Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World

Trite historical surveys of the Black experience in the United States will feature questions of identity politics (Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977) and intersectionality (DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, 1977) as post-Freedom Movement developments. Black women, underserved by the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation of the 1950s-70s, articulated the shortcomings of each. Better histories and interviews with theorists highlight the long-running nature of these debates, discussions, and needs, reaching as far back as the germinal careers of Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) and Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), as well as discussions of suffrage and slavery at Seneca Falls in 1848. 

However, Jessica Marie Johnson, in Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (2020) shows that these questions did not merely emerge in the nineteenth century or even in the United States or British colonial world. Johnson takes the reader back to the 1700s, looking at the experiences of African and African-descended women on the western coast of Africa, in the Middle Passage, and in Louisiana. The French colonial administration in Louisiana, for example, responded to the 1729 Natchez War with two initiatives: some enslaved Black men could receive their manumission by joining the militia and the administration supported an Ursuline convent largely focused on promoting the welfare of white women and girls. In comparison, being a signare (a woman engaged in high-level trade) in Senegambia involved a particular position, including property ownership, slaveownership, conspicuous consumption, and “marriage in the style of the country” with a European or Afro-European man but also enabled women such as the signare Anne Gusban to intervene directly in the French trading company’s policies and diplomatic endeavors. 

Johnson, a historian at Johns Hopkins University who worked with Ira Berlin at the University of Maryland-College Park, structures her exploration of Black women’spractices of freedom” in a conceptual introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. The first two chapters are set in the comptoirs, or French Company communities, of Saint-Louis and Gorée in Senegambia, from their emergence in the late 1600s through the early 1800s; the third chapter centers on the Middle Passage; and the last three chapters focus on colonial Louisiana in the 1700s, with the sixth chapter analyzing the Spanish colonial period. The conclusion carries the story into the nineteenth-century United States. The chapters also tend to follow particular types of archival documents: company records and travel narratives, parochial marriage and baptismal records, ship registers, censuses and urban plats, manumission records, and mediated self-purchases (coartacíones) and testaments, respectively, with good use of criminal cases and legal codes throughout. While Johnson draws on David Scott’s theorizing of “that event, and this memory” to form this history beyond “silent registers,” that fail to capture moves around Louisiana or make distinctions between free people of African descent or wrongly list null values in their tally of women of African descent, the registers do provide a fair amount of information, particularly when drawn together here. 

The core of Johnson’s argument comes in the third chapter in the conceptualization of la traversée, the crossing from Africa to the Americas, but also, as Johnson points out, the “long” Middle Passage as enslaved women were taken farther up the Mississippi River by French or Native traders, and what Black women lost in the process and had to re-create or reconstitute after arrival. With two prior chapters set in Gorée and Saint-Louis, in Senegambia, and the remarkable story of Marie Baude, who crossed with free status, Johnson highlights the importance of kinship and other social ties in preserving freedom. Baude followed her white husband, a gunsmith reassigned by the French West India Company from Senegambia to Louisiana for killing a man of color. In Johnson’s telling, Baude was surprised to discover that her husband had mortgaged the enslaved workers in their household to pay for Baude’s passage. Going from an enslaver living in Senegambia with strong local ties to Louisiana, where the Company seized her captive laborers for its own use and most Africans had enslaved status, was a significant change. For women who crossed with enslaved status the change involved enslavers’ efforts to reduce them to the level of livestock, with “slave traders [studying] enslaved Africans to predict fertility, health, productivity, and fitness for Atlantic passage, and while seeming to affirm gender, these invasive evaluations actually rejected the human metrics that gender required—intimacy, kinship, rites of passage, community, and sociality.” As Baude discovered, power is a team sport and la traversée stripped away the team, even from those crossing with free status. 

Johnson’s chapters on Black women’s experiences in New Orleans and Louisiana more broadly make important historiographic interventions. “Black femme freedom,” which Johnson defines as “future possibility,” “a radical opposition to bondage, reinterpreting wickedness as freedom, intimacy as fugitive, and blackness as diasporic and archipelagic.” This approach, which draws on queer theory and sets the experiences of African and African-descended women apart from the those of white women in the colony, depended on kinship, mutual aid, and “resistive femininity.” Notable moments include working at the hospital, typically as washerwomen and domestics, as a site for information sharing and the earliest recorded eating of gumbo, a dish prepared by Black women and consumed by free, enslaved, and maroon individuals.

The author is well-aware of critiques of studies of “exceptional” individuals, who are easiest to find in the archives and have disproportionately shaped interpretations of slavery and freedom, and reminds the reader that “in this new world, black people remained in bondage more than they secured their freedom.” And yet, individual acts of manumission receive high praise as having “confirmed…the lie of partus sequitur ventrem [follow the status of the mother]…ripped off the slaveowner’s veneer. For if manumission existed, slavery was contingent, structural, and imposed.”  Manumission certainly troubled the logic of slavery, as did other acts of resistance and resilience, but it largely reified the colonial order, providing an unmerited sheen of benevolence to the manumitter and the government alike. Johnson’s categorization of obtaining manumission as a “maroon practice” (165) rests on a broader conceptualization of the term beyond physical self-liberation, where “freedom for black women meant stealing themselves from their owners, creating spaces for safety, protecting and teaching kin, and girding themselves with allies against further violations…[requiring] deep care for each other.” 

A central strength of Wicked Flesh is the reminder, in document after document, petition after petition, that enslaved women did not need the ideals of the Age of Revolutions to know the illogic of slavery. As Johnson shares, when a government official tried to force Marie Charlotte back into slavery on a technicality, claiming “for himself the right to decide race and sexual codes of body and behavior,” Marie Charlotte stated “it is not just that a free person should have been kept in slavery through a trick.” Her court appeal came in front of Louisiana’s Superior Council before 1743, more than thirty years before Belinda Royall’s famed petition. 

Other notable interventions include the point that Senegalese comptoirs, famous for the power of free women of color, were not “egalitarian or altruistic,” because free African women depended on enslaved workers to maintain their own status as intermediaries in the Atlantic slave trade. And while Louis Congo, the man who received free status by agreeing to be Louisiana’s executioner, has gained notice from many scholars, Johnson notes that the colony refused to manumit his wife Suzanne.

Saint-Domingue/colonial Haiti, as the center of French Atlantic slavery, looms throughout Johnson’s account. It is notable that the Haitian Creole (Kreyòl) word for “to find” is jwenn, from the French joindre, a rough cognate with the English join. While Johnson never uses the phrase “found family,” the idea runs through the chapters as a unifying theme, from the comptoirs of Senegambia to the gumbo pot of Mama Comba and Louison to Margarita Momplessir bequeathing thirteen enslaved workers to three different women. Women sought to survive and repair the ways “la traversée tore at gender, intimacy, and kinship.” 

Not every action was liberatory and while Johnson’s achievements in preserving the memory of community and kinship are significant, at moments the divide between women with free and slave status is elided with the briefest notes. Yes, the archives are incomplete, sometimes deliberately, and riddled with “null” values. But there appears to be enough material to enable some analysis of the fissures in Black femme communities in the late eighteenth century. It is notable and worth exploring that Marie Laveau enjoyed free status from her birth in New Orleans but also carried a Dominguan/Haitian identity during her career, or how the enslaved women in Charlotte/Carlota Dernerville’s household may have viewed their enslaver’s success in business. Reminders that Black femme geographies “were not egalitarian” and that enslaved women did most of the cooking, baking, laundering, and ironing point to important future analyses of the emergence of key divides in nineteenth-century New Orleans.   

By looking with care at Louisiana, and taking Senegambian precedents seriously, Johnson has provided an important new lens on the African American experience, one well-deserving of the honors it is already winning. It is also worth considering that the bounds of #VastEarlyAmerica do not end with what eventually became the United States, and that as Marisa Fuentes, Daniel Livesay, Vincent Brown, Ada Ferrer, Michelle McKinley and many other scholars have shown, histories of the Caribbean and Latin America have much to say about Blackness and freedom in the early and post-colonial Americas. A Diasporic and more hemispheric approach to the study of the “murky” terms of freedom, which Johnson provides here, staves off narrow, essentializing analyses stuck in contemporary political borders. And absolutely, New Orleans needs more monuments featuring Black women. 

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Robert D. Taber

Robert D. Taber is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Fayetteville State University. Driven by questions rising from intersectional theory, Taber's current research brings together three discussions centered on the Caribbean and Latin America: the eighteenth-century rise of race as a legal, social, and political construct, how people shaped gender roles and family life in response to the colonial context, and the connections between colonial Haiti's slave society and the origins of the Haitian Revolution. Follow him on Twitter @RobTaber.

Comments on “Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World

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    how does one assess whether or not ” there appears to be enough material to enable some analysis of the fissures in Black femme communities in the late eighteenth century.” what are the standards/means?

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