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  • Black Melancholy in the Early French Atlantic
  • Ashley M. Williard

THE ARCHIVE OF SLAVERY is an archive of disability. What would it mean to place this assertion front and center in disability studies, to consider early modern slavery as foundational to modern ideas and experiences of disability? Enslavers built a world of profit through the debilitation of enslaved Africans. Enslavers crafted a worldview through the rhetoric of disabled Black subjecthood. They upheld bondage by theorizing Africans as unfit and inferior, vulnerable and expendable. Such strategic deployment of debility for profit remains tragically pertinent. But what hidden worlds existed beyond imperial supremacy? Despite gaping silences, enslaved disability perspectives haunt the margins of colonial texts. Understudied French sources, particularly early narrative accounts, contain crucial insights into disability voices of the past. For every racialized pathology Europeans theorized, countless enslaved persons navigated a world built by but not for them. Their insistent presence and the traces of their pain, however subtle, illuminate little understood facets of disability history. At times, enslaved push-back refutes racist debility; at other times, it unearths experiences of disability within bondage.

Scholars of slavery have long theorized the reasons for the archive's absences and have provided crucial models for the study of disability history given these lacunae. In her meditation on the sounds of enslaved women's pain under torture, Marisa Fuentes asks, "What does it mean to listen to this moment of anguish and suffering as an act of historical defiance? Is there something in the despair of their screams that conjures a powerful subjectivity that permeates the fortress of the archive?" Representations of mental distress create openings in the nearly impenetrable silence of colonial records. As I approach these apertures in slavery's fragmented archive of disability, I adapt Saidiya Hartman's method of "critical fabulation," a narrative reframing of enslaved people's stories that allows opacity and exposes layers of historical violence. As Hershini Bhana Young contends, archival absences may render enslaved will illegible, but "imaginative engagement with [that] illegibility" remains urgently possible, particularly in spaces of interruption and silence.1

As a case study, this article centers on enslaved melancholy and suicide in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French Caribbean with connections to the wider Atlantic world. Although pathologized by Europeans as "mélancolie noire," enslaved despair and self-destruction represent privileged sites [End Page 87] for reading mental disability as disruption of colonial discourse. In the first section, I present several religious, medical, and economic interpretations that contributed to conceptions of racialized difference that upheld colonial power. However, discussions of "black melancholy" not only deployed and produced racist tropes, but also reveal some enslaved people's responses to bondage. What colonials interpret as madness at times gives way to diverse and shifting understandings of kinship, faith, and the afterlife, and thus as alternatives to imperial hierarchies. However, mental disability represents not only trans-gressive defiance of socially constructed normativity, but also an embodied standpoint. The second section of this essay centers on moments in which despair and suicide resisted racial violence. As a counterpoint to degrading pathologies, mental distress brings new dimensions of enslaved life into focus, which can provide nuance to current understandings of disability and ongoing pursuits of disability justice. Not always positive or utopian, such alternative pathways and humanizing affects can make significant contributions to disability's worldmaking.

Colonial discourses

Ableism and racism have long been entangled, as disability historians Jenifer Barclay, Dea Boster, and Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy demonstrate in studies of Anglo-Atlantic slavery.2 While debilitating violence was systematically committed against enslaved people, concepts of disability provided metaphorical rationalizations for racial hierarchies. Mental disabilities represent an especially crucial realm for comprehending race and bondage. Far from isolated psychological or cognitive phenomena, early modern conceptions of madness ranged from demonic possession to humoral imbalance, integrating links to the bodily, spiritual, and social realms.3 Above and beyond pathological interpretations, historians Richard Bell, Sowande' Mustakeem, and Terri Snyder demonstrate the complex and contradictory meanings of captive and enslaved suicide in the anglophone world.4 At the same time, Caribbean literature continues to examine the traumatic effects of colonial legacies, echoing Frantz Fanon's foundational work on the psychological implications...