- New Directions in Slavery Studies: Commodification, Community and Comparison ed. by Jeff Forret and Christine E. Sears
This succinct collection of twelve essays seeks, as the title suggests, to highlight current scholarship in the field of slavery studies, dividing recent research (very conveniently for alliterative purposes) into three broad areas of "commodification," "the slave community," and "comparative slavery." Some sections are stronger than others, and the book does not quite come together as a whole. However, there is some strong scholarship here by well-respected authors in the field, and the collection also illustrates (perhaps unsurprisingly for a book dedicated to Peter Kolchin and written by many of his former students) the continuing relevance of comparative research to historians. It poses new ways in [End Page 192] which historians of slavery might think comparatively both within and across national borders.
The first part of the book explores different aspects of enslaved people's commodification. Calvin Schermerhorn considers slave trading and credit in a context that links the U.S. coastwise slave trade with broader Atlantic business networks. He persuasively argues that systems of money and credit that enabled the transatlantic cotton economy also formed a significant part of the U.S. interstate trade. While cotton brought misery to enslaved people, it brought freedom and convenience to others. Bonnie Martin's chapter on borrowing and lending also focuses on the United States, in this case Virginian communities. Through extensive empirical research, she shows how evolving credit relationships increased the commodification of enslaved people. The expansion and stabilization of local credit networks increased rates of borrowing and lending as people purchased more slaves. Similarly, Karen Ryder addresses the rather neglected theme of slave life insurance in supporting the growth of credit networks in the U.S. South. While the first part of the chapter deals more with the history of insurance than the history of slavery, she argues slave life insurance both encouraged the growth of credit and fed off credit systems. All these chapters add to our understanding of capitalism's development in the southern United States, but we hear little about enslaved people's perspectives in this first part. Instead the focus is firmly on slaveowners and slave traders. Moreover, the final chapter of this section, in which Kenneth Greenberg describes his experiences of working with filmmakers to produce Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, seems somewhat out of place. Greenberg raises some interesting points about the issues involved in representing history in film, but he does not discuss any other recent films about slavery (a surprising omission considering that these films are mentioned in the volume's introduction).
Part 2, "The Slave Community," includes three chapters that consider different communities and one that elaborates on ideas about enslaved autonomy. John Davies explores the ways in which migrants from Saint Domingue formed their own communities in Philadelphia. His case study sometimes lacks a historiographical context, although issues are further developed in the endnotes. Jeff Forret then investigates the fissures created in enslaved communities through theft. Some of his overall findings lack a solid evidential base, and his work could have engaged more with issues of agency and individualism in enslaved people's lives, [End Page 193] but Forret nevertheless provides important insights into community conflict. The geographic community of Confederate Richmond forms the basis of Kathleen Hilliard's chapter. War transformed the city's internal economy, she argues, as black and white economic fortunes converged. This strong piece makes a real original contribution to research in the field, and Hilliard convincingly conveys how her work differs from prior interpretations. Lastly in this section, and perhaps again a little tangentially, the late Anthony Kaye adopts a philosophical angle to address the issue of autonomy in enslaved communities. This broad piece moves from traditional liberal philosophers to Eugene Genovese via Antonio Gramsci. He also discusses more recent theoretical concepts, including relational autonomy, feminist theory, and human geography. Kaye argues for more comparative history in breaking down opposition between agency...