Marisa J. Fuentes is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archives is her first book. Casey Schmitt previously reviewed Dispossessed Lives for The Junto.
JUNTO: What were the biggest challenges you worked through in determining your approach to locating women’s voices in the archives you worked in?
FUENTES: Many of the archival pieces in the book were incomplete, without the possibility of following traces for full accounts of any enslaved woman or life experiences. Even Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s voluminous archive (in comparison to the other fragments I worked with) was a production from the remains of her economic engagements and did not tell a story separate from the political interest of historians or of the time-period in which she lived. It took a long time to think about different methodological pathways into each archival piece while convincing historians that what I was doing was valid and necessary historical practice. It was also difficult, when beginning the project, to feel as if I were out on a limb and knowing that I was approaching the production and discipline of history in a way that some historians might find provocative. I think balancing my critique of the archive, the introduction of new methods to reveal more than what might be expected at first glance at a document, producing an (incomplete) narrative when possible, engaging with the historiography and attending to the violence against enslaved women—all at the same time—proved challenging, to say the least. I hope I have accomplished some of what I set out to do in an accessible manner. But I also hope that I have attended to these vulnerable historical subjects with respect and deference.
JUNTO: Can you explain what you mean by “bias grain?” How did you apply it to your own research?
FUENTES: By “bias grain” I was thinking about creating elasticity when one cuts fabric on the bias, particularly linen. It stretches and gives while maintaining the function of the material. It was applied directly to chapter 3 in a discussion of the affair of a white man and woman. Enslaved women and black women where present in Bridgetown in such large numbers yet they were not mentioned explicitly in the documents of the affairs of white people in this court case. I wanted a way to describe reading into the silences/invisibilities of archives for what is there but not mentioned, by stretching the documents beyond what is usually empirically acceptable. Ultimately, it was to think about how the presence (even if they were absent in this particular archive) of black women influenced what was possible for other people in this context. It was a way to “see” what was there or what was hidden in plain view. This was particularly obvious to me when the white male lover in this court case sent his enslaved boy dressed as a (black) woman across town to his lover’s house. This disguise spoke volumes about the ubiquitous presence of black women in town and out at night. Reading along the bias grain was also to push the concept of reading against the grain a little further—from reading “between the lines” to reading what is not between the lines at all.
JUNTO: “Archival power” is a central theme in your research; in particular, the ways in which archival representativeness (or lack thereof) distorts enslaved women’s narratives. Can explain a bit more about how your book discusses and challenges archival power?
FUENTES: First, I think it’s useful to define what I mean by archival power. I take this term and the theoretical insight it provides from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s brilliant and monumental work Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995). He carefully shows that power is present in the creation of archival sources and that the historical narratives possible from these sources also reproduce the (inequity) of sources. Following Trouillot, I wanted to emphasize the “process” of historical production, specifically in reference to enslaved women and how they were represented in their own time by others, as well as by historians. I asked questions about how we come to accept the most repeated narratives about them? What work do these narratives do to further silence them? What sources do these narratives rely on? And, more importantly, in what conditions do we find enslaved women in these records? By answering these questions, I was able to pause the unconscious reproduction of this archive of slavery—to not allow the colonial authorities—slave owners, government officials, white men and women—to have the final authority on enslaved women’s lives, bodies, and experiences and to illuminate the violence constituent to slavery and its historical production.
JUNTO: Your discussion of the reading of scars in runaway narratives and its connection to ownership was particularly fascinating. Can you elaborate more about your use of scars as historical sources?
FUENTES: In Chapter One I use runaway advertisements to think about historical meanings inscribed on enslaved bodies. The chapter centers the runaway ad of Jane whose narrative of capture, commodification, and terror was marked on her body through the scars her owner described in the runaway ad. In focusing on Jane’s scars, I brought attention to her body in ways that subverted her owner’s gaze and original intention of the ad. This focus on scars also reveals the mutilated historicity of enslaved women—that is, enslaved women (and men) are left permanently brutalized in the colonial records and one of the many tragedies resulting from this brutalization is it makes our efforts to historicize them, beyond this condition, virtually impossible. I also wanted to draw attention to the idea of scars as permanent markers of enslavement and violence that enslaved people carried with them throughout their lives. It is a way to think about the psychological scars of slavery—that physical scars reminded the enslaved and everyone around them of the debilitating circumstances they lived within. Therefore, bodily scars resulting from punishments and brandings continued to produce meaning for the people who bore them and for those who encountered them.
JUNTO: Dispossessed Lives is innovative in many ways. Are there specific ways you hope that your book will advance the scholarship being done on gender and slavery?
FUENTES: The book offers different methods for working with sparse and fragmented archival sources and provides a critical challenge to the practices of history. It asks us to consider the vulnerabilities of enslaved women as they lived and as historical actors. I hope that future scholars will continue to interrogate the concept of agency as it relates to enslaved women and to slavery scholarship and that we will continue to work on subverting and diminishing archival power. I am hoping that the methods employed in the book can be used in other fields and by scholars working with vulnerable historical subjects in any time period or geography. And, I hope that we consider an ethical practice of history that remains attentive to the legacies of enslavement and dispossession that continue into our present.
JUNTO: What are you working on now?
FUENTES: My next book project looks into the final experiences of what the British termed “refuse slaves”—those that survived the Middle Passage but oftentimes died (sometimes lingering for weeks) when they reached ports around the Americas. Here I am interested in several issues: what genre of human (to borrow from Sylvia Wynter) is a dying, unsellable captive? What is the process of decommodification of African captives (following Stephanie Smallwood)? How do we understand the experiences of people who did not become “slaves” and whose last moments are so archivally momentary and anonymous that they are mentioned in passing by slave traders and historians alike? I also enter the historiography of the slave trade at the moment when there is a renewed interest in the relationship of capitalism to the slave trade and slavery. There are a lot of different threads in this conversation from arguments of origins of capitalism, to debates on how slave labor fits into the schematic of capitalism and its systems. I am interested in what slavery’s capitalism does to enslaved bodies, what it produces (humans as waste), what it destroys—to understand its nature and how captive people and their bodies are configured, confined or refused in this system—particularly those that do not map into the formula of labor power. In this work, I seek to articulate an originary point of black disposability in order to historicize our present—the ways in which people of African descent continue in fatal precarity the world over.