Reviews

Review: Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, Jessica Marie Johnson (2020)

Written by Jamie Gemmell. Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson's 2020 book explores the lives of black women in colonial Louisiana. Beginning in West Africa and moving through colonial rule to the formation of the USA to produce a history of the Atlantic world.

The only ‘femme-presenting figure with African features’ depicted across New Orleans’ statuary is that of a woman dancing. Her movements – displayed via her flowing skirt, raised leg, and outstretched arm – flow in time to men playing drums, and she smiles, taking joy in this moment of self-expression. This statue, standing in Congo Square, embodies many of the arguments Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson makes in her book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. Referred to in the final pages of the book, the statue – through her dancing – reveals the long history of black women and, in her singularity, alerts us to the ongoing side-lining of these women’s lives. Johnson draws these two histories together, creating a study that crosses oceans, breaks down imperial boundaries, and draws upon theoretical frameworks beyond the discipline of history. This is an ambitious and wide-ranging account, and essential reading for anyone trying to get to grips with the Atlantic World and the roles of black women within it.

Structurally, the book moves through space and time. The early chapters begin in the West African region of Senegambia before shifting to colonial Louisiana, under first French, then subsequently Spanish, colonial rule. African women and women of African descent are the beating heart of this history as Johnson charts the ways in which they developed and practiced a ‘murky, messy, and contingent freedom.’ This is a text that participates in a wider historiographical shift that has untethered freedom from its Eurocentric roots. Perhaps best exemplified by As If She Were Free, a recently published collective biography of women and emancipation in the Americas, edited by Erica Ball, Tatiana Seijas, and Terri Snyder, freedom in the Atlantic World is tied to the ideas, experiences, and actions of African people and people of African descent. Johnson’s work demands the problematisation of ‘free status’, and an attendance to the ‘intimate and kinship practices’ developed by African women and women of African descent.

One part of this approach is Atlantic in scale, with Johnson fully integrating Senegambia, and the women living there, into her history of colonial Louisiana. The so-called comptoirs (administrative outposts) of Saint-Louis, on the island of N’dar at the mouth of the Senegal River, and Gorée, on the island of Ber off the Cap Vert Peninsula, take centre stage here. In these spaces, claims Johnson, Europeans had little power and remained dependent on African people for trade. African women facilitated this trade through an ‘industry of hospitality’, in part dependent on enslaved people, and entered relationships with European men, described as marriage á la mode du pays (marriage of this country). Positioned by the writer as ‘Atlantic Creoles’, an idea Johnson draws from Ira Berlin, these women used various Atlantic and West African networks to carve out a degree of autonomy.

It is from this Atlantic African foundation that Johnson crosses the ocean via the extraordinary story of Marie Baude. In 1728, Baude ended up as a passenger on the French slave ship La Galathée, following her husband Jean Pinet to Louisiana where he had been deported following the murder of Pierre LeGrain, a ‘mulâtre sailor’. Baude’s crossing helps Johnson to tie together the lives of African women and women of African descent in Senegambia and Louisiana. This forms part of a wider historiographical project, partially indebted to earlier work by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Michael Gomez, and John Thornton, that firmly establishes the importance of Africa and African people to the formation of the Atlantic World and societies across the Americas. Johnson, in locating specific individuals, dynamically navigates from the macro to the micro and back again, making broader arguments about the nature of Atlantic connections without losing sight of the lived experiences of the people involved, particularly African women and women of African descent.

Johnson’s discussion of the Middle Passage, or La Traversée, is one point where she puts other theoretical frameworks to work. Here, she relies on Hortense Spillers’ notion of ‘ungender[ing]’, or, in Johnson’s words, the processes by which enslavers ‘rejected the human metrics that gender required’. Enslaved people were reduced to ‘flesh’, ground into approximations of what or who constituted a pièce d’Inde (literally, a piece of the Indies). This is an intersectional analysis that accounts for the ways in which commodification both lacerated and created genders. It is a recognition of the ways in which African women and women of African descent were reduced to their utility as labourers and targeted for ‘particular and peculiar gendered violence.’ With this framing of La Traversée in mind, Johnson, following Sowande’ Mustakeem, charts the ‘long Middle Passage’. She uses the experiences of African people and people of African descent during the ‘Natchez Revolt’ (a conflict between the indigenous Natchez nation and French colonists) to argue that the precarity and commodification of slaving continued beyond the Atlantic passage as enslaved people were captured, traded, and sold up the Mississippi River.

The next chapter focuses on the French colonisation of the Gulf Coast. Here, Johnson adeptly weaves together archival practices and ideas from Black Digital Humanities to locate and draw out the experiences of African women and women of African descent. To narrate the lives of women like Suzanne, an enslaved woman who settled on a plot of land with her husband, Louis Congo, Marisa Fuentes’ notion of ‘reading along the bias grain’ is used. This is a methodology influenced by the tailoring practice of cutting fabric at an angle to increase elasticity. Johnson stretches the archive to accentuate the presence of Suzanne, revealing the problem of ‘black female freedom’ in the French colonial project. Congo gained a degree of freedom through his work as an executioner and was granted ‘full use of’ Suzanne. Her partial autonomy reveals the ways in which the French colonial state required African women and women of African descent to ‘remain commodified, consumed, and consumable.’

Johnson combines Fuentes’ archival practice with the ‘null value’. This is a term derived from SQL, a coding language used to manage relational databases. Johnson, drawing on her work in the Black Digital Humanities, uses this to make more comprehensive sense of census records, which rarely recorded figures for free African people and people of African descent, and did not even distinguish between men and women until 1737. This absence was part of a broader project that sought to create a ‘database of hierarchical, legible, interrelated subjects in service to the Crown.’ Unaccounted for in an archive that seems determined to ensnare individuals in colonial subject positions, free African women and women of African descent and their freedom practices fall through the cracks. The introduction of these ‘null values’ form part of uncovering the ‘unacknowledged black life’ that was central to the formation and development of New Orleans.

With this analysis of the laceration of gender during la traversée and conceptualisation of the ‘null value’, Johnson lays the groundwork for a detailed discussion of African women’s and women of African descent’s freedom practices or, as she terms it, ‘black femme freedom’. Again, this is an idea influenced by other disciplines, in this case Queer Studies. Relying on the scholarship of Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Kaila Adia Story, and Kara Keeling, among others, Johnson describes black femme freedom as the ‘actions, expressions, and excretions that moved beyond the fractional flesh of la traversée and the container of the manumission act.’ It is, in Story’s words, a ‘resistive femininity’ that African women and women of African descent developed in their freedom practices. From Mama Comba and Louison’s community dinners, to women adorning themselves with flowers, Johnson fleshes out ‘black women’s performance of womanhood and femininity.’ This is a freedom beyond the confines of colonial law, one that ‘was excessive and fugitive’.

In many respects, Johnson’s work on colonial Louisiana through the eighteenth century can be seen as accounting for the presence and contribution of black women over the longue durée. By drawing on ‘black femme freedom’ she traces a genealogy of black womanhood, locating examples of it in the freedom practices of African women and women of African descent arriving in a settlement that would become New Orleans. For Johnson, these women were crucially important predecessors of the emancipation struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At times, the conceptual ideas drawn from other disciplines that Johnson uses to narrate this history could do with more space to breath. This is not an easy text and requires a careful and thoughtful reading, especially for those historians ill-versed in the theoretical frameworks Johnson uses.

In part, this reflects one of Johnson’s essential contributions. She makes it clear that historians must work across disciplines to write histories of Atlantic Slavery and the African Diaspora. Her history puts many different theoretical frameworks to work, whether that’s Spiller’s ideas about gender construction or Story’s articulation of black femme freedom. In deploying these frameworks, she not only uses them to understand women’s lives during the eighteenth century, but charts a genealogy of the ideas themselves. The result is a beautifully written history that historicises contemporary black womanhood through the lives and experiences of the African women and women of African descent who first disembarked on the banks of the Mississippi in the early eighteenth century.   

Written by Jamie Gemmell  

Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Her book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, was published in 2020 by University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bibliography

Berlin, Ira. ‘From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America.’ The William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1996): 251-288.

Fuentes, Marisa. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Philadelphia: PENN University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. ‘Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World.’ Interview by Adam McNeil. New Books Network, August 28, 2020. Audio: 98:00. https://newbooksnetwork.com/jessica-marie-johnson-wicked-flesh-black-women-intimacy-and-freedom-in-the-atlantic-world-u-pennsylvania-press-2020#:~:text=In%20Wicked%20Flesh%3A%20Black%20Women,freedom%20in%20the%20Atlantic%20world.   

Mustakeem, Sowande’. Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Spillers, Hortense. ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.’ Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64-81.

Image: “Congo Square – New Orleans, LA.” (Metro2, 2015).

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