On Wenches and B-sides



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“The politics of this history is deep especially when people are 'allowed' to feel free while really being controlled.”

I've been chewing on these words, from a comment on the "Eartha Kitt on Love" post, ever since I first read them. I happened to be re-reading "Their Eyes Were Watching God" at the time and I decided to switch, mid-stream, and look at Janie’s story through this frame.

Melissa Olson helped as well, when talking, in the Mixed Race Bastards of Our Colony post, about the choices her grandmother felt she had at the time.

I’m thinking about the b-sides.

The sides of stories that don’t always get told or remembered because of a louder or more dominant narrative -- even when that narrative can be considered a counter narrative. Take, for instance, my reading of Paula Giddings’ “When And Where I Enter,” where she documents one particular plantation that hadn’t substantially reproduced the labor force in the span of 25 years. That instead of birthing the plantation's future sources of labor, the enslaved women would either use camphor as a contraception before and after their menstruation cycles or abort the baby as a mode of resistance. Juxtapose that with the dominant narrative surrounding contraception and abortion among women of color today.

Earlier in the text, Giddings tells the story of a slave girl where, she secretly relished the trysts she had with her owner -- a respite from her mother's "oppressive" gaze.

And the b-sides have b-sides. I remember reading “The White Witch of Rose Hall” – a novel humanizing the Haiti-born Annie Palmer of Jamaica’s Rose Hall plantation, when I was probably a little too young; and can recall vividly the detail in which the “witch” -- faulted for the deaths of her slave owner husbands -- described and defined her love for her lovers -- also her slaves. I’m reminded that, in certain contexts, or "in those warm places of survival" as Audre Lorde put it, the line between love, possession and oppression is often blurry.

Which leads me to the book I’m currently reading -- “Wench” by Dolen Perkins- Valdez -- which is fraught with these themes. I’m about halfway through it and it’s a good read so far, but I thought I’d pause to briefly share some background in case you wanted to pick it up:

The story takes place in an 1853 Ohio vacation resort which serves as an intersection of time and place for a group of the slave/mistress and their masters. The novel delves into the relationships between the women and their masters, and each other. In fact, Tawawa House has become the resort of choice for white Southern slave owners to bring their slave/mistress for summer vacations. The white men can openly display their relationships with the women slaves in a more relaxed social atmosphere and without the presences of their wives or southern society.

It’s based on an actual summer resort that existed near Xenia, Ohio in the 1850s, of which the author describes was “notorious for its popularity among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I learned that the resort had been established by a lawyer and state legislator named Elias Drake. At the time, it was very popular among the country's elite to travel to areas with natural springs. Hoping to create a successful business, Drake acquired the property in 1851 and opened it in 1852. Eventually, Northern visitors displayed their disdain at the sight of Southern slaveholders and their slave entourages. Ohio was a free state, and many of the Northerners were abolitionists. They did not enjoy vacationing with the Southerners, so they stopped coming and business declined. The place closed in 1855.”

Consider this just a continuation of the train of thought I've been having surrounding the subject -- that is, the actual manifestation of love and relations "when people are 'allowed' to feel free while really being controlled."