Review of Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World by Jessica Marie Johnson

Reviewed by Crystal Nicole Eddins

Johnson, Jessica Marie. Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. 360 pp.

Book cover of Wicked Flesh by Jessica Marie Johnson.

Deeply textured stories of women’s agency emerge when scholars take close and intimate relationships seriously – not just as a personal practice or academic subject but a political praxis – especially during periods of transformational change. Such is true with Jessica Johnson’s Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, which is sure to be a significant contribution to Black Women’s History. Wicked Flesh joins a wide body of scholarship that focuses on Black women in the Atlantic world and during the Middle Passage, highlighting issues of enslavement, sexuality, gender, and resistance.[1] Wicked Flesh explores the ways Black women infused meaning, culture, identity, and self-defined notions of freedom into their kinship and other relationship ties, establishing connections and building networks that laid “the groundwork for … emancipation struggles (1).” The topic of Black women who construct their reality through their network connections spans space, time, and academic disciplines. Whether discussing efforts to self-liberate from enslavement,[2] the modern U. S. Civil Rights Movement,[3] or Brazil’s contemporary environmental and land rights justice movement,[4] Black women’s relationships and actions – both the deeply personal and the public – have wider implications for how we understand the significance of gender and sexuality within the context of collective challenges to systems that enslave, dispossess, exploit, and oppress.

Wicked Flesh unveils a complicated history of African women who were authors of their lives and made contributions to the modern era in a myriad of ways. Histories of the Atlantic slave trade and the West African littoral have not often centered the experiences of women, whether free or enslaved; Johnson’s work not only focuses on women but elevates them and their actions to the status of intentional drivers of history. Johnson does not shy away from presenting the complex dynamics of African women’s vastly different roles at the French comptoir administerial outposts of Saint-Louis and Gorée: some were enslaved and some were enslavers; others were wealthy, while most were of low economic status; some were diplomatic brokers and some skilled courtesans. They were mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters. Despite the differences in their social, economic, or familial roles, these women shared the primacy of intimate connections and relationships in their personal and economic lives as they navigated a changing society that was indelibly imprinted by processes of racialization and enslaving.

The boundaries of freedom were not clearly defined along racial lines in the eighteenth century, but African and African-descended women gave it meaning by actively forging freedom through intimate relationships. They engendered their freedom even outside of the realm of legal forms of emancipation, especially since enslavers, slave traders, and colonists often did not recognize distinctions between free and enslaved women. Meanings of freedom also varied between the enslaved, and free people who exploited slave labor to preserve their own safety and security. Free African women at Saint-Louis and Gorée distinguished themselves by providing hospitality to commercial agents, “cultivating a culture of taste and aesthetic pleasure that facilitated trade” (6). Johnson takes us in to the worlds of African women who shaped political and economic relations at Senegambia with their cultural insights. Women like Catti and Lucia accumulated capital through proficiency in “rituals of diplomacy” that “relied on pleasure and comfort economies created through African women’s labor”(21). Free African women’s cultural labor as well as their adornment practices using imported cloths “managed taste and defined standards of hospitality . . . through . . . performances of wealth, prestige, and decadence” (30). These practices of facilitating capitalist accumulation and consumption in some ways foreshadow contemporary campaigns #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlsRock, which highlight black women as entrepreneurs, cultural producers, and trendsetters of style – clothing, hair, makeup, accessories, dances – who are often uncredited for their creativity. However, the luxurious lives of free Senegambian women at the comptoir administrative outpost belied their complicity in the commodification and violence that enslaved African women faced. 

As a micro-sociologist, I am fascinated with Johnson’s exploration of interactions between African women and elite African and European men. Through the exchange of goods, services, and pleasures, they engendered new norms and altered both groups’ tastes and desires for economic power and slaves. Mariage à la mode du pays (“marriage in the manner of the country”) was a conjugal institution that allowed African women to access to European commodities and their husband’s property while rejecting Catholic marriage. In exchange, European husbands accessed trade networks that trafficked in human flesh. These newly-formed appetites changed the course of structural realities for Africans, especially as ideas about race, slavery, and shifted. Despite their disdain toward African institutions and intimate relations with Black women, French colonial officials inevitably recognized that African and European marriages helped bolster commerce – making African women, both free and enslaved, central players in the complex unfolding of African Atlantic enterprise. Marital relations as well as slaveholding practices at the comptoir administrative sites originally took the shape of Wolof societal norms but transformed due to demands of the rising Atlantic slave trade during the eighteenth century (40). In the Wolof tradition and across West Africa, enslaved people occupied various positions within societal hierarchies, from elite spheres of the aristocracy, military, and spiritual leadership to agricultural and domestic labor. But without the protection of kinship groups, slaves were vulnerable to the rise of Atlantic slaving, wherein French traders saw little distinction between the various categories of enslaved people. Whereas Wolof society allowed a certain fluidity of one’s slave status, in the Americas, local customs as well as imperial promulgations, such as the French Code Noir of 1685, conflated slave status with racial identity and concretized it via coercive biological reproduction. 

Enslaved African women and children in particular experienced the persistently long-term effects of the trade on their bodies as they endured displacement, sexual violence, brutality, commodification, forced labor, illness, and death during the long traversée (Middle Passage) to the Americas. Johnson’s storytelling aligns with contemporary Black Feminist theorizing about intersectionality and the tripartite oppression Black women face – race, class, and gender – by carefully detailing the experiences of Black women and children who survived the Middle Passage to Louisiana, only to be enslaved and re-enslaved as war captives because of the early eighteenth-century Natchez Revolt. Later examinations of sex, labor, and domination reveal patterns of violence that enslaved Black women endured from whites, indigenous peoples, and, at times, men of African descent.

True to the purpose of Wicked Flesh, Johnson not only weaves together the stories of free and enslaved women who made the traversée within the context of the French slave trade, but she also offers Black femme freedom as the “deeply feminine, feminized, and femme practices” by which Black women “claimed ownership over themselves” (172-173). Black femme freedom, as Johnson defines it, subverted the structural oppression and exploitation of enslaving and allowed Black women to linger in the various moments of their experiences, as they “interpreted slave codes, pursued manumission acts, and returned again to the Superior Council when their freedom became contested. They showed up in defense of themselves and each other. They sought joy and pleasure, gave birth and lost children, and endured the everyday toil of their laboring lives” (155).Wicked Flesh represents a radical retelling of Black women’s diasporic histories and struggles with their intimate lives as a driving force behind transformational changes to African and “New World” societies during the Age of Revolutions.


Crystal Eddins (@CrystalNEddins on Twitter) is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and studies the role of African Diaspora consciousness, cultures, and identities during collective mobilizations – especially enslaved people’s rebellions, marronnage, and the Haitian Revolution.

Title Image: Statue of Black Lives Matter protester, Jen Reid on a vacant pedestal in Bristol, England.

Endnotes:

[1] Recent examples like Marisa Fuentes Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (2016), Sowande’ Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (2016), and Leslie Harris and Daina Raimey-Berry’s Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas (2018) reckon with both archival silences and archival violence to explicate the ranging experiences of enslaved people, especially Black women and children.

[2] Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Yuko Miki, “Fleeing into Slavery: The Insurgent Geographies of Brazilian Quilombolas (Maroons), 1880-1881,” The Americas 68 (2012), pp. 495-528. 

[3] Belinda Robnett, How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[4] Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

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