Jessica Marie Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. This interview is based on her new book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Wicked Flesh?
JMJ: In 1999, I took my first trip to New Orleans and my research on its history began not long after that as a Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. I was immediately struck by the power of a city steeped in its own history and of a history wrapped in (seeming) contradictions. From its founding, New Orleans has been inundated with African diasporic social, cultural, and political life. New Orleans has also been an intensely racist, colonial city where deep social, cultural, and political rifts rooted in race, class, color, gender, and sexuality become fault lines residents of African descent must navigate with care and at the risk of their own lives. Hurricane Katrina made this aggressively clear; COVID-19 (New Orleans was the second most active hotspot next to New York City) demonstrated it again.
And yet cutting across these truths is also the presence of Black women at every level and in every texture of historical and contemporary life. Black woman professors holding space for students at Tulane, Dillard, and Xavier Universities; Black women laborers work at cafes, restaurants, and bars; Black nuns and Catholic culture suffuse the calendar with occasions for feasts and penitence; Black women guide systems of belief from Spiritual Churches to Santería to vodun; Black women change the narrative as artists and culture workers. Black women in New Orleans are unapologetic in their strategies for play and pleasure. As a historian, I wanted to know more about the roots of this fiercely independent, community-accountable, and geographically rooted practice of living freedom. I wanted to consider the challenges that these practices faced in a city and region that experienced three slaveholding empires (French, Spanish, United States) and grew into an urban space during the Age of Revolution, but became the homebase of plantation empire as the U.S. moved into the nineteenth century.
It became clear very quickly in my research and thanks to foundational work by Jennifer Spear, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Paul Lachance, Virginia Meacham Gould, Daniel Usner, Tom Ingersoll, and connective work by Ira Berlin and Michael Gomez, that African history is where the story of the city begins, that the Caribbean is where the story connects, and that Black women were central to everything we think we know about New Orleans and the Atlantic world. New Orleans is a site of overlapping Atlantics, where diasporic and archipelagic flows splash and crash into each other. These flows have ramifications for all involved, but especially for African women and women of African descent. And yet, historians have not centered Black women when they tell the story of the founding of the city or the African presence in the region. I wrote this book as a way to witness Black women’s foundational work as an archive, history, and legacy.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Wicked Flesh?
JMJ: Wicked Flesh is a Black feminist history of the founding of the Gulf Coast. In it, I argue that over the course of the eighteenth century, the intimate and kinship strategies of African women and women of African descent reshaped the meaning of freedom in the French Atlantic, laying the groundwork for Black resistance strategies and abolitionist practices of the nineteenth century.
JF: Why do we need to read Wicked Flesh?
JMJ: Black women, when mentioned, are often relegated to the footnotes of histories of the early modern, early American, and Atlantic worlds. However, race, sex and gender function as more than categories of analysis for historians interested in molding records and archaic stories. Race, sex, and gender were organizing principles of the early modern world, used by historical subjects in their fight over resources (politics), their relations with each other (society), and in the meaning they made of the world around them (culture). African women and women of African descent, or those who came to be seen as Black (in all of its iterations) and woman (in all of its complications) shaped the slaveholding empires of the eighteenth century. They did so through their presence and through the symbolic labor (to draw on Jennifer Morgan) they were forced to engage in when slaveowners, colonial officials, slave ship captains, husbands, white women, and more used their bodies, their Africanness, their blackness, their assumptions about their sexuality, and the practices they engaged in for their own safety and security as reasons to enslave (partus sequitur ventrem), commodify, exploit, violate, and deny them equivalent access to rights and privileges.
But if that isn’t enough of a reason to read Wicked Flesh, there is more. Part of what I argue in this book is Black women did more than survive these attempts at control and coercion. They reshaped the nature of freedom through each challenge and affront to their survival. At each step in Wicked Flesh, year by year as the slaving process proceeded, crystallized, and evolved, African women and women of African descent refused to abide by the boundaries officials placed on or around them. Their refusal, sometimes physical, sometimes legalistic, sometimes more fugitive and maroon, changed the terms of what freedom (and slavery) meant. In other words, enslavement was a process and as a process has a history that we need to understand deeply and intricately. African women and women of African descent were key players in that history and in contesting enslavement.
None of this means Black women were always successful (and, in fact, this book queries what “success” even means in a world of slaves). In Wicked Flesh, we see how success and failure as a binary of freed (success) or enslaved (failure) are false binaries for understanding African women who were part of New Orleans’ Atlantic World–a geography that in this book stretches from coastal Senegal to the Caribbean to the shores of the Gulf Coast. Instead, exploring Black women’s lives and history offers a different vision of freedom. It offers a fuller history of Black womanhood, Black humanity, and African diasporic early modern life, but it also reshapes how we historicize empire, violence, pleasure, property, aesthetics, refusal and contestation.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you used in the writing and researching of Wicked Flesh?
JMJ: The eighteenth century generated astronomical amounts of material on Africans and people of African descent as slaves, but not always as human beings. So I also drew on contemporary Black feminist theory, Black queer/trans theory, Black women’s literature and poetry to inform my reading of the archive and the documents. Where and when I could, I centered the cultural production of Black women of New Orleans or who claim New Orleans as an ancestral site like Rae Paris, Brenda Marie Osbey, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson, Jeri Hilt and others, letting their cultural work inform my reading of the sources.
JF: What is your next project?
JMJ: Dark Codex: Blackness, History and the Digital explores the way images and texts created out of slavery’s archive resonate across digital and social media. In Dark Codex, I explore research, teaching, and theories that position Atlantic African diaspora history and histories of slavery as the unforeseen and oft-ignored heart of the digital humanities. As a digital humanities scholar, I’ve had the opportunity to explore questions of history, slavery and the digital as the as the curator of sites like African Diaspora, Ph.D. (http://africandiasporaphd.com) and Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog (http://dh.jmjafrx.com). Dark Codex continues this work by exploring the history of the study of slavery (from U.B. Phillips to the Slave Voyages Database) alongside the historical and digital practices of everyday black women and women of color.
I’m excited to be able to spend the Spring 2021 semester working on this project as a fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
JF: Thanks, Jessica!