Infamous Bodies: Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights
Duke University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Daelena Tinnin
The relational violence between visibility and dispossession is a central provocation in both Black women’s cultural representations and the theories that attempt to make sense of them, namely the field of Black feminist studies. Entangled in these provocations are categories of consent, agency, vulnerability, infamy, resistance, celebrity, rights, freedom, fatigue, and their attendant political and cultural discourses. Samantha Pinto’s Infamous Bodies: Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights takes the aforementioned categories seriously and traces a genealogy of famous Black women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to redirect our critical attachment to the assumed remedy of representation and corrective histories toward the embodied experiences of infamous figures and “the ways they inhabit and transform the imaginable limits of political being and living in a patriarchal, antiblack world.”
At the outset, Pinto makes it clear that the work of these early Black women celebrities is central to not only the fields of Black feminist studies and Black studies but also our collective conceptions of the political as an embodied praxis because their liminal subjectivities disquiet the lines between freedom and subjugation. It is the kind of project that makes it possible to consider the relationship between Beyoncé’s iconography and that of Sarah Baartman’s— one that continues to hold space in Black feminist discursive politics. It matters then that the stories critics tell about Black feminist lives wrestle with difficult subjects whose “celebrity” often exceeds the boundaries of who can be known, visible, and available to Black political futures and who cannot. Here, Pinto is in conversation with Joseph Roach, Nicole Fleetwood, Uri McMillian, and Daphne A. Brooks, among others whose projects have all labored for more critical and expansive formulations on the intersections between iconography, consent, and performances of Black female subjectivities. Pinto argues that engaging with these transgressive subjects and their embodied performances reveals the pitfalls of liberal humanism’s overreliance on injurious agentic subjects and push for investment in the “hermeneutic of vulnerability” that might imagine needs and risk as central to political subjectivity.
Through a Black feminist methodology at the limit of Saidiya Hartman’s (2008) “critical fabulation,” Patricia Williams’s (1991) “distance and respect,” and Jennifer Nash’s (2009) “letting go,” Pinto reckons and reimagines Black women celebrities’ visibility and the attendant cultural productions as risky, uncertain, and uneven to “think about historical reuse as a political and cultural strategy in relationship to Black feminist thought.” Pinto applies these vulnerable methods to the lives of her “infamous” subjects (Phyliss Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta) to reread and renegotiate their archives differently and consider how their infamy charts new ways of seeing the Black political present and imagining Black feminist futures.
Chapter One interrogates the recurring fantasy and visuality of Phillis Wheatley, namely the consumable representations that critically attach her to notions of Black women as injured objects. As Pinto restages Wheatley as “the first Black celebrity and an origin story of Western human rights” that if engaged through a “method of reading the political through and with uncertainty” points toward a generative place of Black intimacies as viable political performances and of Black women’s political subjectivity. Pulling together a range of visual, textual, and historical renderings of Wheatley’s life and literacy, and the fantasies of the trial of her authenticity therein, Pinto analyzes the production of Wheatley’s celebrity as constitutive of the West’s production of Black women’s bodies as always already visible, vulnerable, and open to interpretation. The plays, poems, and freedom plots of Wheatley as embodied symbolism have allowed her to be cast as a pliable actor in narratives of Black triumph. Still, if Wheatley’s legacy is that of an unknowable political fantasy, as Pinto argues, then what would be possible if we did not focus on freedom “as a litmus test for the use of and engagement with Black women’s history”?
Chapter Two takes us to the embattled ground of consent as it is encapsulated through the narratives of US democracy, the violence of enslavement, and the difficult stories of Sally Hemings and her relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Pinto examines the romance of consent to mean both the genre of cultural production and the idea that romantic love always adheres to an alignment of choice, truth, desire, and agency, as it comes to bear on Heming’s representational legacy and the complexity of “Black women’s positionality in the history of sexuality in the Americas.” By evaluating the contemporary debates and reproduced history of and around Heming’s (un) consent that have been staged through novels, film, poetry, and curatorial spaces, Pinto imagines a political universe that figures Hemings as a central subject that generates new ways of thinking through the economy of Black women’s sexuality as a frangible, vulnerable state of possibility in Black political thought.
Chapter Three returns to the reexamination of Sarah Baartman, the cultural, political, and commemorative recirculation of her image, and the “difficult critical affects around Baartman as a figure of Black feminist discourse-including the fatigue of constant, repetitive, unremunerated critical labor.” Through a study of the public trial in which Baartman appears a witness, Pinto interrogates the limits of ‘contract’ as a viable, yet fictive, tool of liberal humanism and what Baartman’s contracted/enslaved body can tell us about the cultural contracts that are undone and remade in the face of quotidian and spectacular notions of Black women’s sexuality.
Mary Seacole and the desire for civic engagement and citizenship is the focus of Chapter Four as Pinto considers the Seacole’s infamous position as outside the histories of enslavement and thus “at a precarious moment of transition for Black women’s celebrity and affirmative intimacies with the state.” Seacole, and her life as a Jamaican nurse, hotelier, and memoirist in the 1850s, challenges “static narratives of racial, national, and colonial belonging for a Black feminine subject.” Pinto takes up the reanimated histories of Seacole as a symbol of racial progress, Black mobility, and the assumed value of corrections to the historical record to imagine a fuller picture of Black women’s political subjectivity at the site of Black civic desire.
Lastly, Chapter Five introduces Victorian-era celebrity Sarah Forbes Bonetta and the lure of sovereignty. The case of a young girl kidnapped from her home in Africa, transported to Dahomey, and presented to Queen Victoria as a gift is one that allows Pinto to fully examine the difficulty of projects of recovery and corrective histories. The construction of celebrity in Bonetta’s visible life returns us to the question of the ways in which Black women’s bodies are reused in the interest of contemporary politics. Instead of assuming an alignment between the body, sovereignty, and wholeness, Pinto asks us “to look to the infamous body as a way of tracing a genealogy of Black feminist political thought that compassionately acknowledges both the lure and the trap of agency, leaning into vulnerability of the body-of its sensations and its desires.”
In many ways, Infamous Bodies reads as a love letter to the field of Black feminist studies. Its nuance, strength, and practice of deep and ethical care are often found in the moments where Pinto returns to Black feminist theories to stretch its methodologies and its possibilities. In Chapter One, she offers Wheatley’s body and her Black celebrity as a method “of reading for and through proximity, intimacy, and care through violence and vulnerability.” Black feminist cultural criticism endeavors to wrestle with the machinations of visibility, and Pinto, through this method of reading, constructs a fantasy of freedom that does not do away with the visual body; it instead conjures it differently as one that grapples with “the material conditions of Black women’s embodiment” to prioritize deliberation, thought, and art. Later, in Chapter Three, Pinto discusses the possibilities of Black feminist fatigue that advances a refusal of the visual contract of critique that exhausts us in the face of endless comparisons between loss, death, injury, and resistance. Pinto argues we can step back and “imagine other modes of meaning making within and from” this fatigue.
As Pinto gestures toward her conclusion, this book will prove to be an important tool for those studying Black women’s celebrity in the historical present and considering how we can think differently about the relationship between cultural representations and political subjectivities. Because of Pinto’s deft interdisciplinarity as seen through her commitment to a depth of literature and objects of study, this book has the potential to be useful in Black studies, Performance studies, Black Feminist studies, English Literature, and Legal studies, to name a few. Given the thickness of both Pinto’s subjects and the number of intellectual genealogies she approaches, this book is best suited for advanced courses of study. Its challenging and rewarding depth feels especially welcomed and appreciated in a cultural moment of reckoning with the representation of Black women and interrogation of for whom and what political purpose it matters.