Black Feminist in Public is a series of conversations between creative Black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.
Juneteenth honors the emancipation in 1865 of those who were enslaved in this country. At a time when discussions about the legacy of slavery—from the 1619 Project to “slavery movies”—have become politically and culturally fraught, there is an increasing number of scholars doing research about the slave past and doing so from Black feminist perspectives.
The Black Feminist in Public series will highlight three scholars of slavery studies and Black women’s histories who agreed to an interview with Ms.’s Janell Hobson.
First up: Jessica Marie Johnson, an associate professor of history at John Hopkins University who served as the Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation fellow at Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University during the Spring 2021 semester. Her book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, was recently published with University of Pennsylvania Press in 2020.
Janell Hobson: How would you describe your book, and what led to your research?
Jessica Marie Johnson: My book is a Black feminist history of the founding of New Orleans. So, it’s very much about and accountable to African women and women of African descent and the ways that Black women, broadly, have understood the experience of bondage, have battled against it, and have struggled to survive it by taking ownership of themselves, their bodies, their communities, their children, their kinfolk, and making claims to freedom that have always been broader than the manumission act and broader than the emancipation decree.
It is very much, in all the ways that we think of Black feminist work, about centering Black women and about the ways that Black women’s survival, creativity and their world-making has really shaped and been foundational to the Gulf Coast. But it’s also a book and a research and a narrative that I tried to make as accountable as possible to Black feminist scholars and Black feminist thought.
Hobson: Why did you choose to focus on New Orleans?
Johnson: I started going to New Orleans regularly; my first trip was in 1999. And from that point on, I was very interested in the history and culture of the city, particularly of Black New Orleans. Like most people, I understood New Orleans as a city of pleasure and play, as with Mardi Gras. But as I learned more and learned about its history of slavery, its history of free people of color, its romanticization over the quadroon and free woman of color, there’s a whole fantasy that is sexualized around how Black women have operated in the city. And I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with that narrative and wanting to do the work and research to understand its roots.
Once I did the research, I realized this story is so much more complicated—as they always are. Our understanding of Black women’s experiences needs to be more complex. It needs to account for the messy ways that Black women have participated in slaveholding but also challenge the very notions of slaveholding at the same time. American history probably can do a better job of holding the complexity of gender, of Blackness, of sexuality in ways that show the full humanity of Black women.
“Like most people, I understood New Orleans as a city of pleasure and play … but as I learned about its history of slavery, its history of free people of color, its romanticization over the quadroon and free woman of color, there’s a whole fantasy that is sexualized around how Black women have operated in the city. And I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with that narrative.”
Hobson: Would you say that New Orleans history is very distinct from other parts of the U.S.? I’m wondering about the French-speaking, Spanish-speaking world that it brings together and how that makes the history so different from the English-speaking world—especially when it comes to interracial sexual histories.
Johnson: Yes, absolutely. There’s French imperial impact and the Spanish imperial impact. There’s the moment that it enters into U.S. as a territory in 1803 in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. It received a huge number of refugees from Saint-Domingue, many of them free people of color, who are also slave owners. And New Orleans is the most active and central part of the slave market of the South throughout the antebellum period. Now, the interracial dynamics of the city are also things that we see in places like Baltimore or New York; they’re just not as commented on. So, it’s interesting that New Orleans becomes the kind of mirror image of things that are happening in other places, but because there’s so much more intensity in the city, we can actually have a conversation about what these things might mean, in a much more dense and detailed way. At the same time, there is no American history without New Orleans history. Whether it’s the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, or the huge bloody riots during Reconstruction that led to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, or the significance of a free population of color. It is all part of the making of what becomes the United States in some ways that we don’t always fully integrate into our understanding of U.S. history.
Hobson: What do you think is the most persistent stereotype about New Orleans that you think your research has kind of demystified?
Johnson: The idea that New Orleans is mostly a place of play, which I hope has been troubled a little bit. There is still Mardi Gras there. Now we know, particularly post-Katrina, in mainstream consciousness, there’s a sense of the Mardi Gras Indian, there’s a sense of the “second line” as a way of understanding and celebrating grief in community, and I think we’ve seen that even more in the last year or so as Black funerary practices have been very much part of the news because of COVID-19. I believe there is magnificent play in New Orleans because there has also been magnificent devastation. There’s a level of dispossession and actual bloody violence that dropped out of the balance of the equation when we’re thinking about, “New Orleans is America’s playground.”
I assert that we challenge this if we center Black women in these social spaces, who use play and pleasure as ways to recover from the devastation of slaveholding regimes. If we think of Black women as stewards of cultural and community formation, then we will see that play is not just play. It is actual work in creating New Orleans out of terrible circumstances.
“There is magnificent play in New Orleans because there has also been magnificent devastation. There’s a level of dispossession and actual bloody violence that dropped out of the balance of the equation when we’re thinking about, ‘New Orleans is America’s playground.'”
Hobson: Your book captures the nuances of Black woman’s sexual histories in particular. Do you find, when you center Black women, that this subject is still difficult to address when it comes to slavery studies?
Johnson: Definitely. The range of sexualities and genders among enslaved Black people, I think we don’t have a way of talking about it in a kind of mainstream popular, sit around the kitchen table and talk manner. And I think that is a history that is so tender, that no one wants to even touch it. That is a gap that needs to be cared for and addressed so that we have a language for talking beyond the gender boundaries and beyond a range of sexualities and sexual formations, so that we are accountable to our complexity across time periods.
Then we could understand that the kind of complexity and range of genders and sexualities we have now is not new. We just haven’t always had really good language for how to talk about it. I think we really still don’t have really good conversations about pleasure. I don’t think we have very good conversations about Black women’s agency, in the context of racialized sexual violence. Our conversations still go to consent or coercion as fundamental binaries that we find difficult to massage, to pull, to explore.
“I think we really still don’t have really good conversations about pleasure. I don’t think we have very good conversations about Black women’s agency, in the context of racialized sexual violence.”
Hobson: Why do you think it’s difficult to create discussions beyond this binary?
Johnson: Some of that is because the violence is so acute and so present, one that we deal with even in the present day. Black women have some of the highest rates of sexual assault and violence. This is not something that is only in the past by any means. And it’s the kind of thing that was interracial. It’s a hard conversation to have, even among ourselves, much less in public, about our own history and about how that violence was part and parcel of bondage. That was the logic of slavery; it is gender and racial violence.
Because of that violence, we then don’t do the work of talking about pleasure. We don’t talk about the way that pleasure is complicated. We don’t talk about agency [in slavery studies]—agency becomes this thing that causes strife in our discourse, as opposed to a starting place to think about the many manifestations of Black womanhood and Black women’s sexualities. If we can have that conversation, maybe that will lead us to talking about the range of genders and sexualities during bondage. Like maybe that’s the way into that tender spot. But we still have much more work to do.
Hobson: Do you think Wicked Flesh is able to fill in that gap?
Johnson: I hope there are a few stories in my book that are compelling to people that ask different questions about where pleasure might lie, even in the hardest bondage. And then maybe they will go and seek out more information.
One of the things I’m working on with a team of researchers is a project called Keywords for Black Louisiana that is trying to create some portals into thinking about Black life during this period, so that people have more access to these stories and to these narratives of Black humanity and Black play and Black resistance and Black politics. There are so many more books to be written.
Hobson: What is your next book project?
Johnson: I look at the way that Black history and the digital intersect and have intersected in really interesting and strange ways. Somehow the commodification of enslaved bodies lends itself to the creation of digital history, the creation of archives and databases, around enslaved people, around runaway ads. All of these things are actually linked together, which would make the history of slavery very much at the heart of the history of doing digital work.
But my book is also looking at it from the perspective of the ways that Black women have done history. I’m very interested in the ways that Black women are stewards of the past and have engaged it in some very organic ways, kitchen table ways. Whether in scrapbooks, whether it’s the names in the Bible, whether it’s photographs and keeping records of events and historic occurrences, Black women have been our first historians and our first historians of slavery. The professional field of history has not quite recognized this, so I’m very interested in exploring how Black women are keeping our legacies. And how that reflects a real confrontation with the history of slavery.