Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World

By Ward, Kerry | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World


Ward, Kerry, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. Edited by Pamela Scully and Diana Paton. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 376; 2 maps. $84.95 cloth, $23.95 paper.

From the moment readers pick up Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World, they are introduced to some of its main themes. The visually striking cover illustration and design are perfectly appropriate for the editors' major premises that "gender was central to slave emancipation and to the making of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world" (p. 1) and thaf'lgjender both helped construct and was itself constructed through class and racial categories" (p. 2).

Pamela Scully and Diana Paton's introductory essay "Gender and Slave Emancipation in Comparative Perspective" therefore goes further than merely examining the gendered experiences of emancipation, exploring how gender was constructed by the social transformation wrought by the end of slavery. This perspective implies more than focusing attention on the experiences of slave women in defining their freedom. Men and women fought to define their gender roles particularly in terms of the creation of families, which further implied the struggle of men to assert their authority over women and children as heads of households. Although arguing for how a multiplicity of Atlantic Worlds decenters the American-Europe nexus is hardly new, the essays in this volume collectively show how very different historical contexts can together underscore common experiences of struggles over appropriate feminine and masculine roles, family formation, household labor practices, and participation in the public sphere. Stressing that the period of emancipation stretched over a century from the revolutionary transformation of Haiti to the much more gradual end of slavery in the French colonies in West Africa, Paton and Scully point out that there were further intermediate struggles for partial freedoms before emancipation and more struggles to define and claim the freedom promised after the official end of slavery in various colonies and states. The tensions around expectations of emancipation for state officials, slave owners, freed people, abolitionists, and missionaries all played themselves out in struggles over what were considered the rights and obligations of the men and women, categorized further by race and class, who were members of these social groups.

The collection contains the introduction by Paton and Scully, fourteen chapters, and a very useful bibliographic essay written by Paton. The editors have ordered the chapters into three thematic sections: Pan I "Men, Women, and Citizens"; Part II "Families, Land, and Labor"; and Part III "The Public Sphere in the Age of Emancipation." This choice of themes helps the reader digest the range of case studies offered and they can be read fruitfully in many different combinations. Most obviously, each chapter focuses on a specific geographical region. Seven cover the Caribbean, three the United States, and two each for Brazil and Africa. The thematic division of the chapters helps to mitigate the obvious concentration on the Caribbean. The introduction by Paton and Scullythe only comparative essay of the collection-elegantly weaves the chapters into a coherent narrative form that makes sensible the choice of placement into the broader sections.

One way to read across the sections is to examine a theme common to many of the chapters, the role of children in the process of emancipation. It is well known that slave women experienced not only sexual exploitation but also the added burden of bearing children who were slaves and therefore themselves experienced exploitation from a young age through the absence of parental care, claims to labor, and sexual abuse. The gendering of emancipation was foremost experienced through the withdrawal of women's labor as a strategy for their own and their children's protection through the reconstitution of families. …

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