- Child Slavery before and after Emancipation: An Argument for Child-Centered Slavery Studies ed. by Anna Mae Duane
Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, held signs that read, "I AM A MAN," as they protested in 1968 for better working conditions and respect, generating one of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement. Referring to black men and women as boy and gal—a vestige of antebellum slavery—was intended to mark them as infantile and thus as a counterpoint to the autonomous citizen. With signs, the protesters touted their manhood to reject these monikers that had shackled African Americans for centuries. They drew public attention to how the figurative child had been corrupted to justify slavery and subjugation. Childhood Slavery before and after Emancipation: An Argument for Child-Centered Slavery Studies asks why scholars and activists too often lose sight of the child in slavery studies, when this figure has historically "provided both the conceptual underpinning for justifying slavery and much of the labor within slavery's machinations" (p. 4). The volume calls for a shift in methodology, asserting that a renewed focus on childhood within slavery studies would reshape how slavery is taught and written about, as well as the assumptions with which scholars confront twenty-first-century exploitation. Editor Anna Mae Duane contends that it is only through answering the question, "When is a child a slave?," that scholars and activists can identify "when anyone in the modern world is a slave" (p. 2).
Duane describes Childhood Slavery before and after Emancipation as a "transhistorical endeavor" that brings scholars of slavery in the United States into conversation with scholars of modern-day slavery and human trafficking (p. 2). The collection's key interventions are to inspire child-centered historical studies and "to trace how undertheorized assumptions about childhood dependence and adult power have allowed structures of enslavement to persist" (p. 4). The volume is organized into four parts, and its contributors present a wide range of topics, including the paradox of childhood innocence and enslavement, white slavery in the American imagination, the school-to-prison pipeline, and modern-day child soldiering. While the chapters tackle exploitation across time and space and use an array of sources from court cases to oral histories, they are all "organized around attributes that entangle definitions of children with definitions of slaves" (p. 15).
Though each chapter is thought provoking, several are worth highlighting. In "The Slave Child as 'Gift': Involutions of Proprietary and Familial Relations in the Slaveholding Household before Emancipation," Sarah Winter examines slave narratives and a noteworthy British court case to grapple with the legal and ideological inconsistencies that emerged when one child came to own another. The historical conflation of childhood and innocence rendered children—black and white—dependent and incapable of giving consent or rightfully owning property, what Winter calls the "legal disability of childhood" (p. 54). She argues that the premise of a dependent child, incapable of consent, receiving an enslaved child as a gift was cloaked in illegitimacy; yet families engaged in gift-giving "as a ritual for inducting the children of slaveholders into the privileges and powers of mastery" (p. 54). [End Page 444]
At the turn of the twentieth century, the American public became enthralled with "white slavery," the coercion of young white girls into prostitution. In "The White Slave: American Girlhood, Race, and Memory at the Turn of the Century," Micki McElya argues that Progressive-era reformers drew on popular memories of antebellum slavery to equate commercial sex in urban centers with slavery and to claim all white sex workers, regardless of age, as enslaved children who needed the public's protection, a consideration that was never extended to enslaved black children. According to McElya, the popular memory of slavery not only propelled American modernity in the form of sweeping reform and the emerging genre of white slavery novels and...