Peeling back the layers of plantation landscapes, Adams reveals connections between seemingly disparate features of modern culture, suggesting that they remain haunted by the force of the unnatural equation of people as property.
About the Author
Jessica Adams is lecturer in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is coeditor of Just Below South: Intercultural Performance in the Caribbean and the Southern United States.
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Wounds of ReturningRACE, MEMORY, and PROPERTY on the POSTSLAVERY PLANTATION
By Jessica Adams
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSex and Segregation
Ownership is the most intimate relation one can have to objects. Walter Benjamin
"New Orleans is paved with Negro skulls," said one American author. He would have done better to say that New Orleans is paved with beautiful women, although this would not disqualify the first observation. Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein
It was the end of the nineteenth century. Consumer culture was emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the United States, and the mechanisms of production were poised to outstrip demand, with advertising about to step into the breach to inspire fresh desires. Segregation was congealing as social practice even as everyday life was inevitably more complicated than an overview of the laws would suggest. And the southern plantation was being renewed as myth. White culture invoked evidence of the Old South as a bulwark against encroachments of blackness into post-Emancipation "mainstream" culture-encroachments that, in fact, white culture found very seductive. Women of color were still serving as cooks, nannies,and maids in white southern households, and white men still wanted to sleep with them. In nineteenth-century Louisiana, the taboo against sex and intimate relationships across the color line grew stronger as segregation grew more entrenched. The social difficulties involved in white men's cross-racial desires could be managed, and the fulfillment of these desires facilitated, however, through their confinement to certain spaces and geographies: brothels and, later, the officially sanctioned environment of Storyville, the red-light district for which New Orleans would become famous.
Because female sexuality was critical to the exercise of power on the plantation, the reinvention of the plantation system necessarily involved women's bodies. In the antebellum South, wives and slaves were quite openly and deliberately entangled. Historian Stephanie McCurry writes that
in the lexicon of metaphors for slavery, marriage took pride of place, a discursive construction historians have rarely recognized. No other relation was more universally embraced as both natural and divine, and none so readily evoked the stake of enfranchised white men, yeomen and planters alike, in the defense of slave society. By equating the subordination of women with that of slaves, proslavery ministers and politicians attempted to endow slavery with the legitimacy of the family and especially marriage and, not incidentally, to invest the defense of slavery with the survival of customary gender relations. In this sense, the subordination of women bore a great deal of the ideological weight of slavery.
As McCurry's research demonstrates, this justification of slavery via white marriage also operated among whites who did not own slaves. Freedom and authority as essential qualities of whiteness were reflected in the inverted mirror of those whom whites could legally own-both slaves and white wives-whether or not they actually owned them. Because the apparent naturalness of the subordination of white women had been a critical justification for the naturalness of black slavery, Emancipation compelled a recalculation of social value in the South along gender as well as racial lines. But the fact that white women could still be unfree servants became a challenge to concepts of whiteness. Both the historic value of a white wife as measure of her husband's social status and the ideological force of paternalism, which regained momentum during the Lost Cause era as whites across the nation espoused increasingly extreme notions of white supremacy, continued to link the subjectivities of white and black women. Thus white women were in the position of upholding white masculinity by defining an aspect of post-Emancipation whiteness as linked to slavery.
The city of New Orleans has long been associated with transgressive sexuality. In part because of the lack of white women on the Louisiana frontier, European men had sexual relationships with Native American and African women, and the practice of plaçage was eventually institutionalized as a unique white Creole rite during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Under this system certain light-skinned women of color, called placées, were groomed as suitable consorts for men who would support them and the couple's children. Some Creole men had two families, one with a placée, the other with a white woman. (This is the arrangement by which Faulkner is fascinated/repulsed in Absalom, Absalom!; the otherworldly visit of Charles Bon's "black" "wife" to the Sutpens' Mississippi plantation sums up Faulkner's vision of New Orleans's difference from the rest of the South.) With the Civil War, however, racial tensions made plaçage less feasible. In the social climate of post-Reconstruction Louisiana an acknowledged intimate connection between a white man and a woman of color became problematic, and white men's legal acknowledgment of their mixed-race children became more difficult. But interracial intimacy persisted. As Alecia Long writes, "There was a range of historical situations and contexts in which sex across the color line occurred in New Orleans between 1865 and 1920. For the city's women of color, those situations could include unwanted sexual advances or violent rape, exchanging sex for money or other favors on an intermittent or ongoing basis, being a mistress to one or a series of men, marrying across the color line, which was legal in Louisiana between 1870 and 1894, or living with a man in a committed relationship without the benefit of marriage." As law created fictions of racial identity as it mandated the meaning of blood, fiction helped generate attitudes about race and race relations that shaped the practice of everyday life. Local color writers played a key role in the evolution of public perceptions of slavery and the Civil War, and national interest in southern domestic and social scenes created a forum for women's writing. In detailed descriptions of southern society, women interrogated the consequences of plantation life, including unstable postslavery relationships among property, gender, and sexuality.
Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening reveals the enduring problematic of paternalism embedded in late-nineteenth-century attitudes toward white marriage; it addresses white fears about a slippery slope from "racial equality" to miscegenation, fears related to the contemporary increase in lynchings. Yet the argument that in killing black men whites were protecting white womanhood served as an attempt to simultaneously cement all blacks and white women as property. In Chopin's depiction, female sexuality actively destabilizes the relationship between race and property upon which postbellum order still rested. After slavery, female sexuality could no longer be controlled with the ideals of asexual white women on pedestals and black women as self-perpetuating property. Chopin shares Thorstein Veblen's interest in women's roles as both "unfree servants" and emblems of masculine leisure. Veblen does not develop a connection between race slavery and gendered surrogacy, but Chopin suggests that it creates a trajectory linking antebellum with postbellum domestic economies. The historic relationship between white wives and property is fundamental to the plot of The Awakening, and Chopin explores how gender complicates possessive individualism. According to Margit Stange, Chopin's description of Edna's struggle to realize self-ownership "unpacks the paradoxical logic of self-ownership in all its contradiction and impossibility. It is through her role as the wife-and marital property-of Léonce Pontellier that Edna first looks for a self that she might possess; and it is as a mother that Edna first declares her resolve to withhold some part of that self from the claims of others." In other words, Stange argues, "in her aspiration to self-ownership, Edna claims title to a self that exists only in relation to her status as the property of others." Edna's liberation is not possible outside the confines of the white self as sexual property that she seeks to escape, but her entrapment in the post-Reconstruction world of people as valuable property necessarily references black bodies as chattel, exposing the connections between whites and the blacks they were trying to return to a state of virtual bondage. As white men degraded black men and women, Chopin's work suggests, they simultaneously degraded their white wives. The Awakening indicates that anxieties around the fact that white male bodies could be categorized as valuable property within a consumer economy in which everything was for sale got deflected onto women, who already were property.
It is possible to read Chopin's suppression of black characters in the novel as a suppression of the correlation between white women as property and people of color as property. Edna is from Kentucky, not Louisiana; unlike her husband, she is not "Creole," and her psychic transformation takes place in a realm effectively unpopulated by people of color. Given Chopin's almost painfully meticulous observations of white Creole life, sentences such as "Mr. Pontellier's two children were there-sturdy little fellows of four and five. A quadroon nurse followed them about with a far-away meditative air," or "A maid, in white fluted cap, offered the callers liqueur, coffee, or chocolate, as they might desire" sound like missed opportunities at the least. But perhaps "race is rendered narratively invisible" because depicting a woman fleeing the bonds of property would be that much more difficult if, as Jim Crow law and custom amplified, Chopin had focused on things that Edna had in common with her colored servants, specifically their status as sexualized property.
While Chopin investigates ideological tenets of plantation life translated into urban space and postslavery society, the plantation and its racial and gender dynamics shadow the action without ever appearing-except, perhaps, in the form of Léonce's mother's house in the country where Edna sends her two boys and the nameless quadroon during the time in which she transforms her life and then ends it. For Grace King, however, the plantation is both an enabling and an explicit presence. Her story "Bonne Maman," set in New Orleans shortly after the Civil War, centers on an ancient, aristocratic former plantation mistress who has been left penniless. Refusing to ask her remaining relatives for help, Nénaine ("bonne maman") moves with her orphaned granddaughter, Claire Blanche, to New Orleans, where they live in a former slave cabin in the area known as back of town-"an obscured corner in which to thrust domestic hearths not creditable to the respectability assumed in the front part of town; where oil lamps could be economically substituted for gas, and police indifference for police protection." These two fallen women (as it were) do piecework for the poor whites and people of color who populate the neighborhood. In essence and on principle, the grandmother, or good mother, imposes upon herself and "Bright White" a form of natal alienation (the rest of the family believes they are in France). In King's image of alienated whiteness, bondage is associated with a plantation where whites are the slaves of blacks and former slaves do all the buying and selling.
Relocating a Creole plantation in the city of New Orleans and identifying it as a site of white oppression, King engaged the contemporary crisis of Creole identity as well as the postslavery relationship between race, gender, and sexuality. The woman who eventually became known as the "grande dame of New Orleans literature" was a Lost Cause loyalist and passionate Francophile; though not a Creole by birth, she began writing in order to refute George Washington Cable's ironic portrayals of Creole life and culture. She published her first story in the New Princeton Review in 1886, after encountering well-connected Harper's editor Charles Dudley Warner at a Mardi Gras party. As she told Century editor Richard Watson Gilder (also in town for Mardi Gras) when he suggested that some New Orleanians' vilification of Cable went too far, Cable "had stabbed the city in the back ... to please the Northern press" with his "preference for colored people over white." If Cable was pandering to antisouthern prejudice, King's stories, she determined, would enlighten northerners as to the "truth" about Louisiana.
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall's research shows that the term "creole" "derives from the Portuguese word crioulo, meaning a slave of African descent born in the New World. Thereafter, it was extended to include Europeans born in the New World. In Spanish and French colonies, including eighteenth-century Louisiana ... creole was used to distinguish American-born from African-born slaves." And before long it became enmeshed in racial politics. During Latin American independence movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was used as a slur against those who wanted home rule in the colonies: "The Latin American elite born in the Americas was called the creole elite and was accused of being incapable of self-rule in part because of its racially mixed heritage. Rejecting this heritage, the creole elite of Latin American redefined the word creole to mean people of exclusively European descent born in the Americas." Something similar happened in New Orleans during and after Reconstruction. As Virginia Domínguez writes, "Northern newcomers to the city and other non-Creoles began to insinuate rather openly and insistently that all Creoles had at least 'a touch of the tarbrush.' After all, many of the well-known politicians ... called themselves Creole but were also colored. Although white Creoles did not exactly look colored, rumors spread that they had skeletons in their closets. Why, otherwise, would they continue to identify themselves as members of the same social group or category as thousands of colored people?" In a climate of intensifying racial binarism, white Creoles needed to establish that Creole meant pure white in order to retain their social standing. Kate Chopin's husband Oscar was a member not only of the white Creole elite but, eventually, of the white-supremacist Crescent City White League-New Orleanians who effectively ended Radical Reconstruction in Louisiana in 1874 at the "Battle of Liberty Place," an armed insurrection against Governor William Pitt Kellogg's integrated administration. Louisiana historian Charles Gayarré gave a speech at Tulane in 1885 in which "he made thirty explicit references to 'the pure white ancestry of the Louisiana Creoles'" within an hour. Meanwhile Creoles of color whose very existence white Creoles were trying to deny sought to distance themselves from "blacks," for as the category of blackness became reified, Creoles of color-a historically free group of people, members of which had lived and studied in France "as early as the 1740s"-watched their own relative privilege disappear. The Louisiana State Constitutional Convention met in 1898 to determine an effective means of disenfranchising people of color without violating the Fifteenth Amendment. In February, a group of men of color presented a formal statement to the suffrage committee: "We are perplexed and discouraged when opposite courses are proposed to be pursued. When one insists that ignorance is a bane and the other that the most dangerous negro is the educated, that education unfits him for the responsibilities of citizenship, we confess ourselves in a dilemma and plead for that education which will enable us to shun the Scylla as well as the Charybdis." Their logic was brushed aside. The committee completed its task in early March after weeks of debate, breathlessly reported in the New Orleans Daily Picayune, and the day this antisuffrage plan was announced, coverage began, "The child is born."
Excerpted from Wounds of Returning by Jessica Adams Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
Richly combining literary analysis, historical research, and first-person ethnography, Wounds of Returning successfully traces how the historic conversion of human beings into capital did not die out with slavery but continued anew in the workings of consumer capitalism. Adams makes her argument concisely and effectively, with evocative interpretations and insightful revelations.Russ Castronovo, University of Wisconsin-Madison