Jessica Marie Johnson
Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020
360 Pages

Reviewed by Katie Field

Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World is a devoted exploration of Black women’s freedom practices during the seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries. Working with archives from Senegal, Louisiana, and France, among others, Jessica Marie Johnson demonstrates her command of multiple languages and histories in order to bring to life the trans-Atlantic experiences of “African women and women of African descent.” She animates a cast of women whose senses, intellects, and desires bubble up to the surface of the page, giving them not just fleshy bodies and place-based customs, but also an energy that exceeds the boundaries of the corporeal or regional. Johnson ultimately argues that it was African and African-descended women who “endowed free status with meaning” by drawing on “intimate and kinship practices,” many of which were honed on the African content and traveled to the Americas in the hearts and minds of free and enslaved women. The stories she tells reveal the ways in which these women’s intimate labor came to shape the definition of freedom in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. While Johnson’s attention to historical detail and the nuances of language is impeccable, it is her clear and feeling storytelling voice that demands this book be read.

Chapter One, “Tastemakers,” opens in 1680s Senegal with an introduction to Seignora Catti. Johnson offers Catti’s experience as a merchant and hostess of powerful men to illustrate how free African women negotiated their power amidst economies of goods and intimacy, helping to define “taste” on the African coast. She looks specifically at two trading outposts—Saint-Louis and Gorée—to examine how “African women’s intimate labor, consumptive and productive, shaped trade relations.” Wealthy, free African women owned land and slaves, and they often established ties with European husbands through African marriage customs referred to as mariage a la mode de pays. Enslaved women and men also resided on the coast. Johnson notes that in Wolof society, “slavery was not racial in the nineteenth-century definition of race as biological, inherited, and legislated. However, slavery did mark difference and subjection.” The relative autonomy of enslaved people rendered it challenging for the French to “discern” or “regulate” free status. In addition to her detailed account of women from different social statuses, Johnson also argues for the relevance of Saint-Louis’ and Gorée’s geographic position and proximity to water as factors that shaped trade and thus women’s lives. In detailing the intimate and social relations of women in slaveholding outposts on the African coast, Johnson insists that they are necessary for understanding Atlantic slavery, particularly New Orleans, as more than just an extension of the American plantation zone. Women’s practices of freedom on the continent and subsequent French anxiety over female autonomy both informed what life would look like in the Gulf Coast.

Chapter Two expands upon early kinship and freedom practices in Saint-Louis and Gorée to look at the emergence of “a new category of inhabitant”—people born in the comptoirs and thus into “overlapping” European and African cultures and diasporas. Johnson reads reports of marriages and baptisms in order to understand the way that African women exerted and distributed their power through intimate relationships. Baptism became a tool to expand and invent kinship networks, often securing legal and social legitimacy for children in subsequent generations by playing with its institutional formality. “Baptism and godparentage drew the few European and African women into dense webs of kinship among each other, across the divides of culture, race, ethnicity, and status,” and, a European institution, provided stark contrast with the few number of Catholic marriages occurring at the comptoir. Referencing a “spectrum of coercion and volition,” Johnson notes the system that required African women to own slaves or labor themselves, and the precarious position that owning property created for women whose rights were constantly under siege by the Company. Freedom and property did not exist even for free African women “outside the bounds of terror of Atlantic slaving,” as demonstrated by the life story of Marie Baude, the wife of a Company employee who is eventually deported for murder.

In Chapter Three, Johnson tackles the gendered implications of “La Traversée,” the crossing, tracking the ways in which enslavement and forced displacement to the Americas weaponized a process of ungendering African men and women. She calls la traversée “a predatory network of exchanges […] and acts of resistance rooted in war and conquest” and observes the “repeated attempts to dismantle […] womanhood, girlhood, and humanity” that challenged African women’s methods of making kin and maintaining intimate lives. Her attention to historical detail—from the geography and gendered politics aboard slave ships to her careful plotting of women’s arrival in different ports and cities—is counterbalanced by a rich sensory imagination of what individual African women would have been smelling, tasting, and desiring as they encountered new and perilous landscapes. Johnson attends both to life and death as she resurrects women and children whose only place in the archive is on lists of the deceased. Returning to the story of Marie Baude, she also demonstrates the differences between life on the coasts of Senegambia and Louisiana by following Marie’s journey and subsequent exploitation as a free African woman in New Orleans.

Chapter Four locates the lives of African and African-descended women in New Orleans. On the Gulf Coast, and particularly with the implementation of the Code Noir, African women were forced to struggle within and against official and lived means of freedom and manumission. Legal free status was a “fiction” that “required intimacy with empire,” a gendered phenomenon that led some African men to take Company jobs in exchange for freedom, and often required women to gain proximity to powerful men. Johnson’s elaboration on the Code Noir and her accounts of women like Suzanne and Charlotte who struggled for their freedom, are evocative and thorough. For her, it is also necessary to read the archive for “unacknowledged or missing” Black life without equating it to Black death. Proceeding to Chapter Five, Johnson elaborates on how women’s intimate lives assisted efforts to “reject bondage” and improvise degrees of freedom within and outside of formal manumission. Frequently, this art of rejection coincided with danger, intimate violence, and death, but Johnson emphasizes in equal parts the production of “black femme freedom” and subversive, strategic “geographies of pleasure.” 

In the final two chapters, Johnson looks beyond French colonial rule and observes the evolution of Black femme freedom under the Spanish empire’s policy of “buen gobierno,” tracing African-descended women’s expressions of freedom amidst the clash of empires. Examining in detail a legal dispute over property inheritance between two women subjected to different racial categorizations based on phenotype and skin color, Johnson interrogates Spanish systems of racialization. She also reveals African-descended women’s adeptness with navigating the developing legal and social codes of the new colonial power. “Buen gobierno” differed from Code Noir but presented its own set of strategies and motivations for policing Black female sexuality and freedom. Johnson addresses what she terms “archipelagic questions of intimacy,” which recognize the fluidity and exchange of freedom and kinship practices that resulted from contact between the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean islands, especially as the Spanish empire sought to standardize its rule from the archipelago to the mainland. For those writing on practices of resistance in the Atlantic world, scholars of New Orleans history, and anyone interested in how to bring narrative to life from the silences of the archive, this is an accessible and beautifully constructed book.