Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL.”
It would have been impossible to overlook Donald Mackay’s description of Maria, an enslaved young woman: “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL.” Each of the adjectives suggested that Maria was attractive, a young woman that most masters and others would have found desirable, a young woman who most likely would have become increasingly alluring as she continued to mature.
In the absence of any sort of visual image (not even a crude woodcut), Mackay put a black body on display by asking readers to imagine Maria’s appearance and inviting them to scrutinize every black woman they encountered to determine if they might be the runaway Maria.
This advertisement also hints at the treatment that Maria may have already experienced or that she was likely to experience at some point. White men had unfettered access to enslaved women throughout early American history, from the colonial period through the antebellum era and the Civil War. Writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent nearly a century after this advertisement was published, Harriet Jacobs published a slave narrative in which she documented the constant threat of sexual absue she faced as a slave in North Carolina in the early nineteenth century. Various other sources – slave narratives, letters, ledgers, and journals, written by both black and white authors – confirm the sexual violence perpetrated against black women under slavery. Some do so explicitly.
Others, like this advertisement, raise the possibility with more subtlety, asking observers to read between the lines.
A multitude of circumstances probably influenced Maria’s decision to run away, but her vulnerability to sexual abuse was likely one of them. Donald Mackay did not elaborate on all the reasons that he wanted this “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL” captured and returned, but eighteenth-century readers would have been aware of what was unwritten. This advertisement was about more than recovering a piece of human property who could work in the fields or do domestic labor in the household.
Advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children allow us to reconstruct portions of their lives when we read against the grain and interrogate the implications of what white authors have written.