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  • Seduction and the Ruses of Power
  • Saidiya Hartman (bio)

I went to converse with Celia (defendant) at the request of several citizens. The object of my conversation was to ascertain whether she had any accomplices in the crime. This was eight or ten days after she had been put into the jail. I asked whether she thought she would be hung for what she had done. She said she thought she would be hung. I then had her to tell the whole matter. She said the old man (Newsome, the deceased) had been having sexual intercourse with her. That he had told her he was coming down to her cabin that night. She told him not to come and if he came she would hurt him. She then got a stick and put it in the corner. He came down that night. There was very little fire in the cabin that night. When she heard him coming she fixed the fire to make a little light. She said his face was towards her and he was standing talking to her when she struck him. He did not raise his hand when she went to strike the first blow but sunk down on a stool towards the floor. Threw his hands up as he sunk down . . . The stick with which she struck was about as large as the upper part of a . . . chair, but not so long . . . She said after she had killed him, the body laid a long time, she thought an hour. She did not know what to do with it. She said she would try to burn it.

(State of Missouri v. Celia, 1885) 1

In 19th-century common law, rape was defined as the forcible carnal knowledge of a female against her will and without her consent. 2 Yet the actual or attempted rape of an enslaved woman was an offense neither recognized nor legislated by law. Rape was not simply unimaginable because of purported black lasciviousness, but its repression was essential to the displacement of white culpability that characterized both the recognition of black humanity in slave law and the designation of the black subject as the originary locus of transgression and offense. The cases of State of Missouri v. Celia and George v. State averred that the enslaved, in general, and captive women, in particular, were not appropriate subjects of common law, and thus not protected against rape. The rape of enslaved women was not an offense in either common law or slave statute. However, the repression or effacement of rape can only in part be explained by the inapplicability of common law to the enslaved. Rather, the repression and negation of this act of violence is central, not only to the pained constitution of blackness, but to the figuration and the deployment of sexuality in the context of captivity. The disavowal of rape most obviously involves issues of consent, [End Page 537] agency, and will, which are ensnared in a larger dilemma concerning the construction of person and the calculation of black humanity in slave law. 3 Moreover, this repression of violence constitutes female gender as the locus of both unredressed and negligible injury.

The dual invocation of person and property made issues of consent, will and agency complicated and ungainly. Yet the law strived to contain the tensions generated by this seemingly contradictory invocation of the enslaved as property and person, as absolutely subject to the will of another and as actional subject, by recourse to the power of feelings: the mutual affection between master and slave, and the strength of weakness; the ability of the dominated to influence, if not control, the dominant. Just as the dual invocation of the slave as property and person was an effort to wed reciprocity and submission, intimacy and domination, the legitimacy of violence and the necessity of protection, so too the law’s nullification of the captive’s ability to give consent, or act as agent, and the punitive recognition and/or stipulation of agency as criminality reproduced the double bind of the bifurcated subject and intensified the burdened personhood of the chattel personal.

If the definition of the crime of rape relies upon the...

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pp. 537-560
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