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Gender and Slavery in Global Contexts: Lessons from Historiographies of Africa and its Diasporas

Nathan E. Marvin et Sarah J. Zimmerman
Traduction(s) :
Genre et esclavage en contexte global : enseignements tirés des historiographies de l’Afrique et de ses diasporas [fr]

Texte intégral

1This issue demonstrates how Atlantic world scholarship can be used to call attention to the contingencies and contextual factors that shaped gender norms and identities in slave societies beyond the Atlantic basin. To borrow Anjali Arondekar’s turn of phrase, all of the contributions to this special issue “narrate differentiated histories of slavery, while maintaining a continued attentiveness to the epistemological hegemony of the Atlantic model” (Arondekar 2016: 153). These articles contextualize slavery and its afterlives during para- and post-abolition eras in Senegambia, the Zanzibar Islands, the Libyan Mediterranean coast, and in Persian Gulf States. In these regions, slavery and slave trading pre-dated European colonization in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. The abolition of slavery was a shared, if neglected, goal of states represented at the Berlin Conference, where aspirational imperial powers plotted the formal colonization of Africa. Modes of conceptualizing gender, race, and liberty derived from Europe’s colonial experience in the Atlantic world became embedded in the complex logics that justified the military conquest of the African continent and “stewardship” of territories within the former Ottoman Empire. The colonial epistemologies of Atlantic slavery and liberation were refashioned for new waves of abolition and modern colonialism in Africa, the Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean.

2In this special issue, our authors interrogate the (il)legibility of gender and legacies of slavery, and demonstrate how the gendered epistemologies of authority and dependency transcended the formal abolition of slavery. Their methods acknowledge how primary sources, archives, and the scholarly canon condition the production and circulation of historical knowledge (Stoler 2009; Trouillot 2015). Yeaw and Brignac ask us to think through and beyond such sources to better access the lived experiences of enslaved women and children. McMahon’s piece makes a strong case for using private and governmental photographic evidence to complicate the written historical record and the silences that it has produced in historiographies of slavery and labor in East Africa. Safar’s article contains a particularly innovative methodology—examining contemporary fiction written by female authors as means to explore collective memory concerning the legacies of slavery in the Gulf States. In Marisa Fuentes’s phrasing, all four authors contend with “archival power to narrate the experiences or recover the voices of enslaved people” and their descendants (Fuentes 2016: 78).

3Our introduction showcases prominent and marginalized strands of intellectual debate relevant to gender and slavery in global contexts. First, North American and Atlantic world scholarship has had an appreciable influence on global slavery studies. Black feminist scholars have created a multidisciplinary field in which gender and race are critical axes for understanding how bodies become enslaveable, and comprehending the persistent forms of discrimination experienced by slave-descended communities in and beyond the Atlantic world. Second, we highlight Africanist work on women, gender, and slave abolition. These historiographical debates center familial institutions—lineage, households, marriage—to better understand gendered reconfigurations of slavery in the colonial era. Abolition and colonization were co-constituent processes that ushered Eurocentric gender ideologies into Africa and elsewhere. Lastly, as decolonial and Queer studies are at the forefront of critiquing hegemonic ideologies of heteronormativity, binary genders, and procreative sexuality, we conclude with an appraisal of theoretical orientations and methodological opportunities that queer Africanist studies can offer to the study of gender and slavery in broader, global contexts.

Gender and Race in Slavery Studies

4In this issue, we prioritize gender as a category of analysis to compare and contrast global histories of slavery and their legacies. In the words of Joan Scott, gender was “a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated” (Scott 1988: 45). Yet, as Judith Butler noted, “gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and ... gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities” (Butler 1990: 3). Indeed, as gender became more established as a critical field of inquiry, scholars called attention to “intersectionality” as a framework that explores how the category of gender overlaps with that of race to create complex forms of discrimination and privilege (Crenshaw 1989).

5Gender emerged in the late 1980s as a critical category of analysis at the intersection of post-structuralism, postmodernism, and a third wave feminism informed by Black, queer, and international feminists. These theoretical (re)framings combined to destabilize sexed binaries and dismantle universalistic assumptions about womanhood. Scholars critiqued “ethnocentric universalism” in the production of “third-world” women and assumptions about gender relations outside of the “West” (Mohanty 1988). Echoing this argument, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí called for a decoupling of gender from biology in order to better comprehend how the forces of “universalism,” facilitated by colonialism and globalization, have attempted to render sexed and gendered binaries uniform and “natural” (Oyěwùmí 1997). Scholars have heeded that call, denaturalizing and disassociating gender from its “one-dimensional modern European association with binary sexual difference” (Sinha 2012: 358). Black feminist epistemologies, for example, have inspired multidisciplinary approaches and intersectional frameworks for thinking through the dynamic entanglement of gender with other categories of identity and axes of oppression (Hill Collins 1990; McKittrick 2006). Black women scholars have been at the forefront of employing intersectional analysis in the production of historical knowledge concerning slavery and its consequences in North America (White 1985; Hartman 1997; Hunter 1997).

6The threat and/or use of gender-based violence is a widely historicized aspect of slavery. In the Western Atlantic, sexual violence enacted by White male enslavers upon Black enslaved women was once a paradigmatic gendered and racialized trope in the historical literature. Black women’s traditions of protest, resistance, and rebellion served historians’ early efforts to locate their agency within the violent oppressions associated with slavery (Gautier 1985; Beckles 1989; Bush 1990; Vidal 2019). Subsequent scholarship historicized the everyday agency of enslaved Black women, introducing gendered analysis of patriarchal authority to call attention to nuanced expressions of resistance and solidarity (Brown 1996; Camp 2004). The study of sexual violence has widened to include minoritized gendered configurations and non-heteronormative sexualities in African diasporic slave societies. White female enslavers also unleashed physical and sexual coercion and violence on enslaved women and men (Hodes 1997; Glymph 2008; Jones-Rogers 2019). Denigrating Black men’s bodies through rape, forced sexual relations, and same-sex abuse were crucial for performing and maintaining both masculinity and White supremacy in American slave societies. (Vainfas 2014, Aidoo 2018; Foster 2019). Outside of the western Atlantic, the spectrum of gender-based violence included male castration. Enslaved eunuchs provided non-procreative sexual services to men and women (Trabelsi 2014; Królikowska-Jedlińska 2020). In the Ottoman empire, “Ethiopian” eunuchs were preferred as chief harem guards, which contributed to a cultural association of Blackness with ungendered status (Hathaway 2005; Arvas 2019).

7Procreative sexuality, reproductive labor, and motherhood were crucial to the maintenance of slavery (Morgan 2004). In European empires in the Atlantic and beyond, legal doctrine held that slave status passed matrilineally from mother to child. Scholars have explored the importance of these legal dynamics in rendering enslaved women’s bodies conduits of human commodification, a process entangled with transgenerational racialization. Enslaved women both understood and resisted the realities of racial capitalism (Morgan 2021). Scholars of the Atlantic world examined how prevailing discourses produced enslaved bodies in the historical record, reducing their existence to details relevant to their commodity value. In reaction, scholars emphasize enslaved peoples’ personhood, exploring their full lives via gendered, familial, and embodied experiences (Hartman 2008; Smallwood 2008; Brown 2009; Mustakeem 2016; Berry 2017). The reproductive capacities of enslaved women and girls became sites of medical and social experimentation (Schwartz 2010; Cooper Owens 2017). Attempts to police and control enslaved women’s reproduction and child-rearing did not end with abolition. Liberated women were confronted with the moralizing agenda of antislavery reformers, who prioritized nuclear family formation and Christian motherhood (Turner 2017). Women’s childbearing capacity, and its links to categories of racial difference in law and practice, became a central preoccupation of post-abolition civil jurisprudence (Cottias 2007 ; 2010 ;Gross 2008).

8As subjects of scholarly inquiry, bodies, gender, and reproduction are inextricably tied to race in Western Atlantic slave societies. In the Americas, race is a critical lens in the historical treatment of slave and post-abolition societies. Blackness and sub-Saharan origins were key constituents of enslaveability and slave ancestry in the Western Atlantic (Fields 1990). The use of race as an analytical lens for historicizing slavery outside of the Western Atlantic has encountered debate. Importantly, racial difference is not a metonym for the construction of a Black/White binary. Nonetheless, Blackness and Whiteness, when studied as embodied discourses, provide great potential for analyzing enslaveability and slavery’s legacies beyond the Western Atlantic (Peabody & Stovall 2003; Fleming 2017; Semley 2017; Célestine 2022).

9Racial slavery was not an American anomaly, nor was it a “Western” invention. Race has become an important lens through which to analyze “key distinctions of identity and power in places impacted” by slavery and slave trades (Pierre 2020). Scholars of slavery in the pre-modern period, for example, have argued that the emergence of cultural ideas about the putative “enslaveability” of entire communities, especially as transregional slave trading expanded within the African continent, throughout the Americas, and across the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean basins, can itself be understood as tantamount to racialization (Perry et al. 2021: 6). As articles in this issue demonstrate, race was a constitutive factor shaping enslaveability and the legibility of slave ancestry in Africa and its diasporas in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds. In Islamic lands, local variations of somatic and religious categories emerged to denote enslaveability and/or subservient statuses. Extensive debates have considered the salience of racial difference and African ancestral identities in trans-Saharan, North African, and Indian Ocean slaveries (Troutt Powell 2003; Lydon & Lecocq 2015; Gross-Wyrtzen 2022). The applicability and salience of concepts from the Atlantic world, like epistemologies of Blackness and anti-Black racism, in these diverse diasporic contexts is open to debate (McDougall 2002; Pierre 2012; Young & Weitzberg 2022). The extent to which indigenous categories of differentiated race (and their corresponding slave statuses) influenced colonial epistemologies of racial difference in Africa and its non-Atlantic diasporas continues to generate constructive debate among scholars (Randrianja & Ellis 2009; Glassman 2011; Hall 2011).

10In African and African diasporic Muslim worlds, sexuality, womanhood, concubinage, and polygynous households are key concepts through which to map transformations in slavery and post-slavery (Ennaji 1999; Zilfi 2010; El Hamel 2013; Hopper 2015). Familial lineage and ancestral inheritance in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean diasporas are critical for both identifying and masking slave ancestry within contemporary relations of subservience and marginalization (see Safar). New literature that looks back at Africa from the vantage of various diasporic spaces underscores the significance of a broader framework that approaches systems of race and slavery in African diasporas as mutually constructed with those of trading zones in Africa itself, with local women frequently playing prominent roles as intermediaries and gatekeepers facilitating European men's access to local trade networks and property in land or slaves (Alpers 2009; Larson 2009; Ipsen 2015; Tisseau 2017; Clark et al. 2019; Johnson 2020). The articles in this issue encourage us to treat race as a conceptually and geographically capacious category, and one that is deeply imbricated in ideas of enslaveability and slave ancestry in African diasporas within and beyond the Atlantic world.

Gendering Familial Relations in Post-Abolition Africa and its Diasporas

11There was no uniform end to slavery on the African continent or across its diasporas. In most cases, slavery was “reconfigur[ed] into new meanings and practices, often still identified as ‘slavery,’ but embedded in new processes and institutions” (Rossi 2009: 1). This issue attends to those “reconfigurations.” Families, kin groups, conjugal associations, and households are critical institutions and relationships through which to understand the reworking of authority and dependency in post-abolition Africa and its diasporas in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds. Africanist literature is often “area studied” to the margins of conventional academic debates concerning gender and slavery. However, the Africanist literature on gender, slavery, and abolition has much to offer because abolitionist imperatives accompanied 19th-century European conquest. Colonial interventions in indigenous conjugal, marital, and kinship (biological, idiomatic, fictive, adoptive, etc.) traditions influenced emancipation trajectories. Both indigenous and colonial actors used familial idioms to rearticulate mutual obligation and affiliation in the post-emancipation landscape. The articles in this issue demonstrate that colonial authorities manipulated familial relations to retain access to workers, prolonging slave-like labor conditions, for burgeoning commercial enterprises and development schemes (Akurang-Parry 2002; Rossi 2015). Colonialism and abolition transformed slave relations into new forms of gendered asymmetrical dependency, remaking slavery for the modern era.

12Women were the demographic majority in all African slave societies (Robertson & Klein 1997). To better understand this constant, it is important to remember that “slavery was not one social status, but many” (Searing 1993: 48). African slavery and slaving systems evolved alongside the transatlantic slave trade, European colonization, and into the contemporary era (Lovejoy 1983; Klein 1998; Stilwell 2014). Nineteenth-century colonization, missionization, and abolition were coterminous processes whereby recaptured, liberated, and free people established new visions of post-emancipation liberty tightly bound together with the formation of new gender norms and marital traditions. Diasporic and free(d) Africans sought liberatory futures while simultaneously participating in colonial and missionization schemes that challenged the autonomy and sovereignty of indigenous Africans in contemporary Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Gabon (Everill 2013; Jean-Baptiste 2014; Scanlan 2017). Even in these provinces of freedom, the free(d) offered mediated liberation and indenture to the newest members of their communities hailing from adjacent environs or Congo (Fett 2016; Anderson 2022).

13Outside of these emancipatory experiments, colonial agents hesitated to intervene in or regulate indigenous African slaving systems. Nineteenth-century colonialism thrived on systems of indentured servitude and coerced labor that bound indigenous Africans, via familial ties, to colonial institutions in the era of abolitions (see Brignac) (Zuccarelli 1962; Flory 2015; Peabody 2017). Gender and family relations were integral to how colonial officials, their intermediaries, and adjacent organizations made decisions regarding how slaves and former slaves accessed liberty and prosperity in the colonial era. African communities responded to emancipation efforts in diverse and complicated ways. In many cases, families, households, and extended kin groups absorbed the formerly enslaved. African slaveholders emancipated enslaved people and/or camouflaged slavery, reconfiguring asymmetrical dependency with gendered and gerontocratic idioms of familial relations (Getz & Clarke 2012).

14Colonialism rendered African women “political minors in the post-slavery landscape,” curbing their political and economic power (Scully & Paton 2005: 3; Rodet 2014a). In the post-emancipation era, colonial officials assigned new productive values to work associated with domestic and public spheres. Colonial labor schemes reified Eurocentric binary gender differences and marginalized women from wage-earning work, even while relying on their labor. For example, colonial militaries recruited and segregated liberated slaves by gender—men became soldiers and women, their conjugal partners. These women provided domestic labor to soldiers and auxiliary services to colonial armies. African colonial military households reproduced, re-engineered, and re-gendered forms of asymmetrical dependency akin to domestic slavery with military officials’ sanction (Lamothe 2011; Moyd 2014; Zimmerman 2020). Women’s presumed absence in the post-emancipation colonial economy resulted from colonial officials and early labor historians’ inability to see women’s labor. But women were everywhere in the colonial economy, working in agricultural industries, artisanal crafts, commerce, education, as well as in indispensable roles in male-dominated labor regimes (see McMahon).

15Like the imposition of “post-slavery” labor regimes, Christian missionization was critical to colonialism’s advancement of Eurocentric conceptions of patriarchy, gendered binaries, and heteronormative nuclear familial households across Africa (Comaroff 1991; Nzegwu 2006). Missionaries relied on emancipated converts for agricultural and artisanal labor. New converts were expected to conform to European religious cultural practices, proselytize, and extend the ideologies of Eurocentric Christianity to other Africans (Wright 1993; Foster 2013; Nyanto 2016/7; Liebst 2021). Christian heteronormative marriage absorbed and transformed gendered relationships of dependency, blurring the distinctions between enslaver/enslaved and husband/wife in the generation following emancipation (Scully 1997; Mann 2007; Stockreiter 2015). Marriage became a terrain upon which Africans and colonial authorities contested sociocultural and legal traditions, including the authority of foreigners in adjudicating African customs. Former enslavers and the formerly enslaved manipulated colonial agents’ inadequate knowledge of conjugal and slave traditions. In nascent colonial courts, enslavers mobilized idioms of marriage to prolong slave-like relationships of dependency, while the enslaved used divorce to legally terminate slave relationships (see Yeaw) (Roberts 2005; Burrill 2008; McMahon 2013; Rodet 2014b; Brivio 2017).

16In the era of emancipation, elite African families used marriage for social mobility and legitimacy. They reinforced their social and political power through discriminatory marital practices, excluding other classes and castes (see Safar). Elites embraced new traditions, like female seclusion, Christian marital ceremonies, and civil registry, to distance their families from slavery and slave ancestry (Cooper 1994; Jones 2013; Becker 2015). Africans absorbed enslaved and formerly enslaved children into their households, using idioms of familial relations and forms of dependency that permitted the exploitation of youth in the para-abolition era (Lawrance & Roberts 2012; Duke-Bryant 2019; Chapdelaine 2021). Gerontocratic authority over youth, and by extension, child labor, was protected and manipulated by colonial state authorities in para- and post-emancipation eras. The gradual reconfiguration of slave relations during the colonial era influenced how youth became gendered, as well as how colonial regimes mobilized the labor of formerly enslaved and unclaimed children (see Brignac).

Decolonial and African Queer Methodologies in Global Slave Studies

17The naturalization of heteronormativity and binary gender identities is one of the unintended consequences of Africanist historiography concerning family, abolition, and colonialism. But a new wave of scholarship employs gender and sexuality to interrogate the historical production of “colonial” or “universal” categories of identity and relationships. The historical realities of queer life and trans gender expression have long been underrepresented in the historiography. There are some exceptions, in which scholars demonstrate gender’s mutability and same-sex desire within or despite the oppression of slavery (Spillers 2003; Snorton 2017). The past decade has witnessed a breathtaking expansion of scholarship that prioritizes queer, feminist, and decolonial analysis to destabilize normative categories of gender and identity across Africa and its diasporas. In this section, we invite scholars of slavery in global contexts to think through and beyond normative gender identities and sexualities—in the past and in the archive.

  • 1 The universal applicability of this Western acronym is contested, but inescapable in African queer (...)

18In the field of Africanist queer studies, queer is synonymous with embodied LGBTQ+ identities and sexualities.1 Additionally, queer describes an epistemological positioning. One that questions the stability, coloniality, and universality of Western categories—drawing “attention to the ambiguity and fluidity of indigenous African conceptualizations of sexuality and gender” (Otu & van Klinken 2023: 513). Indigenous resistance to Eurocentric traditions of sociocultural order (gender binaries, patriarchy, racial hierarchy, etc.) could be interpreted as queer—because they challenge normative colonial ontologies (Tallie 2019). Sylvia Tamale has used the term coloniality to describe a hegemonic ideological system that outlived formal European colonialism (Tamale 2020: 6). She maintains that a decolonial praxis is necessary for identifying and critiquing the enduring polarized gender categories and hierarchized sexualities (like masculinity versus femininity) that accompanied colonial structures of inequality.

19Keguro Macharia observed that there was a seeming “loss of erotic diversity in colonial spaces” and noted how among Africanist and Black studies scholars “hetero-kinship is consistently reinforced as a capacious category” that overcomes all other intersectional differences (Macharia 2019: 28, 11). Gender fluidity and manifold sexualities have existed since time immemorial in Africa. Yet, European-language archives demonstrate that colonial agents policed Africans’ sexual behavior and used their moral authority to further colonial civilizing missions (M’Baye 2013: 116–118). The legacies of the Atlantic world, with its gendered assumptions about enslaved Black male slave labor, carried into colonial Africa, blinded colonial officials to the diversity of African sexualities. (Bleys 1996). In the colonial imaginary, a hypermasculine heterosexuality became so dominant that any signs of effeminate masculinity or same-sex desire/behaviors were made into anomalies (Otu 2022).

20Shared female intimacies and trans identities are particularly underrepresented in contemporary and historical academic work on African sexualities. Only recently have same-sex desires and intimacies among women received scholarly attention. Neo Sinxolo Musangi’s work challenges how family and kinship have become the most emblematic sites of heteronormativity. Women marriages defy the heteronormative assumptions tethered to that familial institution (Musangi 2018; see also Amadiume 1987; Achebe 2011). Serena Dankwa has argued that the emphasis on sexuality in thinking through same-sex desire or intimacy has blinkered us to “the little-known institution of ‘friendship marriage’,” which was designed to formalize adult same-sex friendships (Dankwa 2021: 39). Transsexuality is not a widely used term of identity across the African continent. Numerous trans-identities and non-conforming gender practices are often lumped into categories related to homosexuality (Camminga 2020: 821) Greater attention to female sexualities and trans identities would significantly enhance the study of slavery in Africa and its diasporas.

21In Africa, queer histories remain, by and large, fragmentary and un-archived (De Araújo & Roy 2022). However, “locating” queer individuals or communities and “creating” queer archives in African and African diasporic histories is not a straightforward or uncontested undertaking. The urgency to “discover” and write histories of minoritized genders and sexualities is inspired by vitriolic and dangerous debates that query the authenticity or “Africanness” of these minoritized identities and practices. “The tensions between the imperatives of critical historiography and political victory have generated critiques of the instrumentalisation of the archive for activist purposes” (Rao 2020: 29; see also Arondekar 2009; Macharia 2015). Similar tensions exist in attempts to access the experiences and legacies of slavery through the collection of oral history. Identifying and locating slave histories could have adverse consequences for the descendants of slaves and enslavers (Klein 1989; Holsey 2008; Thioub 2012). Ultimately, prioritizing gender in the study of marginalized peoples, whether enslaved and/or queer, requires contending with epistemological authority in colonial archives.

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1 The universal applicability of this Western acronym is contested, but inescapable in African queer studies.

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Nathan E. Marvin et Sarah J. Zimmerman, « Gender and Slavery in Global Contexts: Lessons from Historiographies of Africa and its Diasporas »Esclavages & Post-esclavages [En ligne], 9 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2024, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathan E. Marvin

Université de l’Arkansas, Little Rock (USA)

Sarah J. Zimmerman

Université Western Washington (USA)

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