Whitney Stewart


Whitney Stewart, Rice University
Barra Dissertation Fellow in Art and Material Culture


“The Racialized Politics of Home in Slavery and Freedom”

My dissertation argues that home—as an idea, space, and object—was central to how black Americans defined freedom in the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, white Americans racialized home and the privileges associated with it, including privacy, so as to deny those core attributes of freedom to black women and men. While the racialization of home was a national affair, this project focuses specifically on the US South, where the institution of slavery and the racial structure supporting it most clearly shaped this process. Defining enslaved dwellings as unprivate—as consistently open to owners yet closed to those, white and black, without an owner’s permission to enter—had lasting effects on how white southerners justified the surveillance and intrusion of black homes. In both slavery and freedom, black Americans negotiated and countered this belief by physically building elements of privacy into their homes and instilling their domestic spaces with significant meaning. Yet important differences distinguished the experience of home and privacy for black southerners before and after emancipation, most especially access to legal recourse in the violent postbellum period. The antebellum belief in the unprivate nature of black dwellings, which had inadvertently provided a level of protection to those within, transformed into a conviction that black private spaces were open, public arenas for white southerners to surveil, intrude, and punish at will. Utilizing methodologies, theories, and sources from material and visual culture studies, legal history, architectural history, and historical archaeology, my work reorients our understanding of the black freedom struggle to include the crucial idea and space of home.


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