Impossible Promises: Ephemeral Objects in New Orleans’ Antebellum Sex Trade
In the paper, I develop the concept of impossible promises to denote an interlocking set of promises—the possibility of manumission, offered repeatedly by white men, and the fantasy of a black women’s consent—that defied the legal boundaries of antebellum Louisiana. In the context of increasingly restrictive manumission laws and the legal exclusion of black women from the category of women who could be raped (or could consent), these promises could not be reflected in the world outside of the sexual liaison. In other words, each of these promises is impossible because it rests on a legal fiction. Yet these cases index the persistence of these promises; indeed, these cases are characterized by their presence. This paper asserts that the impossibility of these promises did not evacuate them of their world-making potential, but instead animated the performances that made antebellum New Orleans’ sexual culture.
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