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Les ombres noires de Saint Domingue: The Impact of Black Women on Gender and Racial Boundaries in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century France



Les ombres noires de Saint Domingue: The Impact of Black Women on Gender & Racial Boundaries in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century France


Robin Mitchell

Doctor of Philosophy in History

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Tyler Stovall, Chair

There were few black women on French soil in the nineteenth century, yet images of and discussions about them are found in political, artistic, scientific, and various social milieus. This paradox is explored for its symbolic and nationalistic significance by investigating how public discourse about them fostered specific aspects of French national identity. The loss by revolution of the black colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti) created an influx of refugees that haunted France. Specific types of representations of black women helped mitigate this national trauma.

Using data collected from archives, art, literature, and legislation, as well as social, scientific, and political discourse, the lives and public representation of four very real black women from late eighteenth-century Saint Domingue through the abolition of slavery in 1848 - including the ancien régime, the Napoleonic era, and the Restoration of monarchy - are examined for their role in the construction of French social, sexual and racial identity.

The opening overview examines racial policies important for keeping whites and non-whites legally distinct - exacerbated by the loose control of mores in colonial Saint Domingue. The legal case of Henriette Lucille tested the claim that slavery did not exist on French soil, exposing how individual attitudes were undermining royal authority. Sarah Bartmann, the Hottentot Venus, was used by the scientific community to quantify race, as well as by the white French public to witness its superiority over blacks. Ourika was a very young black girl given to an aristocratic woman as a house pet. She was, however, raised in the household as an aristocrat. Though she died young, her reputation became the subject of literary and theater works that emphasized the impossibility of her marrying a white French man of her own class. Last, Jeanne Duval, common-law wife of Charles Baudelaire is seen through the record of her life left by him and their contemporaries as well as his later biographers - an ugly portrait of a mulatto of base behavior unworthy of the poetic genius whom she inspired.

Exposed is the way that race was utilized - along with gender, sexuality and class - to encourage unity amongst white French men and women, highlighting why these black women were such important tools in that national quest. Regardless of who they were or where they came from, the overarching narrative was the reinforcement of the inauthentic Frenchness of black women. Yet the representations of them also reveal the fissures in the definition of what it meant to be French that challenged existing gender and racial boundaries within white French society.

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