Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women's Lives

Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women's Lives

Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women's Lives

Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women's Lives


Through their open defiance, women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth had a significant impact on the institution of slavery. But what of the millions of other women who did not commit public or even private acts of resistance? Are their stories worthy of our attention? While some scholars imply that only the struggle for freedom was legitimate, Jenny Sharpe complicates the linear narrative -- from slavery to freedom and literacy -- that emerged from the privileging of autobiographical accounts like that of Frederick Douglass. She challenges a paradigm that equates agency with resistance and self-determination, and introduces new ways to examine negotiations for power within the constraints of slavery.

In Ghosts of Slavery, Sharpe introduces a wider range of everyday practices by examining the lives of three distinctive Caribbean women: a maroon leader, a mulatto concubine, and a fugitive slave. Through them she explains how the diasporic experience of slavery enabled black women to claim an authority that they didn't possess in Africa; how concubines empowered themselves through their mimicry of white women; and how less-privileged slave women manipulated situations that they were powerless to change. Finding the highly mediated portrayal of slave women in the historical records limited and sometimes misleading, Sharpe turns to unconventional sources for investigating these women's lives. In this fascinating and historically rich account, she calls for new strategies of reading that question traditional narratives of history, and she finds alternative ways to integrate oral storytelling, slave songs, travel writing, court documents, proslavery literature, and contemporaryliterature into black history.

Ultimately, this layered approach not only produces a more complex picture of the slave women's agency than conventional readings, it encourages a more nuanced understanding of the roles of slaves


This study begins with Nanny because she is emblematic of slave women's resistance to slavery (see, for instance, Mathurin 1975). By beginning with Nanny, however, we are confronted with a paradox. As the leader of a group of rebellious maroons, she is the most prominent of the three women in this study, but she is also the most invisible in the archives. Her name appears but three times in the official records on the first Jamaican maroon war and once more on a patent assigning a parcel of land. Even then, we cannot establish with any certainty if the woman mentioned on the land deed was the maroon leader. Nanny's exploits are well documented in maroon oral histories, but these stories did not endow her with a historical reality prior to Jamaican independence. As a woman leader whose memory was preserved in oral form alone, she was relegated to the fictitious world of folklore. As historian Lucille Mathurin Mair remarks, “for as long as [she] can remember, she [Nanny] has been in the Jamaican consciousness but without acquiring solid flesh and blood” (52–53). Today Nanny appears in more fiction, plays, and poems than any other Afro- Caribbean woman who lived during the era of slavery. There are even drawings based on maroon descriptions of her. To consider Nanny as a historical agent, then, is to test the limits of what we traditionally consider to be history. In this regard, beginning with her serves another purpose—to open up the kinds of texts that form the basis for writing about the everyday lives of women slaves.

I am interested in the stories that circulate around the figure of Nanny. Who tells them? How are they told, and which ones do not get . . .

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