SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
MARGO CRAWFORD: I'm Margo Crawford in the English department, and it is my pleasure, my deep, deep pleasure to welcome you to this opening keynote of "The Flesh of the Matter, a Hortense Spillers Symposium." This symposium is organized by me and Riley Snorton. This English Department lecture and the full symposium has a primary co-sponsor, the Afrikaans Studies & Research Center, and many other co-sponsors-- the American Studies Program; the Society of the Humanities; Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies; and the Department of Performing & Media Arts.
I also must pause to thank Sarah Elizabeth Rice for all of her incredible work. She allowed all of this to happen. And let me thank Hortense Spillers, the real person who allows all of this to happen.
Hortense Spillers' kaleidoscopic text, Black, White and in Color, Essays on American Literature and Culture, published in 2003, flows from analysis of the literature of Gwendolyn Brooks, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and many others to black critical theory, such as All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother-- Race and Psychoanalysis-- and Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe-- An American Grammar Book.
In the preface to this book, Black, White and in Color, Spillers crystallizes the unsettling and opening up of new conceptual space that is indeed her ongoing project. She writes, "This essay does not offer a solution, just as its relatives in this volume, but rather, finds and circumlocutes certain static in a field of force." And let me repeat that. Finds and circumlocutes certain static in a field of force. "Doing so may be preferable after all to the false certainty of solutions."
Hortense Spillers' circumlocutions are exquisite. She dodges the static and takes us elsewhere. As we gain new ways of thinking about matters such as the psychic hold of slavery; what we really mean when we refer to intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class; and how the borders of American literature and African-American literature are cut. And of course, many of you know, when I'm thinking of that very title, who cuts the border.
One of her most resonant phrases is the hieroglyphics of flesh. She teaches us to see the hieroglyphics of ideas that, like all word pictures, can be worked for their most material possibilities, and for their most abstract world-opening possibilities. As I thought about the world-opening possibilities, it made me think that I don't want to be the soloist as I introduce Hortense Spillers. So I asked some of my friends, people who are really leaders in what we can call black feminism, right?
I asked them, if you had to tell me in two to three sentences what you would want to say about Hortense Spillers, what would it be? Here's Jennifer DeVere Brody. "We needed her. Had she not been here, we would have had to have invented her. Analyzing, confounding foundational myths with brilliance, beauty, and general badness, Professor Hortense Spillers is a profound resource. Her body of work is a national treasury of theoretical wealth."
Here's Sharon Holland. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe is still, after 20 years, my go to essay. I teach it in my theory classes, graduate and undergraduate. It is one of the most challenging erudite and spot on analyzes of our present predicament as black subjects in the Atlantic World. Every time I read it, I think, and the peeps still don't get it, right? I want to make it required reading for anyone attempting to do intersectional work, so that we might all pause and reflect before we say words like gender, and woman, and black-- and continue to convince ourselves that we know what and whom we are talking about."
Arika, an art collective that works both locally and internationally-- this is what they say about Hortense Spillers. "To us, she is one of the most important thinkers of racialized, historicized, gendered female bodies in America. Her complex lyrical and deeply philosophical writing navigates sentiment, sorrow, empathy, the law, flesh, and the bodily violence upon which states are formed. So many scholars continue to return to her classic essay, Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe, it is no surprise that entire books such as Michelle Stephens' Skin Axe and Alex Weheliye's Habeas Viscus are grounded in the theoretical apparatus of this phenomenal essay."
Spillers taught in Cornell's English department before moving to Vanderbilt. Today's keynote and tomorrow's symposium are our refusal, our sheer refusal both here at Cornell and all of the universities represented in tomorrow's symposium, to stop claiming and honoring the work of this visionary Hortense Spillers. Please join me in welcoming her back to Cornell.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: Wow. That was just wonderful Margo. That was absolutely terrific. I'm so glad to see you. And it's a little frightening too, to be the subject of this symposium. You can't quite say it to people when they ask you what you're doing. And you say, well, I'm going to give a keynote, and you don't say what.
And they say, well, what is it? And then, you tell them, and they say, what? [INAUDIBLE] stops. So it's terrific. I'm glad to see you, and thank you so much for coming. You could have been a number of other places, I realize. And it's great to see you here.
I want to talk today about work that I regard as still very much in its beginning stages. And it centers on the world of the 18th century, where I look at three revolutionary scenes. And in effect, I'm trying to come to some determinations about the status of women in the revolutionary context of the 18th century-- the birth of the modern French state, the revolutionary context of the North American colonies, and the transition from the Saint-Domingue to Haiti.
And those three revolutionary sites, of course, are connected in many different ways. But I'm particularly interested in what happens to women under those circumstances. And this was engendered by my interest in the liaison between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. So a larger set of questions really emanate from that particular liaison and what that was about-- and how you define intimacy and sexuality under conditions of enslavement.
And does it in fact redefine intimacy in a larger picture in the world of slavery at all. In other words, it seems to me that under those conditions, under conditions of slavery, we have to look at intimacy, privacy again for slave and free under those circumstances. It seems to me that you cannot change the calculus on one side without shifting it on the other. So that's the general project where I've sort of cast down that little bucket here lately. And I'm going to talk a little bit about that today.
But I would think that these are notes toward "A Problematic-- Shades of Intimacy, What the 18th Century Teaches Us." The 18th century bears special markings and ring-tones for us because it exposes in absolute clarity what David Brion Davis, among other investigators, describes as the era of the problem of slavery in the Western world. This powerful demographic, economic, social, political, and historical upheaval did not only reconfigure the map of the known world, but freighted in its tremendous arms the future of three continents so that it's spatial temporal reach lands its blows on the body of the world centuries later.
We contemplate three interrelated scenes on the globe slightly more than a century and a half after the appearance of the English translation of scripture commissioned by King James in 1603. I use the latter as a convenient signpost because it symbolically signals the consolidation of modern forces that will embed slavery within the context of the modern Christian West-- the North American colonies of Great Britain, the French state in the throes of revolutionary change, and Saint-Domingue-- or what has been called the Pearl, or what was called by the historians the Pearl of the Antilles.
All deliver us to the heart of the matter by way of an interrogation that is ceaseless. What does it mean to be human? Evoked with especial acuity because of the enslavement for all intents and purposes of an entire continent. But the problematic that I wish to address over the next few minutes is not this overarching stage of large movement, but rather, a calculus of relations sustained by these larger forces, nonetheless, that is harder to detect and define.
This weave of relations is partially shrouded by the public world of profit and production, just as it disappears into the shadowy remoteness of the private world with its masks of affection, sentiment, cruelty. The one word that crosses this ambiguous territory of public and private, light and shade, production and reproduction, might be intimacy that falls into crisis-- precisely because, in this instance, it is neither fish nor fowl. What do we call children, for instance, born to sexual congress between the enslaved and their owners?
Or more precisely, what do we call liaisons between the enslaved and their owners? Frederick Douglass, in his 1845 narrative, observes a new social fact on the ground of slave labor. It is the sexual work engendered in this weave of relations that has produced what Douglass called there, you might remember, new people on the Southern tier. Although, Douglass's new people may have in fact appeared as early as the 17th century in the colony of Virginia, if not before.
Ira Berlin's Generations of Captivity, for example, speaks about the racial mesclada of subjects in the African littoral, or those interstitial spaces between the ports of call along the Sub-Saharan West African coastline and the Middle Passage that became the site of the emergence of subjects who were neither African nor European, but a joining of these genetic currents and properties. If Berlin is right, then such a trend line appears as early as pre-Virginia formation. But I understand Douglass's drawing out this strand of sociality because he wants to emphasize the utter corruption of slavery's protocols, masters who own their children.
As such a subject himself, Douglass was keen to its social and political implications. Mixed race status, in this case, was no guarantee of freedom, even as it enhanced the owner's profits. And this was precisely Douglass's point. I am struck by this phenomenon not only in the specific instance of figures like Frederick Douglass and Sally Hemings, who was the daughter and mother of interracial crossing-- but as these particulars conduce us to a larger query about intimate life at all in a world that allows, that enables, both family life in its juridical privilege and personality, and extra-familial life as the secret heart of the family's other.
The stuff of novels as fiction written in the Americas as early as William Wells Brown's President's Daughter will attest, this familial parallelism is not an exception to the rule. I think in my own mind I used to think of it sort of as an exception in some, in [INAUDIBLE] sense, it was in my mind that way. But it seems to be the dominant form or arrangement of slavery's generations across the color line. So that what I hope to eventually extract from the record is a redefined and refined sense of intimacy in a world where flesh is for sale-- where flesh is summed up as a medium of exchange.
And what this looks forward to, I believe, is the sense of a cultural history of touch. Because I think that touch is probably the single sensual realm that most defines the difference between enslaved and free. Or I suppose we could say enslaved and relatively free. And touch may be the first measure of what it means not to be enchained anymore.
When I can declare my body as my own space, and when you have to gain permission from me implicitly to put your hands on me, I think that makes a difference, right? And so ultimately, I think we're talking about touch. In the single instance that I want to examine today, we are confronted by intimacy or shades of intimacy as nothing that happens between private parties. In fact, we encounter it here as an absence, a bureaucratic suggestion of contact.
But as Steven Stowe argues in his study of intimacy in the antebellum South, contact between the enslaved and their owners, even of the most persistent or intense-- as in the enslaved who worked as domestic servants inside the master's household-- did not yield intimacy, which is hard to believe. That proximity or contact do not answer. So the latter, in the world we are pursuing, was a public forum and perception expressed, for instance, in rituals of courtship, and acknowledged to family, and friends, and class.
So the case that I want to look at today for your consideration comes out of the annals of the work of the historian Rebecca Scott and Jean Hebrard. And it's something of a translation. It attempts to be, at the same time that it is a translation of freedom papers-- the story of a woman and her children-- it is also an attempt to interpret at the same time that it is translating. So if this begins to sound a little wonkish or a historian-ish, it's because, well, that's kind of what it is.
Wonkish and historian-ish-- as I'm trying to get my hands on examples that are not easy to come by. The year is 1867, two years after General Robert E. Lee has surrendered arms to the next iteration of the United States of America. Sometime during late November of that year, Louisiana lawmakers convoked a convention to write a new constitution for the State of Louisiana. On the 4th of December 1867, which marked the ninth day of the proceedings, one congressman, Edouard Tinchant, T-I-N-C-H-A-N-T, a free man of color we presume, takes the floor and proposes that the assembly adopt measures to assure the civil rights of all women regardless of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.
An active participant in pursuant debates on the franchise and other liberties to the people, Congressman Tinchant calls once again during the final days of the convention for women's rights. But in addition, he boldly proposes that their conjugal relations not satisfied by marriage be recognized. He went on to suggest that the state of Louisiana take juridical measures to guarantee that all women, again regardless of race or color, be granted the ability to more easily bring complaint in cases where the promise of marriage has been broken.
And furthermore, help to make it possible that either partner in concubinage for more than a single continuous year have the right to force the other party to marry. The Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1867-68 drafted a strong revision of the laws that ascertained the former enslaved equal access to public institutions and facilities-- schools, transportation, accommodations in places of entertainment-- even though this congressman's proposals were not adopted, nor did the body rule on the question of marriage.
Rebecca Scott and Jean Hebrard, the two historians of the revolutionary era of the 18th century collaborate to bring to readers and scholars of the historical fields that converge on the period of Reconstruction of this quite remarkable story that is captured in their study Freedom Papers-- An African Mother and Her Children in the Era of the Haitian Revolution. This piece is referred to by other historians, among them Laurent Dubois in his study of the Haitian revolution. It was originally brought out in the 2007 issue of a periodical, Genesis.
And I think it is a very good example of what Frederick Krantz after E.P. Thompson calls history from below. History from below, where the other people, let's call them, are located in the world of the every day. And I believe that it is here, in the obscure half hidden doings of the non-public, non-heroic world that we often find the impetus and the impulse of events that provide the headlines of global order.
So the story that Scott and Hebrard reconstruct in their work is precisely an example of history from below, insofar as its protagonists are not the Jeffersons and the Louvertures, the [? Christophes ?] and the Dessalineses, but rather the ones whose names, like Congressman Tinchant's maternal grandmother Rosalie Vincent are buried in the archives of the world's special collections, well beyond the ears and eyes of either living memory or historical regard.
The striking features of Rosalie Vincent's life, from the point of view of an investigator, may be described along the following lines. The story of the unfolding revolution in the French metropolis in the francophone colonial world of the Antilles, and in the capital cities of the early United States becomes everyday living circumstance for this woman, once enslaved and concubine of her owner. In other words, when the Black Jacobins set fire to a small town on the southern plain of Saint-Domingue as a strategy of combat against the advancing armies of General Victor Emmanuel LeClerc, Napoleon's brother-in-law, Rosalie Vincent is sent fleeting like all the other inhabitants of Jeremie, Saint-Domingue.
Rosalie Vincent's story inscribes a particular African diasporic instance from the moment of her capture from among the Pular people of West Africa through the Middle Passage to the New World. Rosalie Vincent then lends a name, a face that we might imagine to the statistical log of the movement of goods across international borders. This story delineates in considerable detail the relationship between literacy and its lack, official bureaucratization, the workings and orchestrations of law and decree sitting high and looking low, and the human subjects woeful assertion of the right to life.
A tales scored in violence that commences on the west coast of the Sub-Saharan African continent ends up two generations later in the collective discourse on the floor of the Louisiana legislature-- and finally, more than a century later in the hands of English speaking investigators across disparate settings. We would be justified in seeing in Rosalie Vincent's story what Brent Edwards calls the practice of diaspora as a paradigm of movement, and the record of transformations that take place in the contact zones of race and culture.
When Congressman Tinchant advances then what must have seemed to his congressional colleagues an immodest, if not outrageous, proposal, he was paying witness to events and eventualities that he himself had not experienced either directly or even vicariously but on the pulse of the nerve-- or on the pulse of the nerve-- but was rather insinuating a story whose details had found their way to him in France where he was born in 1841. Tinchant's parents, fresh from New Orleans, were fleeing in 1840 the difficulties of trying to live as free black people in a United States headed for civil war.
According to Scott and Hebrard, the congressman was enrolled at the Lysee in Po during the revolution of 1848. They track him from Berne, from which locale he departs in 1857 for Belgium after Napoleon abolishes the Second Republic. He reappears, according to their outline, in 1862 in New Orleans where he is reunited with his brother Joseph, a cigar merchant. To these early intense experiences of vicissitude and certain danger, the authors attribute Tinchant's lifelong categorical refusal of a hierarchy of races, and what he himself called the tyranny of aristocracy.
In his own view of his motivations, he insisted on the role played by his political education in Europe and his military experience in the United States Civil War on the side of the Union. But he also described himself as a son of Africa and of Haitian ancestry. From the archival center Aix-in-Provence, Scott and Hebrard discovered documents that allowed them to sketch out the affecting story of Congressman Tinchant's grandmother Rosalie Vincent who lived the odyssey from slavery to freedom, sexually mediated by the black female's abject posture in the racial hierarchy of 18th century domination.
The dramatis persona of papers demonstrate the interactions of race, class, and gender markings predicated on social and political conditions that we recognize as extreme. But more than anything else, their movement across the social landscape exactly choreographs and embodies the power of decree, of the written word, to decide human fate. Scott and Hebrard describe Michel Vincent's-- and this is Rosalie's master, owner, and sexual partner-- describes his handwritten letter of manumission as a maneuver that falls somewhere between a juridical text and a talisman. Or we might say between a scriptive gesture and a hope and prayer, which contra-distinctive unity aptly captures legal nuance in confrontation with uncertainty on the ground of the real.
Even though Rosalie Vincent is twice freed, once by public decree, then by virtue of her master's letter, for those who exist in the zone of history from below, reversal is as much a possibility as emancipation. What the story draws out with unrelenting clarity is what exactly such a gamble looks like when life and death are at stake. The author's first encounter, a written trace of Rosalie Vincent in 1799 when she is living on a farm on the southern peninsula of Saint-Domingue in the town of Jeremie, J-E-R-E-M-I-E.
The French metropole has been shaken by revolutionary turmoil for a decade already, aided by the colonial impetus of free people of color in the 1790s. The latter's representatives had turned up in Paris in 1789, demanding at the constituent assembly their rights and equal status with their white counterparts. But mulatto social status was often elided with that of free blacks, as we have seen, for instance, from le code noir and some of the ordinances that collect around the French black code that barred the mulatto from certain professions.
One historian points out that mulattoes were quote "consigned to segregated companies in the local militia, and were proscribed from sitting at table with whites so that signs of their racial inferiority trapped them between racial fault lines, simultaneous with their supposed superiority over free blacks." In any case, Julian Raymond's appearance before the constituent assembly, when he reminded the French deputies that free men of color had been instrumental in the pursuit of runaway slaves throughout this century, that mulattoes quote "loved most whites," as one historian puts it, and would quote "honor property." And all of this dissolves in meaningless gesture because his assertions were ultimately insufficient to earn the franchise for either mulattoes or free blacks.
Then there's Vincent Oge interventions met by resistance from white colonialists. And they are no more successful than Raymond's efforts. And Oge Himself is captured in 1790 by his white counterparts, subjected to a travesty of a trial, and brutally murdered by his captors. Oge's horrendous treatment sets off a firestorm in 1791, which engenders a change of tactics on the part of mulatto activists who finally reinterpret the political tea leaves to their greater advantage.
Taking up arms against the white colonialists, and seeking alignment and coalition, at least some of them, with the island nation's half a million blacks, the mulatto activists signal a new chapter in the revolutionary offensive of the colony. Now, we are very familiar with these events as they are magisterially narrated by historians, certainly among them C.L.R James's Black Jacobins, Carolyn Fick's study of Haiti. But such events acquire an added layer of drama when we can situate actual characters within the context of a people. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say when we can perceive the concealed or invisible subject against the backdrop.
Rosalie Vincent's case is just such an example. She is living in Jeremie when the British Redcoats disembark in the town at the end of September 1793, having been summoned there by local counter-revolutionaries from the British military outpost in neighboring Jamaica. In as much as the emancipation decree by the French commissioners will not take effect in the south of the isle until a month after the British troops have entered the picture, it is safe to assume that the measure has been adopted as an act of political expedience.
At the end of 1798, after military skirmishes have complicated the spectacle, the abolition of slavery is formally recognized in the town where Rosalie is situated. Those who had been enslaved were then designated in the written documents as cultivators, as franchise, and as free Negroes. Scott and Hebrard surmised from the archival documents that Rosalie Vincent was in her 20s in the 1790s. After the emancipation decree, she continues to live with Michel Vincent.
An emigrant to Saint-Domingue from France where he was born, not among the class of wealthy planters who had amassed considerable fortunes by the end of the 18th century in France's most prosperous colony, Vincent had become a farmer on decamping in Saint-Domingue. And from the sound of it, he belonged to the class of petite blanc, or small whites, in contradistinction to grand blancs, in a pattern apparently replicated across the colonial world. He would have fewer resources to work with, but as in Vincent's case, some of the lesser farmers, nevertheless, would come into ownership of small amounts of land and complementary numbers of the enslaved.
Given the historians' interest in the role that public documents play in the autobiographies of individual subjects, Rebecca Scott is well-poised to interrogate significant ritual moments of intersubjectivity-- birth, marriage, death, the posthumous disposition of one's goods-- from the point of view of public institutions. Now we have seen this thematic asserted before in quite a lot of fiction by African diasporic writers, by black writers, as it asserts itself across the landscape of enslavement.
Even though the public document does not come to mind as a basic existential element in freedom's itinerary, it is nevertheless such a document. When we think about, for instance, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and recall a bureaucratic error made by a union soldier who, entrusted with census duties that's undertaken by the Freedman's Bureau in the aftermath of the Civil War, results in the misnaming of a character, which mistake trails the Dead family of this novel well into the next century and successive generations.
In Edward Jones's Known World, one of the novel's chief protagonists, you might recall, in fact produces the apposite pieces of paper when queried by a white passerby. But in a painfully ironic twist of intent, the papers mean absolutely nothing to the inquisitor as the protagonist is remanded into the state of slavery. In real life, Frederick Douglass and his fellow conspirators, in executing plans for an escape, forge passes in mimicry of the master's discourse that will allow them to move from one point to another.
But on being caught, or more precisely, betrayed by a trusted comrade, one of the members of the visionary company eats his pass rather than have it discovered by his persecutors. Well beyond the historical circumstances of slavery, Richard Wright's protagonist in Black Boy, the author himself, has learned the trick of forgery and uses it to his advantage in securing access to the local library that denies reading privileges to black citizens of the locale. Let this boy have books by HL Mencken is humorous only because [INAUDIBLE] knows what lies behind the name calling.
But for the blind library assistant with eyes that look but do not see, and perceiving things from a relentlessly chewed over point of view, the fake self-negation works the miracle that Wright intended. He obtains the text that he has gone to the library for. At best then, the proof of freedom and/or citizenship may or may not be legible when a black face erupts on the landscape. Yet, a great deal of slavery's pathos, and that of its aftermath, are inscribed and invested in the bondsman bondswoman's, as well as the new freedman's hope that the written say so will mean everything that spells out the difference between self-ownership and ownership by another, or the rights of passage to a new status or not.
For Rosalie Vincent and a number of other anonymities, small pieces of paper and the correct alignment of categories of the nominative mean everything. The first such category of naming that the historians address in papers is the registration of the baptism of Rosalie Vincent's daughter Elizabeth, called in the document a natural child. Elizabeth is given the surname Dieudonne, god given, which crosses its wires between tenderness and humor.
The former because all children might be considered gifts from the divine, and the latter because the name mimics an act of generosity. And what they want to point out here is that the father of these children, who never married Rosalie Vincent, does in fact sign the papers, the baptismal papers for the child. And I want to talk a little bit about this letter of manumission and bring this to a close. Do people need to stand up and stretch?
Michel Vincent's letter of manumission enters the picture in the course of this story, and I've skipped some parts that I think might be a little bit too detailed to read out. According to the reconstructed story, Vincent plans to depart Saint-Domingue and return to France. But he plans to do that without Rosalie Vincent and the four children that he has had with her. So this letter of May 1803 that he writes is apparently adopted as a prophylactic measure to provide a modicum of protection for a young woman with four children abandoned in the turmoil of war and revolution.
Scott and Hebrard point out that the problem with Vincent's letter is that it is insufficient in legal standing insofar as it lacks the signature of a notary public. It is, rather, an apparently improvised and uncertified private agreement. To the extent that it is in his power to grant to Rosalie a bearer's power, he does so by quote "wishing that the present act of freedom have as much force and power as it would having passed before a notary."
From the perspective of his impending departure, and given the administrative disorder of the war torn world where they find themselves, Vincent cedes full power to the bearer of the papers in pursuit of ratification by the administrators of the colony-- but corollary to the latter by their cohort in any country allied with France, or any country to which Rosalie and her children might emigrate. Scott and Hebrard deem Vincent's document strange, since Rosalie Vincent had already been declared liberated in the baptismal document of her daughter Elizabeth, and given the fact that such a declaration was no longer juridically necessary in light of 1793 and the Act of Emancipation.
Why then, they ask, does Rosalie's status require this affirmation from the man who has been her master and her lover. Regarding Vincent's gesture as an enigma, they pursue an answer by arguing for the symbolic and juridical power of written contractual documents. As they explain, in a local and international context of political uncertainty, with war raging and alliances between nations ceaselessly made and unmade, very little, if anything, was guaranteed-- the abolition of slavery even less so than the rest.
Because slavery had been re-established in Waterloo, the new French law had not only diluted the occasion of liberation, but had in fact created a new peril. And if flight were imposed on Rosalie and her children, then the chances were substantial, the historians contend, that the party would have to pass through neighboring territory where slavery had again become rampant. From this angle, the proprietor of the bonded, having been granted the right to dispose of his/her property as he/she saw fit, ironically bore powers that exceeded those of the state.
And nuance here is key. The personal document in this case apparently threw down a firewall even more efficacious than a decree by the French Republic. This would explain why the lover in this case would declare himself the proprietor of the person in question. In any case, the manumission letter was a gamble against a future that faithfully dawned. And what I will say, and I just want to bring this to conclusion, is that eventually Rosalie loses her owner on more than one level because the man dies, doesn't get a chance to return to France.
And Rosalie herself has to take flight not only from Saint-Domingue but into Cuba, and eventually ends up in the United States. And so, what has interested me about this story is that every stage of warfare, every stage of warfare between the colonies-- or the Colonial Antilles-- and France is reflected in the life of this woman. Philadelphia also becomes a part of the story because several Domingans flee of the scene of revolution. Many of them end up in the United States. And so, the crosscurrents of this story, I think, become a part of its interest.
But more then of the crosscurrents of the story, the relationship of concubinage, which crosses all communities of the diaspora in ways that are absolutely as common as grass, right, which throws you into a whole different view of what the institution of slavery was. I mean, it's almost as if you no longer have to ask a question about exceptions. It's almost an exception the other way-- who was not involved in concubinage, or having children with African women?
So it is a very common and ordinary circumstance. And once we land on that ground, then it seems to me that questions having to do with sexuality, how it is expressed; intimacy, how it is expressed; what the legitimate family is like, what it endures under those circumstance-- because you've got a whole parallel track that is running alongside family. A shadow family, right, that is both its critique and its repetition.
And so, that's the project, right? That's what I'm trying to get my arms around some day so that one of these days when I come back I can tell you how the project ends. OK, thank you. Thanks a lot.
Yes we do.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: All right.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] can you tell us more about that, right? What's on your mind? I think that's To me so intriguing, right? What-- you're telling us that that's what we need to think more about, this sense of these great issues of being free or not free. Being something that would be figured through these issues of touch. I would to hear you say more about that.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: You remember 12 Years a Slave, right? I mean both the story and the film?
HORTENSE SPILLERS: OK. I just saw another old friend. Wonderful to see so many old friends. OK. So you remember the film and the story. There is Michael Fassbender, right, is the bad guy in the film, right? I'm remembering, he's-- god, he makes awful film [INAUDIBLE]. [INAUDIBLE] everybody, what? Anyway, you remember a scene that I wonder if that was in the film because it seemed to me a spontaneous gesture.
And I though, oh. I think that's not-- the director didn't put that in there. I think this actor just did that. Do you remember a moment when there is a pillow on top of the head of one of the servants? And Michael Fassbender rests his elbow on top of the pillow on top of the head of the little boy. Do you remember that? And it's almost as if he doesn't have to think about it, that this child beside him is an extension of his being, and of his body.
And so, to me, that's what touching another is about, right? I mean that's the first act of aggression that somebody performs against another person.
It's like don't put your hand on me, right? But then if slavery is all about position, then the touching makes the enslaved particularly subject to violation. I mean, in other words, it seems to me that what happens immediately is that and invisible interface drops between you and the world under different conditions. The very same person, right? That something else happens under circumstances that we call freedom.
From that point forward, you are not an extension of anyone else, and you belong to yourself. And so, that's why I'm interested in touch. Because I think that that was the first harm-- that you cross a frontier when you put your hands on another person. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Hi, it's such an honor. I'm so excited. So if this sort of control over touch correlates in a way the ownership of one's body, is the sort the anecdote that you shared about repeating the past that have been discovered-- and also, I think of Margaret Bronner. Is that a way for the enslaved to attempt-- the enslaved attempting to regain control of their bodies? So you talk about touch as like difference between being enslaved and then ultimately free.
So the enslaved [INAUDIBLE] these acts that seemed strange and depraved maybe on the surface. It that a way of them regaining control?
HORTENSE SPILLERS: Yeah. Yeah. I think so. And when I think about, well, our notion of what bringing humans to market was like-- like sticking your hands in somebody's mouth, for instance, putting your hands on their genitals and checking people out like they're little animals. I mean this is really the kind of violation that I'm talking about, which, for me, becomes the essence of what it means to be captivated, or imprisoned, or coerced, or violated.
But that the essence of it right here. I mean when somebody can hand you, or handle you, and without your permission. But this, for me, becomes the essence of violation. And I'm beginning to wonder if you think about touch in relationship to sight, which is really, in the Western context the privileged organ-- that if we could say in a sense that African diasporic personality becomes connected in the imaginary with touch.
The available. The instantly, and immediately, and mediated available in many circumstances-- that once that happens, it becomes an imaginary possibility. And it becomes a human relations narrative so that generation later, the way people look at black people, whether or not they have any contact with them, mimetically hold certain view toward black people. Does that make sense? So that racism is not always, or racism mostly, I think, in our experience is mimetic.
I think people pick it up in the public relations stream. I mean, it's what's been dictated about who they are because we associate them with touch, rather than with the superior sense, the vision, of the vision. That's sort of an idea that I've been thinking about, and exactly how that works. Now that kind of works that way. That if you can immediately put your hands on something, it loses its mystery, or its distance.
If you can remove the distance between yourself and another person. There's distance if you're sitting next to somebody. Yeah. Distance, right? And so, that's sort of what I'm trying to think about in relationship to this subject, how you can be close but far. You can be right there, but not intimate. You can have actual sexual contact. It means nothing. And is this not the fate of thousands upon thousands of people?
Having those children with those women meant nothing in a lot of cases. Those of you who know Barbara Chase-Riboud and her novel Sally Hemings will recall in that novel that Sally Hemings, who is with Jefferson in the novel during the revolutionary period in France-- and Sally Hemings is in love with Thomas Jefferson, and according to Barbara Chase-Riboud.
And I wonder if that's right or not because [INAUDIBLE] that you can only talk about race in the United States in terms of romance. So OK, here's this romantic novel, this beautiful young girl of 14, 15 years old is in love with this most powerful man in the world, and chooses to stay with him, rather than stay on French soil where she would've been free. She returns to Virginia with Thomas Jefferson.
And this happened in that the historical outline as well. But this is the novel's interpretation of the story.k At one point, Jefferson is very upset about the death of Meriwether Lewis. Do I have that right? Yeah. He's very upset about his death. And he is lamenting his losses. Why is it that everything that I love and value, or a lot of what I love and value, I always, always lose? Why does that-- why does it happen?
They're standing at the fireplace at Monticello. And Sally Hemings is listening to this interior monologue that's spoke out loud-- that the character Thomas Jefferson is carrying out. And she thinks to herself, you've got four sons. What are you talking about? What the hell is he talking about? He has four children. And she says to him, you have four sons.
His answer to her is you have four sons. You do. So this is what I'm talking about. I mean, all those white fathers, it didn't mean anything at all. Unlike maybe certain circumstances in certain parts of the world, it might have meant something in some cases. But that was up to the good will of those men. But in enough circumstances, it didn't mean anything.
And so, that's what I'm trying to explain, because that comes down to our era. If we are so interrelated mimetically and historically, and it's like we stay strangers in our political and historical context-- black, white, and other-- we remain strangers. That's what I'm trying to explain. How do you get so much antipathy in the world if people can't be intimately connected? That's why intimacy becomes for me a [INAUDIBLE] crisis.
It's like, oops, I don't think you can-- how do you explain this? I don't think there's a word for that, what I'm trying to explain. Again, 12 Years a Slave, it took me two years to see the film. I so avoided it. I mean, I just avoided it. And then finally, somebody said to me, you haven't seen it? And I said, no, I said, oh, you've got-- you know, it's a part of your literacy as an American, as a professor. You've got to see the film. So I say the film.
Do you remember that moment where the master is in bed with the woman in one scene-- and back to back with that scene, and this is the way it was cut, or edited, I guess. Back to back with that she's beaten the next day to within an inch of her life. Do you remember that? Yeah, how do you explain that? How can you explain that?
But that's a killer right there to me. And apparently, it's not-- it wasn't just film. Apparently, stuff like this actually happened. And so, that's where there crisis comes in. And it seems to me that a world like that is especially brutal. That's why I'm thinking that on the other side of that line, it wasn't bright every day over there either. I'm thinking that is this is your husband, what's that about?
How is that? How's that work out if you're married to this guy. Yeah, well maybe that's not too cool. Yeah? Yes sir?
AUDIENCE: Yes. First of all, let me thank you for the nuance with which you are examining a very sort of bumbling set of movements of phenomena in that particular period, as well [INAUDIBLE]. And I'm wondering, just in terms of the project itself that you're proposing, would you go as far as to say that you have the age of revolution, this particular age puts a certain pressure on concubinage precisely because not so much for the fact that the majority of the children remained slaves, but precisely for the exceptions who become mostly symbolic of something that could happen if the colonial authorities are not more vigilant?
That is to say the creation of a free black population, and a free color foundation, which became something inexplicable within sort of a colonial sort of rationale. I'm more familiar with the situation in Cuba where, for example, at the end of the 18th century, 1790s, you have a kind of a code noir, or kind of a-- that is looking specifically at the control of the specific-- even to the extent of the amount of lashes that are legal, which was disputed in Cuba itself by this [INAUDIBLE].
And so, by the 1840s [INAUDIBLE] as sort of a contrived conspiracy, we still don't know if it was a real conspiracy or not. The situation [INAUDIBLE] was there where the English were in the [INAUDIBLE] around Cuba, they were afraid of abolitionists on the island itself. There was a certain sort of tension in the island, which broke by having this conspiracy probably escalated conspiracy of 1844.
But immediately after that the slave code switched to focus on free blacks that is to say it took them by surprise that there was a community, which, if you were to just look at it from a simple Marxist perspective, this is a community that would sort of naturally been a petite bourgeoisie, right? Would want the political rights of that would come with that, right. And it was not-- this was not given to them.
This was a class that was eliminated, leaders of that class, in the case of Cuba. So that there is this anxiety and fear about a population that does not fit into sort of economic and racial law [INAUDIBLE] colonialism, and became inexplicable and a problem so that any sort of source of the kindness of the master to recognize those children had to be, during the revolution, [INAUDIBLE] something to be scrutinized even more.
So that's why I'm asking if there's more sort of pressure on the practice of concubinage precisely for the exception, not the rule?
HORTENSE SPILLERS: I think it is. I would go so far as to say that colonial authority everywhere is making an all out effort to maintain hierarchical distinctions between a class of white owners and black people-- and to reduce all black people to the same status. So it seems to me that slavery is a practice that is in crisis from the very beginning. That it was never assured. It was always threatened.
It was always menaced by those people who were being coerced. So that all attempts-- and I'm thinking about the black-- the French black code and vestimentary requirements-- that you couldn't wear certain clothes that the Europeans wore. You couldn't have certain names that the Europeans had. So that every step that people took, somebody was trying to surveil it, and police it, and to make sure that some distance or distinction is felt.
So it seems to me that as soon as the energies-- the [INAUDIBLE] energies are tied up in surveillance, or being surveilled, there's not much room for anything else. So that yeah, I think that the effort to make sure that there were no loose ends. Even though le code noir is a little different in that regard than the Southern black codes of the United States. I think there is a provision in le code noir for a master to liberate the mother of the children and the children by marrying the mother.
I think that is the case. But that there is whole judicial world that is devoted to the question of enslavement is itself of [INAUDIBLE] interest.
MARGO CRAWFORD: We have time for one more question.
AUDIENCE: Nobody wants to [INAUDIBLE].
HORTENSE SPILLERS: Could we do two more?
MARGO CRAWFORD: Two more. Two. And also, so we have a reception immediately afterward in the English department lounge. So those of you who have more questions, come to the reception guys. We're not shutting down any conversation. We also have the symposium tomorrow and the [INAUDIBLE] study at the research center. You see the flyers for where Hortense Spillers will be there for the full day. So we have time for--
MARGO CRAWFORD: But two more questions for today.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: Lilith?
AUDIENCE: I'm so interested in the small pieces of paper that you're talking about that they're carrying around. And by kind of going in the one direction, when you're talking about the immediacy and availability of the black bodies that you're subject to the touch. And then, the closest because I've been trying to figure out in my own mind and write papers about, appeals to a lot even in this day and age that we've got to give them [INAUDIBLE] of laws after [INAUDIBLE] and things like that.
And so thinking about these small pieces of paper, and particularly when you're reading what's on the paper where it's like I should wish that. And so, it's like these juridical prayers that people are carrying around in their pockets. There's like that is like the-- like intimacy coming from the other direction and taking the form of this piece of paper that then echoes up to us in terms of these appeals [INAUDIBLE].
I've always been wondering why would you [INAUDIBLE]? But like that that [INAUDIBLE] appeals to law are of themselves like a reach for the intimacy that was available historically that they passed down in the form of these small pieces of paper. And they're [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: --not about the small pieces of paper, and even of Congressman Tinchant who's coming out of his of the history from below. And then, and so he's trying to get the small piece of paper into larger documents, in larger [INAUDIBLE] say something about that.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: You know, your bringing that up reminds me what happens to one of Rosalie's children. She loses all of the children but one. When the Michel Vincent passes, it turns out that he has left one of the daughters to the executor of his estate. So she loses one child back to slavery. So that what I'm struck by is both the formality of the documents at the same time that, in some cases, they tried to do some good.
But there is a formality there and a coldness there that seems to me to keep the distance between the parties so that you can really never--
AUDIENCE: --community, but there's also this-- there's the tangibility, like I've had this in my pocket, and that's that. Even though he [INAUDIBLE] and I can't write. That means nothing. But I think that's that small paper. Yeah. Thank you.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE]?
AUDIENCE: I was going to ask a follow-up question for the touch.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: The touch [INAUDIBLE]. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: --cultural [INAUDIBLE]. So I want to actually postpone that for maybe tomorrow and have a conversation with you about it. I want to ask a more synoptic kind of question about your own ideas that you've developed over these decades. I first got to know you work before we in fact talked. And that was the, you know, things-- the Jubilee essay and things like that. And then we [INAUDIBLE] custom [INAUDIBLE] when you were revising, probably, the [INAUDIBLE].
And it seemed to me back then, but it came back to now. It seemed to me back then there was a kind of shift. Like Spillers 1 moving to Spillers 2.
HORTENSE SPILLERS: Huh.
AUDIENCE: And listening to today's talk, I'm wondering if it's a total break and it's Spillers 3, of if it's 2A because there's continuity [INAUDIBLE]. And the reason I'm asking is this. Is it possible to think about whether it's 1, 2, and 3, or 1, 2, and 2A? But the [INAUDIBLE] problematic [INAUDIBLE] it's a working in and out of is something like not history from below-- history slash theory from below.
And if that's the case, and you don't have to-- you can say no, that's not the case. But if that's the case, thinking like overall [INAUDIBLE], what would you say to a young [INAUDIBLE] scholar sitting in the audience who says, I'm staring out thinking about my PhD thesis. What-- how can I do what you do so well? If in fact it is this history slash theory from below?
HORTENSE SPILLERS: That's hard Sasha. What would I say? I think I would say to young scholars to follow the poetry in them, right? I think, yeah, I think that's what I would say. And don't, particularly, take after any school, or any one writer or theorist, but read all of them, of know as many of them as possible. But follow your own poetry in some general sense.
I think that everybody has a poem, or a beat, or-- isn't that right? A poem, a beat, a story, a song. And that you're supposed to-- the struggle is to articulate it, right? I mean, to give it a form. And not to have it perverted so that it turns inward and becomes destructive. But the point is to find a way to articulate whatever that thing is in you. I think that's what I would say to a young scholar.
I think I would talk to them as though we were sitting in my den having a talk about something very important. I think I would probably not even talk about it as a scholarship necessarily. I think I would start somewhere else, right? To try to find your name or your signature that's buried somewhere out there. I think that's what I would say.
AUDIENCE: So that's-- in that conversation that you're having, this very just one-on-one you and this young scholar, would the phrase history of [INAUDIBLE] come up at all? [INAUDIBLE] that's kind of what you were doing about-- and is there a way doing that, of does that come automatically if we are on [INAUDIBLE]?
HORTENSE SPILLERS: Well, yeah. I think that-- I think it's inherent in discovering one's own thing. You know, I'm thinking that where we are today in our theoretical work is that what was at one time new has become standard operating procedure. So that it is repeated, and repeated, and repeated. And it's kind of not new anymore. And I think that what we should all be working on is the renewal of theoretical possibility.
And that might mean going off frequency for a while. I mean that this might be a whole different beat. And I'm not exactly sure what I mean by that, but I think you kind get, interstitially, where I'm coming from, right? You might cite all the important names to cite. You might cite no one, or somebody else. But you doing something-- trying do something [INAUDIBLE]. I think we're all longing to see that in our world because we become so comfortable and so cynical. And the political world slips up on us with it's boogeymen. Uhayh!
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at cornell.edu.
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Hortense Spillers, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, delivered the keynote lecture for "The Flesh of the Matter: A Hortense Spillers Symposium," March 18, 2016 at Cornell University. Her lecture was followed by a day of symposium panels.