McCoy on Alexandra J. Finley, 'An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America's Domestic Slave Trade'

Author: 
Alexandra J. Finley
Reviewer: 
Laura McCoy

Alexandra J. Finley. An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America's Domestic Slave Trade. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2020. 200 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6135-3.

Reviewed by Laura McCoy (Northwestern University) Published on H-Early-America (May, 2021) Commissioned by Patrick Luck

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56520

Alexandra Finley’s An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade skillfully documents an understudied but vital aspect of the antebellum slave trade: the Black women whose work made the trade profitable for white male traders. The day-to-day operations of the slave trade required extensive socially reproductive labor, or the work of generating and maintaining life. Who cleaned, fed, and clothed enslaved people prior to sale? Who ran traders’ jails and boardinghouses? Who performed the domestic, sexual, and emotional labor in traders’ households? The answer is, An Intimate Economy shows, Black women. Despite women’s indispensable labor, hierarchies of race, sex, and legal status impeded their ability to accumulate profit or recognition within the trade. Still, Finley’s four brisk chapters capture how Black women like Corinna Hinton Omohundro, Sarah Anne Connor, and Lucy Ann Cheatham used domestic work to make claims for financial compensation and freedom.

Chronologically situated between the Panic of 1837 and the Civil War, An Intimate Economy explores two of the largest and most (in)famous urban slave markets in the American South: Richmond and New Orleans. The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, with each chapter complicating a term that slave traders and buyers used to commodify enslaved women: fancy, seamstress, concubine, and housekeeper. Finley scours account books and legal records to put names and stories to the flesh-and-blood workers obscured by a market language shaped by white male fantasies.

A skilled researcher and careful theorist, Finley wrings all she can from the archive and not a drop more. She follows scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Marisa Fuentes who remind historians to respect what is unknowable—to resist even unintentional narrative invention that can compound the archival erasure already inflicted on Black women in the past.[1] Finley writes that she has “chosen to embrace the questions” while acknowledging that in the end “some questions remain unanswerable.” When the archive is slim, she chooses to “make comparisons, use theory, and employ what evidence is available” (p. 130).

In doing so, she convincingly demonstrates that while some aspects of enslaved women’s lives remain unknowable, others are simply “buried and unrecognized in ledgers and financial statements” (p. 15). An Intimate Economy models how the histories of business and capitalism can open new windows into the history of Black women in the antebellum South. In slave trader Silas Omohundro’s Jail and Board Book, for instance, Finley finds evidence that between 1851 and 1861, Omohundro netted over $9,000 from enslaved women’s domestic work (including cooking, sewing, cleaning, and hospitality). Finley’s deftness in the archives also models how scholars can mine financial and legal records for stories about enslaved working women’s social and emotional lives. In court records of a financial dispute, for instance, she discovers that enslaved concubine Sarah Anne Connor relied on trusted female friends to keep her money safe as she worked toward buying her freedom.

Equally important, An Intimate Economy shows how the study of Black women provides vital insight into the history of American capitalism. Feminist historians have long argued that white women’s domestic labor was an under-recognized engine of nineteenth-century capitalism, especially in the Northeast. By shifting to the urban South, Finley contends that the significance of domestic work is incompletely understood without attention to Black women. In Finley’s capable hands, the history of domesticity is as much about Lucy Ann Cheatham as it is about Catherine Beecher, the history of capitalism as much about Virginia Isham’s sewing as banking and finance. Overall, An Intimate Economy convincingly posits that “slavery’s capitalism” can, should, and must be studied through Black women’s labor.[2]

Finley also joins a growing chorus of scholars making a powerful case that the history of labor and capitalism must attend to sex. She documents how enslaved women’s socially reproductive labor was directly linked to sex (and sexual abuse) both linguistically and in practice. White men and women conflated paying for domestic labor with paying for sex, using terms like “seamstress” and “housekeeper” to signal which enslaved women they perceived (and advertised) as sexually available. The link between sex and slavery’s capitalism is especially clear in Finley’s nuanced analysis of the enslaved women whom traders purchased for sex. Coercing cheap domestic, emotional, and sexual labor from enslaved women could be a strategic business decision for traders. As one man put it, procuring an enslaved concubine was “much cheaper than living in hotels and boardinghouses” (p. 12). Finley also effectively draws on affect theory and the history of emotions to tease out the intangible affective value of enslaved women’s sexual labor. Enslaved concubines labored to produce “emotion, pleasure, and a sense of mastery in the person who enslaved them” (p. 10). Traders thus depended on Black women not just materially for profit, but emotionally for their identity as successful and powerful businessmen.

Though An Intimate Economy highlights how deeply ensnared Black women’s lives were with the white men who sought to commodify their labor and sexuality, Finley’s focus is always squarely on the women themselves and the fascinating, serpentine, and often unexpected ways they navigated the economy of white supremacy. The stakes of documenting these women’s lives and labors are monumental and pressing. As Finley herself puts, it, “ignoring the fact that the slave trade relied on women’s domestic and reproductive labor further naturalizes women’s work and elides the gendered and racialized ideologies attached to certain forms of labor” (p. 4)—ideologies still destructively at play in our current capitalist economy. As Finley’s nods to modern labor movements and crises suggest, An Intimate Economy will find interested readers not just among historians, but also sociologists, advocates, and policymakers seeking to understand and remedy economic inequity, both past and present.

Notes

[1]. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14; Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[2]. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Citation: Laura McCoy. Review of Alexandra J. Finley, An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America's Domestic Slave Trade. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56520

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