Jessica Marie Johnson
University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2020
Reviewed by Avenel Rolfsen
Histories of the Atlantic World have often neglected the role of the African continent. While historians have focused on the presence of African slaves in the New World, the history of Africans and Africa before they crossed the Atlantic is often forgotten. Jennifer Marie Johnson’s new book Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World corrects this problem. Her work thoroughly connects the history of Senegambia and French trading posts to the Caribbean and New Orleans. In doing so, she presents a powerful book attentive to both sides of the Atlantic and provides a pathbreaking look at the history of Black women and their pursuit of freedom.
In her first two chapters, Johnson explores the early history of European trading posts in the West African region of Senegambia. She discusses the Senegalese towns of Saint-Louis and Gorée, where Afro-European women, the products of relationships between African women and European men came to hold power in trading relationships. Johnson argues that African women and women of African descent used kinship, hospitality and marriage to define for themselves what womanhood and freedom meant. She details how in Saint-Louis and Gorée women used baptism to create networks of fictive kin that “carved a measure of safety and security for themselves” (76).
In her next chapter, Johnson follows women of African descent across the Atlantic detailing the middle passage, la traversée in French. She argues that the “ungendering and commodification structure” of la traversée forced genders from the Old World to take on new meanings in the New World (103). African women were required to reshape practices of kinship, hospitality and marriage that had defined their womanhood in Africa. Johnson follows these women to New Orleans in her fourth chapter. She searches ship registers and census documents that mark the hidden presence of African women and girls. From the ostensible silences around African women on slave ships and in census records, Johnson develops the idea of “null value.” In place of accepting a silence without question, she argues that such silences have value. Identifying these “null values” allows scholars to acknowledge why certain information is missing and “resists equating the missing…information with black death” (135). Johnson’s archival documents often included empty spaces where information about Black women should have been. For example, she shows how despite Black women’s absence in slave ship logs, they not only existed but sometimes led revolts. Thus, their absence from archival records does not indicate that Black women merely died on the middle passage.
Chapter Five discusses what Johnson terms African women’s “practices of freedom” in French controlled New Orleans (154). She describes these “practices of freedom” as part of a large practice of “Black femme freedoms” (172). These practices were similar to practices born in Africa but acquired a distinct diasporic style. Women of African descent refused official designations of them as “objects of use, possession and sexual infiltration” (166). To do this they made use of their knowledge of the Code Noir, practiced free-by-baptism manumissions, made political appeals, protected their kin, and sometimes ran away. They also built communities of freedom in and around New Orleans where they practiced kinship and hospitality.
In her sixth chapter, Johnson discusses the transition of New Orleans from French to Spanish control. She argues that claims to kinship and inheritance and the process of coartación became the most important vector of manumission for women in Spanish New Orleans (188). Coartación, a system that allowed slaves to purchase their freedom, was used widely by women in New Orleans. Women also wrote their own wills, named heirs, and attempted to shape the future of freedom after their deaths. To conclude, Johnson traces the movement of New Orleans from Spain back to France and ultimately to the United States arguing that the practice of, and fight for freedom that was to come drew on a long history of “Black femme freedoms.”
The strength of Johnson’s book is in her attention to the histories of Senegambia, the Caribbean, and New Orleans and the complex networks that connected them. Furthermore, her book reveals the messy nature of slavery in Senegambia and also in the New World. She shows how people of African ancestry and Native Americans sometimes owned slaves. She also underlines the intricate nature of interracial relationships and the multifaceted lives of women of mixed ancestry. In doing so, she complicates the prevailing narrative of plantation slavery in the Southern United States and adds important new information about the lives of women.
The book is well-written and essential to anyone interested in slavery, the Atlantic world, or feminist studies more broadly. Particularly useful for feminist scholars is Johnson’s coining of the term “Black femme freedoms” and the term “null value” which will be of use to anyone struggling with silences in their sources. There is much to be learned from Johnson’s insightful reading of archival documents and her ability to pull practices of freedom out of seemingly small acts. This book should be read widely by feminist scholars, historians, and students.
Avenel Rolfsen is a PhD Candidate in African History at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her dissertation research centers on the history of giving, philanthropy and humanitarianism among Wolof populations in Senegal.