Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic by Jennifer L. Morgan
Jennifer L. Morgan. Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021. Pp. 296 + xvi. 12 B&W illustrations. $104.95 (cloth) / $27.95 (paper).

In 1984, Black feminist theorist bell hooks wrote Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center as a corrective for what was not happening in most United States feminist theory: Black women were either ignored or pushed to the margins in the field's scholarship. Although historian Jennifer L. Morgan is the academic descendent of theorist Hortense Spillers, whose work she engages with throughout the text, I also see this book in kinship with hooks's foundational text. Morgan attempts an ambitious task with Reckoning with Slavery. Using an argument Spillers made about understandings of "kinlessness onto that of property," Morgan offers her book as a needed interference in slavery studies that do not take seriously how kinship is foundational to the formation of "commodification and capitalism" in slavery during the early modern period (247–48). She finds African women and their American born kin in the marginalia and relocates them to the center. And in this brilliant monograph, the author reminds us at every turn that when Black women are at the center of the researcher's interrogations and interpretations of events, ideas, methodological practices—whether on shipping vessels, in forts, in illustrations, in marketplaces, or in the fragmented pages of archival sources—new stories are told.

Reckoning with Slavery's preface is one of the most brilliant and searing I have read in the history of slavery. Morgan introduces us to the African born woman who graces the front cover of her book. The woman is in a portrait and holding a gilded clock. She is in Bologna, Italy in the late 16th century. Morgan does not bother to discuss the painter, she is much more interested in what the portrait reveals about African women in the Atlantic world, their value, their presence, and, that any story about Atlantic world slavery cannot be told without a discussion of Black women's centrality to the institution. Throughout the introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion, Morgan reveals how numeracy should function when we write about the human beings who were captured and then transformed into cargoes and commodities by Europeans slavers. Her discussion does not solely link numeracy to "human capital formulations" as some economic historians have done in the past (see, for example Baten and Fourie, "Numeracy of Africans, Asians, and Europeans during the Early Modern Period," Economic History Review 68, [End Page 151] no. 2 [2015]: 632–56). Morgan uses a multi-pronged methodological practice that employs intersectionality with a reading of numeracy that is linked to kinship, identity, inheritance, value, and how the processes of economies worked as people were being transformed into commodities. It is no surprise that her introduction is titled, "Refusing Demography." The readers are made to reckon with how a 17th-century enslaved woman, born of a white father and an enslaved African woman, who becomes the mother of a child who has a white father, must grapple with the flexibility of the law, freedom, and what the data says about her in colonial virginia. We understand how race and gender reproduced slavery through Black women's birthing bodies in the colonial law partus sequitur ventrum. The law stated enslaved women passed on the condition of enslavement to their children. Morgan incisively argues that this law is less coda than it is about the "predicament" of slavery (p.3–6). And more importantly, in her nuanced treatment of this law and term, she uses the case of the enslaved woman in colonial virginia as evidence of enslaved people's expert knowledge of the predicament of their status and colonial laws about slavery's entrenchment.

In the remaining six chapters Morgan deftly tackles the "big controversies" about Atlantic world slavery. She begins with a discussion of sex ratio aboard slaving vessels. Understanding the limits of the data sets available, Morgan is concerned with the "epistemological violence of the archives" (52) that historian Marisa Fuentes discusses in her book Dispossessed Lives about the knowledge available about Black women in the historical archives (Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives [2016], 114). Morgan asks readers to not only consider but to critically question a field of study that did not mention Black women in 85%–95% of slaving voyages to North America and the Caribbean. She makes us return to the question of how we can begin to fully understand slavery if the records were produced by men who chose to erase African women. In chapter two, Morgan offers a critique about the myopic ways economic historians of slavery actually thought about and treated enslaved people. She wants readers to grapple with the racial logics that European investors and enslavers invented to justify their investment in slavery as a lucrative labor institution and their growing anti-blackness to reckon with slavery's alleged benevolence for African people. Essentially if Africans are made into objects and not subjects, this racial logic makes sense. It is one of the book's most compelling chapters. In my estimation, Morgan shines most brightly in chapter four that discusses Black women's experiences in the Middle Passage. This section is difficult to read because of the narratives that emerge about Black women's lives, health, actions, and violent assaults that happened on slaving vessels. Yet, in a methodological stroke of honoring those women whose lives were transformed by the brutality of the slave ship, she uses the theoretical offerings of contemporary Black theorists and scholars [End Page 152] for us to better understand the diversity of sources that help us to create scholarship about those enslaved women's lives. She ends with an offering by theorist Saidiya Hartman that infers "we need a 'critical fabulation'" or a methodological plan of action to recover their lost lives (169).

Threaded throughout the rest of this book Morgan sews Spillers, Hartman, Stephanie Smallwood, and a host of Black women's theoretical framings together to form a centrally important understanding of the history of Atlantic world slavery. Reading this important contribution to the field, I was reminded of how nearly forty years after the publication of bell hooks's seminal text Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center and Hortense Spillers's incisive essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Baby," that Reckoning with Slavery answered the call to center Black and enslaved women in not only Africana Studies but in our conception-making about kinship, methodology, value, and history writ large. Ultimately, how do we reckon with slavery, armed with the understanding that African people, including women, possessed knowledge about economics and commodification and kinship's relationship to those things? Jennifer L. Morgan's second book is one that will change the way scholars of slavery and the Black Atlantic think about the archives, enslaved women, and Black women's theoretical and methodological offerings then and now. This text is an academic one for sure, it is not a book that is easily accessible for either the general history buff or popular audience reader. The ideas are dense. But it should nevertheless become essential reading for academic audiences, college students, and any organization interested in reparations.

Deirdre Cooper Owens
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Deirdre Cooper Owens

Deirdre Cooper Owens is the Linda and Charles Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her award-winning first book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology, was recently translated into Korean.