Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New Directions In Black Feminism Studies: Talitha LeFlouria

This bold, brilliant, beautifully written book--a significant contribution to the fields of prison history, southern history, African American history, and gender studies--shows why charting the struggles in convict women’s lives matters for understanding the emergence of modernity in the New South. Talitha L. LeFlouria rejects a recent and popular thesis that convict labor was simply slavery that persisted, while also illuminating how beliefs about race and sex forged in slavery carried on to shape modernity and the prison system.Mary Ellen Curtin, American University,|in her review of Chained in Silence

Talitha LeFlouria is Assistant Professor of History at Florida Atlantic University where she specializes in the study of Black women and convict labor in the post-Civil War South.  She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in African-American and African-American women’s history. She received her Ph.D. in History from Howard University. As a graduate student, she worked as a park ranger and a historian for the National Parks Service at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. In 2009, she authored a booklet titled, Frederick Douglass: A Watchtower of Human Freedom, which “weaves together the most intricate and personal facets of Douglass’ life, especially those preserved here at Cedar Hill.” Her research was featured in the 2012 Sundance-award–nominated documentary, Slavery by Another Name, based on Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book on convict leasing in the southern states.  

Also in 2012, her article, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Cuts Cordwood: Exploring Black Women’s Lives and Labor in Georgia’s Convict Camps, 1865-1917” (Labor 8:3 [2011], 47-63) was nominated for the A. Elizabeth Taylor Prize from the Southern Association of Women Historians. This essay examines the historical context and design of Georgia’s forced convict labor system, as well as the women’s responses to the abuses they experienced as prisoners within the system. In the article, she describes how, as Southern states began to rebuild after the Civil War, white politicians and plantation owners attempted to maintain their racial privileges and to obtain cheap or low-cost labor that would allow many Southern industries to continue on as they had before the war. The convict labor system was one way to do this, as African Americans were disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system, and could be contracted out to work on major reconstruction projects, such as the Macon & Brunswick, Macon & Augusta, and Air-Line railroads. Black female prisoners, who made up approximately 3 to 5% of Georgia’s prison population, participated in these work projects, in addition to farming, brickmaking, and coal and iron production. The women experienced physical abuse, rape, and disease. In LeFlouria’s words, “The contest waged between black female convicts and their oppressors did not always result in victories. However, these women were willing to challenge encroachments on their self-worth and fought hard to preserve their humanity within a dehumanizing system built on terror and control” (p. 63).

Her new book Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South has recently been published by University of North Carolina Press and already garnered many positive reviews. “Chained in Silence is a pathbreaking addition to the growing body of historical research on black women and the U.S. justice system,” asserts Kali Gross, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas-Austin. “Through painstaking, exhaustive research, [LaFlouria] maps black women as sentient beings (humans who had lives, loves, triumphs, and sorrows) and as prison laborers brutalized by the vicissitudes of convict leasing. Moreover, by historicizing the evolution of convict leasing and black women’s plight therein, LeFlouria ultimately provides a much-needed raced and gendered context for the agro-industrial penal complex operating in parts of the South today.”

In a talk titled “Living and Laboring off the Grid: Black Women Prisoners and the Making of the “Modern” South, 1865-1920,” in the New Directions in Black Feminist Studies leture series, which will take place on February 12, 2015, from 4 to 6 pm in Royce 306, LeFlouria will provide an in-depth examination of the lived and laboring experiences of imprisoned African-American women in the post-Civil War South, and describe how black female convict labor was used to help construct “New South” modernity. Using Georgia—the “industrial capital” of the region—as a case study, she will analyze how African-American women’s presence within the convict lease and chain gang systems of the “empire state” helped modernize the “New South,” by creating a new and dynamic set of occupational burdens and competencies for black women that were untested in the free labor market. In addition to discussing how the parameters of southern black women’s working lives were redrawn by the carceral state, she will also account for the hidden and explicit modes of resistance female prisoners used to counter work-related abuses, as well as physical and sexualized violence.

New Directions in Black Feminist Studies is a lecture series featuring three scholars who represent the best of contemporary Black feminist scholarship. This series will contribute to the renewed energy around African American studies at UCLA, with the recent departmentalization of African American Studies and Angela Davis’s recent residency in the Department of Gender Studies. It is curated by Grace Kyungwon Hong, organized by the Center for the Study of Women and cosponsored by Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, Labor Studies Program, Institute for American Cultures, Department of English, Department of Gender Studies, Department of African American Studies, and International Institute. 


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