This is a book about the ideological construction of black women as “non-human” and exploitable for capitalist profit in the making of the New South.
“Black women were maligned as non-normative, ‘outside the category woman,’ and sexually deviant.”
In this four-week symposium, we asked authors to comment on Sarah Haley’s book, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. This week’s contributor is Marisa Fuentes.
Response to Sarah Haley’s “No Mercy Here”
What is at stake in historical production when engaging black women in the archive? What tools and methodologies are we compelled to employ when the lives and records of black women are mitigated by the violence of slavery and its afterlife? What does it mean to write black women’s history from the records and documents that conspire to erase, violate, and condemn them to representations from the white supremacist’s gaze? Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here: Gender and Jim Crow Modernity (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) provokes these questions as she carefully attends to black women incarcerated and abused by various state carceral institutions in early twentieth-century Georgia. In this ground-breaking book, Haley illuminates the numerous technologies and discourses that worked to entrap black women in subjugation and incarceration. Using the archives of Georgia’s Milledgeville State Prison Farm, state carceral records, clemency petitions, and the print media, Haley demonstrates how black women were maligned as non-normative, “outside the category woman,” and sexually deviant. In doing so, she reveals how southern authorities constructed racialized gender and deployed terror to consolidate what she terms, “Jim Crow modernity.”
“Haley illuminates the numerous technologies and discourses that worked to entrap black women in subjugation and incarceration.“
This study is not a project of recovering silenced lives. Indeed, many of the records Haley analyzes are from incarcerated black women and the families who petitioned for their release. In their own words they plead for relief, reprieve, and commutation and they purposefully resist the racialized and gendered characterizations forcefully imposed on them by the state and its enforcers. Instead, this is a book about the ideological construction of black women as “non-human” and exploitable for capitalist profit in the making of the New South. Each chapter offers a careful reading of black women and girls’ experiences of criminalization, carceral violence in convict lease labor regimes, male-dominated chain gangs, corporeal punishment and forced domestic servitude, and the discursive practices that exposed them to specific vulnerabilities and death. Haley intervenes in important ways in the rich historiographies of the “progressive” or “nadir” eras of African American history and as well as in the burgeoning field of carceral studies. In this latter intervention, she shifts the focus of inquiry away from the black men incarcerated, exploited for labor, and murdered as the South reorganized the socio-racial dominance of white supremacy, and towards the sexualized and racial terror experience by black women who she shows were equally constitutive to the production of white power. Haley’s work powerfully demonstrates that the rise of the New South depended on the terrorization of black women to construct and solidify specific tenants of white supremacy including the fragility and protection of white womanhood. The state achieved this goal by forcing only black women to work in convict lease systems and chain gangs (with very few exceptions) and creating a system of parole that forced black women to labor for white households under the direction of white women. These acts alongside powerful images constructing black women as “sexually deviant” and “incapable mothers” reinforced racial hierarchies and economic control by white people in southern societies.
“The rise of the New South depended on the terrorization of black women to construct and solidify specific tenants of white supremacy.”
What remains implicit but no less important in this work, are the methodologies Haley employs to nuance the historical lives of incarcerated black women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Returning to one of my opening questions, what does it mean to write black women’s history from the records and documents that conspire to erase, violate, and condemn them to representations from the white supremacist’s gaze? Haley responds by the way she closely reads the language of the documents for how they produced ideological meaning about black women and how this discourse was used to abuse and exploit them. Her analysis shows cultural history and black feminist theory at their best. Given the condition of these historical records, the archives in which black women are historically represented require particular approaches that demand a deconstruction and disruption of the ideological power and violence that produces the documents. Still, I wonder if temporality changes how archives of black lives are created and utilized and our approach to them? In other words, how does the afterlife of slavery (the reproduction of power relations of white supremacy and black precarity) enable the perpetual epistemic violation of black women through historical archives? Haley alludes to the “incredible challenges” of the carceral archives early twentieth-century Georgia. She explains that, “the archive circumscribed the knowledge [she] was seeking; documents written by imprisoned women were mediated by their audience, largely prison authorities; other historical actors (judges, penal authorities, police, journalists) who produced the reports, legislation, observations, and rulings that constitute much of [her] evidence disregarded or perpetrated violence against the subjects of this book” (14). Haley’s practice was to “read along [and against] the archival grain of death and destruction,” to accentuate black women’s subjectivities, their own thoughts, struggles and resistance to their dehumanization (14-15). In doing so she deconstructs wardens,’ politicians,’ and policemen’s demeaning discourses that worked to both criminalize and sometimes free Georgia’s incarcerated black women.
“Her analysis shows cultural history and black feminist theory at their best. Given the condition of these historical records, the archives in which black women are historically.”
I was struck by the similarities in the condition of black women in the archives of slavery to the records of Jim Crow era Georgia. Specifically, how analogous circumstances of black women’s unfreedom and vulnerabilities to power allowed white authorities to (re)assert white supremacist ideas of racialized gender to objectify and abuse black women, to extract free labor to bolster southern economies, while positioning white women in privilege and authority. “Like slavery,” Haley argues, “convict labor ‘configured and structured social and legal boundaries of both race and gender,’ physically and epistemologically…” (Haley 7). Crucial to her argument is how disparaging discourses about black women and physical domination worked together to legitimize their violent labor exploitation.
Within the archives of these encounters with power between black women and the state, the scholar must unravel layers of the meaning and the ideological work archives of authority do to constrain our efforts to recover black women’s historical subjectivities. Historian Ashley Farmer raises these questions in an essay considering “Black Women’s History Archive.” Farmer’s essay contemplates “[the] groundswell of research [that] has foregrounded a persistent methodological quandary for scholars of black women’s history: how should they address the paradox of simultaneously finding copious archival records on some black women, while also accounting for the deafening archival silence on others?”[i] I would add to this by pointing to the ways in which the technologies of violence and control (physical and epistemological) utilized by white authorities in the era of slavery persisted into and through the nineteenth and twentieth (even twenty-first) centuries. The archives remain embedded with this violence and power. Despite the persistence of epistemological power, however, are all archives of black women the same across temporal and geographic frames? At issue here, is to point to the specificities of the conditions of enslavement and domination—the bodies subjected to commodification and torture—and how these conditions shape archival and historical possibilities of narration.
“’Like slavery,’ Haley argues, ‘convict labor ‘configured and structured social and legal boundaries of both race and gender,’”
For all the similarities that constitute black women in the archive, there are acute differences between the archives of slavery and of black women’s incarceration in freedom. A key difference might be in the profound and irreparable silence of enslaved voices and self-representation in slavery’s archives. This “deafening” silence “is also an action: it is the silencing of enslaved voices and the power that these voices could have had to challenge a slave owner’s persistent and violent representations of black and enslaved people.”[ii] In the absence of clemency requests, blues songs, and family petitions (particularly in the eighteenth century) scholars of slavery must work in the negative spaces of the archive and “imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done” while at the same time “enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the [enslaved] precisely through the process of narration.”[iii] These methods might be relevant only to archives in which the epistemologies of vulnerable historical subjects are virtually erased. But it raises the issue of how black women in the archives across time and space require more or specific or ethical work to disentangle their lives and bodies from the discourses that condemn them to historical distortion and violence.
This is precisely the strength of Haley’s No Mercy Here. With black feminist methods Haley offers us a way of attending to the lives of black women who had been systematically disregarded and abused by the state. Tracking the production of racialized gender as an analytic, Haley refuses the archival and white supremacist power Georgian state officials, white men, and white women deployed to control the bodies and labor of black women demonstrating the how the archives are ideological repositories that enact violence. Haley articulates the ways in which the production of denigrating images and the violent treatment of black women in early twentieth-century Georgia was central and critical to “consolidating Jim Crow [modernity]” and the industrializing efforts of the “New South (Haley, 11).” It is the critical black feminist methods that enable the exposure of racist ideologies, technologies and strategies of white supremacy, and the particular ways that black women fought back to these systems of power. The archives of black women demand this critical and thoughtful work and Haley deftly maneuvers against archival violence to offer a path towards nuanced considerations of black women’s historical lives in the face of domination.
Marisa J. Fuentes is Associate Professor of Women's & Gender Studies and History at Rutgers University.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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[i] Ashley D. Farmer, “In Search of the Black Women’s History Archive,” Modern American History (2018): 1.
[ii] Brian Connolly and Marisa Fuentes, “Introduction,” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History Special Issue “The Archives of Slavery” 6:2 (Fall 2016): 105-106. For reference to “deafening silence” see Farmer, “In Search of Black Women’s History Archive.”
[iii] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” small axe 26 (June 2008): 11.