Printer Friendly

Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879.

These two historical studies which contribute to our knowledge of the lives of women of color in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South differ widely in focus and scope. McLaurin's Celia offers readers a detailed study of the trial of a slave who was convicted and executed by the state of Missouri in 1855 for murdering her master. Adele Logan Alexander's is a much broader study, covering some ninety years and several Georgia counties, to examine the lives of several generations of free women of color.

The authors' introductions do, however, delineate similar concerns about writing the history of women of color. Both comment on the importance of chronicling the lives of individuals living outside of traditional power structures. Their lives, claims McLaurin, "often better illustrate certain aspects of the major issues of a particular period than do the lives of those who ... achieve national prominence" (p. ix). Alexander adds to this her desire to deepen our understanding of a particular group of people whom historians have heretofore treated as a unified group, "to move beyond a nonarticulated image of people of color ..., and then to reconstruct a more accurate, vivid, and finely focused picture of the past" (p. 7).

But historical sources on women of color, both slave and free, are scarce. Records concerning slave women are often economic records of their masters or advertisements for their sale or capture. Information about free women of color, notes Alexander, "has been difficult to obtain because of legal, economic, and social marginality, some illiteracy, and the frequent need to conceal or camouflage all traces of their lives" (p. 7).

In his introduction, McLaurin raises questions about the goals of historical study. He describes the tension between the historian's "study of the recorded past, of data, of facts" and "the search for the meaning of the recorded past, and interpretation of data, an exploration of the significance" (p. vii). He then adds to these considerations the historian's role as storyteller. Celia, A Slave attempts to balance all three qualities; the result is a Faulknerian exercise in historical storytelling. Drawing upon a variety of primary sources including census reports, population schedules, newspapers, and the transcript of Celia's trial, State of Missouri versus Celia, a Slave, McLaurin pieces together the sparse facts of Celia's life; then through a combination of speculation, interpretation, and secondary sources, he seeks to fill the gaps and silences in the recorded data with assumptions about the community's emotional and moral responses to Celia's trial.

The facts of Celia's crime are sensational. Purchased in 1850 by a respected landowner, John Newsom, Celia was raped on the trip back to Newsom's farm. Once

there, Newsom established Celia in a small brick cabin of her own, an arrangement that made it easy for Newsom to continue his sexual exploitation of his slave. Between 1850 and 1854, Celia bore two children, most likely Newsom's, and in 1855 was pregnant with a third. But the paternity of this child was less certain; Celia had developed a romantic and sexual relationship with George, another of Newsom's slaves, who began to pressure Celia to sever her sexual relations with Newsom. Late on the evening of Saturday, June 23, 1855, when Newsom approached Celia for sexual purposes, she crushed his skull with a large stick and then proceeded to dispose of his body by burning it in her fireplace.

After confessing to the murder under pressure of threats to her children's safety, Celia was imprisoned, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. When the judge refused to postpone her sentence, Celia was "rescued" from prison by unknown persons, most likely her defense attorneys, to prevent her execution before a Missouri supreme court could rule on the defense request for an appeal. Once the original execution date passed, Celia was returned to jail to await the supreme court's ruling. The court ruled against the appeal, and Celia was executed on December 21, 1855.

McLaurin places Celia's actions and her trial in the larger context of white Missourians' attitudes toward slavery, influenced by an 1850 slave insurrection in Western Missouri. He further contextualizes Celia's crime and trial through a chapter on the increasingly heated and violent arguments between proslavery and anti-slavery forces over Kansas' admission to the union.

The two chapters analyzing Celia's trial form the heart of this study. McLaurin describes the defense attorney's attempts to create sympathy for Celia by establishing her as the victim of racial exploitation. The defense's jury instructions argue "that Celia had the legal right to use force to repel her master's sexual advances" (p. 89) in order to protect herself from the "imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse" (p. 90). McLaurin's analysis of this defense strategy illuminates the larger implications of the argument; in claiming that a slave woman had the right to "use deadly force to protect her honor" (p. 91), the defense arguments threatened to erase any legal distinction between free white women and slave women, calling into question the sexual politics and economics of slavery. Not surprisingly, the judge refused to deliver such instructions to the jury, which found Celia guilty.

McLaurin's conclusions about the significance of Celia's case center on the important role of sexual exploitation of slave women in "the routine operations of the institution of slavery" (p. 116), in the shaping of slave law, and in the personal moral dilemmas that confronted antebellum white Southerners. McLaurin claims, "The life of Celia demonstrates how slavery placed individuals, black and white, in specific situations that forced them to make and to act upon personal decisions of a fundamentally moral nature" (p. xi).

McLaurin succeeds in his endeavor to write his narrative in a readable, engaging manner. Celia is an historical study that reads much like a Southern novel and displays a very literary concern with the effects of events and decisions upon the souls and consciences of its characters. The study's weakness as an historical study lies in the author's unselfconscious application of late twentieth-century values to the motives and emotions of the individuals involved in Celia's murder trial. For example, he speculates about one interrogator's response to Celia's confession: "her confession was certain to have impressed upon him the dangers of holding human beings in bondage" (p. 39). That is a possible response, but given the numerous antebellum arguments against the slave's status as a human being and the numerous treatises on the violent and brutal nature of African-Americans, it is by no means the certain response of a nineteenth-century slave-holding Southerner to a slave's confession of murdering her master. This type of naive assumption is most clearly illustrated by the author's discussion of Newsom's sexual exploitation of Celia. McLaurin draws upon several 1970s psychological/sociological studies of rape victims to theorize about Celia's response to Newsom's sexual aggression. He does not, however, question whether such studies' findings are applicable to a woman living in a time and situation far different from that of the subjects of these studies.

It is this sort of naive perspective on the past that Adele Logan Alexander takes great pains to avoid throughout Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879. For example, in contrast to McLaurin, she places her discussion of interracial sexual encounters in the context of the larger socio-political situation of the times. While she argues that any sexual encounter between a white man and a woman of color was "exploitative because it pitted a white man, whose privilege and authority knew virtually no limitations, against a woman of color who would have been almost powerless to resist him" (p. 66), she does not attribute specific emotions to the individuals whose history she records. Her discussion of the coercive sexual politics of slavery is informed by comments from primary sources dealing with the issue and secondary historical studies of the era, rather than by modern psychological interpretations that too often allow us to read our own value systems into an earlier historical period.

In her prologue, Alexander outlines a threefold rationale for undertaking this study: first, to explore a group of people occupying a unique position in Southern culture, a "social, genetic, political, and cultural middle ground" among black, white, and Native American cultures; second, to add to our understanding of the diversity of American culture and history; and third, to explore the deliberate choice many made to identify themselves with the African-American community instead of "passing" as white.

Drawing upon genealogical sources, journals, letters, and county records, as well as oral histories, Alexander constructs a valuable, detailed history. Her first chapter outlines the settling of Middle Georgia by Anglo-Americans during the frontier period, focusing on the varied, shifting relationships and intermixing of cultures among these settlers, their slaves, and the Native Americans already in residence. She also traces the "narrow paths to freedom" (p. 32) available to people of color during this era to explain why the free population was so small and slow growing.

Chapter two focuses on the life of Nathan Sayre, whose family settled in the region in the 1820s. In the most unusual section of the study, Alexander describes Sayre's long-lasting monogamous relationship with Susan Hunt, "a free woman mulatto-Cherokee-Indian woman" (p. 67). Susan Hunt gave birth to three of Sayre's children. To accommodate and protect his family, Sayre planned and built his Greek-revival home, Pomegranate Hall, with a hidden apartment of three small rooms to house Susan and their children, allowing them to live with him as a family despite the social taboos against such acknowledged relationships.

Chapters three and four trace the lives of Susan Hunt and her descendants after the death of Nathan Sayre, exploring the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the lives of free people of color. Alexander records the suspicion and hostility of the Anglo-Americans toward this anomalous group and the legal attempts to limit their numbers and control their activities. Reconstruction brought with it significant changes in the status of free people of color: "when slavery was abolished, everyone who was not white was black" (p. 139). The former free people of color were now subject to the new laws affecting African-Americans and vulnerable to the violence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

The story of Mariah Hunt, daughter of Susan Hunt and Nathan Sayre, illustrates the changing status of the non-white population in Georgia after the war. By 1870, Mariah and her children by Henry Hunt were living on property called Hunt's Hill. Though Mariah and the white Henry Hunt had married before the war, afterwards the state of Georgia banned marriages between whites and African-Americans. The two therefore kept separate households, though they maintained close ties. The other residents of Hunt's Hill included a number of former free people of color who lived in comparative affluence. Alexander describes in detail this close-knit community and its affiliation with the black religious communities in the area. She traces the development of a black middle class, the opening of educational opportunities to freed people and describes the Hunt family's determination to pursue their educations. Mariah's daughter Adella attended Atlanta University during its first decade. Along with her brother Henry and sister Sarah, she chose to teach in the poorer sectors of the black community, making clear choice to identify herself with her African-American heritage.

In the final chapter of her study, Alexander describes the legal disputes over two wills, one by David Dickson, leaving all of his money to Amanda America Dickson, his daughter by a slave; and one by J. M. Hunt, leaving significant stock holdings to Susan Hunt. In both cases, the disputes were settled in favor of the women of color, but Alexander cautions that such cases did not change the biases of the state's social, economic, or legal systems: "Most people of color remained poor and repressed" (p. 189). This chapter goes on to chronicle the histories of Mariah and Henry Hunt's children to illustrate the variety of choices they made, noting that only one son chose to leave the African-American community to live as a white man.

Alexander explains in her acknowledgements that her choice of the Hunt and Sayre families is a personal one. They are her ancestors; she constructs her own family history while adding to our understanding of the larger history of women of color. Her study is especially valuable in its elucidation of the complexity and ambiguity of racial identities and boundaries in the South and its portrayal of the ways in which gender influenced the experience of racial identity.

Despite the difficulty of uncovering and interpreting information about women of color, both McLaurin and Alexander argue that recording their lives is essential to our fuller understanding of the complex and changing relationships among race, gender, and class in the South. Both studies contribute in distinctive ways to what Alexander calls "the intricate mosaic of our national experience" (p. 202).
COPYRIGHT 1993 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Harrison, Suzan
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:2145
Previous Article:Celia: A Slave.
Next Article:Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters