The Geography of Slavery and Black Women’s Bodies

Geography in the United States tells the story of slavery. Ties between ownership and Blackness identify Black bodies as commodities. McKittrick describes this as a territorialization of the body that renders it as claimed, owned, and controlled outside one’s self. This territorialization renders a body measurable as a unit of wealth and therefore subordinate, inhuman, and deviant, mapping a placelessness onto a body that justifies the invasion of it.

How the objectification of Black women’s bodies shapes the map

The objectification of Black female sexuality results from territorialization. For Black women, geographic conquest and expansion involves their bodies as a form of reproductive technology, predicated on the belief that they are naturally submissive and sexually available.

The legacy of geography for Black women includes the treatment of them as public bodies unworthy of protection, spatially arranged under the logic of traditional geographies. McKittrick argues the close ties between Black women and geography reveals how geography occurs as a bodily process. Looking to the work of Marlene Nourbese Philip, McKittrick argues the body operates as a terrain that produces multiple and different geographic stories. For Black women, this includes “the space between the legs” and how the use of this space via white supremacist heteropatriarchy.

Black women get spatialized as only bodies and a form of service. Therefore, Black women’s sense of place results from who sees and consumes her body through the racialization of sex and sexuality. Further, the spatialization of Black women’s bodies helps naturalize differences between them and Black men as well as white people.

Black Femininity and the Making of Place

Black femininity moves between normalized race and gender categories. The space between the legs not only creates geographies but also alters body hierarchies. As McKittrick (2006:48) writes:

The enforced movement and placement of the space between the legs contribute to the built environment and colonization. The space between the legs, therefore, genders bot the black diaspora and European geographic patterns. This accomplishes two important conceptual advances: it sets blackness and black femininity between socially constructed categories and material realities by situating the paradoxical outcomes of the displacement of difference (creating wealth and capital, colonized like space and place, silence); and, it moves the sexed body through time/place (bought, trafficked bodies, creating wealth, over and over). 

McKittrick describes the auction block as a “site of public racial-sexual domination and measurable documentation” (66). Thus, the auction block reveals the enmeshment of social processes within physical geographies. The auction block not only normalized Black people’s pain but also commodified their bodies. It, therefore, represents the point of sale as a specific geographic moment. McKittrick describes how the auction of a body in public space connects peripheral geographic and social systems. Further, the auction block also gives meaning to physically disconnected geographies and bodies as well. McKittrick uncovers the interconnected processes of the creation of “sites of black subjugation” and the production of geographic meaning. Reflecting on Black women slaves, McKittrick argues their public and bodily geographies inform both dispossession and resistance.

Unless otherwise stated, insights summarized here are from Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds.