- A Curse upon the Nation: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World by Kay Wright Lewis
In A Curse upon the Nation: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World, Kay Wright Lewis traces the history of exterminatory warfare and the ways it defined American slavery. Moreover, she argues that the threat of a race war between white and black Americans, as well as moments of actual violence such as the Nat Turner rebellion, not only structured American race relations in the pre–Civil War era but also informed African American historical memory in the postemancipation period. Although scholars see brutal racial terror as a feature of black life in the Jim Crow period, Lewis demonstrates that American slavery had always fostered the belief that a war of extermination was imminent, helping readers understand both the brutality of American slavery and the reasons so few slave rebellions occurred in the United States. Rather than accepting the benevolent paternalism of slaveholders, enslaved African Americans feared for their and their children's survival in the event of an insurrection.
Lewis uses extermination as an interpretive category to argue that this form of total war was practiced by Europeans and Africans alike before the advent of American slavery. She illustrates that the English engaged in this form of destructive warfare, which included the slaughter of women and children, as they sought to conquer and colonize Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed, this violent history between the English and the Irish influenced how English settlers encountered Native peoples in North America. Africans also engaged in exterminatory warfare, intending to wipe out entire enemy tribes to feed the expanding Atlantic slave trade. Thus, this longstanding tradition of extermination developed alongside the expansion of American slavery and influenced the evolution of the slave-master relationship.
While slave conspiracies and occasional insurrections were part of the history of slavery in the Caribbean and North America, Lewis sees the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831 as an inflection point. This slave uprising was what white southerners had always feared. Consequently, their violent response was meant to ensure that no such insurrection would ever again occur. As Lewis states, "The enslaved had experienced brutal and torturous reprisals before, but the retribution that they remembered after Turner's insurrection was far broader and more widespread" (p. 83). White fears of exterminatory race war only further legitimated terrorizing and traumatizing a vulnerable enslaved and free black population in pre–Civil War America. Even a poorly planned potential slave revolt, such as John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, provoked frenzied outcries among white southerners that abolitionists wanted to unleash the war of extermination that was always latent in the slave-master relationship.
In this thought-provoking book, Lewis reminds readers of the violence inherent in American slavery and how it was deployed by white Americans to traumatize the enslaved so that they would never attempt to rebel against white authority. In this regard, her book is a powerful effort to challenge the [End Page 667] paternalistic ideal espoused by defenders of slavery and by some historians who continue to use paternalism to understand American slavery. Lewis persuasively undermines the arguments of those scholars who maintain that American slaveholders practiced a benevolent paternalism to assuage their guilt. However, the history of exterminatory warfare and the ever-present threat of a race war did not eliminate the paternalistic relationship altogether as the author suggests, as it forced masters to negotiate a bargain that encouraged slave labor while providing a measure (albeit minuscule) of independence in enslaved communities. Paternalism was always an unbalanced relationship that favored the slaveholders who had the law and state violence on their side. But slaveholders also slept lightly at night because they recognized the potential power of their slaves' reprisal.