- The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America by Terri L. Snyder
In 1815 an enslaved woman named Anna survived a leap from a Washington, D.C., window to avoid sale to Georgia. Her suicide attempt, which was propagandized in Jesse Torrey's A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the United States (1817), highlights the significance of slave suicides to the developing American republic. In her second monograph, The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America, Terri L. Snyder uses this image to begin her argument that enslaved people who ended their lives were a vital component of larger mid-eighteenth-century issues, such as medical discussions of mental illness, philosophical debates over the right to suicide, and a legal dialogue that led to its criminalization as felo-de-se, or felon of self.
The book's six brief chapters contain an exploration of the "forces that propelled enslaved people to that moment of self-harm as well as the legal, political, and cultural ramifications of those fatal acts" across the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland from the 1750s through the antebellum period (p. 18). These forces included disparate African conceptions of good and bad deaths, maternal instinct, avoidance of rape, failed insurrection, and even spontaneity. Vexing for Atlantic slavers concerned with preventing suicide during transport, the problem of suicide was amplified when enslaved Africans disembarked in the Americas. There enslaved people found more tools at their disposal to incorporate ritual practices to aid what they believed to be spiritual transmigration back to their homelands.
In the first full-length study of suicide among enslaved persons in early America, Snyder focuses on connections between those factors that encouraged self-destruction, their effects, and their centrality to abolitionist rhetoric. Her analysis elevates slave suicide above being merely a facet of resistance by explaining what it meant for black individuals and emerging critiques of slavery in the Atlantic world. The power of taking one's life was displayed in both the manner in which suicides were committed and how they "implicitly called into question the institution's pretensions to paternalism" (p. 17). This book is a valuable addition to discussions of the impact enslaved suicide had on abolitionist reform. More important, Snyder's use of the felo-de-se concept deepens the discussion of mortuary politics addressed in Vincent Brown's The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 2008) by making deathways a central factor in colonization.
Snyder explores how "evolving understandings of suicide by enslaved people continued to disarticulate self-destruction from slavery and to reinforce ideas of differences in race, class, and disposition" (pp. 77-78). She asserts that suicide by hanging or drowning was associated with women and [End Page 397] lower social orders, while starvation and geophagy, with its corresponding medical diagnosis Cachexia Africana, were associated with the enslaved. The author sharpens the line between property and personhood by deftly utilizing slave self-destruction to reveal the enslaved's own understandings of their relationship to the law through suicide in the anticipation of execution. This assertion of the power to die was a centerpiece of the antislavery print and fiction work of the eighteenth century and was portrayed in Thomas Day and John Bicknell's poem The Dying Negro in 1773, from which this monograph takes its name. In turn, Works Progress Administration interviews display how individual stories of suicide were immortalized in folklore of the lowcountry South as an example of the enduring and contested legacy of self-murder.
Snyder employs a vast array of commercial, literary, and public sources, although the final chapter relies primarily on the antislavery perspective. This emphasis does not detract from the author's overall assertions or argument, however, as the sources are expertly mined. Snyder has succeeded in offering a work that connects the deathways of the Atlantic world to the abolition of slavery and its memory.