Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive: An Interview with Marisa Fuentes

Marisa Fuentes

In this interview, guest blogger Emily A. Owens sits down with Marisa Fuentes to discuss her new book, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. The book, which uses archival fragments to bring into focus the lives of individual women in 18th century Bridgetown, Barbados, offers a history from below, but takes it one step further. This is history without a trace, or, perhaps more accurately, with hardly a trace. In each chapter, Fuentes takes a deep dive into the slave society through the lifeworld of a woman on the island, asking, “How do we narrate the fleeting glimpses of enslaved subjects in the archives and meet the disciplinary demands of history…?” In other words, facing down an archive in which enslaved women appear “spectacularly violated, objectified, disposable, hypersexualized, and silenced,” Fuentes asks, how do we tell these stories?

Fuentes (@Drmarisajf) is an Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of California in African American/Diaspora Studies. Her research examines gender, sexuality, and slavery in the early modern Atlantic and critical historical methods for research on enslaved women.  Her work has been supported by the Fulbright program, the Ford Foundation, the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Fuentes’s next project examines the connections between capitalism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the production of black disposability in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Emily Owens: Dispossessed Lives is not chronological, and does not follow a single narrative arc throughout, but instead follows the entangled lives of individual women in each chapter. What is the relationship between your archive and the structure of the book? How did you come to structure the book in the way you did?

Marisa Fuentes: My archive consisted largely of fragments of enslaved women contained within official records.  I understood that the methodological constraints of the discipline of history—to tell a linear narrative based on an abundance of verifiable documents and facts—was untenable for my subjects.  I purposely subverted these methodological constraints to center these women in the damaged form that they emerged within the records to demonstrate several things. I wanted to expose the ideas of historical linearity and the archive as a repository of “facts” as constructs and a kind of fiction. Given the parameters of traditional historical methodologies it was impossible to historicize subjects that were never meant to be historicized because they were enslaved.  The book is a direct challenge to the lingering positivism within the discipline.  I endeavored to demonstrate how incomplete narratives, non-conforming structures, and different modes of writing can be used as tools to reveal a more tenable method to tell subaltern stories. And, finally by putting a single woman with a name, or a composite of women to represent the condition of enslavement at the center of the narrative, forces a particular kind of attention on them instead of the authoritative language of the archive.  It was an attempt to make otherwise marginalized and silenced people visible in all their complicated forms of representation.

EO: You describe the project as one “concerned with the ethical implications of historical practice” (6). Can you expand on that? How did those concerns structure your research, conceptualization of the project, and writing?

MF: First, I thought about the violence of the archive and violence in the lives of the enslaved women included in this project.  Of course, I had read the works of scholars who asked how to excavate enslaved people from an archive of violence without reproducing the violence in our narratives about them (Saidiya Hartman, M. NourbeSe Philip and others).  The ethical implications of historical practice take seriously the conditions in which enslaved people were commodified, violated, and made disposable by the slave owners, merchants, traders, and colonial authorities and actively works to subvert the enduring power of white supremacy present in the records and in the demands of the discipline that force a certain kind of impossible accounting.  By this, I mean not limiting our archival readings simply to the logic of white colonial officials, but doing the decolonial work to challenge the authority of archival records produced within conditions of white supremacy and black precarity.

Ultimately, the terror of the archival accounts and the violated bodies of enslaved women and men I found during my decade of archival research demanded a different kind of work than traditional social history.  My early conceptualizations of the project changed when I got into the archives and my questions shifted from documenting everyday life to explicitly demonstrating the machinations of archival power on enslaved people during their lives and in our present attempts to historicize them.  Part of my practice then became writing in a way that was attentive to the limits of historical representation but still worked within the traditional archive to imagine circumstances and perspectives that were silenced but still possible in the context of Bridgetown slave society.  By the end of the book I was so disturbed by the terror of the archive and the unrelenting power of slave owners over the lives and deaths of the enslaved that I wrote from a place that necessarily challenged the limited and terrifying language of the documents and turned to how enslaved women might witness or represent their own circumstances—even without a recognizable voice, but in looking out at a scene, or a heart wrenching scream.  This is another mode of historical writing that I hope gets us closer to attending to the devastation of slavery on enslaved people and perhaps a clearer understanding of the afterlives of slavery in which violence continues to be exerted on black lives.

Heigh Street, Barbados, 1865 (Credit Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)
High Street, Barbados, 1865 (Credit Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

EO: To that end, you offer reading along the bias grain as a method for approaching archival fragments. What is reading along the bias grain and how do you deploy it in Dispossessed Lives? How does this method push on existing modes of historical practice?

MF: Reading along the bias grain was both specific to chapter 3 “Agatha” and perhaps to the project as a whole as it is concerned with historical methodology.  Historians are trained to stay within the parameters of the archival documents to narrate a historical moment or an event.  Chapter 3 centers on a court case between white men and concerns an adulterous white woman and a possible attempted murder of a white person by an enslaved boy dressed as black woman. The issue was that black women were not at all represented in the court case or any of the surviving documents.  But I knew this story was shaped by the presence of enslaved women who made up a majority of Bridgetown’s population.  How, then, could I say something about enslaved women without an archive in which they were explicitly mentioned?  It became obvious that Agatha’s (the white woman) experience of adultery and her self-representation were connected to the disempowerment of black women or could reveal something of the position of black women in that society.

Moreover, the enslaved boy accused of attempting to murder one of the white men was dressed as a black woman because black women, enslaved and free, were inconspicuously out at night in town.  Enslaved women began to appear as a primary factor informing what was possible for the others in this case.  But again, it was a hard sell without any archival evidence supporting my arguments.  “Reading against the grain” is a concept that historians, feminist, literary, post-colonial and interdisciplinary scholars have drawn on since at least the 1980s.  It’s a method that reads official archival accounts for traces of marginalized voices and/or reading dominant voices for how they document, conceptualize and represent the subaltern.  But I think it still relies on what is there in the document even as it offers an approach to “read between the lines.”  When I was in the final stages of writing this chapter I thought about stretching the archival document, like a piece of linen fabric cut along a bias, which would make room for other interpretive possibilities.  I wanted to stretch the documents in order to accentuate what might not be there while still keeping intact the integrity of the documents.  That is to say, my interpretation remained true to the story being presented in the court case—I was not creating fiction—but I wanted to go deeper into the social conditions informed by the presence of and ideologies about enslaved women (that are not always articulated and can be invisible) that shaped the lives, identities, and possibilities for other people in eighteenth-century Bridgetown.  It is a way of writing enslaved women back into history even when there’s no explicit or very fragmented representations of them.  This is the practice that drives the book.

Back of Government House, Barbados, 1865 (Credit Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)
Back of Government House, Barbados, 1865 (Credit Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

EO: Dispossessed Lives intervenes in a longstanding conversation in slavery studies about enslaved people’s “agency.”  What is your answer to the problematic of agency as a category? How can we understand the lives of enslaved women—the choices they made, the actions they undertook, particularly as they relate to sexuality? What vocabularies can we use to describe the ways that enslaved women acted in their contexts?

MF: I’m not sure I have a succinct answer or appropriate vocabulary to resolve the problematic of agency as a category. Rather I wanted to explain how it has been conceptualized within a certain liberal humanist frame (“free will”) and equated with resistance and that doesn’t necessarily map onto the experiences of the enslaved.  Again, going back to the issue of complexity, the historiography of slavery had been influenced by the political project of telling heroic (and often masculinist) narratives of resistance and triumph and that is not what I encountered in the archives of British Caribbean slavery.  Instead I had to understand the dynamics of power between freed and enslaved people and how sexualized slavery in the form of prostitution did not usually allow enslaved women freedom and mobility.  Moreover, this work forced me to rethink “freedom” as a category in Caribbean slave societies when life for freed people could be restricted, confining, and violent.  Perhaps the “empirical” material I found forced me to challenge the frame of agency/resistance and to think about how the enslaved acted in their particular circumstances and within the ever present restraints and conditions of slavery.

Two Barbadians in 1865 (Credit Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)
Two Barbadians in 1865 (Credit Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

EO: As the book launches out in the world, what are the pieces you hope will most fully land with readers? And, what is your unfinished business with this project? What do you imagine or hope other scholars will pick up and run with?

MF: As far as unfinished business with this project, I feel that the previous question still remains a topic of interest for me.  One of the enduring questions the book grapples with is about enslaved gender.  I was thinking through the concept in reference to Hortense Spillers’s essay Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book (1987).  Does gender in eighteenth-century slave societies mean the same thing for enslaved and white women?  If female/feminized gender in this context means domesticity, motherhood, protection—even if these things weren’t applicable to all white women—do enslaved women fit into this schematic?  I remain interested in gender configurations in the context of slavery as I move onto new projects.

I hope that the methods I employ in this book can be utilized more broadly to historicize invisible or subaltern subjects across different fields. Specifically, to the study of slavery, I hope I’ve offered methodological examples of how to reveal the complexities of enslaved women’s experiences, Caribbean slavery in general, and how we might honor these lives by the manner in which we write about them.

Emily Owens is an Assistant Professor of History and Faculty Fellow at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University in African American Studies. Her research focuses on the history of sexual labor and sexual violence in slavery. Follow her on Twitter @eao_phd.

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