Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas [Review]

Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas [Review]

Journal of American History
Volume 92, Issue 3 (2005)
pages 974-975
DOI: 10.2307/3660015

Victoria E. Bynum, Emeritus Professor of History
Texas State University, San Marcos

Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas. Ed. by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. xii, 329 pp. Cloth, isbn 0-252-02939-9. Paper, isbn 0-252-07194-8.)

Noting that free people of color never fully escaped the degrading effects of race-based slavery, David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine offer fourteen essays that explore women’s experiences of race, gender, and class in the slaveholding societies of the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. The book is divided into two sections, both of which contain rich information about enslaved as well as free women of color. The first section is organized around the conditions under which women achieved freedom; the second, around women’s economic and social adjustment to freedom. Key themes such as quality of freedom, economic status, and racial mixing are addressed in both sections…

…Virtually all the authors cite light skin and similar economic occupations as characteristic of free women of color. Félix V. Matos Rodréguez, for example, describes various food-selling establishments operated by free women of color, who made up the majority of street vendors in mid-nineteenth-century San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the United States as well, Loren Schweninger and Wilma King cite free women who earned their living as “laundresses, maids, seamstresses, cooks, midwives, venders, and servants” (p. 107) and a few who managed to own substantial property or small businesses.

Another common experience that connected the lives of free nonwhite women across national borders was the exploitive sexual system that permeated slave societies. Negative racial and gender stereotypes encouraged the rape and sexual degradation of relatively powerless enslaved and free women of color. There was another side to sexual exploitation, however. Many women of color manipulated the practice of concubinage (which often began with rape) to their advantage. Trevor Burnard tells the story of Phibbah, a Jamaican slave who gained social authority among slaves, profitable employment, property ownership, and ultimately freedom as a result of becoming the concubine of her powerful overseer. Virginia Meacham Gould similarly traces the freedom and prosperity of Henriette Delille of New Orleans, a proper Catholic Creole of color, to maternal African ancestors who escaped slavery on account of their descent from one of Louisiana’s wealthiest white colonists…

Read the entire review here.

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