Cultures and Knowledge Workshop Reading List: Sarah Jessica Johnson on "Uncertainty is the Story: Cecilia’s Pregnancy in a Colonial Prison"

April 8th, 2021

On April 12, join the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge for the first Cultures and Knowledge Workshop of the Spring Term. Professor Sarah Jessica Johnson will be discussing "Uncertainty is the Story: Cecilia’s Pregnancy in a Colonial Prison." This presentation explores how, in 1784, Cecilia Conway—a maroon woman arrested in New Orleans—asserted that she was pregnant and thereby leveraged the power of her reproductive labor. Cecilia was imprisoned at the height of a Spanish campaign against communities of cimarrones living outside New Orleans, and the prison at that time was crowded with maroons. The conversations between Cecilia and the prison's authorities that this work unearths constitute an original archive of Cecilia's assertions while accounting for their heavily-mediated and yet remarkable presence. The exchanges between officials and Cecilia noted by the men in power retain glimpses of how she navigated her capture, interrogations and multiple "medical" examinations. Cecilia's claims reject the officials' skeptical readings of her body; the record of their debate reveals that Cecilia's pregnancies posed a two-fold problem for the state: first, the penal system did not want to concede that her child was in part its own product. Second, the state's desire to inflict death upon those it viewed as conspirators clashed with the private planters' desire to increase an enslaved population marked by reproducible "social death."

About the author: Sarah Jessica Johnson's research and teaching are both concerned with seventeenth through nineteenth-century archives of slavery and marronage in the United States and Caribbean. Her book project, titled for now, Forms of Escape: Eighteenth-Century Narratives of Maroons and Marronage, considers the lives of individuals who decided go maroon, the importance of kin and chosen family in those decisions, and some of the unexpected places that maroons are located when they trigger the archive. Her translation of the short story “Bras-Coupé” was published in Transition in 2015. A reprint of this translation can be found in the volume The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé, published by Louisiana State University Press in 2019.


Following is a list of further reading on the topic of the workshop, compiled by Professor Johnson:

Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press)
Jennifer L. Morgan

When black women were brought from Africa to the New World as slave laborers, their value was determined by their ability to work as well as their potential to bear children, who by law would become the enslaved property of the mother's master. In Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan examines how African women's labor in both senses became intertwined in the English colonies. Beginning with the ideological foundations of racial slavery in early modern Europe, Laboring Women traverses the Atlantic, exploring the social and cultural lives of women in West Africa, slaveowners' expectations for reproductive labor, and women's lives as workers and mothers under colonial slavery. Challenging conventional wisdom, Morgan reveals how expectations regarding gender and reproduction were central to racial ideologies, the organization of slave labor, and the nature of slave community and resistance.


Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (University of Georgia Press)
Deirdre Cooper Owens

The accomplishments of pioneering doctors such as John Peter Mettauer, James Marion Sims, and Nathan Bozeman are well documented. It is also no secret that these nineteenth-century gynecologists performed experimental caesarean sections, ovariotomies, and obstetric fistula repairs primarily on poor and powerless women. Medical Bondage explores how and why physicians denied these women their full humanity yet valued them as "medical superbodies" highly suited for medical experimentation. Cooper Owens examines a wide range of scientific literature and less formal communications in which gynecologists created and disseminated medical fictions about their patients, such as their belief that black enslaved women could withstand pain better than white "ladies." Even as they were advancing medicine, these doctors were legitimizing, for decades to come, groundless theories related to whiteness and blackness, men and women, and the inferiority of other races or nationalities. Medical Bondage moves between southern plantations and northern urban centers to reveal how nineteenth-century American ideas about race, health, and status influenced doctor-patient relationships in sites of healing like slave cabins, medical colleges, and hospitals. It also retells the story of black enslaved women and of Irish immigrant women from the perspective of these exploited groups and thus restores for us a picture of their lives.


Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press)
Sasha Turner

It is often thought that slaveholders only began to show an interest in female slaves' reproductive health after the British government banned the importation of Africans into its West Indian colonies in 1807. However, as Sasha Turner shows in this illuminating study, for almost thirty years before the slave trade ended, Jamaican slaveholders and doctors adjusted slave women's labor, discipline, and health care to increase birth rates and ensure that infants lived to become adult workers. Although slaves' interests in healthy pregnancies and babies aligned with those of their masters, enslaved mothers, healers, family, and community members distrusted their owners' medicine and benevolence. Turner contends that the social bonds and cultural practices created around reproductive health care and childbirth challenged the economic purposes slaveholders gave to birthing and raising children. Drawing on a wide range of sources—including plantation records, abolitionist treatises, legislative documents, slave narratives, runaway advertisements, proslavery literature, and planter correspondence—Contested Bodies yields a fresh account of how the end of the slave trade changed the bodily experiences of those still enslaved in Jamaica.


No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870 (Duke University Press)
Diana Paton

Investigating the cultural, social, and political histories of punishment during ninety years surrounding the 1838 abolition of slavery in Jamaica, Diana Paton challenges standard historiographies of slavery and discipline. The abolition of slavery in Jamaica, as elsewhere, entailed the termination of slaveholders’ legal right to use violence—which they defined as “punishment”—against those they had held as slaves. Paton argues that, while slave emancipation involved major changes in the organization and representation of punishment, there was no straightforward transition from corporal punishment to the prison or from privately inflicted to state-controlled punishment. Contesting the dichotomous understanding of pre-modern and modern modes of power that currently dominates the historiography of punishment, she offers critical readings of influential theories of power and resistance, including those of Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Ranajit Guha. No Bond but the Law reveals the longstanding and intimate relationship between state formation and private punishment. Paton’s analysis moves between imperial processes on the one hand and Jamaican specificities on the other, within a framework comparing developments regarding punishment in Jamaica with those in the U.S. South and elsewhere. Emphasizing the gendered nature of penal policy and practice throughout the emancipation period, Paton is attentive to the ways in which the actions of ordinary Jamaicans and, in particular, of women prisoners, shaped state decisions.


Black On Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (University of Minnesota Press)
C. Riley Snorton

The story of Christine Jorgensen, America’s first prominent transsexual, famously narrated trans embodiment in the postwar era. Her celebrity, however, has obscured other mid-century trans narratives—ones lived by African Americans such as Lucy Hicks Anderson and James McHarris. Their erasure from trans history masks the profound ways race has figured prominently in the construction and representation of transgender subjects. In Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton identifies multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence. Drawing on a deep and varied archive of materials, Snorton attends to how slavery and the production of racialized gender provided the foundations for an understanding of gender as mutable. In tracing the twinned genealogies of blackness and transness, Snorton follows multiple trajectories, from the medical experiments conducted on enslaved black women by J. Marion Sims, the “father of American gynecology,” to the negation of blackness that makes transnormativity possible. Black on Both Sides concludes with a reading of the fate of Phillip DeVine, who was murdered alongside Brandon Teena in 1993, a fact omitted from the film Boys Don’t Cry out of narrative convenience. Reconstructing these theoretical and historical trajectories furthers our imaginative capacities to conceive more livable black and trans worlds.


Voices of the Enslaved: Love, Labor, and Longing in French Louisiana (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture)
Sophie White

In eighteenth-century New Orleans, the legal testimony of some 150 enslaved women and men was meticulously recorded and preserved. Questioned in criminal trials as defendants, victims, and witnesses about attacks, murders, robberies, and escapes, they answered with stories about themselves, stories that rebutted the premise on which slavery was founded. Focusing on four especially dramatic court cases, Voices of the Enslaved draws us into Louisiana’s courtrooms, prisons, courtyards, plantations, bayous, and convents to demonstrate how enslaved people viewed and experienced their worlds. As they testified, these individuals charted their movement between West African, Indigenous, and colonial cultures; they pronounced their moral and religious values; and they registered their responses to labor, to violence, and, above all, to the intimate romantic and familial bonds they sought to create and protect. Their words produced riveting autobiographical narratives as they veered from the questions posed by interrogators. Carefully assessing what we can discover, what we might guess, and what has been lost forever, Sophie White offers both a richly textured account of slavery in French Louisiana and a powerful meditation on the limits and possibilities of the archive.

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