Market Intimacies: Textiles and the Sexual Commerce of Slavery in Caribbean Literature

• February 2021

It was finished almost as soon as it began. Kitty felt such little intrusion from the overseer Tam Dewar’s part that she decided to believe him merely jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing white man would if they were crushed together within a crowd. Except upon this occasion, when he finally released himself from out of her, he thrust a crumpled bolt of yellow and black cloth into Kitty’s hand as a gift. This was more vexing to her than that rude act—for she was left to puzzle upon whether she should be grateful to this white man for this limp offering or not . . .1

This passage is the opening scene of part 1 of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel, The Long Song, a work of historical fiction that tells the story of abolition in nineteenth-century Jamaica from the perspective of a formerly enslaved woman, July. The situation of this scene of sexual coercion at the beginning of the novel is significant in that it textures both the reader’s introduction to July, who is conceived as a result of this encounter, and to the social worlds of plantation economies of the British empire, in which the rape of African women and women of African descent was “a definitive and central tool to uphold the system of slavery.”2 Sexual coercion, particularly between propertied men and enslaved women, was formative to the violent, quotidian intimacy of what Hortense Spillers calls “slavery’s regime of touch/being touched.” In her 2016 Henry Louis Gates Jr. lecture at Yale University, Spillers offers a genealogy of intimacy as a tool used to distinguish body from flesh. Intimate physical proximity, Spillers argues, has never been a “reliable measure of social cohesion,” a legacy evidenced by the legal system of slavery which necessitated the creation of laboring, alien bodies that were “unable to prevent or ward off another’s touch.”3 The “gifting” of the cloth in this scene is an expression of the paradox of intimate subject-relations in the world of slavery that Spillers identifies: though Kitty as an enslaved woman can neither legally protest nor agree to sex with the overseer, the bolt of yellow and black cloth that Dewar offers her suggests the imagining of a transaction in which the object of exchange is not sex itself but rather a pleasurable fantasy of consent. I borrow the term fantasy of consent from historian Emily Owens, whose dissertation “Fantasies of Consent: Sex, Affect, and Commerce in 19th Century New Orleans” maps the sex market of antebellum Louisiana by documenting (and imagining) the lives of free and enslaved women of African descent as they engage and are implicated within what Owens identifies as the “racialized sexual commerce” of slavery.4 In the context of Owens’s research, “racialized sexual commerce” is a discursive framework that names “the capacious intersection of sexual commerce and racial commerce, in order to imagine a singular, integrated sexual economy” in which what was exchanged in the sex marketplace “was never just sex” but also affective commodities, such as freedom, consent, and power.5

The sexual economy of slavery that Owens explores in her scholarship is intimately connected to budding global fashion industries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not only were bolts of Indian- and European-produced textiles popular currency within the transatlantic slave trade, the controlled distribution of objects of adornment—particularly high-quality and fashionable textiles—was critical to maintaining colonial systems of social power that celebrated and protected European conceptualizations of freedom, beauty, and citizenship in the Americas. In Saint Domingue, for example, the public self-fashioning of women of color was a significant source of colonial anxiety, particularly in the late eighteenth century as the sociopolitical hierarchy dictated by the French slavery economy became increasingly threatened due to rebellions organized by enslaved peoples and Maroons. This history is richly explored by Haitian author Marie Chauvet in her 1957 novel about the Haitian Revolution, La danse sur le volcan.6 In many instances in the novel, self-fashioning—particularly the accommodation and manipulation of European- and Indian-produced textiles—is described as a subversive gesture by women of African descent, who were legally forbidden from donning certain sumptuary items such as lace and leather. In several atmospheric scenes in La danse, free women of color are described as they walk the streets of Saint Domingue in luscious fabrics and on the arms of white male colonial officials. In these scenes these women claim not only their right to luxury but their public, privileged, and even sexual access to bodies of European governing power. In Évelyne Trouillot’s 2003 novel Rosalie l’infâme (which also describes the years leading up to the Haitian Revolution), cloth is closely associated with the memory of sexual violation endured by African women and girls during the Middle Passage, in which human bodies were legally transformed into chattel for exchange within the global textile market.7

As Guadeloupean author Simone Schwarz-Bart illustrates in her 1972 novel, Pluie et vent sur Télumée miracle (published in 2013 as The Bridge of Beyond), the entangled legacies of the modern fashion industry and slavery’s sexual commerce shaped concepts such as freedom and consent well after abolition. The novel traces Guadeloupe’s transition from a slavery-based economy to one of wage contract labor, exposing the material and sartorial afterlives of slavery’s racialized sexual commerce in the colony. A complex and rich textual nexus of folklore, song, and memory, Bridge of Beyond tells the story of Télumée Lougandor and her relationship to the past as it is embodied in a matrilineal legacy of creation, love, subsistence, and survival. As a child and young woman, Télumée lives with her grandmother, who is known to everyone in their village as Queen Without a Name. Also called Toussine, Télumée’s grandmother was given her title of Queen Without a Name by the residents of her village, Fond-Zombi, following the horrific death of one of her twin daughters in an accidental fire that destroyed her home. Once a bright and beautiful pillar within their community, following this tragedy Toussine closes herself off with her family in the remains of her home, lost in her despair. Residents of the village of Fond-Zombi assumed they would never see the bright and beautiful Toussine again until one day she emerged into the sunlight, planted flowers, hung curtains, and was soon pregnant with a child called Victory, Télumée’s mother. After her return to society, Toussine, members of Fond-Zombi remarked, was no longer a woman (“For what is a woman?”) but “a bit of the world, a whole country, a plume of a Negress, the ship, the sail, and wind, for she had not made a habit of sorrow.”8 With Toussine’s emergence from the shadows of her family’s tragedy, she is seen as a rare and glorious subject by the village’s residents, many of whom were formerly enslaved or are the descendants of enslaved people. It is decided that no name will suit her, and so, in the locale of Fond-Zombi, Toussine is crowned Queen Without a Name.

Télumée’s love for her grandmother, who nurtures and raises her, is central to the plot of Bridge of Beyond as a coming-of-age story in the shadow of slavery. During her childhood, Télumée is insulated in many ways from the horrors of the past that she hears of from the women elders in her community. However, at a certain point, Queen Without a Name falls ill, and in order to pay for her medicine, Télumée must find work outside Fond-Zombi. Télumée thus takes a job as a domestic worker in Belle-Feuille, the home of a bourgeois béké family, the Desaragnes. During her time living at Belle-Feuille, Télumée is subject to the scorn and condescension of her white mistress as well as the sexual predation of Mme. Desaragne’s husband. M. Desaragne’s pursuit of Télumée comes to a head one evening when he visits Télumée’s bedroom:

There was a knock on my door . . . so I got up and opened the door, and to my great surprise Monsieur Desaragne walked calmly in, shut the door behind him, and leaned against the wall. He was carrying a silk dress which he tossed to me, smiling, as if it were an understood thing between us. Then he came over to me and put his hands up my skirt, muttering, “No pants, eh?” Trouble is something that takes you by surprise—a tick that jumps on you and sucks you to the last drop of your blood. At my age, and by no means ignorant, I’d thought myself safe from this sort of attack, but for all our experience we know no more about life than we do about death. I made no resistance as Monsieur Desaragne put his arms around me, but as he unbuttoned himself with one hand, I murmured softly: “I’ve got a little knife here. And even if I hadn’t my nails would be enough.” He seemed not to have heard, and as he went on with what he was doing I continued in the same cold, calm voice: “Monsieur Desaragne, I swear to God you won’t be able to go into any other maid’s room because you won’t have the wherewithal.”9

Though Télumée is a free woman of color living in the post-abolition era of the French empire, this scene of sexual coercion bears striking similarities to Levy’s depiction of Kitty’s assault in the opening scene of Long Song—namely, that a textile object is given to a woman of African descent by a white man as a “gift” in exchange for sex. Of particular interest in this passage is Télumée’s observation that the silk dress is not simply an object of exchange as part of this encounter but that its presence is also meant to communicate “an understood thing” between Desaragne and herself. Like with Levy’s description of sexual coercion between Dewar and Kitty, the dress given to Télumée is critical in constructing a fantasy of consent in which a young woman—who has limited power to leverage or means of defending herself against an attacker—willingly accepts her subjugated role within the racialized sexual commerce of this “post”-slavery world.

Télumée, however, rejects Desaragne’s fantasy not only by threatening him with violence if he continues to attack her but by communicating that she sees him: his most base and violent desires in a world in which he perceives black women as “unable to ward off touch”10 despite slavery’s legal abolition:

Now he was not looking at me but gazing wistfully around, object by object, at my wretched room—the bench that served me as a bed, the stool, the bit of mirror stuck on a nail, the apron, the bundle of linen hanging from a string. And it was as if I myself were spread all over the room, I myself from whom he, a melancholy smile on his lips, expected I know not what. A tempest had swept down on Monsieur Desaragne; it had lifted up his white feathers, and I had seen his flesh. I stayed where I was, oblivious of my naked bosom and my skirt half up my thighs. An icy intoxication filled my head, and without thinking what I was saying I answered calmly: “Ducks and chickens are alike, but the two species don’t go on the water together.”11

As Desaragne glances about, Télumée follows his gaze as it comes to rest upon the various material objects in her “wretched” room—the bench that serves as her bed, the bit of mirror, the apron. The introduction of the silk dress into this space by Desaragne is clearly intended to represent not only Télumée’s assumed consent but also her desire for social status in a postslavery world still ruled by the color line. In many ways, Télumée’s act of refusal—of Desaragne and of his silk dress—fictionally animates what historian Jessica Marie Johnson has termed “the practice of black femme freedom.” In Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, Johnson maps networks of intimate relations of power that arose from and were present within slavery as a transatlantic commerce. As an ideology, “black femme freedom” challenges the gendered and racialized hierarchy of slavery as a socioeconomic institution: “Out of the practice of black femme freedom, African women and women of African descent marshaled the audacity to challenge those who presumed mastery—whether imperial authorities or their husbands—over and over again.”12 In Bridge of Beyond, Télumée’s actions of self-defense and her observations about Desaragne’s own “exposure” in this moment express a challenge not simply to Desaragne’s physical attack but to the silk dress as a vestige of the slavery system—a symbol of his “presumed mastery” over her body, her self, and her desires.

Owens’s and Johnson’s scholarship on human relations in the context of slavery’s marketplace (and its afterlives) is helpful not only for understanding the significance of the “exchange” of textiles in the opening scene from Long Song and in Télumée’s encounter with Mr. Desaragne at Belle-Feuille in Bridge of Beyond but for asserting the significance of Levy’s and Schwarz-Bart’s work as these novels participate in a literary counter-discourse to rape representation within postcolonial narratives of nation building in the Caribbean.13 In Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary, Régine Michelle Jean-Charles analyzes rape as a trope in francophone literary production, a body of work that Jean-Charles states has “a long-standing tradition of pursuing the relationship between violence and representation.” In her analyses of texts by Frantz Fanon and Joseph Zobel, Jean-Charles shows how rape is mobilized as a metaphor for the violence of settler colonialism and slavery in a postcolonial context. These literary representations of rape have formed a dominant discourse of sexual coercion in relation to colonial history that Jean-Charles suggests posits black women as passive receptors of violence and that reifies an understanding of women’s bodies “as territories of national conquest.” In her scholarship, Jean-Charles underscores the importance of articulating a counter-discourse to the representation of rape as a metonym for colonial oppression, work that she suggests is already being done by francophone women authors who “reposition rape victim-survivors as female subjects whose personhood is foregrounded and often privileged.”14 Following Jean-Charles, I would argue that in foregrounding the intimate, and often violent, proximities between the global textile and sex markets that slavery made possible, Levy’s Long Song and Schwarz-Bart’s Bridge of Beyond participate in a tradition of historical fiction writing by women authors in the Caribbean that challenges what can be known or understood about experiences of sexual coercion—both from slavery’s archive and from the postcolonial Caribbean literary canon.15 In scenes from both novels, the “gifting” of cloth and clothing reminds readers that these literary representations of sexual coercion are not symbolic of a tragic national origin story; rather, these interactions were and are intrinsically tied to a transnational modern “pleasure economy” that is built on the enduring legacy of slavery as a racialized sexual commerce.16

 

Siobhan Meï (she/her) is an interdisciplinary literary scholar and lecturer in the College of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a coeditor of the interview series Haiti in Translation and a cofounder of the digital humanities project Rendering Revolution: Sartorial Approaches to Haitian History. Her writing and research have appeared in Mutatis Mutandis, Callaloo, and Caribbean Quarterly and in The Routledge Handbook on Translation, Feminism, and Gender (2020), among other places.

 


[1] Andrea Levy, The Long Song (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010), 7 (ellipsis in original).

[2] Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2014), 24.

[3] Hortense Spillers, “Shades of Intimacy: What the Eighteenth Century Teaches Us” (Henry Louis Gates Jr. Lecture, Yale University, 27 April 2016, https://youtu.be/10haBLXN1r0).

[4] Emily Owens, “Fantasies of Consent: Black Women's Sexual Labor in 19th-Century New Orleans” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2015, dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/23845425), iii.

[5] Ibid., iii, 4. Levy’s description in Long Song of Dewar’s attack, while a fictional recreation, accords with what we know about the nature and frequency of sexual violence and assault from Jamaica’s colonial archives. Jennifer Reed, in “Representing Sexual Violation in the Archive of Caribbean Enslavement” (Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, no. 49 [2020]: 89–107), analyzes the infamous diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a white slaveowner who lived in eighteenth-century Jamaica. Thistlewood’s diary recounts the time, date, and nature of his sexual attacks on enslaved women living on or near his property. According to Reed’s analysis, during his time operating the plantation, Thistlewood “had coerced sex with thirty-four different women and young girls . . . acts that cumulatively number fifteen hundred and eighty-four” (91). One of the aspects of Thistlewood’s behavior that Reed notes in her scholarship is his tendency to “remunerate” enslaved women after an act of sexual coercion: alongside the woman’s name, the time, the site of the attack, and sometimes the sexual position, Thistlewood also notes the amount of money given (if any).

[6] Marie Chauvet, La danse sur le volcan (Paris: Plon, 1957).

[7] Évelyne Trouillot, Rosalie l’infâme (Paris: Dapper, 2003).

[8] Simone Schwarz-Bart, The Bridge of Beyond, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: New York Review of Books, 2013), 21.

[9] Ibid., 104.

[10] Spillers, “Shades of Intimacy.”

[11] Schwarz-Bart, The Bridge of Beyond, 105.

[12] Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 185.

[13] Like that of Owens, my use of the term sex marketplace does not refer to sex work as we may understand it today, particularly as this labor is associated with varying degrees of agency across a range of official and unofficial marketplaces. Rather, Owens’s formulation of racialized sexual commerce refers to the ways in which sexual pleasure and fantasy were intimately tied to slavery market logics in the nineteenth century. See Owens, “Fantasies of Consent.”

[14] Jean-Charles, Conflict Bodies, 25, 37, 35.

[15] The intimate relationship between sexual violation and the operation of slavery as a system of creating and managing wealth has been well documented by authors and scholars alike. The “archival turn” in feminist studies of slavery, advanced by scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, Stephanie Camp, Jennifer Morgan, Katherine McKittrick, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Marisa Fuentes, and Jessica Marie Johnson, has resulted not only in a powerful call to center slavery’s archive in discussions of subjectivity, labor, and sex in the Americas but in an ongoing discussion on methodology. Specifically: What knowledge of enslaved women’s lives can be determined from sources largely authored by white, propertied men? And what are the stakes of a creative or intellectual venture that seeks to access and share what can be known or imagined about enslaved women’s experiences?

[16] Owens, “Fantasies of Consent,” iii.

 

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