Professor explores the silent black narrative

By RACHEL JUIENG | March 14, 2019

Jessica Marie Johnson, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins History Department and author of Practicing Freedom: Black Women, Intimacy, and Kinship in New Orleans Atlantic World, gave a lecture on enslaved and free black women in households and urban settings. The Homewood Museum hosted the talk, which took place in Remsen Hall on Wednesday.

In her lecture, Johnson juxtaposed the stories of free and enslaved black women in the 18th and 19th centuries with a contemporary perspective of black women who are creating art in the aftermath of slavery, such as Courtney Desiree Morris, Kiyan Williams, Leiomy Maldonado, Nona Faustine and Jason deCaires Taylor. Johnson believes that the perspective of modern black women is useful when examining the histories of enslaved women.

Johnson explained the process of researching black women throughout history. She said that this often requires looking at archival documents more closely. 

“We don’t always find women telling their stories, sometimes, we only get one line or silence — but this silence speaks,“ she said. 

By focusing her research on black women, Johnson explained that she was able to detail their lives and identities more completely. 

“Across the board, free and enslaved women are going to be more vulnerable to violence — physical and sexual — from white men, white women and the patriarchy that free and enslaved men are enacting on them,” she said. 

Kerrie Cotten Williams, an archivist at D.C. Public Libraries Special Collections, came to see how historians and researchers use archival material to interpret their work. She was impressed by Johnson’s ability to read between the lines when analyzing archives. 

“Oftentimes, there is more silence than there is evidence of a written record. For a narrative, what’s important is what’s recorded but also what is not recorded,” she said.

Associate Professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Goucher College Mel Michelle Lewis also attended the talk. Like Williams, she was impressed by the investigation into these silences. 

“In this conversation, we get so much more quantitative data and a better idea of black women rather than imagining slaves as just a monolithic group. Because of the private sphere-public sphere nature of the archive, it is important to recognize that there is so much more to know when silences are investigated,” she said.

One of the women that Johnson focused on was Leiomy Maldonado, a black trans vogue dancer. Vogue is a style of dance that evolved from Harlem’s LGBTQ Ballroom scene. Johnson showed a video of Maldonado dancing and explained the importance of examining black women’s lives outside of the context of history textbooks.  

“It’s not just about the ways that we visualize and create and curate visual landscapes, it’s also about the bodily representation of black womanhood,” Johnson said. 

MICA student Thomas Mooring is a fan of Maldonado and described her importance to both the LGBTQ community and black community. 

“She is a phenomenal icon and with this archive being about black women and she’s a black trans woman, I think it’s an awakening in a sense for the black community,” he said. “I was immediately overwhelmed by the acknowledgement of black trans identity and experience.”

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