Even as more scholars of color engage with the livelihoods of those not rich, white, or male, the way Black people, especially Black women, are presented and represented in historical scholarship remains stiff. To even seek out the accounts and narratives of Black women during the Atlantic period still belies the face of conventional historiography. Jessica Marie Johnson breathes new life into Black Atlantic scholarship through her focus on Black women and the lives they created via intimate relationships and kinship connections. With intimacy and kinship as her guiding star, Johnson exposes a busy social world and elaborate practice that Black women engaged in and cultivated for their self-interest and protection in a changing world. The Black women Johnson centers wanted to survive the new social economics they found themselves in, capitalize on it, and thrive where possible, even if it meant subjecting others to the same systems they sought to escape. These women were complicated creations and creators of their time, and Johnson allows them to be with no expectations of Black women to be the saviors and heroes of their community.
Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World was a practice of scholarly love. Johnson deliberately chooses to engage in the livelihoods of the Black women she encounters with respect and attention. At the end of her work, she states, “It is from these deeps, deeper than exceptional names and silent registers, that black women remember their mothers, daughters, godmothers, and aunts. Black communities remember each other, in family whispers, at altars, and at communion. Historians, bound by archives, may scrape dusty folios for sources, may question whether women and girls will appear or worry that when they do appear, they emerge as legends, myths, and motifs representing more than themselves. That is not the intellectual tradition this book was written in. Wicked Flesh was written in the tradition of ‘that event, and this memory.’ Where history becomes memory, where practice becomes ritual, where black women find life after death, black women remember black women. This book was written in that tradition, in honor of the daughters—and the Mothers—of New Orleans” (231). Johnson looks through and past what the archive can divulge about Black women and instead deeply listens and intently looks for Black women in the spaces where they left their marks and where the whispers of their stories remain.
Combing against the bias grain in a diverse range of archival material, Johnson traces the development, experiences, and changes within the newly created role and function of Black womanhood from the Senegambia Coast to New Orleans. It is essential to mention the geographic boundaries of the work as this text does not contain the stories or experiences of all the different ethnic groups and localities of African women and women of African descent who experienced the Atlantic world. To fully grasp the vast diversity of Black life and possibilities in the Atlantic world, it is crucial to understand the different lifestyles available to Black people based on geography, gender, age, skin color, period, and imperial colonizer. The worlds African women could create in New Orleans differ significantly from those made by African women in New York or Jamaica in the same period. The focus on the Senegambia Coast, Saint-Domingue, Cuba, and New Orleans, therefore, points to the double-edged sword of the privilege and possibility of outlining Black life, even at the edges of the archive, in the 15-19th centuries. Johnson’s ability to highlight and trace women’s lives on the Senegambia Coast in such detail is a testament to her skills as a historian. It is also due to African women’s actions that bound their lives and economies with those of powerful and influential white people, primarily men. Elite African women’s proximity to whiteness and centers of white capital, along with their acceptance and utility to whiteness, helps to locate them even as they lie at the edges of the archive.
Through a redefined practice of intimacy and kinship, Johnson focuses on one of the ways that African women navigated a new social economy that leveraged hierarchy based on skin color, lineage, legal pathways to freedom, and geographic spaces. As Johnson and many scholars of the Atlantic note, the solidification of racial slavery and a capitalist, white supremacist social order demanded a new logic and social mathematics. Skin color became a defining and easily visible method of delineating between free and slave status, but it was not absolute. African people utilized a variety of avenues before them to construct alternate realities from the ones of manual labor that Europeans imagined for them. Practicing modes of “personhood” – a now racially and legally commodified state – as an African person was complex, and African women had fewer and different tools at their disposal than African men. Johnson does a fantastic job illuminating the other worlds African women constructed for themselves against relenting opposition from the white supremacist social order that sought to strip their autonomy and reduce them to emotionless and mindless objects of physical labor. The opportunity for some African women to practice more significant independence in choosing aspects and pieces of their lives, spaces, feelings, and emotional expression tells of the new world that Black women across the Atlantic World were creating in a burgeoning and static social order. Johnson’s book also does a great job of conceptualizing the Atlantic World as pliable, especially in New Orleans and the Senegambia Coast. The imperial powers change during the periodic scope of the text from French to Spanish to American, each political shift changing structural rules around manumission and possibilities of freedoms. Johnson positions African women as continuously working with and against macro and micro situations that arise in a white supremacist, capitalist social order to keep themselves, their interests, and their kin safe. The precarity of slavery and the fickle nature behind power built from intimate connections with white men and white people left African women ready to constantly reinvent and renovate even as they strove to create stability and lineage.
Nevertheless, one of the bravest acts Johnson displays in the text is honesty and insight into the violence Black women enacted on each other and members of their community in their individual or familial quest for progress and security. Even as Black women worked together to create new spaces of freedom, they also utilized the violence of the social order to their benefit. Women enslaved other individuals and engaged in the logic of the dehumanizing practice and order even as they were oppressed and sought freedom. “Perine willingly invoked the sistema de castas, purity of blood, fears of amalgamation, and natural science in her defense. Her actions redefined her network of kinship by excluding María Teresa and the three children from it. By calling on three surgeons, a novel and striking maneuver, she also circumvented Iberian and French Atlantic inheritance practices that emphasized myriad forms of legitimacy, offers of financial support, and community witnesses. Instead, she endeavored to build a paternity claim rooted in nature, reproduction, biology, and racial heredity. This construction of kinship, entirely modern and hyperrationalized, relied on corporeality, examination, observation, and science” (213). Perine and María Teresa were free women of color. However, they entered the judicial arena from different classes and social positions stemming from their intimate connections with white and free men of color. Perine’s social and economic status gave her the upper hand in the appeals she could mount against María Teresa and the resources she could call upon to defend her chosen narrative. The fluidity of the Atlantic world, which resulted from the new social economy, allowed Perine to employ poisonous instruments that could, in another context, entrap her as a weapon against María Teresa.
The women Johnson shed light on were incredibly complex and faced difficult decisions when they had the space for choices. They were neither heroes nor villains but complicated entities manipulating the options before them. They are more than the descriptors of their time: Black, woman, slave. They were full humans who, despite the immensely oppressive nature of their reality, orchestrated small worlds and freedoms for themselves as all humans do. By focusing on intimacy and kinship, fundamental survival tools in any society, Johnson convincingly locates the voice and choices of these women whenever they appear. She showcases that African women were constantly reacting and reinventing, contrary to the myth of the docile and domestic African woman slave.