Free Women of Colour in the Cinema: The House That Will Not Stand

tanlistwa, couverture de livre, The House that will not Stand, Marcus Gardley, cover of book.

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tanlistwa-the-house-that-will-not-stand-marcus-gardley

To finish the year 2018, for once it is not usual, I will talk to you about cinema! To be honest, I will mainly talk to you about some of my thesis research and what I would like to see in a film on the subject, because, yes, I discovered a film project that is close to my field of expertise in history! So cool! So today I’m talking about free women of colour and ‘The House That Will Not Stand’, a film in the making based on Marcus Gardley‘s eponymous play.

Free women of colour and prejudice in the colonial world

First of all, I would like to remind you what I mean by free women of colour: women who are black or mixed, born free or liberated. Despite their status as free persons, these women (like free men of colour) were discriminated against by prejudice of colour, because of the pigmentation of their skin and/or their presumed servile origin in colonial slave societies.

The prejudice of colour that developed in the French West Indies during colonization was both social and legal; in other words, some things were prohibited by regulation, such as the legs of Whites to the free of colour from 1726 onwards in Martinique, others were legally possible, but little practiced, such as mixed marriage – at least, this is true in Martinique and Guadeloupe, I return to this in the next paragraph…. –because the social pressure against this type of union was very strong. All this was valid for our 2 islands until 1833, when the legal prejudice of colour was removed. There is no need to discuss here that the end of legal prejudice is not necessarily accompanied by the end of social prejudice.

The societal organization around the prejudice of colour is found in all the French colonies of the Greater Caribbean; with variations linked in particular to local regulations and the dates of adoption of the texts. The « Code Noir » of Martinique (the first legislative text on slavery in the colonies) dates from 1685, but the one applied in Louisiana is 1724. Between these texts, there are sometimes important differences; mixed marriage is one of them! It is possible in Martinique, but it is prohibited in Louisiana. The reason I insist on mixed marriage is because the film being screened takes place in Louisiana in the 1810s, where the story of a colored woman « placed » with a white man and their 3 daughters is followed.

tanlistwa-augostino-brunias-women-of-color-dominica
Agostino BruniasFree Women of Color…(Dominica)

Colored woman in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In short, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French. It fell under Spanish rule at the end of the Seven Years’ War. It was then temporarily returned to France in 1800, before finally being sold with Louisiana by Napoleon to the United States in 1803.

Long occupied by the French, New Orleans therefore has the colonial characteristics of a tripartite distribution composed of slaves, white settlers and in between, those who are free of colour discriminated against by prejudice based on colour.

I am so excited about the film project because Marcus Gardley’s dramatic comedy is about women of colour in New Orleans in the early 19th century, a subject not so well developed in the cinema. It is about the colour of the skin, the search for freedom, and what prejudice of colour has meant for these women. These topics are crucial to understanding our history, which is why they have been part of my interests throughout my (French) PhD work.

Far from the stereotype of the lascivious woman maintained by white men (even if cases have existed), women of colour have sought to overcome the constraints of prejudice of colour to improve their lives and those of their descendants. The routes are multiple and complex, the result of family histories, life opportunities, education level, social contacts…. I really hope that this diversity of possible paths will be perceptible in the film.

Above all, Louisiana at the beginning of the 19th century offers a particular framework for observing the theme, because we are at a time when the American perception of race relations is confronted with the French colonial cultural practices established on the territory. Already discriminated against by prejudice of colour, women free of colour were further constrained by a more restrictive law. We discover here a different context from our islands that have remained French.

The « plaçage » in Louisiana… between myth and reality

tanlistwa-femme-quarteronne-surinam
Femme Quarteronnée, esclave à Surinam

I wrote to you earlier that regulations diverge from one territory to another and that in Louisiana, mixed marriage of women of colour with white men was not legally possible. Because of this (but not only), the construction of a notion without equivalent in Martinique or Guadeloupe has emerged: « plaçage ».

In the collective imagination, 19th century « plaçage » in Louisiana refers to the fact of putting a beautiful quarteronne (light mixed woman) under the protection of a rich white man, on the occasion of ball dances, where the mother acts as chaperone and matchmaker. Thus « the New Orleans quarteroness was represented sometimes as a tragic figure subjected to orchestrated sexual exploitation, sometimes as a sexual predator trapping men by using her body and her unbridled sexuality to ensure her comfort and social promotion »(*) This mythical binary representation persisted until the beginning of the 21st century, making « plaçage » a typical characteristic of New Orleans in the American imagination and probably beyond these borders.

In practice, « plaçage » was mainly a means of circumventing the law prohibiting interracial unions. While there was probably sexual exploitation of some women, there were also love relationships and cohabitation. Indeed, the contractual form of the placement made it possible to show the existence of a companion of colour and theoretically to economically protect her and the children born of the union. Nevertheless, « plaçage » was not necessarily well regarded in French colonial society and was even less accepted by Americans in the United States, whose racial discrimination rules were even more marked, including for anti-slaveryists who were able to reject « plaçage » as a form of sexual exploitation.

The « plaçage » is one of the major subjects of the film’s project, since one of the main characters is a placed quarteronne. Indeed, Beatrice was the legally recognized mistress of a rich white man of whom she had three daughters. I therefore hope that the film will present all the ambiguity of a situation where the relationships of domination linked to colour and sex are intertwined, but where love and attachment are not necessarily excluded.

Between nuance and complexity: what the film could show us historically!

« Plaçage » is a way to address many elements of the history of women of colour in the colonial period. From a legal point of view, there is a whole process of reflection to be conducted between the rule of law and practice. Just because the law prohibits something doesn’t mean that people respect it. Nor is it because the law prohibits a certain number of things, that the law is applied in terms of sanctions (**). And as noted above, each territory has its own legislative intricacies.

On the economic level, there is also a multiplicity of possible situations. « Plaçage » may have contributed to the enrichment of women of colour; but it would also be interesting to examine the circulation of goods beyond the transmission from Whites to women of free colour and also to study the rivalries that may have crystallized between the white and coloured branches of families linked by these « protectors ». For example, in an French article on the fortune of free coloured people, I showed how money could « whiten » or, on the contrary, reinforce the stigma of colour because of inheritance issues.

On the social level, there is the question of relationships with other people. What ties do we have with men of colour, with white men, with white women when we are a woman of free colour. Who are we seeing? Who are we marrying? What relationships are valued? What relationships do you give up to improve your condition? In my work, I have observed that women and men of colour do not have the same opportunities because of the social structure and therefore not the same strategies.

Finally, I hope that the film will deal with the difficult relationship to slavery for the Free people of Colour. How do these women, sometimes very rich, apprehend the slavery system, a burden suffered by some of their ancestors and sometimes by members of the family, when at the same time, the possession of slaves was the symbol of success in these colonial societies? The compromises and paradoxes of thought must have been many and painful.

On this Christmas day, I hope of course that there will be superb costumes and sets, that the psychology of the characters will be developed, that the script will hold up well, but above all, I hope that this film will offer a rich and nuanced look at New Orleans society and women of free colour while highlighting the characteristics of this territory. It would be a nice gift. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it! And what would you expect from such a film?

I take this last post of the year 2018 as an opportunity to wish you a pleasant holiday season and I will see you all in 2019 with lots of posts to continue the discovery of our stories.


Notes
(*)Nathalie Dessens, Corps, couleur et sexualité…
(**)Otherwise, how many women should have been fined for banning the wearing of trousers in Paris between 1800 and 2013?

Bibliography

Iconography

  • Manioc ; Tardieu, Jean-Baptiste Pierre, Femme Quarteronnée, esclave à Surinam, XVIIIe siècle.
  • Brooklyn Museum, Brunias, Agostino, Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape, XVIIIe siècle.

Webography

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