Bearing the Capitalist Economy: A Review of Alexandra J. Finley’s An Intimate Economy

The historiography of women’s lives under and role in slavery and the slave trade has changed substantially in the recent years with the publication of a number of award-winning books. Scholars such as Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, Jessica Marie Johnson, Ariela J. Gross, and Marisa Fuentes have reshaped our understanding of the intersection of gender, race, and freedom in early America. Alexandra J. Finley’s book, An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade, continues this exciting trend. Through the lives of three enslaved women, Finley unpacks the complicated and mostly unexplored lives of the enslaved women who served as concubines, housekeepers, and landladies for slave traders and the impact these women had on the domestic slave trade. The life stories of these three women reveal the connections between household labor and the growing capitalist economy, one rooted in buying and selling human bodies and human labor.1 In this, Finley captures the centrality of the domestic slave trade in the development of a capitalist economy and the power that economy had in early American society.

Finley uses ideas about domesticity and feminist theory to craft an argument that centers Black women in the production and reproduction of the economy in early America. By introducing readers to the idea of social reproductive labor, she combines the roles Black women concubines of white slave traders performed in both the bedroom and in the parlor. Social reproductive labor, a term she borrows from feminist theory, encompasses both the labor of reproduction through childbirth and childrearing, and the production of social labor through homemaking, entertaining, and hostessing – each central to the capitalist economy.2 Women like Sarah Connor, Lucy Ann Cheatham, and Corinna Hinton Omohundro served the men who owned them in a wide variety of ways beyond sexual labor: as housekeepers, as boardinghouse keepers, as seamstresses, and as managers. Finley deftly manages to explore the relationships between these three women and their owners without falling into the trap of asking the unanswerable – if there was real love between the partners – by focusing on the ways each woman was required to support her male owner and how that support enabled the slave trade to be a major part of their household economy.

A tan background with numbers ($10.00 / $20.00) written in white to the side of what appears to be a sales tag with the drawing of a woman's head and shoulders.
Cover of An Intimate Economy. (©UNC Press)

An Intimate Economy is organized into four chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of socially reproductive forced labor. The first, titled “Fancy,” follows the life of Corinna Hinton Omohundro, the enslaved concubine of slave trader Silas Omohundro and the mother of his children. Omohundro purchased Hinton through the “fancy trade” in light-skinned young women who were sold expressly as concubines, highlighting their beauty, manners, and light complexion. Hinton, like many women sold in the fancy trade, both kept Omohundro’s house and bore his children. She also assisted him in trading in other enslaved people by sewing clothing, operating a boardinghouse for his slave-buying clients, and acting as hostess and wife in his business meetings. The second chapter, “Seamstress,” follows the women hired by another slave trader to sew clothing for the enslaved people he bought and sold. Free and enslaved women were hired by men like Samuel Davis to sew clothing for both the field workers and the fancy girls and house servants sold in the Richmond and New Orleans slave markets, doing labor that women usually did for their families to generate the fantasies of the slave market. Chapter 3 is titled “Concubine,” and relates the experiences of Sarah Anne Connor in New Orleans. Connor was an enslaved woman who was brought to the city from Virginia and sold into prostitution. She then fought her way to freedom by running a boardinghouse and becoming the concubine of slave trader Theophilius Freeman, who brokered her self-purchase and then failed to register her freedom. The last chapter, “Housekeeper,” follows Lucy Ann Cheatham, who, like Connor and Omohundro, ran a boardinghouse in New Orleans as a free Black woman and remained financially and legally independent via her connections to the city’s slave traders.

Finley’s ability to reconstruct the lives of these three women is remarkable. Although all of the women appear in substantial archival records due to their legal wrangling after their freedom was granted or gained, most of the information she finds about their lives while enslaved was gathered from the financial records of their slave trader owners. Payments of cash, gifts of jewelry and clothing, and medical care allow Finley to reconstruct the work Connor, Cheatham, and Hinton Omohundro did in their roles as concubines and housekeepers for prominent and wealthy men. Particularly in the chapter about Hinton Omohundro’s life, the financial record tells the story of her life as housekeeper and concubine. Focusing on the transactional nature of concubinage strips the romance of the tragic mulatta from the stories of the women’s lives. Through the financial transactions and the labor enslaved concubines performed for their owners, readers can clearly see the ways in which enslaved women made choices to protect themselves and their children.

Although the lives of the three main figures in the text are unusual for enslaved women in the early nineteenth-century American South, their life stories teach us much about the entwined nature of the early capitalist slave market and women’s labor. Scholars of slavery and women’s history, as well as history students, will find much new understanding in this text. Scholars will learn the ways in which enslaved and free Black women were central to the slave trade, not just as the marketed product but also as the underpinnings of the social construction of capitalism. Where previous works on the slave trade focus on the impact of the trade on those who were sold, Finley’s study shows us the impact on those who were required to assist in the sale. Women’s work sewing, feeding, housing, and facilitating the sale of human beings reveals the depths to which slavery shaped the households and businesses of antebellum America, even those of free Black women. Finley’s book opens the door into the parlors, kitchens, and bedrooms of slave traders’ homes, reminding us all that the enslaved women who ran those households were both the victims of that system and worked to support it.

Notes

  1. Alexandra J. Finley, An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade (UNC Press, 2020), 4. Return to text.
  2. Finley, An Intimate Economy, 7. Return to text.

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