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Wicked Flesh

Unearthing personal stories from the archive, Wicked Flesh shows how black women, from Senegambia in West Africa to the Caribbean to New Orleans, used intimacy and kinship to redefine freedom in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Their practices laid the groundwork for the emancipation struggles of the nineteenth century.

Wicked Flesh
Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World

Jessica Marie Johnson

2020 | 360 pages | Cloth $34.95
American History / African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction. The Women in the Water
Chapter 1. Tastemakers: Intimacy, Slavery, and Power in Senegambia
Chapter 2. Born of This Place: Kinship, Violence, and the Pinets' Overlapping Diasporas
Chapter 3. La Traversée: Gender, Commodification, and the Long Middle Passage
Chapter 4. Full Use of Her: Intimacy, Service, and Labor in New Orleans
Chapter 5. Black Femme Acts, Archives, and Archipelagos of Freedom
Chapter 6. Life After Death: Legacies of Freedom in Spanish New Orleans
Conclusion. Femmes de Couleur Libres and the Nineteenth Century

List of Archives and Databases

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

The Women in the Water

Be the woman in the water.
—Rae Paris, The Forgetting Tree (2004)

Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World examines how African women and women of African descent used intimacy and kinship to construct and enact freedom in the Atlantic world. Over the course of the eighteenth century, women of African descent who were not enslaved acquired property and social status in Africa and the Americas. In a unique position to claim their own labor, free African women and women of African descent negotiated, challenged, and appropriated categories of difference. They engaged in and were forced to engage in intimate relations across gender and race, with individuals enslaved and free. They established families beyond biological kin, and across race and status. They accumulated property and distributed legacies across generations. Intimacy and kinship became key strategies in their bids for freedom and were central to how and what freedom looked like on a quotidian basis. Using the history of black women in New Orleans as a lens for exploring black women's experiences across the Atlantic world—from coastal Senegal to French Saint-Domingue, from Spanish Cuba to the swampy outposts of the U.S. Gulf Coast—Wicked Flesh argues that African women and women of African descent endowed free status with meaning through an active, aggressive, and sometimes unsuccessful intimate and kinship practice. Their stories, both in their successes and failures, outline a practice of freedom that would shape the city that emerged on the shores of the Mississippi and laid the groundwork for the emancipation struggles and tensions of the nineteenth century.

The legal, social, and political codification of racial slavery created the status of "free person of African descent." Although freedom would emerge as the quintessential struggle of the nineteenth century, free status in the eighteenth century remained a new and unfamiliar state of being. Free status gained its texture from struggles between slaveowners, slave traders, imperial authorities, and Africans and people of African descent resisting imperial demands and the institutionalization of chattel slavery. As Africans and people of African descent escaped bondage by securing manumission or formal release from bondage in diverse and inventive ways, free people of African descent became the remainder of an unresolvable equation created by the mathematics of transforming human beings into chattel property.

Free status did not define freedom. Like the rise of chattel slavery itself, the nature of free status under slavery relied on constructions of gender and sexuality rooted in the circum-Atlantic exchange of black bodies and plantation commodities. Intimate acts mated with edicts, codes, and imperial jurisprudence to produce bodies of law like the 1685 Code Noir, the first comprehensive slave code written for the Americas. The Code Noir and edicts like it established partus sequitur ventrem, meaning that the slave or free status of the child would follow that of the womb, harnessing reproducing bodies to the expansion of slavery. Slaveowners and imperial authorities reinforced slave codes with martial force, using shackles, whips, and arms forged and wielded by white and black laborers at the command of imperial officials to maintain and reproduce slave status. Free status also required the wombs and labor of black women, and would be no less intimate or violent. Free status manifested in the interstices of manumission laws preoccupied with sex between European men and African women. It lingered in the machinations of slaveowners who declared African women lecherous, wicked, and monstrous even as those same slaveowners navigated colonial masculinities and imperial desire for black flesh. Free status, manumission, and legalistic escapes from bondage did not free black women from these representations or protect them from the predations of men (and women) who wielded them.

Freedom gained definition when and as African women and women of African descent pushed back against their own enslavement and subject position. These women, when encountering Atlantic slavery, whether along the African coast or in the Americas, did not limit their understanding of freedom to legal or official status, no matter how triumphant the manumission battle that was won. They could not. First, slaveowners, traders, and colonial officials themselves resisted honoring distinctions between slave and free or illuminating a definitive path from bondage to freedom. Second, at every step of the way, as slaveowners, traders, and colonial officials attempted to harness black women's bodies, labor, and lives to the industry of slaving, African women and women of African descent challenged them in return with their own understandings of what, where, and how their bodies should be used, their labor expended, and their lives lived. African women and women of African descent who survived the horrific crossing continued to turn to what was available (intimate and kinship ties), practicing freedom even when they could not call themselves free. Exceeding the boundaries of the manumission act, African women and women of African descent demanded freedom as a project of ecstatic black humanity in the face of abject subjection and against slavery as social death.

Understanding the role intimacy and kinship played in black women's lives highlights black women's everyday understanding of freedom as centered around safety and security for themselves and their progeny. Safety, particularly safety from intimate violence, and security lay at the heart of decisions to secure or reject patrons, partners, lovers, and other kin. Black women's intimacy with individuals ranged along the spectrum of coerced to strategic, from fraternal to sexual. Determined to build community and make generations, imagining futures that were, if not beyond bondage, at least buttressed against harm, they cultivated, protected, and defended kinship networks. They engaged in a range of practices meant to safeguard their bodies and their legacies. At times this included legitimating kinship ties through formal sacred institutions like the Catholic Church. Practicing freedom did not necessarily mean seeking a freedom removed from other social relations in society. At other times, women participated in or created new institutions and less formal criteria for choosing kin. Slaveholding societies were violent, brutal places. Black women were not immune from this, and some of their actions enfolded with existing relations of exploitation and domination. Creating and protecting kinship networks sometimes meant denying access to their chosen community, even despite biological ties. Safety and security for some women included exploiting enslaved labor, particularly the labor of enslaved women, with all of its attendant violence. The freedom that black women practiced was murky, messy, and contingent. It also adapted as times and circumstances changed. Wicked Flesh embraces the contradictions as exemplifying how high the stakes were and how precarious the search for safe space could be in a world of slaves.

Slavery's rise in the Americas was institutional, carnal, and reproductive. The intimacy of bondage provided slaveowners, traders, and colonial officials with fantasies of plantation increase and riches overseas that trickled into every social relation—husband and wife, sovereign and subject, master and laborer. The story of freedom and all of its ambiguities began in intimate acts steeped in power, shaped by the particular oppressions faced by African women and women of African descent, as well as the self-conscious choices they made to secure control over their bodies and selves, their loved ones, and their futures. Intimacy—corporeal, carnal, quotidian encounters of flesh and fluid—tied free and enslaved women of African descent to slaveowners, colonial employees, and imperial officials. These encounters also tied African women and women of African descent to the African men, children, and others around them in "tense and tender" ways. This book is about the nature of those intimate and kinship ties, their ebb and flow, their power and their violence, and the role African women played in making freedom free for all people of African descent.

Guided by Rae Paris's call to "be the woman in the water," Wicked Flesh positions black women as swimming at the crossroads between empires and oceans, diasporas and archipelagos. By engaging them in the overlapping diasporas they traversed, this study argues, a fuller history of freedom, black humanity, and resistance to empire begins to be revealed. Wicked Flesh explores this contested, radical, and deeply human meaning of freedom through the experiences of free African women and women of African descent living, traveling, and laboring in New Orleans, one stop along a congested eighteenth-century Afro-Atlantic circuit. This story begins in Africa, attuned to the importance of centering the African continent in studies of the African diaspora. It follows African women and women of African descent through the Caribbean archipelago as they are enslaved and transported to New Orleans. It is framed by the current of people, goods, and ideas that flowed to the Gulf Coast over the course of the eighteenth century, while also responsive to the way shifts in imperial administration could reset colonial societies, disrupting linear narratives of development or progress. To navigate these waters, Wicked Flesh follows individual women and girls, identifying where they appear in the current between Senegambia and the Americas, and relinquishing their stories where they disappear from the record. This book is neither a biography nor a microhistory. It is a history practicing the same murky, contingent, and fluid freedom the women under study experienced in their everyday lives in an effort to circumvent an archive of disappearing bodies, limited detail, and excessive violence.

To center New Orleans as the quintessential site for investigating black women's practices of freedom in the Atlantic world, Wicked Flesh necessarily drew from archival documents written in multiple languages, scattered in institutions across Louisiana and the world. Any history of women of African descent during the period of slavery must build a narrative using fragments of sources and disparate materials. Wicked Flesh is no exception. The sources used often contain incomplete information, were official documents written largely from the perspective of colonial officials and slaveowning men, or exhibit racialized biases against all people of African descent, as well as heterosexist biases against women across race. In other words, searching slavery's archive for enslaved and free black lives and knowledge requires additional labor from historians. Marisa Fuentes has eloquently theorized the ethical and corrective stakes of this process as reading along the bias grain, like "cutting fabric on the bias to create more elasticity," to show enslaved women as a "spectral influence" on white and black men and women. Wicked Flesh joins Fuentes—and others—in calling for an accountable historical practice that challenges the known and unknowable, particularly when attending to the lives of black women and girls. Although it is critical to respect the limits of each document, by bringing material together in careful and creative ways, snippets of black women's lives begin to unfold.

Practicing Freedom from Senegal to New Orleans

In Senegambia, where this story begins, succession conflicts, intermittent civil war, and resistance to state power occupied the Wolof rulers of Kajoor, Waalo, and Bawol, as well as rulers and societies in nearby Futa Tooro and Galam. Bracketed by the Senegal and Gambia rivers, an array of polities lived, labored, and jockeyed for power. The Wolof states that emerged from the disintegration of the Jollof empire was deeply influenced by Muslim polities to the north and Mande to the east. In 1695, Latsukaabe Faal united the Wolof kingdoms of Kajoor and Bawol under himself, a dynasty that ruled into the nineteenth century. Wolof kingdoms were hierarchical and polygynous, with landed aristocracies and royal dynasties. Caste and slavery organized social relations. Imperial expansion within and among the Wolof, which included absorbing and attempting to absorb and enslave other groups like the Sereer and Pulaar, did not begin with European contact. Wolof royals and aristocrats took advantage of trade with Europeans to gain power and prestige as part of centuries-older struggles between kingdoms and dynasties. Europeans did not introduce slavery or imperial conflict into West Africa—but when and as it benefited them, they did exacerbate it.

In households and villages, Wolof, Lebu, Fulbe, and Bamana women, children, and men attempted to manage the transformations, predations, and opportunities beget by these internal conflicts, conflicts only exacerbated by European trade. Eighteenth-century encounters with Europeans along Senegal's Atlantic coast had their origins in Portuguese-Dutch-Wolof trade alliances, raids, and struggle for dominance in the late seventeenth century. By 1659, French soldiers and traders drove the Dutch from the mouth of the Senegal River and founded the comptoir (administrative outpost) of Saint-Louis. In 1677, the French repeated this action at Gorée, expelling Dutch and muscling aside British traders to establish a second comptoir. Saint-Louis and Gorée occupied two Atlantic islands—the former on the island of N'dar at the mouth of the Senegal River and the second on the island of Ber off the Cap-Vert Peninsula, the westernmost tip of the African continent. The islands themselves lacked fresh water and arable land, but for French traders preoccupied with Atlantic trade, they provided other amenities. From Saint-Louis and Gorée, French traders accessed the gold, gum, ivory, and slave trades of the Senegal River. European trading companies and European and African merchants used Saint-Louis as a base, sailing inland along the river as far as Fort St. Joseph at Galam, where they met North African caravans of goods and slaves on their way east across the Sahara. Gorée offered overseas ships a refueling point before travel south to the coastal escales (trading posts) of Rufisque, Portudal, and Joal, as well as Albreda on the Gambia River. Saint-Louis and Gorée also served as military bases, fortifying the French against rival African and European raids and attacks.

African women at the comptoirs of Saint-Louis and Gorée were part of the network of residents, traders, and commercial agents that extended from the Atlantic coast into the African countryside. They became stewards of hospitality, cultivating a culture of taste and aesthetic pleasure that facilitated trade between Europeans and Africans. They married European men but eschewed Catholic marriage, seeking some measure of control and familiarity in their unions. Instead, residents at the comptoirs created mariage à la mode du pays ("marriage in the manner of the country"), an alternative conjugal institution that modeled Wolof and Lebu custom. Mariage à la mode du pays gave African women at the comptoirs access to European goods and offered European men access to trade networks operated by traders in the countryside. These intimate partnerships also came with risks. As the wives of European and African men in patriarchal societies or mothers of children born between French and Wolof patrimony, African women navigated competing claims on legacies of property and trade they developed over their lifetimes. Meanwhile, slave trading and the existence of enslaved African women at the comptoirs demonstrated the limits of African women's opportunities in the wake of Atlantic slaving. All African women lived in the shadow of transatlantic trade, but only some held enslaved women as captifs du case, the designation given to slaves belonging to residents at the comptoirs. Enslaved labor facilitated free African women's social position, supporting their hospitality and trade labors while easing the drudgery of everyday household duties.

As free status and enslaved labor became more and more relevant for African women at the Senegambian comptoirs, a harder boundary between free and slave emerged across the Atlantic as enslaved Africans began to arrive in the French Antilles. In 1625, Pierre Belain, Sieur d'Esnambuc, a buccaneer and privateer, sailed to St. Christophe (St. Kitts) with a royal patent to establish a French colony, initiating France's Caribbean venture. In no time at all, French interlopers spread from St. Christophe to Guadeloupe, Martinique, the western half of Hispaniola, and the nearby island of Tortuga. These islands, especially Tortuga and French Saint-Domingue, became bases for contraband trade in cattle, hides, precious metals, and slaves, as well as serving as experiments in commercial agriculture. After tobacco failed as an agricultural crop, indigo, coffee, and, above all, sugar came to dominate production in the French Caribbean, especially on the island of Saint-Domingue. Sugar production required massive amounts of labor, labor that plantation owners greedily compelled from enslaved African women, children, and men. By 1674, after mismanagement led the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales (Company of the West Indies) to go bankrupt, the French Antilles (Saint-Domingue, Martinique, and Guadeloupe) united under Crown jurisdiction. Imposition of Crown rule signaled a renewed commitment to asserting control over white and black populations and a fresh determination to make a profit overseas.

Asserting Crown authority included formalizing and standardizing slave law (including the fact that status follows the mother), supporting slave trade to the Caribbean, and boosting settlement. The appeal of commercial agriculture drew the attention of eager landowners. With Crown support, French migration to the Caribbean increased, especially to Saint-Domingue. In the fertile plains of Saint-Domingue's Northern Province, colonists established sugar plantations and mills for processing cane. In the Western and Southern Provinces, sugar plantations and mills appeared alongside coffee and indigo plantations. As a result of the buccaneer generation's clandestine maritime commerce at Tortuga, and with the northern coast's proximity to favorable trade winds and ocean currents, Cap Français (or Le Cap) became a favorite destination for ships arriving from Africa and Europe. Port-au-Prince, in the center of the colony, emerged as the second busiest port and the island's administration center. At the southernmost end, freebooters traded with Jamaica and the British Caribbean from ports like Les Cayes. These coastal enclaves received goods and slaves, supported plantation production occurring in the interior, and became hubs connecting Atlantic societies throughout the Caribbean and along its littoral—including a tiny post on the Gulf Coast named New Orleans.

When African women and women of African descent found themselves funneled into la traversée (the journey across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast), they entered a world where understandings of sex, gender, race, and power honed on the African continent no longer applied. The Middle Passage enacted a special terror that ungendered the captives who were sucked into it, reducing women and girls and boys and men to units of measured "flesh," as scholar Hortense Spillers has described it. On slave ships journeying to the ports of the Americas, African women and women of African descent experienced the terror of captivity and the violence of commodification as a gendered violence against their bodies, minds, and senses of themselves. Experiencing la traversée impressed on those who survived it that life in the Americas would never be the same as it was on the African continent. The tragedy of la traversée, however, did not erase personal histories and epistemologies from across the ocean. Although forcibly transported as enslaved laborers, African women and women of African descent entered the maritime, military-colonial, and plantation societies of the Atlantic world as lovers, wives, daughters, and mothers with their own ideas about where and how to shape the new world they found themselves in.

Arriving along the Gulf Coast from West Africa as early as 1719, African women and women of African descent experienced a world in the throes of this racialized, imperial Atlantic project. Established on a crescent strip of land near the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans began as a swampy outpost populated primarily by French colonial officials, soldiers, and traders. Just as at Saint-Louis and Gorée, the French chose to establish themselves at the location for strategic purposes. Just as in the Antilles, France's first priority was securing the Gulf Coast against European rivals and creating commercial ties with colonies elsewhere—in this case, New France (Canada) and French colonies in the Caribbean. Despite the similarities, Africans who arrived along the Gulf Coast entered a unique world. In Louisiana, an indigenous population dominated, ranging from large, hierarchical states to petites nations, as French called the smaller, Native nations. When it came to plantation agriculture, Louisiana also faltered behind its Caribbean neighbors. In fact, initial forays in tobacco farming met with early and violent resistance from the Natchez Indians. In 1729, the Natchez Revolt and multiple African slave conspiracies ended Crown interest in the region. The Gulf Coast also experienced a major imperial shift in the middle of the century. After the Seven Years' War, France relinquished Louisiana west of the Mississippi to Spain in the Treaty of Fountainbleau (1762), a major administrative change that introduced new laws and institutions into the colony.

Structural oppressions generated by slaving and empire elicited parallel responses and practices of freedom on both sides of the Atlantic. In Senegambia, in their careful navigation of intimate geopolitics and kinship demands, free African women refused to be bound by French imperial limits on their rights to their bodies, their property, or their social mobility. In New Orleans, mutable and dexterous black women did what they could to disrupt the new demands of use and possession placed on their bodies. Their strategies centered intimate and kinship practices influenced by West African precedent and by the unique hardships experienced by enslaved and free along the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean archipelago. Practices of freedom ranged. Women and girls sought new arrangements of kin in the wake of loss and mourning. They learned to interpret European slave codes, pursued formal manumission, and returned again and again to officials when their freedom became contested. They endowed free status with meaning through an active, aggressive, and, at times, unsuccessful practice of cultivating expansive transatlantic and trans-racial intimate and kinship networks. They created intimate and kinship ties that generated means and subsistence for themselves and their kin. They showed up in defense of themselves and each other. They sought joy and pleasure, gave birth, mothered spaces of care and celebration, and cultivated expressive and embodied aesthetic practices to heal from the everyday toil of their laboring lives.

In their actions and refusals, black women on both sides of the Atlantic ascribed meaning to freedom that spiraled beyond European definitions. In Senegambia, these practices emerged as practices of patronage that incorporated marriage and baptism, as well as aesthetics of hospitality, pleasure, and taste. In the Americas, these refusals and transgressions deepened in the face of Europeans' monopoly of power and expanding slave law. In Wicked Flesh, black femme freedom describes practices of freedom that emerged across the Atlantic and that not only transgressed but also refused to abide by colonial ideas of freedom as manumission. Black femme freedom gestated in the Americas, where African women and girls recently arrived and those of African descent born on foreign soil were forced to create new raced and gendered selves from flesh lacerated by the Middle Passage. Doing so required them to navigate ideas of gender that congealed against ideas of blood and race, licentiousness and sexual access, commodification and labor. These practices flowed within and along changing meanings of blackness and African descent, femininity and womanhood. Black femme freedom resided in enslaved and free African women and girls' capacity to belong to themselves and each other. It demanded a promiscuous accounting of blackness not as bondage and subjection, but as future possibility. It rejected discourses of black women as lascivious or wicked, and transmuted them into practices of defiance and pleasure for themselves. Black femme freedom enacted a radical opposition to bondage, reinterpreting wickedness as freedom, intimacy as fugitive, and blackness as diasporic and archipelagic. Telling Black Diasporic Women's History

Wicked Flesh is a history of black women who experienced the contours of bondage and freedom as slavery and the slave trade began to unfold. It describes their everyday fight for some sense of humanity. This study owes much to scholarship and scholars telling black diasporic women's history as a history of freedom. The nature of this work is unique. In Brenda Marie Osbey's poem "Madhouses," a woman named Felicity describes the bawdy behavior of a cohort of irreverent and defiant New Orleans black women. Dancing and daring their way through New Orleans, Felicity warns that these "madhouses" have many secrets but "i am telling only / as much as you can bear." Scholars of black women's lives have engaged in similar dances of irreverence and defiance, revealing the known and reveling in the unknown, pushing the boundaries of narrative and the archive. Wicked Flesh would be impossible without this rich research on women in slaveholding West and West Central Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean. Such scholarship began the difficult task of placing labor, lives, and discourse about black women at the center of plantation production and the post-emancipation society. This book continues in this tradition, centering African women and women of African descent as complicated, carnal, and flawed subjects whose lives, nonetheless, mattered.

Wicked Flesh draws inspiration from Gwendolyn Midlo Hall's groundbreaking study on the African presence in Louisiana. In Africans in Colonial Louisiana, Hall rewrote the history of the Gulf Coast as a history of Africans from Senegambia and other parts of West Africa forced into labor far from home, whose influence appeared in slave resistance, music, dance, foodways, the economy, and systems of belief. In the years since Hall's publication, work on Gulf Coast's black diasporic heritage expanded tremendously. Wicked Flesh joins work by Hall, Ibrahima Seck, Emily Clark, Ibrahima Thioub, and Cécile Vidal that has argued that the provenance of Senegambia in the French slave trade to Louisiana and the presence of Senegambians in the region were central to shaping black life and culture as it developed. This study also expands on scholarship by Cécile Vidal and the Caribbean roots of New Orleans society; and Jennifer Spear, Sophie White, and Kimberly Hanger, particularly their focus on the material, intimate, and community activities of enslaved and free people of color in French and Spanish Louisiana. Their research demonstrated the importance of Africans and people of African descent to sustaining faltering Gulf Coast outposts, their complex relationships with indigenous laborers, and the many strategies they used to secure manumission for themselves and others. Wicked Flesh builds on this oeuvre by arguing parallel intimate and kinship practices existed between Senegambia and the French colonies in the Americas, despite differences in imperial context. These practices reveal themselves when employing a gendered racial framework that centers African women and women of African descent but are obscured by an empirical or colonial analysis that brackets empires into discrete, disconnected regions. Making connections across empires allows a new history of freedom to be written.

As a study of intimacy and kinship, Wicked Flesh attends to the intimate violence that enslavement brought into the lives of black women and girls. Joseph Miller, in his discussion of domestic slavery in Africa, described the global premium placed on women and girls purchased or traded as slaves, "domiciled and dominated," for their forced physical, reproductive, and sexual labor. Jennifer Morgan's reproductive history of enslaved women in West Africa, Barbados, and South Carolina linked European writers' prejudicial portrayal of African women's bodies and fertility to British slaveholders' assumptions about African women's potential as workers in the New World. Arlette Gautier, Bernard Moitt, and Dominique Rogers likewise describe similar dynamics for black women in the French Caribbean, offering critical examinations of intimacy, kinship, and the relationship of both to labor demands, opportunities for manumission, and family formation. Wicked Flesh surfaces stories of everyday terror that characterized life in slaveholding societies for black women and girls. By connecting this violence as it appeared in the lives of women and girls from Senegambia to the Gulf Coast, Wicked Flesh identifies intimate violence as a central link between Africa and its diaspora, critical to how colonial officials, slaveowners, ship captains, and even husbands sought power over black women as units of property and labor.

However, telling a history of black women and intimacy during slavery means more than confronting violence. Wicked Flesh explores ways black women sought out profane, pleasurable, and erotic entanglements as practices of freedom. Embodiment (the intersection of the material and the metaphorical) and aesthetics (an expressive culture of selfhood) informed African women and women of African descent's practices of freedom. From the cultures of taste they managed and profited from at the Senegal comptoirs, to the feasts, dances, and material expression they forged in the Antilles and on the Gulf Coast, the women in Wicked Flesh took embodiment and aesthetics seriously. They risked their lives to create hospitable and pleasurable spaces, managed entrance into them deliberately, and circumvented authorities who declared them as wicked and tried to stamp out their efforts. As LaMonda Horton-Stallings notes, "What is profane changes over time depending on when and where it originates." To explore those changes, especially over time and space, the microhistorical and quotidian take center stage, implicating homes and bedrooms, hospitals and workshops, biases and bodies as sites of ongoing struggles to define black humanity.

Wicked Flesh is told through the eyes of the women themselves, in an overlapping structure that mirrors the overlapping diasporas they existed in and created. Chapters 1 and 2 explore life at the Senegambian comptoirs of Saint-Louis and Gorée from the perspective of free African women like Seignora Catti, Anne Gusban, and Marie Baude, each of whom navigated the terrain of slavery and freedom in differing ways. Marriage and baptism, cultures of pleasure and taste, and hospitality labor engaged in by free African women at the comptoirs is the special focus of the women seeking safety and security in these chapters. Chapters 2 and 3 explore how these practices impacted three groups of people: free African women who had ties to European and African men, captifs du case at the comptoirs, and Africans forced onto slave ships headed to the Americas. For enslaved people en route to the Gulf Coast, the upheaval caused by the Natchez Indians' confrontation with French settlers, especially the Natchez's acquisition of slaves as spoils of war, extended the predations, disruptions, and commodification of the slave trade well beyond disembarkation. Reflecting this, Chapter 3 narrates black women's and girls' experiences of la traversée as a long Middle Passage that ends with their being largely invisible at the intersection of two Gulf Coast institutions—the free black militia composed of formerly enslaved men who fought against the Natchez, and the Ursuline convent complex, built up to assist white female refugees of Natchez-French violence. Mirroring the overlapping diasporas the women moved through, Chapter 4 moves backward in time to when African women and women of African descent first begin to inhabit the diasporic and archipelagic terrain of the Gulf Coast, exploring how their lives and labors become beholden to the Antilles in colonial structure and yet reminiscent of the Senegambian coast in population.

Chapters 4 and 5 narrate black women's experiences as French colonial officials attempted to tie black womanhood to the use, possession, and labor that could be forced from black female bodies. Chapter 4 explores the embodied experience of these discourses through the eyes of women like Suzanne, the wife of Louis Congo, a New Orleans "negro executioner," and introduces the concept of the null value as a mechanism for naming archival silences even when reading along the bias grain. Chapter 5 delves deeper into these women's challenge to French colonial power, following girls like Charlotte, the daughter of a French colonial officer, as they demanded manumission for themselves. This chapter introduces the concept of black femme freedom as a way to characterize practices of intimacy and kinship that exceeded and superseded the manumission act. For black women, these practices also occupied the realm of the profane, the corporeal, and the erotic as they created spaces for pleasure, spirit, and celebration. This practice of freedom drew censure from French and, later, Spanish officials who retaliated with bans on enslaved and free black people's behaviors, such as hosting night markets and wearing headwraps. Chapter 6 continues by exploring the impact of imperial change on practices of freedom, drawing on the perspectives of women like Magdalena, María Teresa, and Perine Dauphine. With a new colonial administration came new institutions and privileges, including the opportunity to register last wills and testaments. Free women of African descent used these legacies to proactively choose kin, a practice of freedom that could be quite fraught when debates over who could be claimed as kin intersected uneasily with racial ideologies, property, and social hierarchies. Wicked Flesh concludes with a look into the Haitian Revolution's refugee diaspora to New Orleans, and it foreshadows changes that awaited people of African descent as New Orleans entered the American nineteenth century.

"Concede nothing," New Orleans writer, artist, and activist Jeri Hilt wrote on the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, "You alone are the reckoning." After Hurricane Katrina, public reckoning with the African diasporic influence on the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans in particular, slid from public view. In the years since, scholars, artists, and activists refused to concede to a history of New Orleans that ignored the ways black women, children, and men shaped the city. In 2009, Leslie Harris and Connie Moon Sehat founded the New Orleans Research Collaborative, to bring together individuals pursuing a historical and critical evaluation of New Orleans. In 2011 and 2012, Emily Clark, Ibrahima Thioub, and Cécile Vidal, with the support of l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, organized two international colloquia to explore connections and comparisons between Saint-Louis and New Orleans. Post-Katrina book-length studies by Lawrence Powell and Ned Sublette positioned New Orleans as an American city—and American cities as beholden to black diasporic labor and culture. Commemorative campaigns—including the opening of the Whitney Plantation and Slave Museum in Monroe, Louisiana; museum exhibits such as Purchased Lives, curated by Erin Greenwald at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2015; and the activist group Take 'Em Down NOLA's successful campaign to have four Confederate monuments removed from the tourist landscape—have linked black New Orleans history to West Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

The late Clyde Woods described Hurricane Katrina as a "blues moment," an unnatural disaster that "disrupted the molecular structure of a wide array of carefully constructed social relations and narratives on race, class, progress, competency, and humanity." New Orleans history is layered with such blues moments, events and processes that fracture supposedly well-understood narratives of race and gender, class and color, slave and free. In the way of those moments, the work of remaking, remixing, and remembering black life has always been black intellectual work. Wicked Flesh explores what that work looked like in the hands of the African women and women of African descent who founded the city. This book is dedicated to Clyde Woods and others gone before their time. It is shaped by life in the wake of that storm. It is a love letter to this memory—of a deep Black New Orleans.

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