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[University of Nevada Las Vegas] Date: 17 October 2016, At: 16:28
A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society
ISSN: 1099-9949 (Print) 1548-3843 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/usou20
The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s
To cite this article:
Saidiya Hartman (2016) The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s
Labors, Souls, 18:1, 166-173, DOI: 10.1080/10999949.2016.1162596
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Published online: 01 Jun 2016.
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Souls Vol. 18, No. 1, January–March 2016, pp. 166–173
COMMENTS FROM THE FIELD
The Belly of the World: A Note on
Black Women’s Labors
The slave ship is a womb/abyss . The plantation is the belly of the world. Partus sequitur ventrem —the child follows the belly. The master dreams of future increase. The modern world follows the belly. Gestational language has been key to describing the world-making and world-breaking capacities of racial slavery. What it created and what it destroyed has been explicated by way of gendered figures of conception, birth, parturition, and severed or negated maternity. To be a slave is to be “excluded from the prerogatives of birth.” The mother’s only claim—to transfer her disposses- sion to the child. The material relations of sexuality and reproduction defined black women’s historical experiences as laborers and shaped the character of their refusal of and resistance to slavery.
1 The theft, regulation and destruction of black women’s
sexual and reproductive capacities would also define the afterlife of slavery.
Most often when the productive labor of the slave comes into view, it is as a cate- gory absent gender and sexual differentiation. In two of the greatest works of the black radical tradition, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins , the agency of the enslaved becomes legible as politics, rather than crime or destruction, at the moment slaves are transformed into black workers and revolutionary masses fashioned along the lines of the insurgent proletariat. However, representing the slave through the figure of the worker (albeit unwaged and unfree), obscures as much as it reveals, making it difficult to distinguish the constitutive elements of slavery as a mode of power, violence, dispossession and accumulation or to attend to the forms of gendered and sexual violence that enable these processes. In Black Reconstruction , women’s sexual and reproductive labor is critical in accounting for the violence and degradation of slavery, yet this labor falls outside of the heroic account of the black worker and the general strike.