Diary of an Anxious Black Woman is doing a great Black Herstory Month series–be sure to check it out. She’s doing a spectacular job of telling stories of women far beyond the usual suspects, including nineteenth- and twentieth-century women in the arts like Katherine Dunham, Edmonia Lewis, and Octavia Butler. In an post on Margaret Garner, she brings us word of an epoynymous opera with a libretto by Toni Morrison, whose Beloved was a fictionalized version of Garner’s life. (The photo on the right is of the historical marker that stands in a central square in Covington, Kentucky to commemorate Garner’s escape and tragic choices.) Anxious Black Woman believes that Margaret Garner the opera is far superior to the film version of Beloved: “Unlike the film adaptation, which reduced the pain and the trauma of the story to histrionics and horror-film grotesqueries, the opera magnifies the despair and the sadness that her story is supposed to represent.” Also, see Clio Bluestocking Tales for some brilliant posts about the woman known as Harriet Bailey Adams or Ruth Cox Adams, whom Frederick Douglass called his ”sister.” (Clio B. is contemplating a biography of Douglass through the lives of the women he was closest to.)
I’ve been doing some African American history in the service of my current project, a book on the life and times of Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), a child from Maine who was taken captive by the Abenaki in 1704 during Queen Anne’s War. She lived with (and was almost certainly adopted by) the Abenaki until the age of 12, when she went to Quebec and entered the Ursuline convent there, living the rest of her long life as a nun. Esther Wheelwright came from a slaveowning family, which it turns out was not as unusual as I would have expected in Wells, Maine at the turn of the eighteenth century. Her paternal grandfather, father, and mother all wrote wills (in 1700, 1739, and 1750, respectively) that deeded enslaved people to other family members upon their deaths, so it’s very likely that Esther grew up in a household that included enslaved Africans or African Americans.
Imagine the isolation of the lives of enslaved people living on the frontiers of New England, living and working in isolation from a black community of any size. Northern slavery in colonial Anglo-America may have offered relatively better food, clothing, and working conditions than slavery in the Caribbean or the southern mainland colonies, but it was just as arbitrary and cruel. The only evidence I’ve found that speaks directly to the experiences of enslaved African American women in southern Maine around 1700 so far is the case of women identified only as Rachel, who was beaten regularly and then finally murdered by her master, Nathaniel Keene, in 1694. Keene (or Caine) was initially accused in court of “Murdering a Negro Woman,” but in the end the jury found him guilty only of “cruelty to his Negro woman by Cruell Beating and hard usage.” The penalty exacted of him was a five-pound fine-which was suspended-and five pounds, ten shillings in court costs. In order to put this punishment into perspective, people convicted of fornication or of bearing a child out of wedlock in 1694 and 1695 were regularly fined between twenty shillings and five pounds, substantial but not crippling sums. This is how Rachel’s hard life and wretched death were commemorated by her community.
Sorry to end on such a down note–it’s times like this that I’m envious of modern historians. They get to tell stories of liberation and triumph over oppression. Me, I’m left with stories that, more often than not, don’t have endings that satisfy the reader’s need for retribution against evildoers and redress for the victims.