Sometimes the best thing a book can do is make you feel guilty. That is certainly the case with the book I’m gisting today.
There were more enslaved women in the colonial port town of Bridgetown, found on the western edge of Barbados, than any other demographic group. So why do they receive such little attention? Marisa J. Fuentes, in her provocative book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (UPenn Press, 2016), argues that the traditional archive was constructed in such a way to inflict perpetual violence upon women. Until that narrative is disrupted, historians continue to partake in this original sin. Fuentes’s book is, she explains, an attempt at “redress” (12). Dispossessed Lives follows the stories of a handful of women in the eighteenth century through the lens of documents that only peripherally mention them: a runaway named Jane, a mulatto brothel, an enslaved woman who was executed for poisoning, and the debates over abolition. These are all poignant stories in their own right, but they become even more powerful when strung together in a narrative of violence and erasure.
It would be difficult to determine the scope of the book by looking at its cover. The title gives no reference to time or place, and the image is an abstract—yet powerful—hint toward sketching humanity. Someone glancing at it in a bookstore without looking at the back cover or inside leaf would not know that it is about eighteenth century Barbados. This, I think, is indicative of the book’s larger aims: Fuentes merely uses these Bridgetown stories to meditate on the archive and historical craft writ large. Though Dispossessed Lives makes important points regarding enslaved life in colonial Bridgetown—indeed, given the preponderance of scholarly work on Caribbean plantations, I really enjoyed the focus on slavery in an urban community—it is really focused on making historians of all geographies and chronologies consider how we consider our methodology.
Rather than highlight Dispossessed Lives‘s major historiographical interjection, it might be easier to just state what standard methods the book doesn’t touch on. It directly engages literature on slavery, violence, gender, urbanity, and class. Perhaps most insightful to me was its discussion on agency, a topic that has received a lot of attention in the most recent generation of work. But rather than do injustice to all these different ideas, I want to just focus on her work with the archive. How are historical records created in the first place, and how do they still shape our scholarship today? The written records regarding enslaved persons, Fuentes argues, were birthed in the context of, and in the purpose for, oppression and violence. They were acts of validation for those found in positions of privilege and violence toward those on the margins. To reconstruct the lives of enslaved and freed persons merely through their own records misses the chance to subvert the archival record. Fuentes, as a result, reads official—white—sources against the grain in an effort to understand the context of their creation. This is more than just recreating a picture through the negative, but rather dissecting the nature of the photograph in the first place.
I must admit that one of the most prevalent feelings I got from reading the book was one of indictment. I felt guilty for not better appropriating these types of tools in my forthcoming book on nationalism in the early republic. Indeed, though I have a whole chapter on slavery which features a number of black voices, I succumb to the methodological sin Fuentes rightly points out by assuming that the only sources about African and African American voices are those directly from African and African Americans. (To say nothing of my failure to reconstruct the role of women in my narrative—but that’s a whole other issue.) Reconstructing the lives, realities, and ideas of those only found on the margins is a crucial historical craft that requires care, skill, and dedication. Dispossessed Lives makes me want to do better in my future work.
To me, the highest compliment I can give a book is to say that I can’t wait to assign it in the classroom. In some ways, I’m not sure how Dispossessed Lives would work with my students: it’s heavily theoretical and methodologically deep. I worry that some of my undergraduates would sink instead of swim. But I do think its topic is so important, and its methodology so powerful, that I want to find ways to fit it in. (Besides emphasizing some of its lessons through my lectures, anyway.) I plan on assigning individual chapters—likely chapters 2 or 3, because what student doesn’t want to learn about a brothel?—the next time I teach a historical methods class. Not only does it introduce readers to the urban politics of slavery and the role(s) of women within the cursed institution, but it will also open up their eyes to the possibilities of history.
Better to let Fuentes teach students while they’re young so they won’t grow up and feel as guilty as I do.