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Circulating the Violent Plantation Mistress: Plantation Pulps, Contemporary Artwork, and Violence Made Intimate

Fri, October 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Cedar


Popular plantation pulp novel covers from the 1960s and 70s employed what I call “the trope of the plantation-mistress-with-whip-in-hand,” which mixes taboos of interracial sex and gendered violence. Building on Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage, I assert that while depictions of violent mistresses “contradicted prevailing conceptions of white womanhood—and still do” (5), this sensationalized trope ultimately removes the plantation mistress from intimacy with her enslaved property. While the pulp covers suggest sex, the whip connotes separation, as the mistress does not have to touch her property to inflict pain. However, contemporary artwork, such as Kara Walker’s series Negress Notes, dramatically revises this trope by inserting intimacy into the violence committed by—and upon—the plantation mistress. Taken together, pulp novel covers and Walker’s artwork offer a continuum of depictions of violence and intimacy between white and black women on the plantation that dismantles well-worn assumptions about the plantation mistress’s “goodness” toward her enslaved property. Walker’s work, however, revises the salacious popular trope of the “plantation-mistress-with-whip-in-hand.”

These plantation pulp novel covers from the US Falkonhurst series as well as the Caribbean Dragonard series and Kaywana trilogy, with editions spanning from the 1960s to collectible reprints published in the 1990s, display various iterations of “the trope of the plantation-mistress-with-whip-in-hand.” Pulp covers are notoriously suggestive of taboos that are broken within the pages of the novels, and these covers feature a variety of poses as half-dressed black men and women square-off against or succumb to the white plantation mistresses’ whips. The suggestion of interracial sex is here, but also the covers masculinize the plantation mistress as she crossdresses and wields the master’s whip. On these covers, the plantation mistresses appear within a range of authority, which suggests a mixture of danger and power to the viewer. Nevertheless, these covers seem to have it both ways: They suggest sexual misconduct while they also reaffirm that the mistress is merely adopting the master’s power; there is no mistaking the mistress’s whip for intimate relationships with enslaved property. Kara Walker’s Negress Notes adds intimacy to the depictions of violence between mistresses and enslaved women. Unlike popular romantic notions about women’s relationships on the plantation, Walker depicts intimacy as a component of plantation violence. Walker combines images of extreme violence with familiarity between white and black women on the plantation to illustrate that the women exist in a relationship of false intimacy with each other that—at its very core—is violent. Through considering how intimacy factors into popular and revisionary imagery depicting violent plantation mistresses in the 20th century, this paper offers new insight into the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the visual legacies of American slavery.


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