- Slavery, Past and Present
The four books under review here represent some of the most exciting new work in the emerging field of slavery studies, broadly conceived. Jessica Adams, Stephanie M. H. Camp, Jeannine Marie DeLombard, and Deak Nabers make slavery the analytical framework for their respective inquiries into the meaning of society, power, and resistance. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these books emerge in a historical context characterized by intense energies directed toward public commemorations of slavery's end. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the New York Historical Society's well-attended Slavery in New York exhibition, the UNESCO Slave Route Project, and the costly state-sponsored bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade number among the many recent local, national, and international efforts to address the collective amnesia concerning the past of slavery and its enduring legacies. These public history projects express a profound preoccupation with the myths, meanings, and memories of slavery in the Americas even as their shared injunction, both expressed and implied, to "never forget" begs the question of what it is we are to remember. Such endeavors too have not [End Page 455] been without their share of criticism, including the recent controversy over the $15.5 million Frederick Douglass memorial at the northwest corner of New York City's Central Park that was to feature symbols from the contested Underground Railroad quilt code.1 Historians challenged the existence of these encoded quilt patterns drawn largely from one African American oral history. Implied in such disputes is the question of who has the authority to determine what becomes part of the lasting historical record of slavery and its abolition.
All four of these recent studies proceed from the understanding that there is something profoundly expansive about what slavery and abolition have wrought upon American society as we know it. Chattel slavery was indeed a "peculiar" institution that was not merely isolated to the antebellum South. It was, as Nabers emphasizes, the only social institution in the United States secured entirely by law and legal process (47). Slavery and the law were not merely intertwined in antebellum Anglo-American jurisprudence; the existence of slavery required the sanction of law. The historical force of slavery's ambivalence—its peculiarity—animates the questions that these four scholars pose in their respective books. They eschew easy narratives of temporal succession to identify the complex intellectual legacies of chattel slavery. Proceeding thematically rather than chronologically, these books chart the unsettling continuities between slavery and legislated freedom in various aspects of American life from law, literature, and popular culture to the built environments we inhabit. Each is invested in making contributions to specific fields—literary criticism, legal history, social history, and cultural studies—yet taken together they forge new directions for scholarship on slavery and its abolition. While DeLombard and Nabers chart the intellectual vagaries of abolitionist campaigning in the north, Adams and Camp shift their attention to the southern plantation where the imprint of slavery's force was most immediately evident. Their books address the epistemological possibilities and limitations of making slavery the organizing framework for interdisciplinary American studies. Such work entails a reconceptualization of slavery as a dynamic and, indeed, living force in contemporary thought and society.
Deak Nabers's Victory of Law is a probing intellectual genealogy of the Fourteenth Amendment that tracks the conversion of the U.S. Constitution into a virtual mandate for abolitionism in the years immediately...