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Reviewed by:
  • Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes
  • Maeve Kane
Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. By Marisa J. Fuentes. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 227 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.

Historians are familiar with many kinds of silences. Our sources are silent, and we often work in silence (or at least solitude). The silences in the evidence we confront often resound in the silences of the narratives we craft, especially regarding marginalized groups such as women, the enslaved, and indigenous peoples. Marisa J. Fuentes's brilliant Dispossessed Lives deconstructs the work of recognizing, critiquing, and working around these archival and narrative silences. In so doing, she also proposes a path forward for reading the creation of archival silences themselves as part of the historical record.

Dispossessed Lives' many awards, including the 2016 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize, the 2017 Caribbean Studies Association Barbara T. Christian Literary Award, and the 2017 Association of Black Women Historians Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award, ought to speak for themselves. Fuentes's methodological intervention is elegant: by reading archival sources—including some sources well-known in the field—from the perspective of the enslaved, Fuentes unsettles narratives of enslaved agency and resistance and explores the very limits of historical practice. To do this, she brings together intersectional scholarship from women's and gender studies, black feminist epistemology, and critical archival studies, as well as history. Together with a nuanced reading of the urban spaces of Bridgetown, Barbados, Fuentes creates a rich analysis of enslavement and the archives of enslavement. Her examination of the lives of urban enslaved women offers important contributions to conversations about urbanization, capitalism, and hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality, but her interventions regarding the archive should make this work of interest to all historians—and especially those who study people and communities who created few of their own written records.

The unique demographics of Bridgetown, Barbados, allow Fuentes to highlight the issues of giving historical presence to those who did not generate their own evidence. Dispossessed Lives is first a spatial history of urban enslavement. Though Bridgetown was smaller than some other Caribbean and Atlantic cities with enslaved populations, the majority of its population and that of the island of Barbados were enslaved women. White women made up the majority of the smaller white population, which makes relationships between black, white, free, enslaved, and formerly [End Page 801] enslaved women central to Fuentes's analysis and offers important points of comparison for other Caribbean ports where enslaved women performed the majority of domestic and reproductive labor. Understanding the constructed space of Bridgetown helps situate and extend the fragmentary evidence of Fuentes's enslaved subjects while highlighting the power of her approach. Bridgetown becomes a character in its own right in her analysis, as the runaway Jane, formerly enslaved and prostituted Joanna, and condemned Molly navigate its built spaces and unique technologies of enslavement, such as the dockside cranes that raised enslaved bodies to be whipped on public display. Bridgetown is an ideal setting to analyze how enslaved women experienced and were seen within its urban landscape.

The case of an enslaved boy whose master sent him dressed as a woman to the household of the master's lover showcases the potential of Fuentes's mode of reading the available archival material. The unnamed boy only entered the historical record as an aside in the prosecution of his owner for adultery. No enslaved women themselves were part of this case or even mentioned in testimony, but the boy's disguise and his unremarked passage through the nighttime city illustrates the ways whites saw—and did not see—enslaved women. Fuentes argues that one of the reasons we know so little about enslaved women is that they were regarded by whites as ubiquitous but were invisible because of that ubiquity. The silence in the archives is precisely because enslaved women were so much a part of city life in the Caribbean that their presence went unremarked in the sources that historians rely on. This is an insightful and elegant inversion of Michel-Rolph Trouillot's Silencing...

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