Slavery, Intimacy, & (En)Gendering History

A version of this review (“Slavery, Intimacy, and Re-Crafting History”) appeared in the November 2014 issue of  The GC Advocate (Vol. 26 Fall no. 3 —2014).


Andrea Stuart, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (New York: Vintage Books, 2013); 353 pages; ISBN: 978-0307474544 (paperback).

Katy Simpson Smith, The Story of Land and Sea: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 2014);  240 pages; ISBN: 978-0062335944 (hardcover).

Where are the mothers in the sweeping narratives of empire building in the Americas and, by attending to their stories, how might mothers reconfigure the way we think about the production of history? When I think of my own fascination with narrative forms, a fascination that began during my adolescence, heroic portraitures of men dominated: textbook passages about explorers in the New World, spaghetti Westerns, Melville’s novels, television detectives dramas. In my schooling and in my afternoon consumption of popular culture, narratives that engaged mothers as historical actors were peripheral to the imagination. Even in my current studies, which turns to the early Atlantic world, the corporate, archival structures of church and state produce a hagiographic story of exceptional men who are on the vanguard of history. Two recent works from popular presses bring refreshing perspectives on the intertwined histories of slavery, dispossession, and empire building in the Americas. Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire and Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea turn to mothers in reconstructing the past and, through these figures, trace variegated terrains of power dispersed through imperial violence and expansion.

In Sugar in the Blood, Stuart traces the matrilineal roots of her family tree back to the seventeenth century and routes them back into the present. Beginning with her maternal grandfather eight times removed, George Ashby, and his migration from England to Barbados, Stuart narrates an epic tale of how her family’s past is woven into the story of imperial rule and the sugar plantation development in the Caribbean. The tale spans three parts—“The Pioneer,” “The Plantocrat,” and “The Legacy”—and balances the intimacies (historical, economic, and otherwise) shared within and between the continents surrounding the Atlantic. Stuart tactically slips in and out of the subjunctive mood to describe unwritten parts of the past. When George Ashby first arrives to the Caribbean, Stuart writes: “That first night, when the sun had set and the light was fading from the sky, George Ashby would have pitched his tent and made a fire more for light than heat. Beyond the circle of illumination cast by the flames, the darkness was full of strange noises. The music of the Caribbean night—that orchestra of sounds made by cicadas, frogs and rustling leaves—which seemed so charming when accompanied by the bustle of Bridgetown, now seemed menacing…and George must have slept fitfully if he managed to sleep at all” (36, my emphasis). From George Ashby’s arrival to Barbados, to the Middle Passage, to the conjugal relations of Robert Cooper (Stuart’s grandfather four times removed), “future-in-the-past” forms of narration effectively remind the reader that racial slavery and the violence of empire continue to constitute the cultSugar-in-the-Bloodure we consume; the legacies of slavery and empire still condition how we understand freedom in our world today. While imaginatively creating a dialogue between the past and present (“Sugar was the commodity that drove the geopolitics of the era, just as oil does to today” [131], British abolitionist “pamphleteers were the bloggers of their day” [139]), Stuart writes of how sugar, settlement, and slavery are not simply forces that shape the intricacies of her family story: they shape domestic relationships and those relationships in turn “rippled outwards” (4). In this way, Sugar in the Blood tells a global (her)story that “fixes its gaze on the connections between continents, between black and white, men and women, the free and the enslaved—demonstrating that the individual is not just a victim of global history, but an author of it as well” (4).


In comparison to the temporal and spatial scale of Stuart’s epic, The Story of Land and Sea is more narrow in scope; it focuses on the years following the American Revolution and centers on a North Carolina coastline. The novel opens and closes with a cast of characters who orbit around the memory of Helen, the inheritor of a plantation who dies of childbirth. The center of the novel is where Smith most effectively works through the various relational networks that swivel around Helen: her relationship with her plantation-owning, turpentine-distilling father, Asa; her romance with John, a former pirate who becomes a soldier; and her tense relationship with Moll, an enslaved girl who is presented as a tenth-year birthday gift to Helen.

Like Stuart, Smith draws from her own engagement with the archives as a historian to craft the setting for these characters. Her PhD research, which was turned into a monograph, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, appears in this debut novel: broken up into three periods of time in the novel—1793, 1771-83, 1793-94—Smith develops multiples meanings of motherhood in the early South. Tabitha and Helen, a daughter and mother who don’t know one another, are each accorded with a part that explore motherlessness. The final section centers on Moll’s fortitude as slave and mother as she witnesses one of her children, Davy, sold off. In an emotional scene Moll’s young son expresses excitement at the prospect of possibly buying his freedom. Moll is tormented: “She can’t say what she wants. What can a mother like this want for her child? It does no good to tell him he’s breaking her heart. He will blow away from this town, out of her arms, will always be a boy, fighting out of wherever he is. She lifts her face and wraps her arms around him and rocks him until his shoulder is wet with her tears. God has never seen her family…On the other side of this life, on the other side of slavery, on the far side of this sea, what is there waiting? Emptiness; it’s all she’s seen. In the morning, her son will ride into that blank and will not return. Is it freedom if she’s not there to witness it? Is it love if it has no object present?” (194-195).

It is, to some degree, a bit unfair to compare Smith’s novel to Stuart’s hefty and haunting Sugar in the Blood; the generic qualities and personal stakes of each author’s writing differ, of course. But, for a moment, I want to turn to the representations of Smith and her work that seem to have widespread mass appeal. I am thinking, specifically, of a profile that appeared in the July 2014 issue of Vogue magazine, where Smith is characterized as a Southern belle who “admires Terrence Malick’s The New World and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, films that share her provocatively unbounded view of history.” Ironically, if we were to compare Smith’s novel with the aforementioned films, the three works share a contained, rather than unbounded, view of history: representations of imperial violence are firmly circumscribed in the US past, and these representations are reimagined to create aesthetic distance and excite intense feeling. When asked in interviews to discuss how she negotiates the ethics of imaginatively representing the thoughts and actions of the enslaved characters: “I’m always nervous about speaking with a voice of someone whose experience is so different from mine,” Smith said in a NPR interview earlier this year. “But I believe we have a responsibility to do just that. I think fiction in particular allows us to empathize with this wide spectrum of humanity, and in order to put yourself in another person’s life you have to have that empathy.” This is a nice sentiment, but one that enjoys the liberty of not having to grapple with the compromised relationship between aesthetic representation and the racial structuring of the world. It’s one thing to use fiction as a means of attending to a shared past and its discomforting realities; it’s quite another to grapple with the ongoing histories of empire and slavery, and challenge the narrative styles that mediate these histories.

To be clear, I am not criticizing Smith’s skill or intelligence as a writer. The wispy prose of The Story of Land and Sea can be quite lovely at times. Early in the novel, Smith alludes to Donne’s tolling bells—an image that reappears in a few places in the novel—and invites the reader to think about the fragility and shared spaces of human existence. Moments like this one gesture at Smith’s belief in fiction as an empathetic mode for recuperating a “wide spectrum of humanity.” However, as Andrea Stuart incisively remarks in the second part of Sugar in the Blood, where she describes the plantation culture of Barbados and touches on the question of agency: “There is always a danger when documenting [the stories of slaves] of turning them into mere symbols of what this terrible system could do to people…To do so would dehumanize them just as surely as slavery tried to do. So we can only hope to understand the enormity of the system that they were resisting and exercise compassion when we judge the strategies they used to endure it” (214, my emphasis). It is precisely Stuart’s ability to balance both the intricate narrative about her ancestors and the enormity of the sugar plantation system that makes Sugar in the Blood a remarkable achievement.

When read together The Story of Land and Sea and Sugar in the Blood generate a dialogue regarding the relationship between imaginative writing and the uses of history. We might consider, for instance, how a sense of historical distance can create a particular reflective mood, as Smith does in her novel. In the case of Sugar in the Blood, we might think about how Stuart imaginatively deploys the subjunctive in the writing of history in order to establish continuities between past and present. Or we might consider how Stuart recalibrates the legacies of slavery, settlement, and empire in her turn to landscapes and the lyricism that they inspire; they too are sites transformed by these legacies: “All the rest was a sea of sugar cane, extending so wide and deep that it seemed to touch the horizon. The cane had as many moods as an ocean: on a still day it absorbed the heat of the sun and sent it back into the sky in shimmers, at other times when it was breezy, the cane waved ceaselessly, creating what the historian C.L.R. James called ‘the song that never ceased’” (155). But perhaps the most powerful overlap and provocative question that Sugar in the Blood and The Story of Land and Sea bring to popular audiences is this one: how might a turn to structures of intimacy—familiar, domestic, and sexual—narrate an alternative history, one that not only illustrates the way power is dispersed in the past and present, but one that enables new aesthetic forms of relating?

Image sources:
Featured image: Smithsonian National Postal Museum Blog
Book covers: Amazon


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