What makes history great, so important, fascinating and endlessly interesting is that there are always new stories to read about; as we uncover and understand our past we get to see how things and events from the past reach out and still effect us in the present. Celia, a Slave by Melton A. McLaurin recounts the short life of a slave named Celia who is purchased by land owner and widower Robert Newsom and almost immediately forced into a sexually exploitive and abusive relationship with him (he rapes her on the road home from the slave market that he purchased her from). Routine and continued rape and abuse continue for the next five years until faced with pressure from a fellow slave named George, she attempts to end the relationship. Newsom, unsurprisingly, refuses and in a confrontation in her cabin, she strikes and kills him. In a bid to hide his body, she burns him almost completely throughout the night and scatters his bones and ash in the morning. Eventually she is found out and a trial commences in which despite a spirited and well-crafted defense by her surprisingly able and willing lawyers, she is found guilty (not surprising sadly) and she is hanged until dead.
Before I delve into the nerdier and historical aspects of this book, I think it’s important to tell people that they could just read this as a pseudo crime novel and thoroughly enjoy themselves (I say “pseudo” because there is no mystery as to who killed Newsom). The central narrative of the book is pretty interesting and will entertain just about anybody who is interested in American History, crime, or the history of American law. The build up to when Celia finally kills him, her actions afterward and the court case (including a very convenient escape from prison so as to avoid execution before the state Supreme Court can intervene) is really intriguing and engaging. Her lawyers especially are very interesting guys.
This slim book captures two things that I think are very important and underreported in a historical sense. The first is how slavery made life difficult for women in general and the second is the rampant sexual abuse masters inflicted on their slaves. The modern narrative about slavery was that it was horrible yes, but I don’t think people really consider some of the darker stuff and I know that sexual abuse is rarely if ever talked about. While the book focuses on the plight of slaves the most, it does take the time to inform the reader about how slavery affected women of all stripes, from rich white women all the way to the most humble of slaves. The book is very effective in not just saying slavery is bad in a general way, but informing us of very specific reasons why it was terrible for different people. Knowing how a patriarchal system combined with the economic system of slavery treated and threatened women of all races and classes is an important insight into the past. The book actually goes even farther and gives an excellent summary of how the local men would have viewed slavery and the specifics of Celia and Robert’s relationship. Getting that breath of viewpoints and opinions in such a quick read makes the story all the richer and increases our understanding of that time.
The sexual abuse, and how widespread it probably was is horrifying and the book does a good job of informing the reader about that. Female slaves were abused and taken advantage of on a much more regular basis than most people know or even want to think about. One particular fact that I had never considered was the economic incentives for masters to abuse and rape their slaves. If the slave woman gets pregnant, that child is considered a slave and therefore can be but to work or sold for profit; repeated sexual abuse and rape insured a steady stream of new slaves that could be used as work or sold for profit. The cold logic of that is simply terrible to consider and it really shook me when I first read it.
Historical context is a key thing to have when you are reading about history and this book does an excellent job of providing that. McLaurin makes sure to stop the narrative from time and time and zoom out and provide a broader sense of what’s going on in the South and America in general. While not necessary to the central narrative, they are welcomed because they help us to understand the broader sense of the mid 1800s and what’s going on. The localized civil war in Kansas, the efforts to enter California as a free state into the Union and the political wrangling in Washington DC are all talked about and given full development; that macro look at things really helps make the micro story of Celia and her trial all the more interesting and weighty. It also helps to flesh out the society and culture of the South and we get a great look at the legal heap that they had to build in order to legally protect slaves as property while not infringing on the total control over them that their masters had.
For only being about hundred-fifty pages long, this book really backs a lot in. So much history and context is given but it never takes away from the story of Celia; neither the reader nor McLaurin loses sight of her or her extremely difficult life. For a young woman who lived a century and a half ago, was illiterate and left behind very little in terms of direct thoughts or feeling, she really sticks with you. You feel the pressure as she tries to do what she thinks is best despite all the adversity she faced. It’s the exact kind of book that I think high school students should be reading in their history classes.
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