- New Directions in Slavery Studies: Commodification, Community, and Comparison ed. by Jeff Forret and Christine E. Sears, and: Linking the Histories of Slavery: North America and Its Borderlands ed. by Bonnie Martin and James F. Brooks
The twenty-three essays on slavery gathered in these two volumes provide scholars and educators with fresh insights into various places and times, including the present. The stated organizing themes presented in Jeff Forret and Christine E. Sears's New Directions in Slavery Studies: Commodification, Community, and Comparison also appear in Bonnie Martin and James F. Brooks's Linking the Histories of Slavery: North America and Its Borderlands. Both compilations encourage the reader to contemplate how people were made into goods and how this process was crafted by enslavers, resisted by the enslaved, and remembered by communities.
New Directions in Slavery Studies focuses on commodification in its first section and reflects scholars' lately revived interest in slavery's capitalism. Calvin Schermerhorn reveals how American consumers of manufactured cotton fabrics enjoyed cheap prices and convenience because of enslaved labor, while Bonnie Martin's essay in New Directions in Slavery Studies shows how free white Virginians tweaked credit systems and employed lending practices that increasingly commodified the enslaved from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. These and other essays tease out valuable connections between the commodification of enslaved people and the growth of American capitalism.
Scholars of the lived experiences of slavery will appreciate this volume's fresh treatment of the slave community. Forret's work on theft within the slave quarters—along with his recent book on slave violence, Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South (Baton Rouge, 2015)—models how historians can tell stories of conflicts within societies of enslaved people, a task that does justice to the full range of their humanity. Anthony E. Kaye provides a thoughtful critique of the way historians have emphasized autonomy when [End Page 155] writing about slave communities as a whole. Kaye insists that the persistent dichotomy of "agency and structure" has outlived its usefulness and should be replaced with something more nuanced (p. 170). Although slavery scholars will continue to wrestle with exactly how to move beyond autonomy, Kaye's point that we should do so is sure to be influential. Kaye suggests that historians must get creative and draw fresh inspiration from fields such as poststructural feminism, human geography, and comparative studies to get out of the rut.
Fulfilling Kaye's call for more comparative work, Forret and Sears's final section offers four essays that provide a good mix of top-down and bottom-up views of slavery. Mariana Dantas explores the work lives of urban enslaved women in the Atlantic world, revealing the extent to which these women created the wealth and supported the economic connections that upheld urban economies of Sabará, Minas Gerais, Brazil, and Baltimore, Maryland. The main difference between enslaved women's experiences in the two cities was that women in Sabará, compared with their counterparts in Maryland, were more often able to use their labor to secure their freedom. Enrico Dal Lago's essay on modernization and nation-building offers a panoptic view of how the slave-holding elites in the United States, Cuba, and Brazil attempted to nationalize the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century. The Confederacy in the United States, the Rio Grande do Sul slave power in Brazil, and the eastern Cuban secessionists in the Spanish empire all attempted and failed to separate and create societies that protected their interests in slavery. Indeed, each of their failures directly initiated emancipation. The Confederacy's attempt and failure to create a nation to protect the interests of "peripheral" slaveholders through...