How the ‘racial capitalism’ that transformed women’s bodies haunts us today
You write that the growth of “digital literacy” and “faith in the power of statistics” is linked to “inherited racial slavery”. How? ‘Or’ What?
In the history of political economy, there was a point in the 1620s, 1930s and 1940s when the philosophers of England debated money and value. Later, what others identified as the first use of demographic data occurred there in 1660.
This is the same time that the English fully engaged in the slave trade and the same time that England’s first slave economy in Barbados shifts from an island producing many different cultures to a sugar island, using the slave labor.
But these two things are never seen in the same register because of the operation of our disciplines of history: the history of the slave trade is separated from the political philosophy around numbers and value in England and in the rest of Europe. I started asking, “What if I put these two things in the same frame?”
I would say the way slaves are turned into commodities depends on this very early and new way of thinking, so the two are inextricably linked.
But I want to be clear. The slave trade had existed since the 15th century. Columbus enslaved Africans aboard his ships, so there is no New World without African labor, but it is mixed. There is African labor, there is indentured servitude, there is the slavery of indigenous peoples. There are many forms of nonfree labor. But there is an association of slavery with Africans and the emergence of an idea of thinking about human beings according to categories of race and racial difference and racial hierarchy. This is what I would say is happening firmly in the 17th century. And this connection between race and racial hierarchy, and the idea that some people will always be enslaved, occurs alongside that.
You also observe that “racialized categories of slavery were not inevitable or hardened”. But these categories have surely become fundamental. How did a defining aspect of slavery “harden”?
The main intervention I make in my book, and in my previous book (Working Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, 2004), consists in relating the idea of race to reproduction with the experience of enslaved women.
Slavery is a human problem. People are enslaved as a result of wars, as a result of land expansion, as a result of all kinds of things. But what is new in the slavery that we now know to be racial slavery is that the category of slavery is passed on. It is hereditary. We see that it is affixed to a whole category of people, so that the children of a enslaved person will be enslaved. And the children of the assailant will still be able to enslave. And so this idea of hereditary racial slavery is what we see as the “race / reproduction link”, as Alys Eve Weinbaum put it in her 2004 delivered: You cannot think of breed without thinking of reproduction. So if you ask how the category of racial slavery is getting tougher? I think it hardens thanks to the reproductive and productive work of African women and the way slaves, English and Spanish, French and Dutch, all understood that these women give birth to the institution of slavery.
Enslaved women, as you note, were not only subject to the “power of the owner of slavery,” but also “the dependence of the owner of the slave on his productive and reproductive body”, which means that ‘they “embodied both the height of the oppressive extractions of slavery and its potential destruction. . Readers are certainly aware of Harriet Tubman’s courage. How did other lesser-known women work to undermine slavery?
One of the things we see very early on in the North American colonies is enslaved women trying to use the courts and the Church to pass freedom to their children. I speak a little about Elizabeth keye, who is a woman from Virginia who has argued in court that she inherited freedom by being the child of an Englishman and an African woman – although the Virginia House of Burgesses insisted that children like her could only inherit slavery from their mothers.
What I have concluded is that women who give birth at a time of race hardening, whether they are themselves technically free or fall in a category between slavery and freedom. , can see the danger process approaching their children. And therefore you see women going to court and saying, “This child is free, this child should be free.”
The book draws on a multitude of methods and disciplines – ranging from anthropology to geography to literature – to shed light on previously unexplored aspects of slavery. Is it possible that a key to understanding contemporary racial issues takes a more multidisciplinary approach that you use in slavery research? Do we tend to look at these issues too narrowly?
I think the short answer is yes. We’re so steeped in the racial hierarchy in this country that I have to believe it would help in some ways. The layers that you have to go through to actually see what’s going on are very overwhelming.