ENGL 254: Sex
On one hand, the absence of any mention of "sex" in Mary Prince’s narrative is striking because of her identity as a woman. As Burgett notes in Keywords, sex is “the material foundation (male or female) of binary gender difference (masculine or feminine), and the real and imagined acts that ground various sexual identities” (217). The classification and organization of specimens was widely popular in the late nineteenth century and inherent to one’s function in society. For the biological female of the time, her sex was an indication of femininity and a marker of limited ability. While Prince is referred to as “female” and a “woman,” her biological sex is never invoked, though her body is the target of physical and sexual abuse. Prince is thus desexualized and defemininized. Not seen as materially possessing that which would make her feminine, Prince needs not be treated in the delicate manner required by sexed or feminine women. Just as blacks were dehumanized and animalized to justify slavery, black women were defeminized and dehumanized to justify conduct not permitted against most people, especially most women. On the other hand, it is not surprising that Prince does not use the word "sex," given her status as a slave. During this period, "sex" frequently appeared in the context of upper-class women. The term "the fairer sex" was particularly common, connoting feminine luxury and manners. As a slave, Prince is not part of "the fairer sex" since she frequently worked as a hard manual laborer, digging salt, for one. Prince's experiences are vastly far from the "sex" of card games, dinner parties, and balls.
Of course, Prince was married, and this context invokes--and involves--a different meaning of the term "sex." Getting married in the first place was a rebellious act for Prince. And she spends a great deal of time away from her husband, a free black man, making their marriage at least partially void of sex. The reality of slavery overshadows her bond with her husband, since she must attend to her myriad duties as a slave. We are told in a footnote that some referred to Prince as "'Mary, Princess of Wales'--an appellation which, she says, was given her by her owners." The editor explains: "It is a common practice for the colonists to give ridiculous names of this description to their slaves; being, in fact, one of the numberless modes of expressing the habitual contempt with which they regard the negro race" (25). I want to suggest that the choices of "Mary, Princess of Wales" was not arbitrary; rather, it reflected a brutal denial of Prince's sexuality. Mary, after all, represented sexual sterility, given that she was unable to have a heir. Likewise, Prince is childless.
Furthermore, Prince's biological sex is invoked when she describes the selling of her and her two sisters at market. She recalls being lined up "in a row against a large house, with our backs to the wall and our arms folded across our breasts" (7). The descriptions of her covering her breasts underscore her femininity and vulnerability. In the passage that follows Mary is subjugated by men, but it is remarkable how, as noted above, she is defeminized in the moment. She writes, "He took me by the hand, and led me out into the middle of the street, and turning me slowly round, exposed me to the view of those who attended the vendue. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lab he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words" (7). She is "examined and handled" by "strange men," yet she is not obviously a sexual object here, but merely an object. Burgett notes that critical approaches to the study of sex have focused on sexual power as it relates to issues of gender and sexuality (218). Although Mary's description of events includes sexual markers, the power the men wield over her is notably asexual. Possibly, however, this asexuality is actually a glossing over of the sexual abuse that was commonly perpetuated by slave owners on their slaves. Prince may not mention this abuse in fear that any disclosure will cause many to accuse her of seduction and licentiousness since black women at this time were stereotyped as sexually free--even to the point of being predatory. Of course, this stereotype actually came about as a way for white slave owners to justify their atrocious actions.
By comparison, in the beginning of David Walker's appeal he uses the descriptors "men" and "women"; two terms that constellate around "sex". Burgett cites the Oxford English Dictionary as dating the first sense of "sex" as male or female around the fourteenth century (217). Walker opens his Appeal with a plea, writing, "All I ask is, for a candid and careful perusal of this the third and last edition of my Appeal, where the world may see that we, the Blacks or Coloured People, are treated more cruel by the white Christians of America, than devils themselves ever treated a set of men, women and children on this earth" (Walker, 2). For Walker, "men" and "women" are referents to gender here, but given the placement of the two terms alongside the word "children," their use also emphasizes a power relationship based on constructions of gender and sexuality (Burgett, 218).
It's important to remember that Sojourner Truth led the assault on the sexual conventions during her 1853 speech at a "mob convention" in New York. Her "Ain't I a Woman?" came as a clear objection to cultural assumptions as she denounced the sexual discrimination that affected not only black women against black men, but also the impossibility for them to compare with white women. Before that, Mary Prince had expressed her profound concerns about slavery, and what seemed to be her heartfelt plea for a just recognition of gender roles. She denounced the blind exercise of the male power over the female: "Is it happiness for a driver in the field to take down his wife or sister or child, and strip them, and whip them in such a disgraceful manner? - women that have had children exposed in the open field to shame!" Further she extended the limit of the abuse to male slaves: "There is no modesty or decency shown by the owner to his slaves; men, women, and children are exposed alike" (M.P., 33.) Thus the black female is 'nullified' and the black man is asexualized, or emasculated. Both Truth and Mary are black female slaves who raised their voices at the problematic of the white male sexual dominance that put a special burden on black female and place them in the context of intersectionality.
Furthermore, Phillis Wheatley uses "she," "her," "he" and "him" as gender referents throughout her "Poems on Various Subjects." Often these uses are strictly to indicate a subject's gender, but occasionally she uses them to project gender identities onto a subject. In her poem on virtue she writes, "Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand, Would now embrace thee, hovers o'er thine head. Fain with the heav'n-borne foul with her converfe, then feek, then court her for her promis'd blifs" (Poems on Various Subjects, 15). Wheatley anthropomorphizes "virtue" here, referring to it with the personal pronoun "her," marking it with the feminine qualities of the female sex. In her Poem "On Recollection" Wheatley refers to herself with the pronoun "her" when she writes, "Mneme begin. Infpire, ye facred nine, Your vent'rous Afric in her great defign" (62). Later in the poem she writes, "Mneme in our nocturnal vifions pours, The ample teasure of her secret stores" (62). In Greek Mythology Mneme, one of the original Muses, was the Muse of Memory. Wheatley uses "her" as a gender referent here, placing Mneme among the female sex.
But to return to Prince's narrative: we may also understand "sex" as a method of narrative. In other words, sexuality is reflected in the practice of putting together, or assembling, Prince's narrative. Understood in these terms, the editorial framing (especially including the supplemental materials) reveals the way that Prince's sex (as in gender) left her open to critique. Thus her narrative had to be framed by a male authority. In addition to being framed by a (white) male authority, Prince's narrative is further validated by the testimonies of white women, whom society understood to be ladies and examples of propriety. In the supplementary documents, Pringle writes of Prince, "She is remakale for decency and propriety of conduct -- and her delicacy, even in trifling minutiae, has been a trait of special remark by the females of my family" (52). For Prince to be found morally esteemable by white women, proper ladies, authorizes her narrative and grants a respectablility that society can accept.
The narrative of Robert Adams also describes the power of sexuality, the way sex operates to transform man. Adams may be firm in his refusal to trade his Christian faith for Islam, or 'Mohammedism', in order to gain his freedom, but his involvement with Isha, the younger wife of his master Mahomet, informs the reader that he is also a man of compromise. Isha rewarded him with sexual pleasure in exchange of work pay: "Having had charge of the two flocks for several days, without receiving the promised additional reward, he at length remonstrated; and after some negotiation on the subject of his claim, the matter was compromised, by the young woman's desiring him, when he returned from tending the goat at night, to go to rest in her tent" (R. A., 56.) Because sex is a powerful agent that ultimately involves death due to its irresistible impulse, it helps to explain Adam's failure to thwart the death threat upon himself, "One night the old woman lifted up the corner of the tent and discovered Adams with Isha; and having reported it to her husband, he came with a thick stick, threatening to put him to death" (R. A., 56.) The event was more offensive, it was "of the most atrocious nature" as it shocked the religious foundation of the great majority of the population, since Adams was a "Christian who never prayed" (R. A., 57.)