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  • The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum Americaby Jenifer L. Barclay
  • Daniel Livesay
The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America. By Jenifer L. Barclay. Disability Histories. ( Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2021. Pp. xvi, 222. Paper, $28.00, ISBN 978-0-252-08570-3; cloth, $110.00, ISBN 978-0-252-04372-7.)

At its simplistic core, anti-Black racism casts members of the African diaspora as inferior. The elements of that imagined inferiority have over time evolved to meet the needs of white subjugation and terror. But those beliefs have long rested on the falsehood that African Americans suffered both mental and physical differences that distinguished them from white people. In her new book, Jenifer L. Barclay analyzes these racial claims within the framework of disability. She convincingly argues not only that disabling rhetoric was at the root of anti-Black racism in antebellum America but also that it saturated relationships within plantation communities.

The brutality of chattel slavery dramatically increased the possibility that African Americans might suffer physical or mental impairment. Agricultural work was dangerous for everyone, especially those laboring under duress with meager rations and little in the way of medical care. When accidents did occur, victims suffered not only life-changing injuries but also dramatic transformations of status and valuation. Barclay rigorously documents the way that enslavers viewed laborers through these embodied incapacities and, in the [End Page 553]process, constructed a racial ideology built on a sense of debility. Moreover, she shows how statutory law promoted, through physical punishment, disability as the principal means of plantation management. Scars and lost appendages visibly reaffirmed planters' mistaken perceptions of innate Black rebelliousness, indolence, and distracted thinking. Southern physicians aimed to lend scientific authority to these beliefs by insisting that Black bodies operated in distinctive ways; slavery, in this telling, offered a protective space for those who were mentally defective. Barclay, however, is careful to construct a counternarrative based on enslaved testimony. African cultural flexibilities toward the disabled, along with the vital contributions of weakened or wounded laborers within the Black community, meant that permanent injuries did not automatically translate to social isolation.

As a cultural marker, Black disability extended far beyond the plantation. In the final two chapters of the book, Barclay chronicles the ubiquity of disabling language in both proslavery and antislavery discourse. For polemicists such as George Fitzhugh, slavery's supposed virtues were best expressed in the treatment of those no longer fit for work. According to Fitzhugh, invalids, the elderly, and the sick were still cared for by enslavers, whereas under freedom, they were left unprotected from capitalism's ravages. Indeed, the notion that African Americans were innately disabled made the prospect of their emancipation fodder for proslavery catastrophizing. Yet, antislavery activists did not fundamentally attack this notion of Black debility. Even radical emancipationists obsessively depicted the maiming and emotional abuse suffered by African Americans. No wonder, as Barclay contends in her final chapter, free people across the United States were drawn to blackface minstrelsy and human sideshows, which either lampooned Black disability or attracted attention to extraordinary Black physicality.

Drawn primarily from printed sources, Barclay's study is a well-researched investigation of nineteenth-century cultural debates on race and the body. Disability scholarship has flourished in recent years, and Barclay's book is a welcome contribution to the field. Granted, she uses that framework rather capaciously. Old age is effectively treated here in the same way as a clubbed foot. Likewise, she uses the notion that enslaved people were "legally mute" in southern courts to parallel the disability of an amputated appendage (p. 78). Additionally, more could certainly be uncovered about the daily experiences of disability on individual plantations. But the theoretical lens through which Barclay views her sources is one that offers fresh insight into antebellum slavery and American race prejudice.

Daniel Livesay
Claremont McKenna College