Zara Anishanslin on African American women’s voices and bodies in colonial America and today.

Today we feature a guest post from Historiann friend and colleague Zara Anishanslin (@ZaraAnishanslin), an Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World will be published by Yale University Press in September 2016.  An expert in eighteenth-century British and American material culture, Anishanslin pulls some of the threads of contemporary conversations about African American women’s words and bodies, and finds many suggestive connections to colonial America and the early U.S. republic.  In this lavishly illustrated post, she asks how were the images and ideas of African American women appropriated or deployed by others to their own economic and political ends?  Why is it still so difficult for black women to be heard and to represent themselves?  And finally, what does this say about the racialized and gendered nature of politics in the U.S. even now?

michelleobamaspeech“Let’s argue the history of this country, ok?’

So reporter April Ryan challenged, in a televised discussion on Monday, July 18, day one of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Ryan was responding to the remarks by her co-panelist on an MSNBC morning interview, Republican congressman Steve King. King, in a WTF moment for the ages, had just questioned what non-white “subgroups” had done to further western “civilization.” Ryan’s challenge was the last word she got in before MSNBC host Chris Hayes (who along with Esquire’s Charlie Pierce had been talking over her), went to commercial break.   On a Periscope video Ryan posted on Twitter, Chris Hayes announced his regret at not letting Ryan speak, but he had shut Ryan up when it mattered most.

That same day, Melania Trump, wife of presidential candidate Donald Trump, gave a plagiarized speech with word-for-word copies of one given by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2008. The two events occurred on the same day, in the same place, in the shared context of the Republican National Convention. But they have something more fundamental in common.

Ryan and Obama are black women; King, Hayes, Pierce, and Trump are all white, and most are men. In both televised cases, millions of viewers saw white people talking over, or appropriating without consent, the voices of black women. Both were examples that offered viewers televised examples of white people denying, silencing, or stealing, the creative contributions of black women. Although the Trump campaign is notable for its naked racism, what happened to Ryan and Obama is nothing new. Instead, it is part of a very long American history of white people’s sustained attempts to silence black women’s voices and to control black women’s bodies.

Such attempts, of course, were often made for profit and power. They owe their origins to our long history of slavery and its legacies; more particularly, to the fact that American slavery was codified in a legal system that used the sexual and reproductive aspects of black women’s bodies to perpetuate enslavement.


William Blake, Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave (1796)

From their seventeenth-century beginnings on, in other words, in the British colonies that eventually became the United States of America, white people sought to control—and profit from—black women’s bodies. It is an ugly truth that the seeds of American capitalism were planted in black women’s wombs. And while slaveowners sought to control living black women’s physical bodies, the larger culture in which they lived also sought to control how those bodies were represented and seen. Around the Atlantic World, art, literature, and visual and material culture perpetuated stereotypes about black women as “the beautiful woman who is also the monstrous laboring beast,” (Morgan, 168).  The torture of enslaved women was even eroticized, as in this engraving by William Blake.

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Conversation of Girls (Two Girls with their Black Servant), exhibited 1770, private collection.

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Conversation of Girls (Two Girls with their Black Servant), exhibited 1770, private collection.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, black women were more often than not depicted as bodies that labored. And, most often, they were shown as bodies that labored on behalf of white people.  Through her simple dress, unadorned hair, and servile position, the African or Afro-British girl is deliberately coded as the servant in this painting.


Johann Zoffany, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779.

Johann Zoffany, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779.

In the famous 1779 painting that inspired the 2013 movie Belle, a black woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, is depicted as an affectionate, richly dressed companion to her white relative Lady Elizabeth Murray. Belle, who at times served as his secretary, likely influenced the ruling of her guardian Lord Mansfield, in a legal landmark of the history of natural rights (in this case abolition), the case Somerset v. Stewart (1772). Yet in the dual portrait above, her voice and her literacy are effaced. Instead, she is reduced to an exoticized body that labors. Standing and wearing a feathered turban, the black woman is portrayed offering fruit, an allusion to her fertility, while the white woman sits and holds an open book.

Jean Baptiste-Antoine De Verger, American Soldiers at the Siege of Yorktown, 1781.

Jean Baptiste-Antoine De Verger, American Soldiers at the Siege of Yorktown, 1781.

During another famous moment in the history of natural rights warmly embraced by attendees of the Republican National Convention—the American Revolution—the contribution of black women to that protest is equally effaced in the visual record. We know that white patriot women wore homespun. We know that white patriot men wore the blue and buff of the Continental Army, and hunting shirts embroidered “Liberty or Death.” We also know that black patriot men wore a distinctive uniform that set them apart as soldiers of color.

Phyllis Wheatley, 1773.

Phillis Wheatley, 1773.

But black patriot women? They were undeniably part of the revolution, working on its behalf as spies, camp laborers, and poets. Yet, with the exception of the poet Phillis Wheatley, their images don’t survive. And although Phillis Wheatley is a famous name, it is a name that embodies white attempts to control black female bodies; the name she was given when she was bought as a slave in Boston, a name she shared with the slave ship Phillis that carried her across the Atlantic from Africa.

The first day of the 2016 Republican National Convention offered ample evidence that white American attempts to control black women and their representation is a phenomenon that, despite its roots in seventeenth-century colonial history, is alive and well. The silencing and plagiarizing of Ryan and Obama remind us why images like this one can and should become instantly iconic:

Jonathan Bachman for Reuters, photo of Ieshia Evans, Baton Rouge, LA, July 9, 2016.

Jonathan Bachman for Reuters, photo of Ieshia Evans, Baton Rouge, LA, July 9, 2016.

In this already famous photo taken by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters, 28-year old nurse, Ieshia Evans, was captured the week before the RNC, in the moment of her arrest. Evans had traveled from New York to Louisiana to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest after the death of Alton Sterling.

Edward Savage, Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth Giving Support to the Bald Eagle, 1796.

Edward Savage, Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth Giving Support to the Bald Eagle, 1796.

Evans’s image—in which she stands graceful, poised, dignified, fashionably dressed, accessorized, and very feminine—immediately garnered comparisons. One was that it evoked Edward Savage’s figure of the goddess of Liberty.  This image of Liberty in flowing robes circulated widely across media, appearing in embroidered pictures as well as prints. Yet, despite its popularity, and despite changes to her appearance like hair color, one thing never changed: Liberty was always a white woman.

Bachman’s photograph of Evans was also compared to two other iconic examples of protest visual culture: the famous “woman in red” image from Turkey in 2013, and the “tank man” in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But where Evans’ image is different from all three of these images is that she is a black woman. And she is a black woman controlling her own body and its representation.

Despite the viral appeal of this image, it did not escape criticism. One critique was that she was “posing” for the camera, deliberately striking a pose. The critique is fair: she was posing. But in this case, posing is not falsehood. Rather, it is power.

As Jen Graves wrote last week in The Stranger, “of course it captures her posing. It’s a picture of a Black woman controlling the picture. By assuming her stance, she makes herself available to a photographer who can make her appear to be enchanting, casting a spell on, the armed government…. Evans knew she would be arrested, Bachman heard her say. She stepped forward and assumed the position knowing she might be photographed, in an attempt to create a record for herself other than a criminal one…Her body is her language, and her dress is the dialect.”

From the early days of white colonization of what is now the United States of America, black women have been forced to struggle to retain control of their bodies and how they are depicted. That Evans did exactly that, and that her efforts were captured in an iconographic image gone viral at this particular moment in our political history, is a glimmer of hope.

So, yes, April Ryan is right: “let’s argue the history of this country, ok”? Let’s recognize and support the right of Ryan to have her question answered, of Obama to retain ownership of her speech, and of Evans to dress fashionably for a protest and control her own image. Let’s support the right of black women to use their voices, their bodies, and their fashion choices to narrate the story they want to tell about this country.

Thanks, Zara, for this provocative and vividly illustrated post.  Take it away, friends!


Jen Graves, “The Queen Protestor of Baton Rouge: An Art Review” (July 11, 2016) in the Stranger online at

Warren, Wendy. “’The Cause of Her Grief’: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England .” The Journal of American History 93: 4 (2007), 1031-1049.

Morgan, Jennifer.  Laboring Women:  Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

–“‘Some Could Suckle Over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, 54:1 (1997): 167-92.

Lugo-Ortiz, Agnes and Angela Rosenthal, eds. Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. Cambridge:  Cambridge Univ Press, 2012.

7 thoughts on “Zara Anishanslin on African American women’s voices and bodies in colonial America and today.

  1. This is an interesting, and–as Historiann notes above–a beautifully-illustrated essay. Blake had connections to a community of London Swedenborgians who in the 1790s planned to create a colony of free blacks, and Swedenborgians, in Sierra Leone. c.f. Nancy Jiwon Cho and David Worrall “William Blake’s Meeting with Dorothy Gott: The Female Origins of Blake’s Prophetic Mode,” _Romanticism_, 6.1 (2010), 60-71; Worrall, “Blake, the Female Prophet and the American Agent,” in Sarah Haggarty and John Mee, eds., _Blake and Conflict_ (London, 2009), 48-64; Stephen J. Braidwood, _Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London’s Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement, 1786-1791_ (Liverpool, 1994); Dierdre Coleman, ” The ‘Microscope of Enthusiasm’: Swedenborgian Ideas about Africa,” chap. 2, in _Romantic Colonization and British Andi-Slavery_ (Cambridge, UK, ); Sten Lindroth, “Adam Afzelius: A Swedish Botanist in Sierra Leone, 1792-1796,” _Sierra Leone Studies, 4 (1955), 194-207; and Marsha Keith Schuchard, “Why Mrs. Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake, and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision,” _Esoterica: The Journal of Esoteric Studies_, 2 (2000), 45-93.


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  3. Thanks for this excellent essay and reminder of the power of self-representation and the ways that power has been erased and quashed. I especially liked your analysis of the Ieshia Evans Jonathan Evans photograph. Its great reminder that every photograph is a collaboration between the sitter and the photographer.


  4. Thanks so much for this linking of present and past, and image and text. As someone who spent a lot of time staring at the English portraits with slaves (albeit in the 17th c) I’m particularly intrigued by the Belle portrait, because it places her in the conventional poses of attendants/slaves in such portraits — the turban (yes, one foreign is as good as another), and hte basket of fruit. But instead of looking up admiringly at the white subject of the painting and directing our gaze, she’s looking right at us, and she has her own destination.


    • Zara Anishanslin did a good job of explaining what the Belle painting meant to contemporary audiences, and doubtless those of many years following. But as someone without much systematic training in history, especially art history, it gives off a quite different vibe to me.

      Murray, despite the book, looks stiff and passive. Her one active gesture is the hand extended toward Belle. That hand implies affection, but also looks like it is trying to hold Belle back. Belle looks looks like she’s ready to do a football-style move around the restraining hand. (Hey, six brothers, watched a lot of sports.)

      Belle’s air of energy probably implied a primitive nature then, but is more appealing to modern eyes. Think Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennett’s willingness to walk to see her sister Jane is interpreted as wildness by her “social better,” Miss Bingley, but wins the admiration of Darcy, and modern readers.

      Likely the perspective is lost in the digital posting, but Belle’s holding of the fruit looks less like offering than possession. Combined with the obvious intelligence conveyed in her expression, it conveys to me a message of: “Yes, you have the book, but I’ve learned about the practical things that sustain life. I love you, and you have me in a secondary place now, but I’m not staying here forever.”

      Just my take. Flame away if you want.


      • As another person with deficient history training, to my eyes the Belle painting looks like a pairing of an intelligent active beautiful woman with a sort of stuck-in-the-mud, well made-up lady. Nothing about Belle says servility to me.

        It amazes me how time (well, culture) can completely change what we think we see.

        Thanks for the explanation!


  5. Thanks, all, for the kind words and thoughtful reading! K Nowak, love your football and Austen inspired reading of Belle’s portrait. Your points remind us that today’s viewers are cued to read this differently than c18 lookers steeped in symbolism of props would have done. A glimmer of hope!

    Liked by 1 person

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