Ordinary Violence

The following is an excerpt from Consent in the Presence of Force: Sexual Violence and Black Women’s Survival in Antebellum New Orleans by Emily A. Owens, available wherever books are sold.

In histories of enslavement and in Black women’s history, coercion looms large in any discussion of sex and sexuality. At a time when sexual violence against Black women was virtually unregulated—even normalized—a vast economy developed specifically to sell the sexual labor of Black women. In this vividly rendered book, Emily A. Owens wrestles with the question of why white men paid notoriously high prices to gain sexual access to the bodies of enslaved women to whom they already had legal and social access.

Owens centers the survival strategies and intellectual labor of Black women enslaved in New Orleans to unravel the culture of violence they endured, in which slaveholders obscured “the presence of force” with arrangements that included gifts and money. Owens’s storytelling highlights that the classic formulation of rape law that requires “the presence of force” and “the absence of consent” to denote a crime was in fact a key legal fixture that packaged predation as pleasure and produced, rather than prevented, violence against Black women. Owens dramatically reorients our understanding of enslaved women’s lives as well as of the nature of violence in the entire venture of racial slavery in the U.S. South. Unsettling the idea that consent is necessarily incompatible with structural and interpersonal violence, this history shows that when sex is understood as a transaction, women are imagined as responsible for their own violation.

Ordinary Violence

Delphine boarded the ship in the care of her grandaunt, Marie Therese. She was still just a girl and this foster mother of sorts had said it was time to go. Their hometown, Cap Française (also known as Le Cap), was burning. Delphine left with her aunt Florence and cousin Leger, and their shared caretaker Marie Therese, as well as Monsieur Beljons, the white apothecary with whom Marie Therese kept “company.” It was 1803, and they set off across the sea.

It is probable that Delphine didn’t know much about where she was headed. At only five years old, she likely went where she was told. Perhaps she requested to stay behind in the life she had known in Saint-Domingue; perhaps she asked if she could remain in the care of her aunt Luce, who stayed on the island when the rest of the family fled. But her city was caving under the weight of war and as people who spoke French, had light skin, and had a family history of slaveholding as well as of enslavement, they would not evade suspicion either from Leclerc’s and Rochambeau’s terror campaigns or from Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s era of executions. Whether or not they sympathized with the vision of a free Ayiti, their bodies and their lineage betrayed the possibility of alignment with the French. And so, they took flight.

And so it was that catastrophe and rupture came to define the ordinary rhythm of Delphine’s young life.

This chapter details those instances of catastrophe and rupture, charting Delphine’s journey out of Haiti and into New Orleans in the period that immediately preceded a larger influx of Haitian émigrés to New Orleans. Delphine’s story reflects many of the legal quagmires that Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard document in their monumental Freedom Papers, which chronicles the family saga of a négresse libre named Rosalie and her freeborn daughter, Élisabeth, as she journeyed from revolutionary Haiti to Cuba, and then on to New Orleans. In this chapter, I follow Scott and Hébrard in charting Delphine’s journey through the same locales and attendant legal problems, asking, as they do, about the legal fate of a child who was “doubly freeborn, first because of her mother’s [status] … and second, because of the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue.” Yet while Scott and Hébrard focus their attention on the pernicious legal consequences of refugee migration in the age of revolutions—“Would she need—and did she have—any proof of free birth that would hold up in a Louisiana court?”—I use the legal precarity of Delphine’s situation to highlight the cultural logics of sexual transaction and sexual violence that she endured through her early life. Delphine’s story presents sexual contact as a glaring precedent for her relative legal freedom and freedom of movement as well as a predictor of her reenslavement and eventual incarceration in sexual service. I understand Delphine’s story as much through the legal instability of the revolutionary Atlantic as I do through the story of Louisa Picquet, an enslaved girl nearly half a century younger than Delphine whose story nonetheless demonstrates continuity in the culture of sexual transaction and sexual violence in antebellum New Orleans. Delphine’s story, then, illustrates the ways that the law made enslaved women and their descendants legally precarious and normalized that precarity through transactions that provided an alibi for legal and sexual violence against enslaved women.


The rhythm of catastrophe began long before Delphine was born. At a seismic scale, Delphine was born almost a decade into the protracted, violent, and politically complicated era of the Haitian Revolution, which upended life on the island while also rocking the balance of power and scope of political and economic possibility in the entire Atlantic world. At a much smaller scale, Delphine was born into the racially and legally complex context of her family, wherein one sister owned another.

Marie Therese, a free woman of color living in the island’s most active port city, CapFrançaise, owned her own sister, Marie Catherine. How did such an arrangement come to be? It is possible that they were both born enslaved and one managed to get free before the other, but in the telling of their neighbors and acquaintances, Marie Therese was born free. So perhaps she was the younger of the two sisters, both birthed by the same mother who had, herself, gained freedom over the course of her single lifetime.

Had their mother been a ménagère in the tradition of some Saint-Domingue households, she would have been responsible for managing the house: cooking and cleaning and overseeing the domestic work of other enslaved people, as well as providing sexual congress and romantic gestures to the man who owned her. Such scenarios of intimate, domestic, and affective work were familiar among women in urban Saint-Domingue, as elsewhere on the island and across the Caribbean, and were structured by a kind of exchange wherein “faithful” service might entitle her to emancipation upon the whim or death of the man who owned her. Of course, there were many scenarios in which that possibility could evaporate: if the man took a white wife who refused to maintain his parallel, extramarital household, or if his estate fell into arrears, making the ménagère more valuable to him as movable property than as the person with whom he shared a bed. He could reify his promises in writing, in his will, but his heirs might deny the sanity of those promises and confirm the enslaved status of the woman, her children, and any other problematic property-in-persons that remained on the estate by selling them off. These scenarios were also dependent on the law and whether the emancipator had properly followed procedure, including passing the act before a notary public and getting said act ratified by the colonial governor. Without those in hand, “the persons … were considered only as statute [sic] libres,” the embodied form of promised-but-not-yet-achieved freedom. That is to say, if the enslaved ménagère was imagined as an icon of the luscious excesses and erotic privileges of Caribbean slaveholding, her story is also one of constant bodily surveillance in close quarters, and of the constant threat of legal and bodily endangerment. Indeed, the concomitance of sexual pleasure for slaveholders and existential threat for the women they bedded was utterly compatible with the machinations of Atlantic slavery through till its bitter end. Thus although freedom shaped the ménagère’s horizon of possibility, it was also the hinge that justified the sexual character of her ongoing enslavement.

Marie Therese, a free woman of color living in the island’s most active port city, CapFrançaise, owned her own sister, Marie Catherine. How did such an arrangement come to be?

Nonetheless, the sisters Marie—Marie Therese and Marie Catherine, perhaps sharing their mother’s name—arrive in the record as born free and born enslaved, respectively, suggesting a change in their mother’s legal status between the time of their births. If their mother had been the ménagère of a white man’s household, their births were likely the result of sexual contact between her and the owner. He might have promised to free her upon his death or at some other juncture, meaning that when she gave birth to the first child, she was still enslaved (thus bearing an enslaved child), but when she gave birth to the second, she was already free (thus bearing a free child). The particulars of the situation are at once impossible to determine and beside the point: that acquaintances never bothered to explain their differently statused sisterhood points to the ordinariness of the scenario. To be of different legal status than one’s sister in urban Saint-Domingue at the end of the eighteenth century was unremarkable.

By the time they reached adulthood, if not before, Marie Therese had ownership over her sister, Marie Catherine. When Marie Catherine, known as both enslaved and “a negress,” gave birth to three daughters, they also became the property of Marie Therese. Marie Therese thus owned (at least) Marie Catherine and her daughters Florence, Luce, and Caroline by the time enslaved revolutionaries sparked the Haitian Revolution in 1791. Shortly thereafter, Marie Therese began the process of manumitting her family members.

Emily A. Owens is David and Michelle Ebersman Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.