Melton A. McLaurin’s Celia, A Slave illustrates the struggle of African American slave women within the 1850’s, a turbulent time for slavery and gender alike. Published in 1991, Melton engraves the story of 19-year-old Celia, a slave girl, onto all who read her tale, helping paint a picture of the global view and treating of slaves during this era. It reflects on not only the issues Celia faced within everyday life, but also her representation within the law, demonstrating the twisted history between gender and race in Missouri and ultimately all of America in the 1850’s.
A highly respected member of the academic community, Dr. McLaurin (PhD) is an expert in early American history, currently teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Obtaining his PhD in 1967 from the University of South Carolina1, McLaurin has gone onto win awards for his work, 1988 Lillian Smith Book Award for Separate Pasts: Growing up White in the Segregated South. Drawing on his many years in academia, McLaurin explores the moral dilemmas in the center of a slaveholding society with a book that tells a story of a young African American slave abused by her white male master, eventually leading to her execution for his murder.
Structured chronologically, Celia, A Slave begins with the slave-owner Robert Newsome purchasing a then 14-year-old female slave, Celia. Intertwining facts and referencing other academics within this tragic event, McLaurin explores chapter by chapter, the life of Celia from the point of her purchase, through the trial and until her death.
McLaurin explains that Newsome raped Celia on the way back from the purchase, setting the scene for Newsom’s and Celia’s relationship. After years of sexual exploitation, at 19 and pregnant with her third child, Celia had 2 previous children fathered by her master, although the father of this child was undetermined between Newsome or her lover George, another black slave. George began to pressurize Celia to resist and
refuse their master’s sexual demands ultimately leading to Celia, on the evening of 23rd of June 1855, murdering Newsome. McLaurin enlightens the reader to the struggles that many female slaves underwent within America and with the following chapters illuminates the corrupt justice system within the United States of America.
”The law was used in an effort to categorize, to divide the society into two components, one slave and black, the other white and free.” (McLaurin, 94). Celia’s trial was dominated by white slave owning men and was found guilty and hanged on the 21st of December 1855. Celia’s legal team attempted to acquit her from the charges based on ‘any women’ may be cleared if “resisting a person attempting to commit a felony upon the resisting individual.” (McLaurin, 91), thus implying that slave women were within the category of ‘any women’. But ultimately Celia’s slave status overwhelmed the decision of the judge when he instructed the jury to disregard the plea of self-defense.
McLaurin investigated Celia’s story with underlying themes of gender and race created by the social structure of this slave-owner home, present in many slave-owning households throughout America. Newsome was his daughter’s economic stability and with them both still living in is house neither women raised the issue with their father of his sexual exploitation of Celia. Women of this era were becoming more highly educated and McLaurin discusses that these planter-class women were less inclined to stand up for their own enslaved gender and would rather socialize with other planter elites. George was also stripped of the power to defend and protect Celia due to the constraints of slavery, with both male slaves and the subordination of white women, Celia, and many other black enslaved women like her, were quite alone when put before this patriarchal justice system.
Civil unrest between Kansas and Missouri was heightened due to Celia’s case, McLaurin argues within the book. Her case exemplified Northern abolitionists criticisms of the Missourian slave owners, stating the case showed that slavery was built upon sexual abuse. The judge, aware of these potentially explosive borders also wanted to use this politically important case to indicate that slavery was not only a just system in which female
slaves were allowed to stand trial before being sentenced that it also reinforced slave subordination and social order.
McLaurin’s work in Celia, A Slave, has given clarity to an era in which slavery was highly disputed but still very much a part of the social structure within America in the 1850s. Tensions between slave-owners and Northern abolitionists are drawn out, along with the gender related disputes of the times. He delivers Celia’s story with transparency when regarding facts collected but his endeavor to determine the views and feelings of the white women within Newsom’s family as less reputable. He did this without referring to any primary data along with the assumption that Celia’s lawyer would have viewed her as his own daughter.
The men within this book are seen to understand the abuse of the subordinate members of the Newsome household and they also soften these extremes of their peers by abusing positions of power and in doing so solidify patriarchal domination, deeming the treatment and behavior towards female slaves acceptable.
This tragic incident shows how slavery is not only sown into the very intimate and personal relationships of humans but also how it impacts and develops politics within the sectional crisis.