F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Rape, Questions of Agency, and Black Womanhood

As I read the Narrative of Joanna, I could only think about how race and sexuality construct this narrative. Moreover, these connections made me think about how the black female body (or Mulatta body) is a site for sexual violence. Though Stedman emancipates Joanna, she is a black woman (specifically, a mulatta?) in the eighteenth century. What agency does she have?
She acknowledges this fact as she responds to Stedman’s proposal to take Joanna to Europe:

“I am born a low, contemptible slave. Were you to treat me with too much attention, you must degrade yourself with all your friends and relations. The purchase of my freedom is apparently impossible; it certainly will prove difficult and expensive. Yet though I am a slave, I hope I have a soul not inferior to Europeans. I do not blush to avow the great regard I have for one, who has distinguished me so much above others of my unhappy birth. You have, sir, pitied me; and now, independent of every other thought, I have pride in throwing myself at your feet, till fate shall part us, or my conduct become such as to give you cause to banish me from your presence” (13).

Joanna’s race and sexuality contribute to her being a “low, contemptible slave.” When Joanna hopes that her soul is not inferior to Europeans, I continue to think about how race, gender, and sexuality intersect. We typically think about the soul in its connection to spirituality. Joanna’s perception of the soul is rooted in Puritanical and Anglican values prominent in the eighteenth century. Puritanical religious ideas represent the social psyche of white slave owners. I also relate this text and its clear religious stance to slavery in New England. Wendy Anne Warren’s "The Cause of Her Grief": The Rape of a Slave in Early New England” helps explain the Puritanical abuse of the female body of color. The rape of indigenous women was widely known to the point that a captured indigenous woman pleaded to John Winthrop, a Puritan, to protect her from rape. Futhermore, "The Confession & Dying Warning of Katherine Garrett" also incorporates the limitations of womanhood---specifically, for women of color. This helps me think about how the bodies of women are not their own and belong to mind. Moreover, this confession puts the Narrative of Joanna into the perspective of the danger of the female body of color. Garrett's confession is a warning to women of color who desire sexual freedom; or, women who are forced into disrupting tradition (by rape?). 

In returning back to the Narrative of Joanna, this moment in the text depicts Joanna feeling indebted to Stedman because he promises her freedom. Eventually, Joanna and Stedman marry, and he frees Joanna and their son. As Stedman frees Joanna from slavery, he places her into another state of bondage---marriage. I cannot help but think about the construction of marriage in the eighteenth century, which is essentially a patriarchal institution that dominates women. This notion is much more significant for Joanna as she is a black woman in a white supremacist, slave-owning, misogynistic, and colonial society. Moreover, Joanna cannot give consent to sex with Stedman. The perception of the black female body in the eighteenth century is oversexed, thus, prime for sexual violation.  In my mind, Stedman rapes Joanna; their forced relationships mimic the plight of free black women in the eighteenth century.

For a research project, I would suggest further research on agency and sexuality for free black women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I know of the placages, but how did those women feel about their agency? Was it possible for black women to ever be in a space where they felt sexually free? I propose a teaching website resource that examine freedom, sexual agency, and black womanhood. An open-access website would help examine narratives and other forms of literature that discuss the history of free black women and sexuality. Scalar would help offer a different section of content concerning the subject, including photographs, bibliographies, various syllabus on the subject, and teaching philosophy.

This page has paths: