- African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800–1860 by Dea H. Boster
Disability studies scholars in recent years have called for a broader conversation between the history of disability and more conventional histories, arguing that, like race, disability should be understood as a social construct and therefore not be confined to specialist medical texts. Despite shifting trends in the history of slavery, the issue of slave disability has remained obscured. Studies of slave experience and resistance—often because of their desire to highlight capability and agency—overlook the presence of slaves with disabilities and their impact upon southern society. Fully aware of her predecessors and contemporaries from multiple disciplines, Boster seeks to reclaim the history of disability in African American slavery and to analyze the [End Page 668] intersections and negotiations of race, disability, and power, which she argues were central to the plantation economy. As part of the Routledge Studies in African American History and Culture series, African American Slavery and Disability strives to incorporate disability history into the well-established discipline of slavery studies, which will potentially expose readers to concepts, stories, and methods that have not yet fully taken hold within its canon.
Whilst acknowledging the foundations laid by medical historians such as Sharla M. Fett, Boster aims to avoid the confines of a specialist study and instead attempts to uncover disability not just in its relation to the slave body, but within the institution’s labor expectations, economy, and power dynamics. Using problematic sources such as slave narratives and abolitionist tracts alongside more traditional texts including plantation records and correspondence, Boster is able to point to the complex network of institutions and individuals who negotiated what it meant to be a disabled slave. African American Slavery and Disability is most engaging when it tells the stories of disabled individuals, referring to both their difficult circumstances as challenges to white authority, as well as their ability to manipulate understandings of defective and dysfunctional bodies for their own gain. In chapter four, Boster points to the activities and jobs that disabled slaves did perform, therefore providing a compelling argument that these individuals contributed to the plantation economy, and that slave owners were influenced by a variety of aesthetic and emotional, as well as financial, concerns when determining the value of their disabled chattel.
The structure of the book, although useful in demonstrating the significance of the disabled slave to all manner of financial, legal, medical, and cultural aspects of the plantation society, makes the discussion of slave resistance somewhat repetitive, as instances of negotiation and malingering follow the core argument of each chapter rather than being discussed in one chapter. Yet this broad scope ultimately works in Boster’s favor, as it allows the reader to grasp the wider imperative of inculcating all history with disability history. The [End Page 669] focus in the second chapter on the meanings ascribed to race and disability, and the function of disability as metaphor, allows the book to have relevance beyond slavery history and can offer something to researchers who concern themselves with the creation of prescriptive norms and the maintenance of social hierarchies.
The conclusion of the book emphasizes the volume of evidence about slave disability, its constructions, contradictions, and the varied black and white perspectives that negotiated the contested concept. The potential to use disability as a category of analysis presents great opportunities in slavery studies and to those concerned with the intersections between other categories such as race, gender, and class.
EMILY TAFFORD studies the history of human displays in American world’s fairs at the University of Liverpool. Her PhD thesis will be titled “Race and Disability in the Human Display: World’s Fairs in Western America, 1894–1916.”