- New Directions in Slavery Studies: Commodification, Community, and Comparison ed. by Jeff Forret, Christine E. Sears
Since Stanley Elkins published his controversial Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959), scholars have worked to revise and complicate conceptions of the men and women entangled in United States slavery. In the following decades, [End Page 267] scores of studies on enslaved people’s lives, labor, and struggles against oppression overthrew Elkins’s thesis that slavery transformed bondspeople into passive ‘Sambos.’ Today, more than fifty years later, the wave of important scholarship on slavery and enslaved people has yet to ebb. But the very frequency and quality of new historical work has made keeping up-to-date on the state of the field—as Jeff Forret and Christine E. Sears note—a near “Herculean mission” (p. 1).
New Directions in Slavery Studies, a collection of twelve essays edited by Forret and Sears, identifies three major thrusts in recent historiography: the commodification of enslaved people as property and capital; community formation as well as fissures in slave communities; and comparative studies both within and outside the American South. Other themes, however, emerge to cut across these three organizational categories, bringing chapters on commodification, community, and comparative slavery into conversation with each other. Contributors featured in each section of the anthology reveal the intimate links between slavery and modernity, emphasizing the role of enslaved people in the development of urban life and capitalist practices. Others highlight the risks new forms of commodification posed to enslaved people’s families and communities. And some, questioning the reliability of sources or the very nature of conventional categories of analysis, provide insight into the difficulties inherent in studying slavery altogether.
In their respective chapters, Bonnie Martin, Karen Ryder, and Calvin Schermerhorn examine how enslaved people’s commodification bolstered and accelerated early American capitalism. Slave owners took out life insurance policies on their human property, used slaves as collateral, and leveraged them for credit. Essays in the comparative section—particularly those by Enrico Dal Lago and Mariana Dantas—also explore the links between slavery and modernity. Dal Lago looks beyond the American South to Rio Grande do Sul’s revolt against the Brazilian Empire (1835–41) and eastern Cuba’s attempted secession from the Spanish Empire (1868–78). Like southern Confederates, Brazilian and Cuban planter elites set slavery at the center of modern nation-building efforts. Dantas’s study of urban slavery in Baltimore, [End Page 268] Maryland, and Sabará, Brazil, examines the significant roles enslaved women played in city-building, contributing to economic diversification and urbanization. John Davies’s and Kathleen Hilliard’s essays, categorized as studies of slave community, tackle urban slavery as well. While Davies describes the relationships among slaves, free people of color, and white refugees from the Haitian Revolution in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Philadelphia, Hilliard discusses the increasing dependency of white men and women on enslaved people’s underground economic networks during Confederate Richmond’s decline and fall.
Anthony Kaye’s chapter challenges scholars to think critically about their use of the concept of autonomy—a favorite category of analysis for revisionist historians—in slavery studies. His call for more nuanced understandings of enslaved people’s agency is answered throughout the anthology. Damian Alan Pargas’s comparison of family separation in northern Virginia and the South Carolina Lowcountry illustrates how strongly regional differences in agricultural production, labor markets, and slaveholding patterns influenced whether slave families could expect to be forced apart. While all enslaved people lived with the threat of sale and separation, Pargas’s research specifically pinpoints where enslaved men and women had the ability to form lasting families and communities. Sears’s and Forret’s essays further illustrate that community formation and solidarity among bondspeople was by no means a given. In the Mediterranean city of Algiers—Sears’s subject of study—differences in rank, nationality, access to money, and the possibility of redemption from slavery mitigated against communal...