Three Bodies of Slavery: How Slaves stayed Free while in Bondage

Stephanie Camp’s book, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Restistance in the Plantation South, makes an interesting study of southern slave women using ideas of space and time. Before she goes into these ideas she discusses a little about the gender roles and treatment of slave men and women. Men had more freedoms to move about than women did, based on the jobs they were given. Men were mostly field workers and sometimes sent on errands to neighboring plantations or to town. They were given papers on these trips to give to patrols that might stop them to prove they were about their master’s business. Women were rarely given these privileges, so they had less opportunities to attempt to runaway. Furthermore, slave women, just like their white counterparts, were seen as the homemakers and mothers. After putting in long hours of work, just like the men, they were expected to return to their homes to cook for their family, mend and clean clothes, and keep their quarters neat. If they were lucky, they had a husband or other women who would help them, but it was not the others’ responsibility to ensure it got done. It was theirs. In addition, slave women also had to suffer the sexual humiliations forced upon them by the men around them. Not only did they deal with rape, from both white men and black, but most punishments were exacted to be sexually degrading with the women stripped bare, tied down, and whipped over all their body. Men were usually just stripped to the waist and their backs were whipped.

After making these comparisons, Camp moves into a discussion of space. She looks at all the different ways in which women manipulated and rebelled against their slave status. Sometimes it was a slipping off the master’s property, just over the border to meet with other slaves. Many women would not runaway if they had children, because it was seen as disgraceful to leave her children behind in order to free herself. Fathers were not seen as such. Sometimes these women would rebel by hanging abolition papers in their quarters, or stealing things from the master to make their living space nicer. Sometimes they used their space to hide other runaways. Whatever they did, it was a way to show that even though they were seen as someone’s property and were expected to abide by many rules and restrictions, they were masters of themselves, and ultimately in control of their own lives.

One of the most interesting points that Camp makes in regards to this is that the slaves had three bodies. “The first served as a site of domination, it was the body acted upon by slaveholders” (66). This is the body that took the punishments. “The second body was the subjective experience of this process. It was the body as vehicle of feelings of terror, humiliation, and pain” (67). These first two bodies, the master had control over and could influence. They could inflict physical harm and cause a slave to feel pain and any number of emotions. “The slave’s third body was a thing to be claimed and enjoyed, a site of pleasure and resistance…Women’s third body was a source of pleasure, pride, and self-expression” (68). This third body was why women rebelled. They gained great satisfaction from their small rebellions, even if they were punished for them after the fact. This third body could not be touched unless these slave women gave another permission to access them. These third bodies were not owned.

Camp’s argument is both enlightening and fresh. She takes a subject that has been studied for years, and looks at it through an interesting and exciting lens. In comparison to the other books for this segment, it lacks more information and greater explanation of the lives of slave women. However, as a stand alone read it is quick, easy, and very informative.

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One thought on “Three Bodies of Slavery: How Slaves stayed Free while in Bondage

  1. Fantastic! Camp redefines what we think of as slave resistance. There may have been no female Nat Turners or Denmark Veseys, but enslaved women rebelled in ways that rejected masters’ control over their daily lives, and even their physical bodies. I think the point about children is an interesting one. Who would have thought a female slave’s abandonment of her children was disgraceful? Probably the enslaved mother herself. The willingness of enslaved fathers says less about their ties to their children, potentially, than their ability to protect and defend their families even when present.

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