Reviewing Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa Fuentes (2016)Historians in the News
tags: slavery, books, violence, book reviews, womens history
Tiana Wilson is a third year PhD student at the Univeristy of Texas at Austin with a portfolio in Women and Gender studies. She graduated magna cum laude from Buffalo State College and received her B.S. in Social Studies Education.
After reading this book in three different graduate seminar courses, I can confidently argue that Marisa Fuentes’ Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive is one of the most important texts of our time, and a must read for anyone interested in overcoming the limitations of archival research. For many scholars of marginalized groups in the U.S., there remains a challenge in finding materials on our subjects because most of their records are not institutionalized. However, Fuentes offers a useful analytical method for extracting information from sources bent on erasing their existence.
Fuentes’ work contributes to the historical knowledge of early America through her focus on violence and how it operated during slavery and continues today through archives. She cautions scholars to avoid traditional readings of archival evidence, which are produced by and for the dominant narratives of slavery. Instead, she calls for a reading “along the bias grain,” of historical records and against the politics of the historiography on a given topic. In other words, she pushes historians to stretch fragmented archival evidence in order to reflect a more nuanced, complex understanding of enslaved people’ lives. In doing so, her work investigates the sometimes hidden intentions and power dynamics that frame people’s decision-making. Rather than placing our subjects within the categories of victims or victors, Fuentes encourages scholars to examine the “complex personhood” of everyday actions.
Dispossessed Lives provides a portrait of eighteenth-century urban slavery in Bridgetown, Barbados from the perspective of multiple black women. This includes black women’s experiences in public executions and violent punishments, their involvement in the sex economy, and their efforts to escape slavery. Fuentes makes two interventions into the scholarship on slavery in the Atlantic world. First, she challenges the narrative that plantation slavery was more violent than other forms of bondage, and argues that urban slavery was just as brutal. Second, with a focus on the centrality of gender, Fuentes’ study reveals how black women experienced constructions of their sexuality and gender in relation to white women. The main questions guiding this work were: how did black women negotiate physical and sexual violence, colonial power, and female slaveowners in the eighteenth century, and how was freedom defined and what did freedom look like in a slave society?
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