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on not fully formed thoughts and “Formation”

Many have already had much to say about Beyonce’s latest video “Formation.” Amii McKendrick, a sorority sister and dear friend from Miami, said via Facebook last night that there “are many dissertations and symposiums in it” (she likes to lure me into conversations. I mostly stay quiet. This morning, she shared an impressive posting by one of her friends. Perhaps I’ll cautiously weigh in).

“Formation” obviously touches on police brutality, the “good and bad hair” legacy and identity politics, Katrina and so much more. I could not help but be drawn to the nod to the antebellum south via dress.

This is not a fully formed thought, but I wanted to share as true of the dark-skinned women who were clearly not field hands in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” room was made to consider how the dark-skinned woman of African descent fits into the bigger narrative of the plantation south. Deborah Gray White and others have thoroughly covered the “Mammy” caricature. She is, generally speaking, not deemed to be beautiful partly because of her dark complexion. Because pop culture sources seem to be slowly going in this direction, room is being made to address what historical sources reveal: dark-skinned women, not just light-skinned ones, occasionally sold for high prices during the antebellum period (They were almost certainly used as bedmates. Some maneuvered thoughtfully as oppression continued. Let’s be clear).

An 1836 receipt surviving in the papers of the Virginia-born domestic slave trader-turned-planter Rice Ballard shows he received $1250 for Louisa Long, a woman who is noted as having a “black complexion.” Her price tag was larger than usual for an adult enslaved woman. Indeed, as Michael Tadman has written, some domestic slave traders sometimes preferred dark-skinned bedmates because they were assumed to be freer from disease than fair-skinned ones who were believed to have been handled more. In fact, dark-skinned female slaves might have even been marketed as “fancy girls,” the brand name for enslaved women and girls sold for use as prostitutes or sexual companions. Such women and girls, who were often found in southern port cities like Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston (“Daddy Alabama,” “Momma Louisiana… You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas …” ) through which men and money moved, could bring as much $5,000 on the auction block, far surpassing the $2,500 average price tag on an adult male slave with blacksmithing skills.

Back to the video… Bey, whose fair-skin is almost offset by dialect, sits front and center in a fine white dress. To Bey’s right is a dark-skinned woman with two long plaits. The old narrative is still at work for this woman’s dress is off-white. That darkness and off-white require us to listen hard.

The greater evidence of white men’s ties to fair-skinned women before the war suggests a lingering preference for them owing to attitudes that held that any individual – especially a woman – whose appearance approximated that of whites was more desirable.

We see, too, Bey’s daughter fair Blue Ivy centered, flanked by two beautiful darker girls. No hard judgment here. Just offering context and sorting through it all like others. But as I said last month in a talk about race and intimacy during the antebellum period, I have sometimes wondered if the Louisa referenced by an enslaved woman in a surviving 1847 letter was not in fact Rice Ballard’s wife, Louise, but Miss Long or some other person for whom the record offers little. More context is needed.

As I write in my book Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015), in 1847, Lucile Tucker, an enslaved woman Ballard owned, had evidently been permitted to work in an unnamed profession in Bainbridge, Georgia, a river town. In a letter mailed to Ballard, her master, she demanded her freedom and asked him to spare her the expense of returning to New Orleans to secure it. So confident she appeared to be, she said life was uncertain and “he” – not she – might die before she saw him again. And perhaps as a veiled threat to share something he wished to remain unknown, or as a mere pleasantry, she closed with the words “Remember Me to Miss Louisa.”

The historical record provides no clear answers on Lucile’s skin complexion. The same is true of the two women and four children Ballard did free in 1838. The record possibly offers firmer answers about the five women with whom Alabama planter Samuel Townsend had nine children. In Townsend’s will, those women were considered to be in the “second class,” their mixed race children in the “first class.” Before his death in 1856, he left the children the bulk of his $200,000 estate, worth $5.5. million in today’s currency (owing to protests by his relatives and other hurdles, they never received more than $34,000). Those children and four of the women (one of them died before her manumission) were freed on the eve of the Civil War along with their husbands and immediate kin. All relocated outside slave territory, some returning after the war.

There is much through which to sort. The familiar narrative must be expanded to include this messier past that shows up in those women in Tarantino’s film, “Formation” and elsewhere. We will doubtless hear more in coming days and weeks.

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