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Moral Dilemmas and the Role of Gender on Celia, A Slave’s Life

By hrizer Dec 16, 2013 1464 Words
Moral Dilemmas and the Role of Gender on Celia, A Slave’s Life
Located along the banks of the Middle River in Missouri, Calloway County was an area many relocated to in the pursuit of prosperity during the 1850’s. Among the newly settled was Robert Newcomb, an individual who represented the common man and their ideals of this time. Like many, Newsom made a living from the land (6) and had purchased five male slaves to maintain his sustainable yet successful farming lifestyle. He was prosperous and an involved member in his society, as well as a powerful figure among his household. However after his wife’s death, Newsom was no longer satisfied with his home life even though he had the help of his two sons and two daughters who, at the time, were still living under his roof. Robert Newsom had “set out to purchase a replacement for his wife” (21) because he lacked a partner, specifically a woman that could be his sexual partner. Therefore, Newsom adventured out and purchased fourteen-year-old Celia where “the sexual nature of the relationship between master and slave, once established, would never change” (24). Author Melton A. McLaurin stressed much importance on the dynamics of gender and how success for many was built around the idea of a hardworking male- figure who maintained balance in his home and his contributions to the “booming agricultural economy” (11). However, this was a principle for free white men only. White females were dependent upon the hardworking male’s success as well, and were expected to maintain specific roles among the house and within their society. While equally important and needed to maintain the balance, it was still to be assumed as duties under the male figure. On the other hand, African- American slaves like George (who was also owned by Robert Newsom) were limited to how they could achieve power or a feeling of ownership of property as they were not considered free citizens in Missouri during this time. Consequently, their access to things that provided them with a sense of masculinity or pride were limited, but meant a significant deal. Their best hopes at achieving this were through fellow enslaved women, and in George’s case, his relationship with Celia. When George felt a loss of pride with having to share Celia, there was great pressure on this young mother to find a way to best end the duties expected of her to her master. It was evident that Celia had to resort to extreme measures with the murder of Robert Newsom, however it did not gain her the liberties of furthering her relationship with George either. McLaurin thoroughly investigated a case that embodied the moral dilemmas many had to confront throughout Celia’s trial where “relationships of race, gender, and power in the antebellum South” (xiii) were revealed and all were significant factors, however gender played the most substantial role on shaping this young woman’s life. Celia was unfortunately born into a life of slavery, but it was Newsom’s full intent to acquire a female slave to utilize as a sexual partner. His daughters Mary and Virginia assumed the role as a mistress in their household, especially Virgina who was older and had three children of her own. For what reasons why she had no husband and lived elsewhere were unknown. Newsom made the choice to use a young slave as a sexual partner though because he knew he could get away with exploiting her. In the eyes of the law, Celia was his property. Whether Newsom’s daughters were aware of this situation or not, “certainly neither Mary nor Virginia was in a position to change her father’s conduct toward his slave, even had she so desired” (26). As the “lord of the manor” (27), he had the power and control to use Celia as he pleased. As a slave, Celia was expected to fulfill the duties asked of her by her master. For Newsom’s daughters, they were free but expected to fulfill the duties of what was needed to maintain balance and efficiency in the household if they wanted to have a roof over their head and still be supported by their father. If to step out of line, it would reflect poorly upon their society as well. Even if Celia tried to plead with the sisters to intercede on their father’s actions, there is a shared dependency they all had on Robert Newsom. It was one of slavery’s most severe moral dilemmas and as Charles Sellers called it, Newsom’s daughters experienced “the fundamental moral anxiety” of slavery (32). McLaurin further stated this evidence by sharing “while slavery had its white female southern critics, white women were on the whole supportive of the institution, in addition to being relatively powerless to prevent the sexual exploitation of female slaves, which they bitterly resented” (32). In simplest and saddest terms, Newsom was able to use his gender to his advantage because of the confines set upon these women by society, free or enslaved. The role of gender by both male and females here represent how gender shaped Celia into a position of total isolation where there was little that could have been done to help her. As a young and vulnerable slave to her master, “Celia was forced to confront her dilemma alone” (31). Between George and Celia, gender is very significant. When he was not able to have Celia to himself, he was robbed of masculinity. George was emasculated that Newsom, an elder and likely in far less shape than himself, was able to have full control over a sexual partnership with his Celia. On the contrary, Celia was likely to take this risk as she could feel a sense of empowerment by choosing to allow a relationship with George to occur outside of Newsom’s knowledge. However, if George were to ever intervene, it could cost him his life since Newsom had that ability as the one in charge with the power. Because no man wants to lose what gives them pride and feels obligated to protect it, Celia was given the ultimatum to end things with Newsom. Yet again, moral dilemmas arose. “While it is possible that Celia may have taken action against Newsom of her own accord, the evidence strongly suggests that she confronted Newsom only when forced to do so if she wished to continue her relationship with George” (41). Regardless of race, Celia was powerless to all men, especially as a young female who already had two children and then was sick with a third one on the way. Because of gender, she had to carefully think out what was in her children’s and her own best interest alone. As found in the text, George ultimately turned Celia in for the murder of Robert Newsom then ran away instead of helping her or furthering their relationship once the sexual partnership between Newsom and her had clearly ended. It was likely that fear and George’s own moral dilemmas drove him to escape, but yet again, Celia faced her own moral dilemmas alone. Following the proceeding events was what led to Celia’s trial. Whether it was some empathy or just disbelief towards her from the court and press attention, there was great speculation that Celia could not have committed this crime alone as a female. And since George had escaped, it led people to reason that he was trying to run away from the truth or involvement of the murder. It was rare for women to appear, more less a slave woman, so charges would likely have been more severe for George than Celia. Regardless, he was not there, and Celia only had herself to rely upon to get through all of this alone. In conclusion, Celia was oppressed by the roles of gender among this society that shaped an unfortunate life she had to live. She was Robert Newsom’s slave whom “he regarded as both his property and his concubine” (22), she never gained benefits from George in pursuing a relationship just with him when she took her own measures to end the sexual partnership between she and Robert Newsom. Celia would not be able to use Virginia or Mary to her benefit to help her get out of being sexually exploited by a man far beyond her age. Celia “had no opportunity to come to terms with a single incidence of rape, or to restructure her life. Life for Celia would entail continual sexual exploitation” (24), or afterwards, exploitation from the media and others in society who would never understand all that she had to endure. Life for Celia was far from pleasant, and gender was a factor that did her little justice to shape her life in a more positive manner.

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