Infamous Bodies

Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights

Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 36 illustrations Published: August 2020

Author: Samantha Pinto

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

The countless retellings and reimaginings of the private and public lives of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta have transformed them into difficult cultural and black feminist icons. In Infamous Bodies, Samantha Pinto explores how histories of these black women and their ongoing fame generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures. Drawing on a variety of media, cultural, legal, and critical sources, Pinto shows how the narratives surrounding these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century celebrities shape key political concepts such as freedom, consent, contract, citizenship, and sovereignty. Whether analyzing Wheatley's fame in relation to conceptions of race and freedom, notions of consent in Hemings's relationship with Thomas Jefferson, or Baartman's ability to enter into legal contracts, Pinto reveals the centrality of race, gender, and sexuality in the formation of political rights. In so doing, she contends that feminist theories of black women's vulnerable embodiment can be the starting point for future progressive political projects.


Infamous Bodies is required reading for scholars of black feminist theory. This ambitious, provocative book interrogates female celebrity as a crucial genre through which black women come into political view. Samantha Pinto's careful and thoughtful wrestling with black women celebrities who have become—or perhaps always were—‘difficult’ in and for black feminist studies requires that scholars probe the very meaning of the ‘political’ for black feminist thought. Black feminist theory will be both challenged and transformed by Pinto's careful and counterintuitive readings of black women's representation and by Pinto’s call for the necessary centrality of vulnerability to our scholarly and political work.” — Jennifer C. Nash, author of Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality

“With theoretical innovation and a commitment to bringing to light forgotten cultural moments, Samantha Pinto considers notorious figures of black female historical celebrity for what they can tell us about the limits of liberal humanist conceptions of freedom, agency, and consent. Fueled by a powerful sense of urgency, Pinto’s rich and valuable contribution pushes black studies and feminist and queer studies of representation and history to new places while prompting readers to think about how celebrity culture continues to treat black women with the broadest strokes.” — Francesca T. Royster, author of Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era


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Price: $26.95

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Samantha Pinto is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic, and coeditor of Writing beyond the State: Post-Sovereign Approaches to Human Rights in Literary Studies.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Infamous Bodies, Corrective Histories  1
1. Fantasies of Freedom: Phillis Wheatley and the "Deathless Fame" of Black Feminist Thought  31
2. The Romance of Consent: Sally Hemings, Black Women's Sexuality, and the Fundamental Vulnerability of Rights  65
3. Venus at Work: The Contracted Body and Fictions of Sarah Baartman  105
4. Civic Desire: Mary Seacole's Adventures in Black Citizenship  139
5. #DevelopmentGoals: Sovereignty, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, and the Production of the Black Feminist Political Subject  173
Conclusion. Black Feminist Celebrity and the Political Life of Vulnerability  203
Notes  207
References  221
Index 243
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