McLaurin uses a well-told historical narrative of a slave girl, Celia to describe the life parameters that existed between the masters and slaves in the antebellum south during the 19th Century. By 1830s, the South was dominantly characterized by slavery, which took many forms. African Americans were enslaved in cities, households, large plantations and on small farms, like Celia, who was accompanied by her master to Missouri farm. This paper will first delve slightly into describing the significant phenomena surrounding slavery in the antebellum south, and then into analyzing what Celia’s story revealed on the importance of race and gender, in the second page.
The dynamics of life in the south were mainly characterized by tense relationships between the masters and slaves. McLaurin’s story describes this when Celia kills her master due to his ill-treatment of her. This occurs after John Newsom uses her as his concubine, apparently against her will, impregnating her thrice, and would not stop. Rev. John Adger argues that the conflict that ensued into the 1861 civil war was due to the master-slave relations. It is, therefore, valid to conclude that the master-slave sour ties were a great shaper in American politics of the 19th Century.
The other crucial point he brings out is that of ‘possession.’ Slaves, who were mainly African American were viewed as property because they were black. Their status as property was enforced by the fact that they were bought, like other goods and they were subjected to actual or threatened violence. The masters used the slaves in any way they willed because they had bought them. This explains the many cases of ill-treatment that led to tense relationships between the masters and slaves.
Celia’s trial raises a lot of issues concerning race and gender. It also illustrates the root of racial problems that the Americans face today, that include, a white-male dominated society that looks down upon African Americans, especially women. Her story depicts slave fear that was common in the antebellum period. This fear is however justified because slavery was recognized as a local constitution by the American constitution. This means that in any crimes, including homicide, the law would only protect the slave owner. In Missouri, sexual assault by a white male was considered trespass, not rape, and an owner could not be charged for trespassing upon his property. This is why Celia is sentenced to death, even though the murder was not intended, and was conducted in self-defense.
Celia’s story also brings out the aspect of racism, from the fact that the law did not protect Celia, a sexually assaulted woman. In the antebellum south, black women were seen as sensual and promiscuous, while white women were seen as moral and pure (McLaurin 117). The law thus only protected white women from sexual assault and did not grant the same rights to female slaves. Some scholars explain that sexual abuse of female slaves was very prevalent, such that a father and son would share slave mistresses, like in the case of Senator James Henry Hammond and his son. The fact that the Senator was a government member also shows how not concerned the law was not affected by the hardships that slaves, especially females were enduring.
The great bearing that race had during the antebellum period continues to be illustrated by Celia’s case, when Judge William Augustus Hall, removed all grounds for a plea of self-defense. This is because her attorney was not able to obtain a direct testimony over a perceived threat, from her. Under Missouri law, as was the case in many southern states, a slave could not testify against a white person, even one deceased (McLaurin 106). Denial of the plea of self-defense put Celia at a disadvantage because self-defense was her only legal argument for the commitment of a homicide.
Celia’s case also illustrates how disempowered and helpless the slaves; especially female slaves were in society. Male slaves, although also faced a certain level of persecution were never subjected to sexual harassment, while it was prevalent among the female slaves. McLaurin explains that as many as one out of five female slaves were subject to sexual assault by their owners. Celia, for example, was bought by her slaver, specifically for sexual pressure. John Newsom had no other female slave until his wife died. Female slaves were so helpless that they could not even get help from the white females (Johns two daughters refuse to help her end their father’s sexual harassment of her when she goes to them pleading for help), or from the fellow slave community. They were entirely on their own because the law was also not ready to protect them. In short, their race and gender rendered them completely powerless to defend themselves from sexual harassment.
From Celia’s trial, it’s also possible to draw the idea of male domination in society. Ti\his is illustrated by the fact that Celia was presented before a jury that consisted of six Whites, all of whom were men. In Modern-day America, even though to a limited extent is still burdened with the problem of gender inequality. This is illustrated by the fact that men continue to hold the most prominent offices in the country.
The verdict in Celia also illustrates the disadvantage at which race and gender put a black slave. All verdicts open with a discussion of jury instructions that are written by attorneys of both sides, so a to guide the jury in its deliberations. The panel has to approve and deliver the instructions, and in Celia’s case, Judge Hall rejects the majority of jury instructions written by her defense, thus ensuring a guilty verdict. While her lawyers file a motion for a retrial, in response to the jury’s mishandling of the case, Judge Hall hands down the sentence to death. Refusal to allow the defense to make its case further supports the fact that the slave was not considered to be part of society and thus could not be protected by the law. To explain this also, McLaurin compares Celia’s case with that of Dred Scott.
The final chapter of the story, ‘The Disposition,’ show Celia being illegally removed from jail before her scheduled execution, to give the Supreme Court of Missouri time to review her appeal, which also ends up with her being hanged. This further outlines the unwillingness of the justice system of Missouri state to protect slaves. This is because they were not recognized as part of society.
In conclusion, it is of the essence to mention that race and gender are still significant issues of concern in today’s America, and the rest of the world. It has not been one time that the headline on the news have read a black being shot down by a white policeman or a black person has claimed to have moved to America and has been called a ‘black monkey.’ This shows that the roots of racism are still dug very dip in American history, that even after two centuries, it always seems like a significant factor in their social setting. If asked for recommendations, I would recommend that laws should be formulated and implemented, to persecute those who are guilty of racist acts, as we are all equal and members of society.