- Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest by William S. Kiser
If William S. Kiser's Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest is an indication, borderlands history may be budging just a smidgen from the embattled position it has been locked in since the lively debates that followed the publication of Stephen Aron and Jeremy Adelman's now seminal 1999 American Historical Review essay, "From Borderlands to Borders." The two scholars sought to rehabilitate the term "frontier" by assigning to it the location of "cross-cultural" mixing, which many at the time were ascribing to the borderland, while reserving the latter term for the "contested boundaries between colonial domains" ("From Borderlands to Borders," 816). This attempt to create a usable framework for understanding Early American politics failed, at least in practice. In the ensuing decades the borderland as a site of syncretic identity formation became dominant, along with the assumption (at least in the U.S. context) that the term "borderlands" usually referred to the U.S–Mexico borderlands exclusively.
Kiser's innovative study of captivity and peonage in the post-Civil War Southwest may possibly offer one route off that long embattled high ground by using the borderland as a metaphor for the postbellum nation's struggles to live up to its own self-stated ideals about freedom and labor. He ambitiously attempts to integrate the long history of various forms of un-freedom in New Mexico with the broader continental (particularly southern U.S.) history of chattel slavery and sharecropping, to argue (somewhat problematically) that in terms of Reconstruction policy, this "region impinged on the nation" at least as much as the "nation impinged on the region" (18).
While I applaud Kiser's integrative ambition, I am unwilling to let go of the view that "racialized chattel slavery in the antebellum South" (16) was of an order altogether different from captivity and peonage in the Southwest. He employs captivity, peonage, and slavery interchangeably and offers no real critique of how they were different and what those differences signified. Interestingly, this blurring and merging were exactly what Aron and Adelman feared from the borderlands scholarship of the 1990s: that it "downplayed profound changes in favor of continuity" ("From Borderlands to Borders," 815). Moreover, I cannot see the larger historiographical payoff of hitching these particular histories of captivity and [End Page 228] peonage to the wagon of African American chattel slavery. At two points Kiser makes the important claim that national policy concerning Jim Crow labor regimes changed (at least on paper) because of anti-peonage laws in New Mexico. Yet, he does not explain the significance of the failure of these laws. I think this is because—curiously—he appears to lack a concept of race, and particularly of white supremacy, as the unifying national ideology of the postbellum United States. In supporting his larger claim that peonage and captivity were nationally significant, Kiser might have allowed the thinking of the great Elliot West to guide him. West's 2003 Western Historical Quarterly essay, "Reconstructing Race" explodes classic paradigms and periodizations of race and region in the long nineteenth century.
When exploring the complex hidden histories of peonage and captivity in the Southwest, Kiser is in his element. There is excellent research here that is of value to scholars of Early American, indigenous, and western history. Nevertheless, living in a time when the legacies of multiple types of colonialist violence continue to echo brutally in our present, struggling to be clear and specific about the distinctive lived experiences, cultural meanings, and social outcomes of the multiplicity of American un-freedoms still feels like something we need to be doing.