On Tuesday, March 6, 2018, Hortense Spillers, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, delivered a thoughtful talk on “Sentiment and Sorrow: What the 18th Century Teaches Us” in Olin Concert Hall. As a literary critic and a leading scholar of black feminism and the African diaspora, Spillers received a warm welcome from Bates College attendees following Professor Sue Houchins’s introduction.
During her introduction, Professor Houchins described how Spillers “was there at the vanguard of intellectual transformations,” where interdisciplinary fields began to consider continental movements, linguistics, feminist theory and philosophy to reconfigure the leading assumptions of the humanistic order. Spillers’ dissertation was among the first to focus entirely on a black cultural form that was produced at a mainstream university, Brandeis University. Professor Houchins pointed to her own experiences of being unable to study African American literature and culture since the institution she attended did not deem it to be “suitable subjects.” Furthermore, although Brandeis deemed the subject of the rhetoric of black sermons an appropriate field for Spillers’ doctoral work, and though some presses expressed an interest in her dissertation, none “had the courage to publish it.” Spillers has exerted a continuous effort to bring the African American field to higher education, constructing a substantial body of work that became central to the field of black and feminist studies.
Throughout Spillers’ lecture, she challenged her audience to question the multiple shades of intimacy in the 18th century. What are the implications for intimacy, touch, and love when one is enslaved and does not possess self-ownership? The intimate sphere has been transformed by slavery, where flesh becomes a medium for exchange. Spillers explicitly expounded the disconnection between the master’s family and the “shadow family:” a master’s ownership of his own enslaved children cannot allow for intimacy in a system that encourages the separation between the family and the family’s “other.” In turn, shadow families cannot assert the same dignity of regular families since feelings of love are unstable due to their positionality as property. She drew the example of Sally Hemings, President Thomas Jefferson’s slave and his family’s “other.” Spillers argued that consensual, intimate relationships cannot exist between a master and slave if the master can sell his shadow family for profit. The master-slave social contract outweighs any private, personal sentimental feelings if one partner is not self-owning. Love under conditions where there is no law nor protection is abusive and cannot be considered love. Thus, love does not and cannot exist if it is not free.
Spillers redefined what intimacy means by arguing that body and flesh lose integrity when “they can be invaded by coercive power.” Touch for the enslaved, in this sense, means the invasive power to wound, enter, or penetrate, and is no longer intimate, but violent. It can be argued that the deepest definition for a relationship is touch, yet there also exists the profoundness violation to be touched without wanting to be touched. This is the paradoxical nature of touch, of haptic touch.
The space that Spillers carved in Olin Concert Hall with her words and language was a sacred and dedicated space. This space is what Professor Houchins calls “libation for the named and for the nameless.” Spillers’ dedication and passion for her work “is for black women who made and broke narrative—the quiet, the quarreling, the queer. This is where, this is what, this is how.”