Biographies of Women and Emancipation in the Americas

Last fall, many people waited anxiously for the results of the U. S. elections. From Tuesday, November 3rd through Saturday, November 7th, the nation and the world waited to see which state would tip the scale and end one of the most contentious election cycles in American history. Pennsylvania clinched the election for President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris. Harris, a woman of both Caribbean and South Asian descent and the daughter of immigrants, represents many “firsts” for the occupant of the nation’s second highest office. Meanwhile, some found the results from Georgia shocking. A coalition led by Black women organizers pulled off what, to many, seemed improbable: the state that once seemed a solid bet for Republicans had turned blue on the election map. Pundits scratched their heads. But for those better versed in Black women’s history, and the histories of women of color more broadly, we saw in the results from Georgia as well as Arizona and New Mexico our grandmothers, sisters, aunts, siblings, and kin. When we vote in our best interest, we deliver results that also benefit our kin, our community, and our country. Electoral politics being one of many tools of our activism, Black women and femmes, along with our allied sisters and siblings, delivered the “wholly impossible” in the face of widespread voter suppression, a global pandemic, and systemic violence.

Our current moment, one in which Black women’s political action and freedom practice are freeing an entire nation, is deeply rooted in Black women’s history as freedom makers. As If She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas, edited by Erica L. Ball (Occidental College), Tatiana Seijas (Rutgers University), and Terri L. Snyder (California State University, Fullerton), is a particularly timely text on women’s history of freedom. As the editors note, “It was comparatively rare for women to seek freedom only for themselves. By far, women acted as if they were free by protecting their families” (14). Reaching back to sixteenth-century New Spain (Mexico), Black women have defined, shaped, claimed, and fashioned freedom. The editors ground this collective biographical project, placing women of African descent at its center, in both feminist praxis and the contemporary #MeToo, #SayHerName, and #BlackLivesMatter movements. The result of their cooperative effort with twenty-four contributing is a collective portrait of women’s freedom praxis across geographic, imperial, and socio-legal contexts.

Ball, Seijas, and Snyder organize As If She Were Free into four chronological sections, which engage the rise of Atlantic slavery, the expansion of Atlantic slavery, second slavery, and the aftermath of slavery. As the editors carefully note, chronology may be a helpful guide, but traditional temporal bounds tell a limited story, one that foregrounds the particularity of colonial and national timelines rather than women’s lives, experiences, and freedom praxis. The timelines of nation states, colonial and imperial projects, and abolition and emancipation in different contexts have long left women, free and enslaved, out. Relying on those timelines to organize the volume would again erase women’s histories and their definitions of freedom. To avoid this pitfall, the editors use an alternate chronology, one with enough elasticity to hold the granular history that each biography illuminates.  Freedom, the editors make clear, has disparate meanings across diverse contexts but the slavery each of their historical subjects must endure, navigate, and combat is particular: New World, race-based, hereditary, chattel slavery. The editors put five core questions to each author about the women’s lives they engaged: How did she claim freedom? What was her route to freedom? What obstacles did she face? What were the gendered dimensions of claiming freedom? What is freedom?

Ultimately, the volume connects women’s lives through their freedom praxis—the practices that women used to assert and make freedom.  They ranged from the everyday to the violent. Beyond dreaming and envisioning freedom, Black women endeavored to live as if they were free. They found innumerable subtle and overt ways to deprive enslavers of their labor. They forged community, aided their kin, and protected loved ones as best they could. They contested bondage in colonial courts. They sued for freedom as colonies became nations. They pursued commercial success and purchased themselves. They even participated in violent uprisings, literally fighting for freedom from slavery and systemic oppression.

The volume features the stories of individual women and their communities from contexts as diverse as sixteenth-century New Spain (Mexico), eighteenth-century Lima (Peru), early nineteenth-century California, to late nineteenth-century Martinique. Each woman’s story challenges readers to attend to the innovative ways that women of African descent navigated Atlantic slavery and its aftermaths. Over the course of twenty-four chapters, this “new history of freedom” focuses primarily on women’s lives in the Hispanophone and Anglophone Atlantic world (4). But also includes women in Fcontexts. Some historical subjects circulated through various nations, territories, or colonies over the course of their biographies. The contributors, who are mostly historians with some scholars hailing from interdisciplinary departments or related humanities disciplines, deliver tightly constructed case studies that rich biographies in the limited space that an edited volume of this size affords.

Themes that cross national, temporal, and geographic bounds emerge in across each chapter. Retory Angola, a woman freed by an enslaver who was not willing to set her womb free, negotiated a precarious partial freedom in seventeenth-century Dutch New Netherland while working to secure legal freedom for future generations. Ana Maria Lopes de Brito, a survivor of the Middle Passage, navigated enslaved and manumitted life in eighteenth-century Brazil. Both women had rich spiritual lives and conceived of freedom both in their legal contexts and cosmologically. Margarita de Sousa, in sixteenth-century New Spain, and Mary Ellen Pleasant, in nineteenth-century Massachusetts and California, both crafted freedom through property ownership, commerce, and economic savvy. Cécile Fatiman, in eighteenth-century Haiti, Petra Carabalí in nineteenth-century Cuba, and Lumina Sophie in post-emancipation nineteenth-century Martinique participated in violent revolts.

In As If She Were Free’s journey throughout the Atlantic World, women’s integral role in defining freedom for themselves and their communities is not cast as neat, tidy, or unwaveringly triumphant. Along the way authors engage women’s participation in violent revolt, the tension between collective and individual action, and the reality of dreams deferred when emancipation did not live up to freedom’s promise. The treatment of women’s lives is nuanced. The volume includes women who were enslavers themselves. Some of the women included participated in imperial projects that dispossessed indigenous people and exploited both free and unfree laborers. Instead, readers encounter deeply human historical women negotiating freedom in fleeting moments and court rooms, in intimate relationships and extended kinship networks, at sites of labor and in moments of leisure.

In line with the editors’ feminist intent, the volume is accessible and readable. For specialists, it provides a helpful introduction to regions, time periods, and contexts with which one might not be familiar. For instructors and teachers, chapters are manageable for introductory students and provide enough depth for more advanced classrooms. The volume’s accessibility also makes it an excellent for readers outside of an academic setting.

The volume ends with the life of Carrie Williams Clifford, a native of Ohio who engaged avidly in the Black Women’s Club Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Club women played a key role in the long movement for African American’s civil rights. In a life of tireless advocacy for Black women and Black communities, Clifford wrote freedom. She contested anti-Black racism and Lost Cause ideology in her creative and political writing practice. History, she was convinced, as accounted for by Black people, was a tool and strategy for achieving emancipation’s promise. Listening to, learning from, and following the lead of Black women is always the right decision. As this collective biography demonstrates, freedom is praxis and living free is a life’s work. In this moment, as ever, this volume delivers a hemispheric history of freedom worthy of engagement and contemplative consideration.

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Vanessa M. Holden

Vanessa M. Holden is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the Department of African American and African Studies at the University of Kentucky.