Stolen Looks: Enslaved Africans within and beyond the Atlantic World

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:40 AM
Columbia Hall 1 (Washington Hilton)
Sophie K. White, University of Notre Dame
This paper is centered on the analysis of an extraordinary body of courtroom testimony in French and Creole by enslaved Africans in the 18th century Atlantic and Indian Oceans (specifically Louisiana and Isle de France, present-day Mauritius). Notwithstanding issues with the interpretation of such testimony, the records allow us to give voice to the verbal—and especially, the non-verbal—cultural expressions of peoples of the African diaspora, focusing here on women. For example, their verbal references to dress offer fresh ways to consider the role of material culture in mediating: conversion to Catholicism (notably as a factor in the adhesion to French dress); the constraints of occupational dress; the affective, sexual and non-sexual kin relations that were fostered by gifts and exchanges of articles of dress. As such, this testimony is particularly rich in allowing us to stretch beyond the issues of agency and acculturation that have sometimes dogged the analysis of the material culture of enslaved Africans, to consider instead new evidence about how individual women conceived of themselves and understood their place in the colonial societies that they were forced to acclimate to.
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