JHF Lecture 3 Panel Discussion New Directions in the Afterlives of Slavery


– [Man] Check. – Okay good morning. How’s everyone? (audience chatter) All right, so thank you all
for coming out this morning. Autumn, feels like the first autumn day, nice breeze for New Directions in The Study of Slavery
and Its Afterlives. Before we kind get into
discussion and the Q and A, I want to give a few shout outs, thank a number of folks and institutions. The history department
for the generous support, especially Emilio Kourí who
kind of believed in this vision as we articulated it. The Center for the Study of
Race, Politics and Culture, Social Sciences Division
and the The Neubauer Family Assistant Professors Program for the generous financial support. I want to thank my colleague, Jon Levy who was totally at the
forefront the last few days and writing blurbs to publicize the event and doing so much more. Brody Fischer who is on
the panel this morning and my colleague Amy Dru Stanley
who can’t be with us today. – The term the Afterlife of Slavery, that’s at least my sense of this and maybe you all have
a different genealogy, that Saidiya Hartman’s term, which she first uses
in “Who’s Your Mother?” Which is her sort of
semi-autobiographical discussion of her own experience as
an African American woman going back to Ghana. And I think that it’s a
prophetic way, it’s important as we think about what
the afterlives of slavery are to kind of recognize
the genealogy of the term because for her it’s
about the kind of clash between her identity as a
scholar and her identity as an African American woman, right. And the really messy pain of that clash and her efforts to make sense of that. And I think that that’s something that, I always want to kind of
hold on to as the term, the afterlives of slavery
is become quite ubiquitous for many of us who are working on either the histories of slavery
or the histories of race in the 19th and 20th centuries. – I have to say that despite
this richness of influence that my experiences that reflect
on are somewhat different. I first knew slaves as kinfolk. My Louisiana born grandmother, grandparents to be more precise I think that knowing
something of the texture of those kin in some ways help
to shield me from an assault that lurked in the sketch of slave’s lives in the United States that
appears in three editions, perhaps later in a book published by the University of Chicago Press, 1959 edition, 1967 edition,
which may be the one that I first encountered and
then a third edition in 1976. There also was Stanley
Elkins and his book was “Slavery: A Problem in
American Institutional “and Intellectual Life”. The full weight of Elkins
gender caricature of a slave was an isolated anti=social male incapable of political imagination
crescendos in an illustration that also, from my vantage
point as an undergraduate recently arrived in Massachusetts
to study in college, and also from the state of
Tennessee and having grown up in Alabama, Arkansas
and Texas who also included an insult to my favorite regional cuisine. (laughter) What Elkins wrote that male
slaves in the United States to have, oh pardon me, unlike the male slaves
in the United States, the slaves in Latin America
could have a family life not limited to catfish and watermelon. So I felt like in some ways,
knowing the richer texture of slaves’ lives provided a
safe space for me to think through those issues and
interest in the study of political consciousness,
that slaves brought to emancipation, the
politics that they made to survive slavery and to remake
emancipation stays with me. – The notion of informality
as a former governess right as part of liberalism as
something that liberalism needs in order function, as
part of what we understand as a modern state, as something
that modern state needs and uses in order to function
in the way that it does. So I started thinking sort
of theoretically about that and decided that I wanted to write a book about how it is that these
systems grew together. That is, how informality and liberalism, the kinds of things that we
associate with liberalism, political liberalism, how those
things sort of came together in a certain kind of state. It’s not at all metaphorical
to think about favelas and to think about
informality as an afterlife of slavery and one of the
reasons for that is that, I mean it’s common in Brazil
to think of the critical feature of slavery as the
fact that people are property, right and that’s a theme
that’s so important in all of our work and all
these ways of thinking. But that conception depends
on an idea of property that mystifies the relationship
between law and politics. Right, and so if we think of,
well if somebody’s property that’s just a definite
thing, it’s defined by law. It’s not a political
question, it’s a question of that person is assigned
as being property, or that thing is assigned
as being property. And it gives it a kind of
cleanliness that of course, we all know it doesn’t have in real life. And particularly in Brazil,
the idea that property is not political, it’s a ridiculous idea. There’s no property that anybody can buy where there’s a clean title, even today. You know, there’s no, the
idea that property can somehow be demystified, stripped
of its political quality is really quite obviously a lie there, in a way that in some places we’re better at telling ourselves
that that’s not a lie. And that was especially
true with slave property because Brazil was the destination for somewhere around 40% of all the people that were exported from Africa. And in the 19th century between
1831 and the early 1850’s about 700,000 of those people were brought to Brazil illegally. That is by the laws of
the Brazilian nation, those people were illegally enslaved. They were brought after the
slave trade had been banned. So this means that
precisely during the years that Brazil is growing
as an independent state, as an empire first and later supposedly as a republican state, it is
a state that is supporting the illegal enslavement by
its own laws of 700,000 people and all of their descendants. So the idea that these
people were legal property is a fiction. A complete fiction, even more
than it is in other places. What informality is in
a country like Brazil is the compromise of a bunch of people who’s biggest objection to abolition was not necessarily the end of property, it was the end of that
personalistic system of power. And so they managed to continue that, even though they had
constitutions and laws that said that it wasn’t
that kind of country. But through a system where
the majority of people work informally, the majority
of people lived informally, everything that you want to get happens through informal things,
that’s an afterlife of slavery. – What I was schooled in very
quickly at graduate school was how important the
transformation of slave history was to supplying a grammar
that all historians, at least all U.S.
historians and historians within the western hemisphere, but really in some ways all historians had to reckon with and start
to change their categories. I initially came up as
somebody who saw himself as a cultural historian. There is no way to think
about the methodology of how to identify sources in relation to African American cultural history. How to understand the formation of African American cultural history. How to think about some
of the key mechanisms and devices that characterize that. How to understand the distinction between kind of organic versus
syncretic notions of culture. You couldn’t do that without diving deeply into the grammar and really
the sort of semantics, the rules that were
supplied by the re-working of how people thought about culture through the study of slavery. And that was the first and in some ways the best lesson for me that
even though I did not move into this period before in
the United States, 1865. That I had to refer to it
conceptually and methodologically in order to understand
what it was that I might do and what it was that I wanted to do. So that was significant too. I think something else that
I wound up thinking about and attempted to write in
relation to the work that I did on Chicago and continue to do on Chicago was the way in which also
slavery constituted a problem in terms of people thinking. That sometimes it was a topic that people would just as soon not engage with. Turn away from, find a way to repress or maybe even more precisely
to retire to the past. So this notion of thinking
about afterlives of slavery, it’s not as if this emerged in a vacuum. I think many, many people and not just only those
in majority communities bent on maintaining domination, but African Americans themselves have had concerns, difficulties, problems with reckoning with slavery. – I think some of my initial
concerns were actually new literature, and the
kinds of empathy I think that fiction can evoke in
readers and that empathy for me was compounded, I
think by the understanding the enslaved people were
my ancestors as well. And so I remember reading
as a child with my mom the Addy series in “The American Girl”. see yeah, some nods of recognition so. (audience laughs) Yeah, and you know that series
unfortunately to this day is like, has very fixed
and limited understandings of American and girls as their concept. (audience laughs) But that aside, I
remember reading the scene where Addy is forced to
eat the tobacco worms that she missed, right. And just crying and crying and crying and I’d ask my mom why? Like why? You know it didn’t make sense to me. But as I’ve been
reflecting on this question I returned to that moment of reading, that early moment of reading. And it sort of was a kind
of, a topic of fiction that was brought into the
household and sort of stayed. So maybe less discussed as ah,
as often as a family history explicitly, because of some of the reasons that have been mentioned here, but there is space for it in fiction. I’m concerned with what happens
to, in terms of afterlives someone like Solitude who was
a woman who was in Guadeloupe who was captured and imprisoned
for living as a Maroon and fighting as a
Maroon, but is understood to have been nine months
pregnant at that time. And so her sort of
imminent labor is something that I think has made her very
easy to kind of hold on to as a figure in Guadaloupe. And so today she’s kind of
celebrated as an ancestor even though it’s unclear
what happened to her child. So they waited until she gave
birth before punishing her. And they are kind of very slippery on this and fictional works have kind of come in to amplify her story. But people today think of her
as kind of a mother figure. Everyone can be a sister of Solitude, and so there’s kind of
ample relation there. But I’m in that case asking
like what does it mean for a Maroon woman to be
designated a national hero by the state of a French DOM-TOM, right. Can she give birth to a
nation state in that way? Can she give birth to something
so entrenched in the state? – There was something that
you said at the beginning, you talked about the
unacknowledged traditions. And so the question is
what are those traditions? And one thing that sort of emerged here is what we learn from
our parents, kinfolk, their institutional traditions. The idea that you thought
you were taking a class with Julie’s student (audience laughs) – I assumed. – And Jennifer a student of a PhD program at Duke University, at the
John Hope Franklin had retired at that point but had left from Chicago to come to Duke University. And so what we see there
is a kind of institutional intergenerational guidance right, the traditions that we want to acknowledge that we need not call the
black radical tradition, it could be some other kind of tradition, their mummy traditions. And so I think it was just
important to kind of acknowledge them and then you both did something that was really interesting. You sort of perfected this shout out. And so we talk about the afterlives and the afterlife of slavery, but then you name Saidiya Hartman. So we acknowledge those traditions by way of citational practices
in calling out the names of folks who sort of get
decoupled from the concept and then the concept becomes free floating and it’s not really clear who
came up with the formulation, so that was just important
what you did Jennifer. Then also what you did
yesterday Vince, in shouting out another scholar in the room
and allowing him to talk about his work and to see
your work in conversation. So that’s the way in
which we can acknowledge those traditions that
propel our work in slavery. – What for me, the afterlife of slavery is unpacking the sometimes, the sometimes amorphis
ways in which the grammar of American life is
embedded in the violences and the power dynamics
that are set in motion by slavery and that we find
everywhere from textbooks that either use the word darkie or imply the word darkie or from
institutional locations there. You know and Vince and I
have had a chance to talk about this a couple of
times this past year around the moment of the
publication of “Common Wind” that there was something
institutionally that happened at Duke University
between like 1985 and 1994 in which there were a
group of us who were, who were gathered for whatever reason, all of whom were interested
in the grammar of the history of slavery, whether or not we
were all scholars of slavery. There were many people there who were not, but who were deeply influenced
by the archival practices. And I think we were all in ways that I can speak retroactive, you know in hindsight I can say we were all really trying to understand what an after life of
slavery might look like both institutionally as academics but also as politically engaged citizens, right. – And it goes to what I
think is a larger issue and I’ll slightly, slightly tangential, but I think relevant to
something that Adam said earlier. Which the difficulty of
actually just observing even the historical documents
that we do have, right. Given the frameworks and
the terms that we use to understand things, sometimes
it becomes very difficult to even see women in those. It becomes difficult to
even see how accounting attached itself to the
bodies of women first. It becomes very difficult to even see soldiers and slaves talking
about their experiences as warfare because we always
already know categorically where those women don’t count,
that these women don’t count, that this is an insurgency, it’s a revolt, it’s a riot and not a war. And one of the things
that I find is you know, George Orwell said to see
what is front of one’s nose is constant struggle. I find that’s also the
work of the historian, to even see the sources that we do have never mind all their limitations
takes a constant struggle of just in some ways
bracketing and laying aside a lot of the received
traditions that we’re working in and saying, okay, what am I seeing here? What kind of framework do I need to actually see what’s
in front of my face?

1 thought on “JHF Lecture 3 Panel Discussion New Directions in the Afterlives of Slavery

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *