Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic WorldUniversity of Pennsylvania Press Early American Studies
The story of freedom pivots on the choices black women made to retain control over their bodies and selves, their loved ones, and their futures.
The story of freedom and all of its ambiguities begins with intimate acts steeped in power. It is shaped by the peculiar oppressions faced by African women and women of African descent. And it pivots on the self-conscious choices black women made to retain control over their bodies and selves, their loved ones, and their futures. Slavery's rise in the Americas was institutional, carnal, and reproductive. The intimacy of bondage whet the appetites of slaveowners, traders, and colonial officials with fantasies of domination that trickled into every social relationship—husband and wife, sovereign and subject, master and laborer. Intimacy—corporeal, carnal, quotidian—tied slaves to slaveowners, women of African descent and their children to European and African men. In Wicked Flesh, Jessica Marie Johnson explores the nature of these complicated intimate and kinship ties and how they were used by black women to construct freedom in the Atlantic world.
Johnson draws on archival documents scattered in institutions across three continents, written in multiple languages and largely from the perspective of colonial officials and slave-owning men, to recreate black women's experiences from coastal Senegal to French Saint-Domingue to Spanish Cuba to the swampy outposts of the Gulf Coast. Centering New Orleans as the quintessential site for investigating black women's practices of freedom in the Atlantic world, Wicked Flesh argues that African women and women of African descent endowed free status with meaning through active, aggressive, and sometimes unsuccessful intimate and kinship practices. Their stories, in both their successes and their failures, outline a practice of freedom that laid the groundwork for the emancipation struggles of the nineteenth century and reshaped the New World.
"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."—H-Soz-Kolt
"Wicked Flesh focuses on a practice that has defined Black womanhood for centuries: the way that Black women have created alternative forms of kinship and structured intimacy as a practice of freedom, in opposition to white-supremacist narratives about our inherent wickedness . . . Johnson's work is an archival tour de force. The book incorporates the French and Spanish colonial paper trail of Louisiana's tumultuous 18th century (first under French rule, then Spanish, then French again). The book ends with the dawn of US rule."—Public Books
"Johnson pushes readers to expand their thinking surrounding the lived experiences of free women of African descent in the French Atlantic during the long eighteenth century...[A]n impressive work. Wicked Flesh is a welcome and much-needed addition to numerous fields of scholarship, including the French Atlantic, the African diaspora, Black women’s history,and comparative history. The study is as revelatory as it is impressive in its scope, analysis, and historical detective work. "—H-SAWH
"Wicked Flesh is a powerful book that will set the standard for studies of gender and slavery to follow. It exemplifies the generative quality of a grounded engagement of the archives of slavery through contemporary theoretical work on race and the notion of Diaspora."—Jennifer Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in the Making of New World Slavery
"Jessica Marie Johnson has an original, bold historical imagination, a gift for excavating and exploiting fragmentary archival material, and a beautiful, poetic writing style. Both her argument and her theoretical approach are important and timely."—Emily Clark, author of The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World
"With its deep archival research and compelling analysis, Wicked Flesh paints fascinating portraits of individual women and their efforts to practice freedom and firmly situates New Orleans within the larger French Atlantic world."—Jennifer Spear, author of Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans
- Honorable mention for the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, granted by the Organization of American Historians
- Honorable Mention for the Barbara Christian Literary Prize, granted by the Caribbean Studies Association
- Honorable Mention for the Mary Alice and Philip Boucher Book Prize, granted by the French Colonial Historical Society
- Finalist for the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, granted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, and the MacMillan Center at Yale University
- Finalist for the Pauli Murray Book Prize in Black Intellectual History, granted by the African American Intellectual History Society
- Winner of the Rosalyn Terborg-Penn Book Prize for Outstanding Original Scholarship on Gender and Sexuality in the African Diaspora, granted by the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora
- Winner of the Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley prize for the best book in southern history, granted by the Southern Historical Association
- Winner of the 2020 Kemper and Leila Williams Prize for Louisiana History, granted by The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana Historical Association
- Winner of the Lora Romero First Book Prize, granted by the American Studies Association
- Winner of the Wesley-Logan Prize in African diaspora history granted by the American Historical Association