Celia, A Slave Theme

Melton A. McLaurin

Celia, A Slave

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  • Features 8 chapter summaries and 6 sections of expert analysis
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Celia, A Slave Theme

Moral Paradox and Ambiguity 

The book’s main focus is on the moral ambiguity of chattel slavery and how the sexual element of Celia’s case forces the people around her to confront the morality of slavery with regard to rape.  The moral ambiguity results from trying to hold in place two opposing beliefs: the first is that owning human beings like chattel is a reasonable (and necessary) practice, and the second is that all people, regardless of their status as free or enslaved, have an inviolable right to life. These two notions will inevitably cause conflict, because an inviolable right to life must, by extension, entail some basic ownership of one’s own body, and the body of a slave in America’s “peculiar institution” cannot have two owners.  The inherent moral ambiguity of slavery is also what eventually leads to its downfall; tragically, the dissolution of slavery is a long and violent process, and Celia is one of its many victims. 

Appearances vs. Reality: The Role of Law in Slavery

Related to moral ambiguity is the question of how the legal system participated in the perpetuation of slavery and how it was used to smooth over the moral disruptions caused by its reality and make slavery appear morally tenable.  This is illustrated, McLaurin observes, in the procedural correctness of Celia’s trial, which gives the appearance that her basic human rights were being met, but covers up the messy reality of her sexual exploitation and its bearing on her actions.  Slavery, of course, is not the only context in which the “letter of the law” can give the appearance of rightness to unethical or immoral behavior, but it is especially important given its far-reaching effects on American society. 

Sexual Vulnerability and Gender Oppression 

The question of the sexual vulnerability of female slaves and the ways that gender and race oppression intersect is key to understanding how Celia’s story illustrates an important aspect of slavery—that of the relative degree of agency (if any) that could be claimed by enslaved women.  Given the details of his case study, McLaurin’s conclusion is bleak.  Although Celia does, indeed, kill…

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