Celia Book Review Essay

Sean McMillan


Celia, a Slave Book Review

Back against the wall, few options available, and there seems to be no way out. What does one do? How much can one bare before they reach their breaking point? In life people endure many trials and tribulations until eventually it’s just too much to handle, and one has to make a life changing decision. In the book Celia, a Slave, main character Celia is put in this exact situation. After years and years of sexual abuse from her slave owner, and multiple attempts to stop it, she eventually reaches her breaking point and gains the courage to kill her owner.

Unfortunately, for Celia in this situation she is a slave and is technically property of her owner instead of a citizen with rights. Therefore, she takes off from the plantation after the murder, and this event kicks off the story of Celia’s eventful trial and unfortunate ending.

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In Celia, a Slave, Celia’s case shows how gender and racial oppression made enslaved women completely powerless to protect themselves from sexual exploitation and unwanted affairs.

It also brings attention to the moral obscurity caused by slavery and how it was often looked over in the courts, whose rulings almost always were in favor of white Southerners’. Overall Celia’s case is just one of the many cases which shows the harsh realities of slavery. Unfortunately, during this time period many cases like Celia’s were undocumented, and even Celia’s case still leaves room to question about many uncertainties. Overall the books main focus is the moral ambiguity of slavery, and Celia’s case forces everyone in the story to confront slavery in regards to rape. With this comes the clashing of two ideas; the idea that owning human beings like chattel is a reasonable (and necessary) practice, and second, all people, regardless of their status as free or enslaved, have an inviolable right to life. These 2 ideas cause a lot of conflict in the story because it forces the court, slave owners and all citizens to actually think about what they’re allowing in their society, and if it is actually justifiable. “The law was also used to create the illusion that slaves possessed certain human rights, and thus to assuage the conscience of white society. Procedurally, Celia’s trial was correct, yet the substantive, gender-related issues of the case could not be addressed, despite the best efforts of her defense counsel (McLaurin 119)”. No, slaves at the time weren’t citizens with rights but at the end of the day they were human beings, and Celia’s case shined light on the fact that the institution of slavery and the ownership of one’s body was not right. Though in this story it was overlooked, this exact moral wrongdoing is what eventually leads to the downfall of slavery; the ending of slavery was a long and violent process, and Celia just happened to be one of the many victims. Today we look at it with a historical mindset but it is so important to remember that people like Celia made courageous strides to help the overall effort of ending slavery. “The law was used in an effort to categorize, to divide the society into two components, one slave and black, the other white and free. It was a system that ultimately failed, not from a lack of effort to enforce it by southern courts, but because of the nature of human property and the additional burden the very existence of a population of free blacks placed upon the system (McLaurin 94)”. 

The author of Celia a Slave is Melton A. McLaurin. “Melton McLaurin received his Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina in 1967 and taught at the University of South Alabama prior to joining the UNCW department of history as chairperson in 1977. From 1996 until 2003 he served as Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, retiring in 2004. He is the author or co-author of nine books and numerous articles on various aspects of the history of the American South and race relations (Dr. Melton)”. McLaurin has received many awards during his time as a writer, specifically New York Times notable book of the year which he won for Celia, a Slave in the year of 1991 when it was published and released (Dr. Melton)”. Though McLaurin is a white male, he seems to have a great understanding of African American History and slavery as a whole. When reading his book, you can tell he took the necessary precautions to educate himself on the topic, and even where history leaves holes of uncertainty, he doesn’t fail to mention it, and give his own personal idea on it. Personally, when I read African American content by white authors these are things I look for in the work, because as an African American myself I don’t think whites can put themselves in our shoes, especially from a historical standpoint. So being able to see that someone is qualified to talk about the topic, knows what they’re talking about, and is not biased are all good signs. And it seems McLaurin has them all down after reading Celia, a Slave.

In terms of strengths, I think the book does a great job in many areas. To me the most important thing was that the book was easy to read. Anytime I read historical work sometimes I often find myself bored or beginning to google summaries to get a better understanding, but with this book that was rarely the case. McLaurin did a great job of mixing in the influence of slavery on politics while at the same time covering what life was like at the time. You really get a good insight on slavery, and I feel I was able to learn something from this book, instead of just reading it as if it was just another assignment.

The cons that I found in McLaurin’s book were small but I do think in certain areas it lacks factual information, and the amount of speculation is clearly noted. Many of his conclusions are logical and reasonable of someone with an understanding of the time period, but at times they are without factual support. This is especially apparent during the part of the book when McLaurin discusses how white people involved in the story felt about slavery, or when he states what he believes the motive of an action was. From the beginning I knew that Celia’s story had holes and he mention’s this in the introduction, so you can’t criticize too much about it. However, do to the fact that there are no facts in documents, it leads me to believe that some of his points are educated guesses of some sort, and may or may not be true at all.

The overall point I got from Melton McLaurin telling the story of Celia is that he used the experience of one family and slave to draw larger conclusions about slavery as a whole in society. It forces you to critically think about just how many Celia’s there had to have been, and just how many times women were ignored in these cases. He also does a great job of showing just how much our country relied on slavery. It shows that we as a people in history were so stuck in our ways that we were willing to put slavery over morality, and Celia’s story exposes just that. Honestly, I feel the bigger idea is that African Americans especially women were seen as property and until the law seen them as otherwise, situations such as Celia’s would continue. The idea of Celia wanting to resist her master’s advances led many to question if one had the right to do so, because after all, white women at the time did to a point. “In fact, one of the essential legal differences between slave and free women was that free women were protected from sexual assault by law (McLaurin 99)”. This leads one to question the difference between free women and enslaved. One might think regardless of situation a woman is a woman and they all deserve the same rights, but the property aspect of slavery differed with the idea. “With its claim that Celia had the legal right to protect her honor, defense counsel raised a multitude of legal questions about ownership of the reproductive capabilities of a female slave. If, for example, a slave could resist her master’s advances, had she also the right to refuse a male partner her master selected for her? The issue of who controlled sexual access to female slaves held tremendous economic, as well as social, significance, for the reproductive capabilities of female slaves were clearly viewed by slaveholders as an economic asset over which they had control (McLaurin 91)”. Ideas such as the one quoted helped to push the conversation forward as to what was just and what wasn’t in terms of African Americans and their rights (specifically women). Though this case ended in the death of Celia and no exact resolution to the problem, history would repeat itself enough in these scenarios to eventually put an end to slavery as a whole.

In conclusion, I thought this book was a good read and I would suggest it to anyone interested in learning more about slavery and women in slavery. I’d especially suggest it to African Americans. I feel as an African American it is good to have background knowledge of our history and to always expand on it, and I feel this book helped me do that. Anytime you can read something in class and benefit from it personally, I think it’s a plus.

Works Cited

Dr. Melton McLaurin Professor Emeritus UNCW Department of History, people.uncw.edu/mclaurinm/.

McLaurin, Melton. Celia A Slave. Atlanta: University of Georgia Press., 1991. Print

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