She Donned a Badge of Honor and a Loyalty to Freedom: Free Women of Color and Performances of Power in Antebellum Louisiana

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Noel Voltz, University of Utah
This paper examines the ways in which white men and free women of color fought to literally and figuratively define and lay claim to the bodies of free women of color in antebellum Louisiana. In literary and travel narratives, white men mapped their own paradigmatic beliefs about race, gender, beauty, sexuality, and power onto the bodies of Louisiana’s free women of color. Caught in between nineteenth century stereotypes of white female beauty and black female hyper-sexuality and in a world of growing racial polarization, antebellum Louisiana’s free women of color were prescribed a highly circumscribed space in which to exist. Yet, despite these limitations, free women of color challenged these prescriptive notions, transforming their bodies into symbols of empowerment, respectability, and collective loyalty and identity. As this paper will explore, for Louisiana’s free women of color, dress functioned as one important performative tool to lay claim to individual and collective power. Re-appropriating material symbols that were meant to represent their subordination, I contend that these women transformed their garments into badges of honor. By politicizing fashion, these women made visual statements of the value their placed on their own bodies, creating a public marker of their loyalty to their community, and ultimately, of their freedom.
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