Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain

Part of the goal we here at Historical Hotties hope to achieve is to expand our understandings of beauty by paying tribute to radicals, rabble-rousers, and revolutionaries of all sorts. But doing so causes us to walk a proverbial thin line – at once celebrating marginalized and oppressed people, and yet also trying to not (unintentionally) fetishize or bring further trauma to individuals and communities who – stripped of power in the societies they lived in – were often physically, emotionally, and sexually victimized by those who upheld systems of injustice. Our hope at Historical Hotties is that we manage to respectfully acknowledge the brilliance, beauty, and resilience of those who have come before us in their fights against injustice (in whatever form it may have taken) without adding to the continuing pain and trauma that the communities they hailed from are (or might be) experiencing today. At Historical Hotties, the criteria for being a historical hottie is not really based on looks, but instead on what I have outlined above. It is with this tension in mind that I wish to introduce to you today not one, but two women whom many of you have most likely never heard of: Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain.*

Harriet McClain and Adah Isabelle Suggs, respectively mother and daughter, were two enslaved women who lived for a time in Kentucky, United States. Their stories come to us through Adah’s own voice, as she gave an interview in her later years to the Federal Writer’s Project, which can be freely found online through the Library of Congress. However, while Adah herself gave the interview, it was mediated through an interviewer, Lauana Creel, who wrote the transcript of the primary source where I first encountered their stories. The interviewers who took part in “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project” were often paternalistic and racist in how they recorded the histories being entrusted to them, therefore we must proceed with caution when using these sources in order to not perpetuate the views held in the 1930s when these stories were recorded.

Adah Isabelle Suggs was born sometime before January 22nd, 1852 to Harriet McClain, who was enslaved by Colonel Jackson McClain and Louisa McClain, his wife. According to the interview Adah gave to Lauana Creel, when she was not yet five years old she had already begun to develop “ideas and ideals” as Harriet had taught her daughter how to knit, amongst other skills. Louisa, upon learning that Harriet was secretly teaching her daughter these skills, stole Adah from the care of her mother to live instead with herself and Colonel Jackson McClain.

When Adah was twelve years old (sometime during the late Civil War), Harriet attempted to escape with her daughter by taking a ferry across the Ohio River. Unfortunately, they were caught on the road to the ferry, which led to Harriet being imprisoned “in an upstair [sic] room” and further punished. Adah, knowing the location of her mother’s prison, would climb to her window when she could in order to spend what little time they could together. Eventually, the two escaped thanks to a dream that Harriet had wherein she was instructed on how Adah and herself could escape. Harriet recounted the dream to Adah, who then helped carry out the escape plan, freeing herself and her mother from enslavement.

Adah stole a knife from the pantry of the McClain household and gave it to her mother, who then picked the lock of the door that imprisoned her, allowing her to run free “into the open world about midnight.” Harriet then hid in a tobacco barn, waiting for Adah to meet her. When Adah was able to rid herself of the McClains for long enough to flee, she ran to her mother and the two then fled three miles to nearby Henderson, where they then hid under the house of a woman named Margaret Bentley until the next night. Once night fell, the two were “put… across” the Ohio River at Henderson by Union soldiers and ran to Evansville, Indiana. Harriet’s husband, Milton McClain, and their son Jerome had enlisted to fight in the Civil War for the Union Army in order to gain their freedom, and by extension gain the freedom of Harriet and Adah through Federal Statute granting the wives and children of enlisted enslaved men freedom.

After their escape and the reuniting of their family, Harriet and Adah soon became members of the free Black American community established in Evansville. Harriet eventually obtained a position as a housekeeper, and after “about two years” had saved enough money to send Adah to a “pay school.” Adah eventually went on to marry the formerly enslaved man Thomas Suggs on January 18, 1872, where afterwards they had fifteen children together. Adah lived the remainder of her life in Evansville, Indiana, where she was eventually interviewed as an elderly woman in an attempt by the Federal Writer’s Project to amass oral histories of enslavement.

Adah and Harriet, two women who openly rebelled against enslavement and racial injustice in the United States, cannot be celebrated enough in words. Over 150 years after Adah was born, the stories of these two heroic Black women continue to resonate and inspire us in 2015.

~ M

* A note on names: unfortunately, Adah Isabelle Suggs’s transcribed interview only refers to her mother as “Harriet McClain.” It was common for enslaved people to have the “family name” of the person/s who held them in enslavement, therefore I have no clue as to what Harriet’s family name may have been before this (if there was a “before” enslavement for her or not is unclear), or what her family’s original name was at any point. I apologize.

P.S. I highly encourage all of you to search the WPA Slave Narrative Project resources that the Library of Congress has made freely available to the public. They are searchable by name and key word, and found on an easily navigated site (even if a little dated). I do, of course, caution that the content of these life stories – while often remarkable – are also filled with explicitly described violence that took many forms. I therefore want to emphasize that for many people with more direct links to the history of enslavement, reading these oral histories will be extremely triggering.

Bibliography

Suggs, Adah Isabelle. Interviewed by Lauana Creel. WPA Slave Narrative Project, Indiana Narratives, Volume 5. Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA). Library of Congress. https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/S?ammem/mesnbib:@field(AUTHOR+@od1(Suggs,+Adah+Isabelle))

Advertisements
Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain

John Bossy (1933-2015)

It is very common for students of history come across scholars whose work is game changing for them. Perhaps a certain argument upends a firmly entrenched assumption, or a particular article, book or whole body of work presents a methodological or theoretical approach that you had never before considered, but becomes fundamental in your own work.

When I was working on my BA, I came across a particular historian whose work completely shattered my preconceived notions about Catholicism (historically and in the present day), especially in terms of the social aspects of life for late medieval and early modern Catholics. This historian radically changed and enhanced the way I think about history at large, and led me to the course of study I am on today. He died last month, and so this week I tip my hat to John Bossy.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstress the importance of Bossy’s great works, The English Catholic community, 1570-1850 and Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, both of which highlight the deeply communal aspects of late medieval Catholicism and how reform affected important social aspects of shared faith. My first exposure to his work was in reading his seminal 1983 article, “The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700,” which shows how deeply connected were the links between the religious and the social in early modern communities and lives, thereby completely overhauling my understanding of what it meant to be a Catholic at this time.

Though his perspective on the social changes wrought by religious reform was more negative than my own, his work is absolutely foundational to the way I think about this period. I could not do the work I do without it. His contributions to the field remain as invaluable today as they were when first published. And they continue to inspire students.

~S

An obituary written by one of Bossy’s friends and colleagues, Simon Ditchfield, can be read here:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/10/john-bossy

 

The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850. Darton, Longman and Todd, 1975.

“The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700.” Past & Present, no. 100 (August 1, 1983): 29–61.

Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400-1700. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

 

 

John Bossy (1933-2015)

Chavela Vargas

           Chavela-Vargas

[A photograph of Chavela Vargas in later years]

The name Chavela Vargas is an instantly recognizable one across much of Latin America and amongst admirers of the ranchera genre of music most commonly associated with México. Born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica in 1919, Chavela Vargas left her home country at the age of fourteen to live in México, her adopted home where she stayed for the next eight decades of her life.

To those who do not know much about rancheras, a woman singing them might not stick out as anything remarkable. Yet rancheras are a genre that is traditionally supposed to be sung only by men, for an audience of mostly other men. These songs are spaces where men were customarily allowed to express themselves emotionally, albeit so long as they were confined to particular patriarchal rules of behaviour with an assumed heterosexuality. Therefore to have a woman, and moreover a lesbian woman, sing these songs was a radical and subversive act.

Chavela Vargas was known the world over for not only her singing talents, but also for her affairs with women (including the likes of Frida Kahlo, María Félix, and Lola Beltrán) and her alcohol-fueled partying. She often dressed in “men’s” clothing, smoked cigars (a supposedly “masculine” past time), and partied harder than you can imagine. For a period of fifteen years, Vargas disappeared almost completely, leading some to believe she had even died. She was, however, recovering from alcoholism. Although many people knew she was a lesbian, she did not publicly affirm this until the age of 81 in her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (2002).

Vargas continues to be a treasured cultural icon across the Americas, and is a key figure in queer Mexican and Central American history. She is important in broader queer history as often queer people of colour, and especially queer people of colour from outside of Canada and the United States, are marginalized or entirely erased from the broader study of queer history. Chavela Vargas passed away at the age of 93 in 2012. Her last words were “I leave with México in my heart.”

~ M

Bibliography

Garsd, Jasmine. “Chavela Vargas, Legendary Ranchera Singer, Dies.” NPR, August 5, 2012. Accessed on November 12, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2012/08/06/158166344/chavela-vargas-legendary-ranchera-singer-has-died

Moser, Benjamin. “Postscript: Mexico’s Majestic Lesbian Chanteuse, Chavela Vargas.” The New Yorker, August 17, 2012. Accessed on November 12, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-mexicos-majestic-lesbian-chanteuse-chavela-vargas

Vargas, Chavela. Y si quieres saber de mi pasado. Madrid: Aguilar, 2002.

Chavela Vargas

Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers

Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, English missionaries from the Society of Friends (colloquially called Quakers), were gaoled by the Roman Inquisition on Malta from 1558-1662/3. Like many of the early modern people I come across in my research, no images survive of these women, so I must look elsewhere for traces of their hotness. Let’s start with gender.

For those not familiar with the Society of Friends, one of its primary tenets is equality–between the sexes, between races–and this was the case even in the seventeenth century. While many Christians had long subscribed to the notion that all Christians were equal at a soul level, the Friends considered this true in the earthly realm as well. Although some English women in radical dissenting (non-Anglican) Protestant sects took to preaching in the seventeenth century, to leave England without the company of one’s father, husband or other male guardian was in itself a radical act. To do so with the express intention of missionising for one of the most radical sects of the day was nothing short of brazen. Evans and Cheevers, neither spinsters, nor widows (the two groups of non-elite women with the most social flexibility) left their husbands at home to care for their children while they went abroad to spread their message, thereby inverting the gender norms of the period that generally tasked women with domestic management. Moreover, contemporaries also considered religious direction of the family/household the purview of the husband and/or father, so these women (and their spouses) were really pushing the envelope on multiple levels and in various ways.

Several accounts that claim to document Cheevers and Evans’s time as prisoners of the Roman Inquisition survive today, and they make very interesting reading. While Cheevers, Evans and their Quaker supporters were by no means without their own prejudices (virulent anti-Catholicism pervades these relations), their unwavering commitment to their radical religious beliefs is powerful. Indeed, their interrogations by the inquisitors, who constantly try in vain to get them to recant their beliefs, read like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. For subverting, inverting and outright challenging contemporary social norms and religious authority, Cheevers and Evans are historical hotties.

~Spirit

For those unfamiliar with early modern print sources, enjoy these long and phonetically-spelled titles!

Evans, Katharine. A brief discovery of God’s eternal truth and a way opened to the simple hearted whereby they may come to know Christ and his ministers, from Antichrist and his ministers: with a warning from the Lord to all people that do name the name of Christ, to depart from iniquity / written in the Inquisition of Malta. London, 1663. Early English Books Online.

Evans, Katharine and Sarah Cheevers. This Is a Short Relation of Some of the Cruel Sufferings (for the Truths Sake) of Katharine Evans & Sarah Chevers in the Inquisition of the Isle of Malta Who Have Suffered There above Three Years by the Pope’s Authority, There to Be Deteined until They Dye: Which Relation of Their Sufferings Is Come Form Their Own Hands and Mouths as Doth Appear in the Following Treatise… Edited by D. B. London, 1662. Early English Books Online.

———. A True Account of the Great Tryals and Cruel Sufferings Undergone by Those Two Faithful Servants of God, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers in the Time of Their above Three Years and a Halfs Confinement in the Island Malta. Also, How God at Last by His Almighty Power Effected Their Deliverance, and Brought Them Back into the Land of Their Nativity. To Which Is Added, a Short Relation from George Robinson, of the Sufferings That Befel Him in His Journey to Jerusalem; and How God Saved Him from the Hands of Cruelty When the Sentence of Death Was Passed against Him. Edited by D. B. London, 1663. Early English Books Online.

Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers