred and forced to reproduce like livestock. In Birthing a Slave, Marie Schwartz states, “childless women were sold. If a woman did not “breed” she was put on the market.” The nefarious confinements of chattel slavery and plantation life left little room for enslaved Black women to exert control over their lives. According to scholar Katherine McKittrick, “the technologies and violences of slavery, as they are spatialized, do not disappear when black women assert their sense of place. But black women also inhabited what Jenny Sharpe calls ‘the crevices of power’ necessary to enslavement, and from this location some were able to manipulate and recast the meanings of slavery’s geographic terrain.” One way they exercised this power was through their fertility. By using plant medicine, enslaved Black women could control their menses and induce preterm labor. In some rare instances, however, enslaved women committed infanticide - the act of killing one’s child. Centering their experiences, living as commodities in the violent landscape of slavery, how can we reconsider infanticide? How might it have been an act of agency? Could it have been an act of compassion? How might age have informed the act?
The master narrative surrounding infanticide by enslaved black women is captured in newspapers, court documents, coroner’s inquisitions, and books. Coroner’s inquisitions, the primary source this project is built upon, routinely recorded the graphic details of infanticide. Each spatialized account enlists violent language that assaults enslaved women, stripping them word by word of humanity. The colonial ideologies, enshrined in these inquests, portray them as barbaric, demonic, and inherently violent. The larger narrative, found in the accompanying references, painted enslaved Black women as considered uncivilized, with no knowledge of medicine, no ability to feel pain (emotional or physical), and therefore no capacity for love or compassion.
In the Virginia archive, I encountered roughly thirty enslaved Black women accused of infanticide. (see story map)
All of the encounters were brief.
All of the encounters were violent.
All of the women were silenced.
The ideologies of enslavement translated to the increased suffering of Black women during complicated pregnancies and births. If the child perished, enslavers, coroners, and court officials swiftly accused and convicted them of infanticide; they were jailed, sold, and transported south. In Demonic Grounds, McKittrick suggests, “we take the language and the physicality of geography seriously…so that black lives and black histories can be conceptualized and talked about in new ways.” In doing so, how might the master narrative change?
In Venus in Two Acts, Saidiya Hartman questions, “how does one revisit the scene of the subjection without replicating the grammar of violence?” This project attempts this by questioning the archive from a place of compassion, humanity, and dignity. By employing the Black geographic theories of Marisa Fuentes, Saidiya Hartman, and Katherine McKittrick, the hope is to enrich the narratives of these women otherwise silenced and trapped in a violent archive. Fuentes reminds, “we cannot redeem or rescue them, but we can reconsider their pain.” Reconsideration presents pathways to more complex narratives, that Hartman contends will, “liberate them from the obscene descriptions that first introduced them to us…to paint as full a picture as possible.”
Therefore, I revisit the scene to question the archive and consider:
- How enslaved Black women’s use of abortifacients might be viewed as agency?
- Whether infanticide was an act of violence, compassion, or both?
- And lastly, how the adultification of Black girls impacted birthing outcomes?
 Donna Hoyert, “Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2020,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 23, 2022), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/maternal-mortality/2020/maternal-mortality-rates-2020.htm#anchor_1559670130302.
 “Race,” The 1619 Project (Hulu, January 26, 2023).
 Marie Jenkins Schwartz, “Procreation,” in Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 19.
 Katherine McKittrick, “Introduction: Geographic Stories,” in Demonic Grounds Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xvii, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv711.3.
 McKittrick, “Introduction: Geographic Stories,” xiii-xiv.
 Marisa J. Fuentes, “Epilogue,” in Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Univ of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 146.
 Hartman, “Small Axe,” 6.
By: Shemika Curvey