Media @ McGill

“Cornrows and Dirt Roads: What Fugitive Slave Advertisements Can Tell Us About Black Women’s Hair"

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Joana Joachim

SHADD: Testimonies of West Africans from the Era of Slavery-funded workshop, San Jose, Costa Rica

I’m grateful to have received a Media@McGill Graduate Travel Award in support of my participation in Marronnage in the Atlantic World in the Age of Digital Humanities, a SHADD: Testimonies of West Africans from the Era of Slavery workshop held at the Universidad de Costa Rica. Following an invitation from the organizers to part take in this workshop, I travelled to San Jose, Costa Rica with my PhD Supervisor, Dr. Charmaine Nelson, to further my research on fugitive slave advertisements as they relate to my dissertation topic.

The workshop covered interdisciplinary and international approaches to the uses and dissemination of archival documentation around slavery in the Atlantic world including newspaper advertisements, slave narratives and artworks with a particular focus on digital databases on slavery and more specifically marroonnage. Scholars from Canada, the United States, England, Holland, Brazil and Costa Rica discussed their work during the event. Topics included Marron communities in various colonies, the histories of Spanish Florida, the nuances between formal and informal freedoms, the visual culture of slavery, slavery in Sierra Leone, Liberated African populations in Brazil and law enforcement during slavery.

During the workshop, I presented a short paper to contribute to the intellectual community gathered for the workshop. My paper, “Cornrows and Dirt Roads: What Fugitive Slave Advertisements Can Tell Us About Black Women’s Hair”, laid out my preliminary thoughts on the usefulness of the fugitive slave advertisements as a source of information on Black women’s hair care and styling practices in the nineteenth century. This project is directly linked to my dissertation as fugitive slave advertisements will serve as a crucial primary source for my research on the legacies of slavery apparent in Black women’s hair care practises over time. Fugitive slave advertisements offer a rare glimpse of the communication networks in place at the time to maintain oppressive power structures which kept enslaved Black communities in bondage. They also provide detailed information on the appearance, mannerisms, skills and even languages spoken by the enslaved and thus, are key for greater understanding of systems of power still in play today. Presenting this paper to the scholars attending this workshop led extraordinary discussions about issues relating to slavery scholarship in general and more specifically around the challenges of art historical research on slavery and the important contributions it can make. The conversations I had during the few days I spent in San Jose helped move my reflections forward by leaps and bounds and served to clarify and consolidate many aspects of my research.

The workshop also served as the official launch of the latest iteration of the open access database: “Le Marronnage dans le monde atlantique : sources et trajectoires de vie”. This database features over 20,000 archival documents relating to various colonial empires between 1765 and 1833. In its new life, this database will allow for new and crucial research projects to move forward, further teasing out the complexities of slavery in a plethora of ways and help to elucidate many aspects of slavery which have yet to be uncovered. Indeed, despite the incredible work being done for many years in slavery studies, there still remains much to be done. The work of the scholars present at this workshop was not only inspiring but also shed much-needed light on the urgency of such work as many of the archives in question have yet to be safely preserved and documented.

Being able to participate in this workshop and to be in San Jose was not only a great opportunity to network and meet other scholars in my field but it also provided the opportunity to engage with and learn more about the Afro-Caribbean histories of Costa Rica which has a rich and complex history dating back hundreds of years. This research trip proved to be incredibly fruitful at this particular point in my PhD as it opened up new avenues of reflection which I may not have come across otherwise.

Summary of paper:

"Cornrows and Dirt Roads: What Fugitive Slave Advertisements Can Tell Us About Black Women’s Hair"

One of the fundamental aspects of transatlantic slavery was the imposition of strategic material deprivation, which disrupted the enslaved African’s ability to access leisure time or the tools to maintain a practice of self-care. (White and White 1995, 1998 Nelson 2016.) The combination of cultural, material, and social deprivation, along with the ubiquity of corporal punishment worked to devalue Black bodies and disrupt African cultural practices. This degradation was partly enacted through the creation of categories of biological racial difference such as skin complexion and hair texture, which whites used to position Africans as inferior. Hair was one of the many sites used during slavery to dehumanize and humiliate Black women, as it was a known sign of pride, beauty and status in African cultures (White & White 1995, Dash 2006, Mercer 2013). Yet, scholars Shane White and Graham White, among others, have noted that enslaved Africans still managed to maintain and develop a rich culture of beautification through their hair grooming and styling practices during a period where day-to-day survival took precedence over almost anything else (Morrow 1984, White and White 1995, 1998, Foster 1997, Mercer 2013). For White and White, fugitive slave advertisements serve as a key source of information on such cultural practices. As they have noted, however, the information is limited in that most advertisements reported men’s fugitive activities. Thus, descriptions of women are far less common within these archives as they were less likely to abscond. (White and White 1995.) This paper will discuss the usefulness of the fugitive slave advertisements as a source of information on Black women’s hair care and styling practices in the nineteenth century.