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. But many of these essays complicate this narrative further. For example, Ileana RodriguezSilva examines this process in her case study on Puerto Rico, arguing that parental roles were gendered in such a way that single fathers were most likely to raise older children who could work, while younger children were invariably raised by women thereby adding to their labor burden (p. 215). As Bridget Brereton points out in her study of the shift to wage labor in the British Caribbean, the period of amelioration of slavery prior to emancipation specifically focused on extending rights of motherhood and childrearing to slave women. But in the aftermath of emancipation, these rights were actually withdrawn as plantation owners fought to extract field labor from freed women (p. 144). Michael Zeuske analyzes notarial records in Cuba to show how wills written by freed people helped stabilize family relations through the inheritance of property by their children who gained a legal identity as kin and heirs (p. 187). In her study of Barbados, Melanie Newton examines philanthropic efforts in the period of slave amelioration, the founding of charity schools that challenged existing social hierarchies by having both slave and free pupils and teachers of color. These schools were vehemently opposed predictably by some of the white Barbadian elite who countered with their own charitable education societies. Nevertheless the charity schools provided an avenue of upward social mobility and respectability for free men and women of color who participated in the public sphere as teachers and charitable patrons (p. 230-33). Philanthropy became one of the gendered spheres of struggle over respectability for both white planter elites and free people of color.
In the only chapter of the book that focuses on a single individual, Marek Steedman draws on a very rare case of autobiographical narrative by a slave woman provided in a court transcription. Steedman recounts the testimony of the freed woman Eliza Pinkston in Reconstruction Louisiana and her attempts to gain justice for the crimes committed against herself and her family. Pinkston testified that she was sexually involved with her master's son "since we was little children." Her transition to maturity involved her self-realization that this relationship was wrong, and she subsequently attempted to extricate herself from this exploitation (p. 311). Finally, as a woman, she chose to marry a freed man specifically to have the legitimacy of wifehood and the physical protection of a husband in order to protect herself and her children. Tragically, this opportunity was wrested away from her by the violent murder of both her husband and their baby and her rape by known associates of her ex-lover/master, who objected both to a freedman publicly engaging in opposing political views and asserting his control over his wife and family. Steedman's account underlines how dangerous it was for freed people to assert their political and legal rights, yet unfortunately he does not provide closure for the case by informing us of the outcome of Pinkston's accusations of murder and rape.
All of the chapters discussed above show that the desire for family life was consistently part of the meaning of freedom. Yet the meaning of childhood in slavery and emancipation has not been adequately theorized by any of the authors. Children were not only central in the construction of families, but childhood itself was central to the construction of gender. The process of a boy becoming a man or a girl a woman was experienced differently under slavery and freedom and for different eras and geographical contexts. Nevertheless, it is a testament to the subtleties of these analyses that one can begin to ask these questions of the chapters as they are presented in this book.
Scully and Paton have constructed an edited collection that is a must-read for scholars of the Atlantic World, gender history, colonial studies, and comparative slavery and emancipation. The clearly written introduction and tightly edited chapters are suitable for both undergraduate and graduate students, while the bibliographic essay is a good starting point to the historiography of some of the major debates. The book offers a complex and compelling vision of the lived experiences of freed people struggling over the meanings of freedom and claims to the dignities of family life in their roles as men and women, even as they were pressured to capitulate to their continued subordination in terms of race, class, and gender.
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Publication information: Article title: Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. Contributors: Ward, Kerry - Author. Journal title: The International Journal of African Historical Studies. Volume: 40. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 1, 2007. Page number: 191+. © Boston University 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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