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Enslaved Black Women's Listening Practices and the Afterlives of Slavery in Musical Thought (2020)


This is the script for my presentation at the American Musicological Society's 2020 annual conference. In order to see the slides please reference the video of my presentation.


A woman plays violin, but her back is to us. We are separated from her by a table on which sits a carafe, a pot, and a couple of drinking vessels. She does not seem to care much about our presence, as in one instance she plays with seeming concentration, and then rests her violin slightly, her mouth open in a subtle smile, perhaps laughing, singing, or making a comment to her companion. We do not know this woman’s name, but the image, sketched in Jamaica in the early nineteenth century by the little-known English artist William Berryman, is labeled “A St. Domingo Negro Fiddler at Maverly.”

Berryman’s drawing of this “St. Domingo fiddler” is a rare portrayal of an enslaved woman playing an instrument at her leisure. His sketch creates a sense of intimacy, of overhearing, implied by the woman’s turned back, her apparent indifference at being sketched. This indifference is refreshing for someone like me, who goes to the archives of slavery to try and learn about the ways that enslaved Africans and their descendants engaged with European music in the British colonial Caribbean as part of my dissertation project. The British colonial Caribbean was always a Black world, with a demographic imbalance in which white people were a significant minority of the population. The nature of the violence of chattel slavery, which included the denial of literacy, means that sources from the British colonial Caribbean before emancipation overwhelmingly comprise of white people’s thoughts about, interpretations of, cultural descriptions of, and means of control of the mostly enslaved Black population. But as white people sought to rationalize their understanding of the African and African-descended population, there was always an equivalent opposite observation taking place. Enslaved Africans and their descendants had little control over how and when they were observed and written about by white people, nor could they deny what cultural historian Jennifer Lynn Stoever calls the “listening ears” of colonial white people, as even their private moments were perpetually open to surveillance and scrutiny. But likewise, white people also could scarcely avoid being observed and overheard by population of Africans and their descendants who they lived with, side-by-side. However, recuperating these listening practices is a difficult task for the historian, due to the overwhelming archival imbalance.

If it is difficult to recuperate the day-to-day thoughts, feelings, and theories of enslaved Africans and their descendants in general, it is even more difficult to focus on the lives of enslaved women in particular. Racialized slavery in the Caribbean was chattel slavery, and the very condition of chattel slavery is the removal of reproductive autonomy from women. Within chattel slave societies enslaved women couldn’t be raped in the eyes of the law; their very condition was of sexual vulnerability. Regardless of whether children born to enslaved mothers had fathers that were free or enslaved, white or African-descended, they would automatically inherit their mother’s status, drawing from the law partus sequitur ventrem: the offspring follows the womb.[1] We inherit these reproductive logics of racialized chattel slavery, as is plain to see in the contemporary U.S., which has high black maternal mortality rates that do no correlate with education level, demonstrating a medical profession desensitized to black women’s pain and instincts. We also can see it in growing reports of forced hysterectomies in ICE detainment centers in Georgia on overwhelmingly black and brown women from Latin America.

It was within the violence of a slave society where our violinist played her tune. The image appears to give us a glimpse of a private music-making that is almost never captured in colonial sources. The two sources that I look at in this paper are both works that were produced by white observers, and yet seem to portray an intimacy of observing Black women’s creative practices. The first is the opening rare sketch of a woman playing the violin while her companion dances, and the second is a watercolor of four black women, likely enslaved, dancing to a British military band. In considering these women I ask: What, if anything, can these sources teach us about how black women experienced music with European origins? To what extent can these sources be used beyond being simply considered vehicles for the white racial imagination? To answer these questions, I face the well-established problem of writing about enslaved women in the British colonial Caribbean from colonial sources. As historian Marisa J. Fuentes writes in her book about enslaved women in eighteenth-century Barbados, enslaved women often appear as historical subjects in archives only at moments of violence and of their subjugation, writing that they almost always


… appear as historical subjects through the form and content of archival documents in the manner in which they lived: spectacularly violated, objectified, disposable, hypersexualized, and silenced. The violence is transferred from the enslaved bodies to the documents that count, condemn, assess, and evoke them, and we receive them in this condition. Epistemic violence originates from the knowledge produced about enslaved women by white men and women in this society, and that knowledge is what survives in archival form.[2]


Against that ever-present possibility of reinscribing the violence of the archive through bringing enslaved women into a knowledge economy that is itself based on colonial logics, I also consider historian Darlene Clark Hine’s theorization of Black women’s “culture of dissemblance.” The Culture of Dissemblance is a strategy created by Black women in America be they enslaved women or their descendants, who


developed and adhered to a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance, to protect the sanctity of inner aspects of their lives. The dynamics of dissemblance involved creating the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings, while actually remaining an enigma. Only with secrecy, thus achieving a self-imposed invisibility, could ordinary Black women accrue the psychic space and harness the resources needed to hold their own in the often one-sided and mismatched resistance struggle.[3]


Dissemblance creates knowledge that cannot be held in traditional archives and is a culture where definitions of self were deliberately shielded from scrutiny. If we acknowledge the right of enslaved women to practice a culture of dissemblance then we researchers are left with a problem. When people such as myself go to archives in which traces of Black women’s lives are stored, often without their knowledge, what are our motivations for waking the women there, for making them currency in a knowledge economy, and for imagining their lives, desires, and motivations? When I go looking for enslaved women in the archive I do so with the best of intentions, with a desire to find evidence that can “speak back” to colonial logics of race and gender, to find connection, and to write narratives that sometimes challenge, sometimes mirror and sometimes complicate received music-historical narratives. Dissemblance, however, complicates my desires and challenges my motivations. The practice of the culture of dissemblance is a way of knowing that is deliberately concealed, and thus resists easy incorporation into predominantly white spaces such as the academy. And yet, the two images here are tempting portals into the possibility of being able to construct counter-narratives around the ways that music and dance could be a mode of self-fashioning and self-preservation.

The sketches of unknown English artist William Berryman, who visited Jamaica between 1808 and 1815, are unusual in that they suggest the close access that white visitors could claim in what today seem like private moments for Afro-Jamaicans. Although an outline sketch, Berryman  numbered and labelled the parts of the “St. Domingo fiddler’s” outfit, perhaps with a future color version in mind. She must have cut a jolly figure, as her headscarf is a purple check, her shawl vermillion, and the material of her top a small blue stripe contrasting against a white skirt. It is notable that the image is labelled as “A St. Domingo negro fiddler,” marking her as someone from the former French colony of Saint Domingue. On the recto the same fiddler is drawn twice again, recognizable by the same outfit. Here the violinist is first portrayed facing away from us again, bow raised, with no facial features on display, but at the bottom of the page we see her in profile, looking peacefully up as she plays. This side of the page has a different title: “negro wench dancing Maverly in White Muslin,” referring to the woman portrayed in the center of the page, back to the viewer, perhaps engaged in a slow spin. Maverly likely refers to the Maverly Estate just North of Kingston, where over two hundred enslaved people were held to labor during the period of Berryman’s visit.[4] To my knowledge, this is the only depiction, iconographic or written, of an African or African-descended woman violinist before emancipation in Jamaica. (If anyone listening to this has any other examples of enslaved women playing violin anywhere in the colonial Caribbean, I would love to hear from you!)

But what was this “Saint-Domingue negro fiddler” doing in Jamaica? Jamaica received refugees—both white colonists and the people they held enslaved—from Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution. As Berryman was only in Jamaica from 1808 to 1815 it seems likely that the fiddler he sketched was a refugee from Saint Domingue. But while scholarship on the music of those who resettled on Jamaica from Saint-Domingue focusses on either white people who had to resort to making a living through performance, or the fascinating and very public Afro-Caribbean tradition of festive music-making connected to Sett girls, the Haitian musician depicted by Berryman appears to be partaking in a more private, domestic form of music making. The violinist takes no notice of Berryman. She is twice removed from us, first by the table where everyday items lay unceremoniously, and second by her stance. Her companion also has her back to the viewer. She is described by Berryman as a “negro wench dancing,” but without his caption, there would be little besides her slightly outstretched arms to suggest that she is in motion. Technically, as a white British man and the guest of the man that claimed to own them, Berryman could have arranged the women in any way he wanted, or taken his sketch from any angle, but he chooses to be a more passive observer, portraying the women as if they were quite unaware they were having their likenesses taken.

This naturalistic rendering is in line with other surviving sketches by Berryman. Art historian Tim Barringer, one of the few art historians to study Berryman’s work, sees his sketches as unsettling ethnographies in which he portrays the enslaved workers he encountered with “respect and fidelity,” and no sign of contempt, unlike many other contemporary British artists.[5] Barringer interprets a possible self-portrait of Berryman, on a page containing several other images of laborers, including a mule driver and a pregnant woman, as indicating “a degree of perplexity about his relationship to the enslaved men and women he encountered.”[6] In his self-portrait sheet, like in the St. Domingue fiddler sheet, almost all the workers he depicts are facing away from him. In contrast, only Berryman looks directly at the viewer, or I suppose, back at himself. 

It is tempting to interpret the backs of enslaved laborers compared to the direct gaze of Berryman as a gratifying representation of enslaved people’s resistance to being represented, or at least Berryman’s awareness, much like the historian, of the gap between them. Berryman after all was in Jamaica seeking patronage from a wealthy white planter who profited from the labor of the people he claimed to own. He was in no position to draw or paint the less savory aspects of life on a plantation such as Maverly: the punishments, the long working hours, or the brutality of the sugar works. Although his gentle renderings suggest he may have been sympathetic to an abolitionist cause, his views on the subject are not known. 


What is also left unknown is any further details about the violinist beyond the colors of her dress, such as her name, the work she was expected to do on the Maverly Plantation, her relationship to the dancing woman, or the type of music she was playing. Her presence in this sketch raises questions that cannot be answered in the archive. When I look at this woman I wonder about who taught her the violin, and whether she passed the skill on to her daughters, if she had any, or to her younger sisters, or girlfriends, such as her dancing companion. Enslaved violinists who performed for the people who claimed to own them as part of their bondage were all men; did this violinist’s gender release her from the requirement to know the country dances and reels popular in white households?

Glimpses of enslaved women such as the fiddler portrayed by Berryman are a tempting challenge for contemporary historians of women and slavery, who have had to come up with alternative ways of writing histories due to a paucity of sources. Although the turned back of the fiddler at first seemed to me to be a frustration, shielding me from knowing her, it is also an invitation to reflect on the private effects of women’s music in scenes of chattel slavery that perhaps shouldn’t always be so easily available to read and reconstruct. As historian Jessica Marie Johnson recently wrote in her beautiful book, Wicked Flesh, “scholars of black women’s lives have engaged in … dances of irreverence and defiance, revealing the known and reveling in the unknown, pushing the boundaries of narrative and the archive.”[7] This striking image, of black women over time engaged in an irreverent dance, is literally represented in a watercolor contemporary to the Berryman sketch.

The watercolor is entitled “A Dance in Jamaica,” by English artist Emeric Essex Vidal. Like Berryman, Vidal is an obscure figure, mostly known for his landscape paintings and detailed depictions of costumes from his travels in Brazil, however in this image human figures are very much the focus. In the background a British military band plays in front of a small cluster of buildings. A large crowd of black people, likely enslaved, listen to the band with varying degrees of interest. Records of Vidal’s travels suggest this painting was probably painted before 1820. In the foreground four women dance, their circular formation reminiscent of other depictions of African and African-descended enslaved women dancing, raising questions about how gesture and rhythmic pattern in some ethnic West African dance practices adapted when those rhythms were not available. From the women’s positioning in relation to the band the music is presumably not for them, and yet, they dance, each seemingly absorbed in her own gestures. British military musicians in the Caribbean did provide music for social occasions and events hosted by white elites, as well as for military events, and often socialized separately with free women of color. But here Vidal has centered the women, and not the musicians. Only the white soldier stationed between the dancers and the band seems to take any interest in the women, perhaps surveilling them somehow, in using his presence to imply a boundary between the dancers and the source of the music. In fact, to me, the whole composition suggests that there is some other event going on just out-of-sight, perhaps a more formal arrangement of members of the island’s white elite.

Whatever the nature of the event being depicted, the dancing women seem disinterested in others in their surroundings, their faces are solemn, serious, belying the balletic lightness of their dance and implying an individually-focused dance practice. I am clearly seduced by this image, even as I know that I am reading those faces and gestures through Vidal’s observation and aesthetic decisions. The women in “A Dance in Jamaica” and Berryman’s “St Domingo Negro Fiddler” are not easily included into traditional narratives of music history: They are rare—the only example of enslaved women dancing to military music, and the only example of an enslaved woman fiddler in Jamaica. These women’s representations resist extrapolation, they obfuscate our gaze, or hold it in a way that is so opaque as to be obfuscating: they seem to model Hine’s culture of dissemblance. Furthermore, they are ghosts; representations of women seen through the eyes of white British men who were merely passing through Jamaica.

Here I return to Jessica Marie Johnson’s description of how historians of enslaved black women are engaged in “dances of irreverence and defiance, revealing the known and reveling in the unknown.” This revealing and reveling is doubled when we are looking at actual sources that thematize dance as an act of dissemblance. We are likely never going to know much more about women who played violin in the colonial Caribbean, or who danced to British military music, fully aware of the dissonance between the pleasure they gained from the music and the potential for violence held by the men who played it. And yet, there are ways to write about such women from scant archival traces. As usual, Black women have been doing the work; for example, the speculative work combined with deep detailed archival work in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Marisa Fuentes’s Dispossessed Lives, and Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh; or narratives that weave between the present and the past, acknowledging that our own bodies in archives bear witness to colonialism; for example Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies and Sonja Boon’s What the Oceans Remember, or even poetic endeavors based on archival work, such as M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong! and Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica. Not all of these books are directly about music, but I think they are musical in the ways that they play with form, juxtaposition, and disassembling archival sources to destabilize “facts” and make truths of other ways of knowing not captured in archival images and texts. 

For historians of music, ways to include Black women are complicated because of the ways that slave music and dance have historically been used to both justify slavery through the “happy slave” stereotype, and been mythologized to various ends. As Saidiya Hartman has written, scenes of music-making during slavery always contain the “diffusion of terror and the violence perpetrated under the rubric of pleasure, paternalism, and property.”[8] At the same time, music and dance held the potential for personal practices of freedom, possibility, meaning-making, and resistance. This could be included in what Jessica Marie Johnson calls Black Femme Freedom, which 


resided in enslaved and free African women and girls’ capacity to belong to themselves and each other. It demanded a promiscuous accounting of blackness not as bondage and subjection, but as future possibility. It rejected discourses of black women as lascivious or wicked, and transmuted them into practices of defiance and pleasure for themselves.[9]


Both Hartman and Johnson can be right at the same time, but we must tread carefully as we seek to include Black enslaved women into narratives of music history. For the tactic of “inclusion” itself is not inherently equitable or anti-racist, as it always depends on the unequal relationship between those who can include and exclude, and those who can only be included or excluded. It is exactly that kind of easy inclusion into predominantly white ways of knowledge that black women’s culture of dissemblance developed to resist. Regardless, the presence of dancing and musicking enslaved women in Berryman and Vidal’s sketches are evidence that even the most fleeting archival traces can gesture towards the need to hold space for considering archivally minoritized perspectives.


[1] Jennifer L. Morgan, “Partus sequitur ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery,” Small Axe 22 (2018): 1-17; Alys Eve Weinbaum, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2019), 6–7.

[2] Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 5.

[3] Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14.4 (1989), 915.

[4] “Maverly Estate” in Legacies of British Slave-ownership

[5] Tim Barringer, “Picturesque Prospects and the Labor of the Enslaved,” Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds, edited by Tim Barringer and Gillian Forrester and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2019. Accessed August 26, 2020.

[6] Barringer, “Picturesque Prospects and the Labor of the Enslaved.”

[7] Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 11.

[8] Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.

[9] Johnson, Wicked Flesh, 10.

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