Women and Emancipation: An Interview with Erica Ball, Tatiana Seijas, and Terri Snyder

In today’s post, senior editor Tyler D. Parry interviews Erica L. Ball, Tatiana Seijas, and Terri L. Snyder on their new edited volume, As if She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas (Cambridge University Press, 2021). This collection provides biographical examinations of some two dozen women of African descent who engaged in emancipatory actions throughout the Americas. As if She Were Free is a wide-ranging work that “articulates a new feminist history of freedom.”

Erica L. Ball is a cultural historian specializing in nineteenth and early twentieth-century African American history. She is Professor of History and Black Studies at Occidental College, and is the author of To Live and Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class (University of Georgia Press, 2012). Tatiana Seijas is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University who researches the “everyday experiences of people born without the privileges of power.” In 2014 she authored Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians, published by Cambridge University Press.  Terri L. Snyder is Professor of American Studies who researches the history of gender, race, and the law in British North America and the memory of slavery in the modern U.S. Her most recent single-authored book is The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Tyler D. Parry: As if She Were Free examines the biographies of “24 women of African descent.” What was the process through which these particular women were selected? What was unique about their lives?

Erica L. Ball, Tatiana Seijas, and Terri L. Snyder: Our project was a woman-centered initiative. As editors we had conversations with women historians whose work we admire—like-minded scholars working on the history of freedom and slavery across the Americas. The historians who came on board had our same commitment to reconstruct the lives of individual women. Some of the authors quickly named the woman they wanted to write about, while others went back to their archives to identify what documentation they had that would permit then to write about a woman’s life. So, we chose the authors, and the authors chose their subjects—each picked a woman that sparked their imagination. The uniqueness of each of the lives of these twenty-four women depended on their context and individuality—and again, it was up to our brilliant authors to identify what aspect of their subjects’ lives to focus on to tell a story about freedom.

From the beginning, we saw that taking a broad hemispheric and deep temporal approach had the most potential for making a significant intervention in the historiography. Rather than focusing on one nation, time, or region, we wanted the book to offer a transimperial, transnational, gendered history of slavery and emancipation in the Americas. No other book attempts this hemispheric, comparative approach regarding Black women and emancipation.

We were also committed to a radically collaborative process. Early on we gave each contributor five questions to address in their chapters, and so despite the chronological and geographic differences, these gave the volume coherence and unity. We also gathered with authors at conferences, reviewed several drafts of each chapter, and had fairly extensive conversations with each author to discuss potential changes.

We call As If She Were Free a “collective biography” of women of African descent across the hemisphere from the sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Although we weren’t thinking of this when we first began working on this project, the collective biography form is a traditional structure for collecting and publishing the stories of notable women. Hallie Quinn Brown’s Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (1926), for example, is an excellent example of this form of Black women’s history.

The chapters in As If She Were Free are all based on original archival scholarship, and each one tells the story of an individual woman who sought, imagined, or fought for freedom from slavery and the racism left in slavery’s wake. A few of these women, such as Elizabeth Key, Paula de Eguiluz, Maria Firmina dos Reis, or Mary Ellen Pleasant will be familiar to specialists. But the majority of the women included in As If She Were Free are women who are largely unknown to scholars. The “collective” in the biography reflects our hope that the stories of these women will be read as a group—a unified picture of women of African descent struggling for freedom in the Americas.

Both the individual and collective stories in our volume are unique because these are women of African descent who can be located in the archive. Some of these women were distinctive insofar as they filed lawsuits, published novels and poetry, and led rebellions. For others, claiming freedom was much less dramatic in the larger sense, but their actions reflect the myriad of ways that women imagined, envisioned, and enacted their freedom for themselves as well as for their families and communities. As we see it, their individual experiences reflect the shared experiences of so many women of African descent across the centuries. Taken together, they form a collective biography.

Parry: In the book, I noticed a stated goal was to “understand the history of claiming freedom from women’s perspectives.” Can you expound on this approach?

Ball, Seijas, and Snyder: Rather than simply defining emancipation as a legal status that was conferred by those in authority and framing women as passive recipients of emancipation, As if She Were Free demonstrates that women were agents of emancipation, claiming free status in the courts, fighting for liberty, and defining and experiencing freedom in a surprising range of ways. For them, freedom was far more than the simple absence of slavery or the ability to own land and participate in the political process.

When we considered the stories of all twenty-four subjects, even across the vast expanse of the American hemisphere and across centuries, we saw three, very gendered, continuities in claiming freedom.  As we know, women had a distinctive relationship to freedom because slavery as a legal status was literally lodged in women’s bodies, as defined by law throughout the American hemisphere. This fact shaped their emancipatory actions. As several of our authors show, maternal genealogy was an avenue of claiming freedom for future generations. We also argue the need to gender the idea of freedom. Traditionally, freedom is defined as an idea that emerged in the so-called revolutionary Atlantic and equated with control over labor, property ownership, and the privileges and obligations of citizenship—all understood to be the province of elite men. In contrast, our book looks at how women expressed or claimed freedom through defending themselves, protecting their families, and creating and sustaining communities and networks.  In doing so, we argue, women of African and Indigenous descent reconfigured what it meant to be part of a social contract.

We know a lot about how men perceived freedom because many of them had a chance to write down their thoughts on the subject—that’s less the case for women. The emphasis on men’s perspectives is also a legacy of the longstanding tendency to focus on famous male abolitionists. We wanted, by contrast, to reconstruct the perspectives of women who did not get a book audience, but who did speak in courts and express themselves and theorize freedom in other venues. Their opinions and experiences deserve to be a central component of the history of freedom and slavery.

As we wrote in our acknowledgments, three social movements sustained and inspired our efforts as we worked on the volume: #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and #sayhername. The stories in As If She Were Free demonstrate that sexual assault and racial violence have a long history in the Americas and so, too, does the story of women seeking emancipation and defining for themselves the parameters of their freedom. Our book honors the memory of those women who took up the struggle in the past, and it is dedicated to those women who carry it forward into the future.

Parry: Lastly, what new perspectives can readers anticipate learning after reading this volume?

Ball, Seijas, and Snyder: The new perspective is that African-descended women, starting in the sixteenth and through the nineteenth with the end of legal slavery, thought about and sought out freedom for themselves and their families. It was a constant—a reaching towards human dignity that united women of African descent across the hemisphere. It was a fight, and for those who still think that abolition and freedom-seeking started in the late eighteenth century, well, they’re wrong. The lives of these twenty-four women, along with hundreds of thousands of others, show that people sought to be free wherever there was slavery.

By showing how women acted as agents of emancipation, the volume offers a new history of freedom and emancipation, as well as a new conceptualization of the longue durée of antislavery activism. The laws of men excluded women from the full privileges and obligations of citizenship until the twentieth century, so women articulated and embodied freedoms beyond conventional legal and political constraints that empowered them in alternative ways.

The stories of the women in each of the chapters were always surprising, and each of them is so distinctive. Yet, after completing the book, we no longer think of these women as atypical or extraordinary. What is remarkable about these women, of course, is that fragments of their stories survive in the archives. We know that many women with African, Asian, and Indigenous ancestry struggled for emancipation, but their stories are lost to us, or haven’t yet been found. We hope our book will inspire others to dig deeper for these kinds of histories.

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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.