Wicked Flesh. Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World

Johnson, Jessica Marie
Early American Studies
360 S.
€ 33,80
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Naima Moiasse Maungue, Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Black women’s histories in the Atlantic World have been overlooked for a long time. In recent years, however, interest has sparked.[1]Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World brilliantly contributes to this research. It explores Black women’s histories and how they formed freedom through intimacy and kinship ties. The book focuses mostly on the eighteenth century, against the backdrop of rapid imperial expansionism in the Atlantic World, which commodified ever more Black bodies with the advent of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The book maps Black women’s histories from Senegambia in West Africa, over the Atlantic, through the Caribbean, to Louisiana in North America. Jessica Marie Johnson argues that Black women played a key role in the making and unmaking of the Atlantic World. They had agency in creating their identities and their freedom, showcasing new ways of understanding freedom and intimacy. It acknowledges that Black womanhood is not a monolith, but rather shows the many complexities of their identities. Writing Black women’s histories does not come easily, as they often exist only on the margins of official records. However, the author manages creatively to combine images, archive material and a myriad of sources to form a compelling six-chapter monograph. As a result, despite their archival silence, biographies come to life, foregrounding the many lives of Black women in the Atlantic World of the eighteenth century.

The first and second chapters follow Black women in Senegambia, exploring how they circumvented the rapid changes occurring in their lives. In the late sixteenth century, the French had set up their Trading Company along the Senegambian Coast, hoping to secure a position in the intra- and early inter-continental commodity trade. Trading forts were built that soon attracted a myriad of different people eager to explore new trading opportunities. Around the forts, comptoirs formed — city-like arrangements of housing, loosely controlled by the Trading Company. Black women who lived there created intimate industries of hospitality practices to gain social and financial capital. This often meant expanding one’s intimate and kinship ties, through strategic marriages, inheritances, and baptisms. With the French presence on the Coast established, imperial powers contested this Atlantic space. Three African states, the Wolof kingdom of Kajoor, Bawol, and Walo, claimed jurisdiction of the area. Achieving security — a status not challenged by the threat of bondage — becomes a central theme in the lives of Black women throughout the book. For high-status women, security often came at the expense of others, as obtaining slaves, many of them women, was also a way to secure social standing. “African women’s ownership of domestic slaves […] expressed its own character of dominance and violence” (p. 73). Pointing at this, the author shows the complexities of Black women’s lived experience and the cruelty of the Atlantic World, where the threat of bondage was ever-present.

The status of free and unfree started to become increasingly blurred as French company officials tried to institutionalize sexual and racial differences. This is even further explored in the third chapter, which follows Black women through the Middle Passage over the Atlantic to the Americas. Johnson describes the Middle Passage, or la traverse, as an “unmaking process” that transformed enslaved people into commodities, using sex, size, and age (p. 78).[2] Focusing on Black women reveals a broader picture of the Middle Passage, including acts of resistance, terror, forced migration, kinship, and agency. Revolts and mutinies were not uncommon, many of them coming from or being facilitated by women. Drowning and mass suicide, choosing one’s fate, became a strategy of survival, given that many Africans believed in a very vivid afterlife. La traverse took Black women to Louisiana where they played a key role in the shaping of the then French colony. For the French, free people of African descent coming to Louisiana posed a threat. Laws were set in place to regulate them, among them a law which presumed slavery to follow the mother, punishing intimate relations between free men and enslaved women. In Louisiana the threat of war was imminent; different Native peoples claimed jurisdiction over Louisiana, their collaboration with the French only temporary. This put enslaved African people in an even more unsafe position. They were traded among the French and the different Native American peoples. The Natchez Revolt in November 1729 shows how the horrors and uncertainties of the Middle Passage continued in a so-called “Long Middle Passage” (p. 106). It left enslaved African people vulnerable to fight in the frontlines of war, or for Black women to be exposed to the threat of it.

La traverse took people of African descent to a highly racialized and gendered new world. New categories of race, gender, free, and unfree were set in place and forced upon them. Unfree became increasingly equated to Blackness, which itself manifested as a new racial category, meaning ‘lesser than’. Black women did not let these categories define their womanhood. This is explored in the fourth and fifth chapters. The Code Noir promulgated in 1685 was a set of laws which institutionalized slavery and regulated how free status could be achieved. From 1724, the Louisiana Code Noir required permission of the Superior Council for manumission, making it more difficult for slaves to obtain freedom. Johnson challenges the stereotype of Black women securing freedom through relations with white men, showing how they gained it through refusal, kinship practices, creating networks of aid, forming communities, and gathering spaces, which were free of the terrors of slavery. They created their own categories of freedom. Black women also used the Code Noir to obtain or maintain their freedom, using laws defined to control them to their advantage. Freedom in the Atlantic World did not mean safety from slavery, as re-enslavement was common. Therefore, securing freedom was necessary for all free Black people. In chapter five the author refers to “black femme freedom”, defying what womanhood means in a multilingual and multicultural world of slaves, and contesting the hyper-sexualization of Black women through the male gaze and the “over-expression of hetero-sexual desire” (p. 174). “Femme” is a word used by Black feminists to define a resistive femininity rooted in a Black and queer gendered performance, and sexual identity (see p. 174). Applying this term, Johnson again centers on Black women’s agency in constructing their own identities and their acts of resistance, in this highly racial and gendered world. As Johnson throughout the book already hints at a queer femininity beyond sexual desire, the term could have already been used in the Introduction, making an even stronger case for Black women’s agency in creating their own categories of race and gender, which in the Atlantic World always had to be resistive.

In 1762 the French transferred jurisdiction of Louisiana to Spain. This change of regime also brought with it a new Code of laws for the lives of people of African descent. How these changes were navigated by Black women is explored in the sixth chapter. Spain, with its massive Caribbean and South American seaborne empire, already had working laws from their colonies set in place for slaves. Among these laws was a new way of conducting manumissions, a coartación — an act of formal self-purchase. It enabled slaves to bypass slaveowner authority in accessing manumissions. It came along with new categories of race, with the sistema de castas dividing the population into six different categories of race, ranging from white to Black. These changes brought new prospects for slaves. Johnson shows how free and unfree women and men of African descent made use of the laws and forged new economies, as work became a means to freedom. Inheritance and manumissions by will also became new possibilities for Black women. Free people of color often used their will to free slaves, exposing kinship ties.

The book concludes with the new challenges that the nineteenth century posed. The Haitian Revolution in 1791 reshaped the Atlantic World; in 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated the return of Louisiana to the French; in 1803 he sold it to the newly formed United States; and in 1807 the British passed a law banning the slave trade — even though formal slavery was not abolished until decades later. As a port city, New Orleans was heavily influenced by these changes as war refugees, new slaves, and other people arrived at the ports. Johnson concludes that Black women continued to cope with these transformations, exploiting the system set to control them and creating freedoms of their own, for generations to come.

Wicked Flesh is a long overdue, marvelous account of the complexities of Black women’s lives in the Atlantic World. This compelling history shows the importance of Black femmes in the making and unmaking of the Atlantic World, creating changes that last until this day.

[1] See Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, Baton Rouge 1995; Cécile Vidal, Caribbean New Orleans: Empire, Race, and the Making of a Slave Society, Chapel Hill 2019; Emily Clark / Ibrahima Thioub / Cécile Vidal (eds.), New Orleans, Louisiana, and Saint-Louis, Senegal: Mirror Cities in the Atlantic World, 1695–2000s, Baton Rouge 2019.
[2] As also argued in: Sowande M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, Urbana 2016.

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