Impossible Promises: Ephemeral Objects in New Orleans’ Antebellum Sex Trade

Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:00 PM
Conference Room D (Sheraton New York)
Emily Owens, Harvard University
This presentation begins in the sexual marketplace of antebellum New Orleans, where free and unfree women of color sold sex and its idioms (including but not limited to romantic courtship, the performance of courtship in public, domestic service, and co-habitation) to white men. I assume that what was for sale in the sex market was never just sex, and ask: What (else) is being bought and sold in these transactions? Through a close reading of Marie, a slave v. Robert Avart (1819), Prudence, a slave v. Bremondi (1830), and Carmelite, a Negress, slave v. Jean Lacaze (1852), I argue that these sexual transactions  were dense spaces where impossible promises were exchanged.

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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