- Reviewed by
In the past couple of years, there has been a spate of exciting new work in the field of African American women’s history, much of it published by the University of North Carolina Press. The field is seeing a large number of robust, creative books made possible by foundational studies on black women’s lives. Leading the way is Talitha LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence, a well-written, accessible, provocative study of black women’s lives in Georgia’s convict-labor system at the dawn of the New South (from the 1860s into the 1930s).
LeFlouria convincingly argues that incarcerated black women’s experience with convict labor was connected to the Old South and to older forms of slavery through violence and torture, “overseers,” whippings, and pseudoscientific ideas about how to best punish and discipline the enslaved black body. But LeFlouria focuses much of the book on how black women’s convict labor was actually an experiment of the New South, serving an innovative, modernizing function for the state of Georgia. Black female convicts labored in the industrial economy: in mines, on railways, in broom factories, making bricks, forging new roads, and engaging in the beginnings of industrial farming.
One major difference between black enslaved women’s lives in the Old and New South was the way in which black women’s reproductive capacity functioned as “value” or a hindrance. LeFlouria devastatingly demonstrates how, in the Old South’s plantation economy, enslaved black women were valued for reproductive labor because bearing children also provided more money for slave masters. However, for industrial businessmen leasing out black labor, incarcerated black pregnant and postpartum women, along with black infants, were of no value. This led to the disposal of black infant bodies and lives.
LeFlouria deftly handles a paucity of source materials. Her method requires that she read for silences. She uses a “‘compressive methodology’ [End Page 255] that merges traditional archival research with an ‘elastic’ analytical framework” (p. 17). Her source material includes the black and white press, case records, state reports on convict leasing, prison records, and Progressive-era reformers’ writings. She fills in silences and gaps in the record by carefully reading available data and reports, mining numbers for details of black women’s lives. For example, LeFlouria looks at the numbers of women interned in convict leasing, rates of sickness, and statistics on punishment; but she also analyzes what numbers (or missing statistics) can reveal about possible rapes, the birth of babies, and infant death. From this data emerges an embodied understanding of female convict labor—how incarcerated black women lived, labored, fought for their lives, and died.
Also impressive is how LeFlouria weaves into the story the many contours of incarcerated black women’s lives. She discusses black women’s body politics (the clothes they wore and how they cleaned themselves—or were not able to clean themselves); she attends to their medical histories; she details the women’s daily working routines and the drudgery they endured; and she places the women in generational histories of slavery—some experienced freedom for a few short years before being picked up by the authorities and enslaved once again, while others were one generation removed from American slavery. The small slices of stories we get about these women are at times devastating and heartbreaking.
Published in UNC Press’s new Justice, Power, and Politics series, and coming out just as discussions on the radical rise of the “carceral state” have taken center stage in U.S. history and politics, this book is a must-read for those with an interest in southern history or the history of the legal system. At a lean 257 total pages (including endnotes), it is the perfect length for use in undergraduate courses on incarceration, black lives and the justice system, black women’s history, and Georgia history. Beautifully written and argued, Chained in Silence is surely one of the best books out on southern women’s...