Carmélite and Black Geographies

Mishnah Qiddushin 3 outlines that a mamzer may achieve his freedom if his parents are sold into slavery and are then freed, freeing him into normalized relations with Jewish society with all the rights and privileges thereto. Here, through ancient subjugation one finds a pathway into privileged society. Emily A. Owens, in her article, “Promise: Sexual Labor and the Space Between Slavery and Freedom” recounts the story of Carmélite, a young woman who in 1851 sought protective custody through imprisonment in order to secure her release from sexual bondage. She had been sold to the owner of a brothel under the legal jurisdiction that an enslaved person sold under such conditions would then be free, though she remained property and was not able to attain manumision and release from sexual servitude. Carmélite remained enslaved due to the terms of her sexual labor, being perceived as responsible for her own disposition and not worthy of attaining freedom. 

The words “will become free” inserted a very particular temporality of freedom into the practice of enslaved sexual labor and invoked a history that linked sexual labor to freedom. As Diana Williams writes, the linkage of sexual labor to freedom in the history of African American women focuses on the agency of the women involved, unwittingly producing a narrative “that women of color willingly trapped themselves in a prison of their own making.” (Owens 2017, 181-182)

Narrative maintenance and re-provocation from slave-owners and laws assured the statutes of bondage in perpetuity without even the potential favor and release from grievances that mamzerim might enjoy. Re-victimization was assured through legal means and social convention. There was a systemic relationship of slave codes “linked to interracial intimacies” (Owens 2017, 187). Laws captured racial and sexual violence and reflected the very act of the capture of the individual. The spirit of these laws do not truly change over time, but adapt to new resonances and institute fresh policies that malign and contain rights of an individual and the assurance of personal safety. On more than one occasion I have heard white, southern men state, “I have never owned a slave” as justification to exclude civil expenditures and projects a narrative to rejects the reality that history conserves its forefathers’s interests, both metaphysically and in the pursuit of sustaining alienating powers of influence. 

Katherine McKittrick, in her book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and The Cartographies of Struggle, assesses the spatial dynamics of the inter-relational, sustained passage and pathway of Black Women releasing justice-seeking into the intra-spatial dialogue of culture, language, and literature. As we witness in Carmélite’s confinement-story, “marginalization is an experiential geography that highlights ideological confinement and the peripheral place of black gendered bodies” (McKittrick 2006, 55). Whether the Second District Court in New Orleans in 1851 or the urban spread of metropolis-minor in the reflection of segregated swimming pools, the enclosure of sequestered bonds highlights the periphery of in-dormant historicities of freedom-taking actions. Carmélite released the reasonableness of not just her freedom, but all Black women in bondage who were subject to sexual servitude by white, male oppressors. Those men found allies in the laws of disparity and norms of subjugation.

McKittrick’s analysis and exposition takes tenure in opposition to segregated norms. Carmélite’s struggle is central to the locale and heritage of time of space where “Black geographies […] illustrate the ways in which the raced, classed, gendered, and sexualized body is often an indicator of spatial options and the ways in which geography can indicate racialized habitation patterns; they are places and spaces of social, economic, and political denial and resistance” (McKittrick 2006, 7). Where Carmélite is stationed in history, she speaks forth from a great force of plate tectonics of emotive logic that cannot be denied, but by intentional force and willing obtusity of a persistent oleographic of “Virginian Luxuries” that is more often than not, flipped to reveal the dark backside of the linguistic code of spatial authorities over sociospatial bodies. 

The determinant factor that unveils Carmélite’s past-centered struggle and McKittrick’s dialogue into a feminized space of approach and unmoved appraisal into the bitter-waters of where previous struggles is the light shown into, not just the distant-now, but the forever-hold on a matrimony of oppression that continues to be taught, continues to be orchestrated, continues to be silenced as though it is naught, and, most importantly, continues to be resisted – resisted with complete composure – from the bell halls to the stomping grounds to the lecturing spaces. There are few more composed spaces than that which Black femininity and expression coincide with a light on a resistance-struggle for peace and alterity of the law. 

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and The Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Owens, Emily A. “Promise: Sexual Labor and the Space Between Slavery and Freedom.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 58, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 179-216.