Public and private life in the 18th century


Heather Smyth explains a finer point to Hortense Spillers. Meanwhile, Fraser Easton and Katherine Acheson discuss the Long 17th Century.

Hortense Spillers capped off her visit to Waterloo with a talk entitled “Women and the Republics: Intimate Life and Revolution During the 18th Century.” Spillers discussed the example of Sally Hemmings (1773-1835), Thomas Jefferson’s slave and the mother, it is believed, of several of his children. Spillers was concerned that the “archive threatened to overcome the real Sally Hemmings.” In part, this claim was meant to indicate that the fixation on Hemmings’ unique place in the great man’s life–and consequently in the history of the Federalist era–tends to create historical amnesia about her absolute status as human property. Fiction and film, which have helped secure Hemmings’ place in the popular imagination, ironically serve mostly to obscure her true subjugation.

jefferson in paris

What might be called the Nick Noltification of black American history. With Thandie Newton as Sally Hemmings.

Spillers wished to recover for her audience a sense of the unbearable subject position occupied by all black women in the slaveholding period in America. Female slaves had no private space at all; they were susceptible to even more horrors than the male slave. Their entire lives were lived as “public” subjects: routinely subjected to sexual depredations, they enjoyed no intimacy, no “aloneness,” no love. While white women had the sentimental space of the home, male blacks the masculine roles derived from the power relations in white society, for the female black slave there was only a kind of identity limbo: there was no raw material, no “coding structure” available upon which to build a sense of private identity.

Spillers will deliver a fuller version of this talk later in the year at Harvard.


3 responses to “Public and private life in the 18th century

  1. Are people really naive enough to have mistaken the Hollywood nonsense and romanticization/eroticization of subjection for historical reality? I thought the talk was interesting, and I do want to know more about how Dr. Spillers has analyzed the constructions of space (and black women’s positions within these spaces), but I hardly find the idea of absolute subjegation in that context new or revelatory. If it is, then the state of contemporary society (and academia) is even sadder than I imagined. I do, however, agree with her concern about the archive–this trend toward fetishization of black women as colonial slaves has been evident in popular media for as long as I can remember (I could list a handful of movies alone, really). But my concern is that there is the potential of being reductive in terms of how women’s positions, relations, and subjectivities within these spaces are being constructed in a contemporary analysis of documentary sources.

    I think an analysis of the complexities of the construction of spatial gender and power relations in the context in which she is working is potentially groundbreaking and I hope she continues to expand on her current research. I look forward to learning more about it, if the possibility presents itself.

  2. I think we got only a small slice of her work, which will get a fuller airing during her upcoming Harvard talks. I do agree with you that the particular piece we heard did not seem to sound any new notes. However, I may have overstated in my summary this idea that it is the popularization of the historical figure that overdetermines our understanding of Hemmings: I think Spillers’ main thrust was that scholarly work, inevitably, does that, too, as you seem to be pointing out.

  3. Thank you, yes, I am angling in that direction (that in academe we have to be careful about how we are constructing people’s subjectivities, especially when dealing with historical documentary sources, and particularly culturally sensitive issues). I am looking forward to the fuller version of her work, for sure.

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