Rebecca Stout | Review of Abolition 4/13 Readings

By Rebecca Stout

Using the history of slavery as a grounding for their arguments, Abolition 4/13’s readings incorporated an excellent combination of discussion on the Thirteenth Amendment, methods and archives, and women’s experiences and the role of reproduction in Atlantic slavery. Although the topic for Abolition 4/13 is on the abolition of slavery, this extensive reading list hints of the promise to talk about women’s experiences within the institution of slavery and the history of slavery in conversation with the effects of the Thirteenth Amendment and Reconstruction.

Eric Foner’s Second Founding (2019) and Joseph Reidy’s Illusions of Emancipation (2020) focus on various understandings of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. Both scholars attempt to describe that those who were enslaved had more agency than previous scholars often acknowledge. Reidy highlights agency, claiming that many contemporaries also realized that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation received too much attention compared to the broader abolition movement, which consisted of enslaved people. He claims, therefore, that “emancipation was a social movement involving unheralded thousands of enslaved people” who were often not given credit for working to free themselves.[1] Foner’s book, on the other hand, is more focused on the role of the Reconstruction Era in reshaping the constitution. Looking at the three Reconstruction amendments—the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments—Foner gives the amendments the benefit of the doubt, explaining the intense dissent and push-back that they endured.

Dennis Childs’s Slaves of the State (2013) also adds to this conversation on the abolition of slavery but uses that analysis to apply to the prison industrial complex. Relating prison labor to slavery, Childs claims that “arial photographs of the largest maximum-security prison in the country offer stark evidence of the dynamic and interdependent function of ‘old’ and ‘new’ at the prison plantation through views of LSP’s assortment of postmodern ‘telephone-pole’-style cell-block camps as they have been grafted onto its thousands of acres of slave plantation fields.”[2] Understood through this depiction, then, prison labor looks quite similar to nineteenth-century slavery, even in its layout across the plantation-style “fields.” Specifically targeting the Thirteenth Amendment, he claims that the amendment gave the “right to publicly reenslave the black population and to make the penal enslavement of all bodies stigmatized as ‘criminal’ a matter of public investment to the end of private profits (and sadistic pleasures) that both corporate interests and putatively disinterested purveyors of the law continue to enjoy.”[3] Although there have been plenty of other scholars who also looked at the failures of the Reconstruction Amendments and the similarities between nineteenth-century slavery and the twenty-first century prison industrial complex, Childs’s depiction linked the two together so clearly and completely, it seems hard to contest the comparisons he draws.

In addition to discussing the Thirteenth Amendment, many of Abolition 4/13’s readings focused on women’s experiences within the institution of slavery. Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property (2019), and Saidiva Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” (2008) all allow the reader to take a deep-dive into understanding women’s experiences. However, whereas Hartman’s article is fairly recent scholarship on the topic, Mary Prince’s book is a primary source, written in 1831 about Prince’s own experiences as a slave and as an abolitionist. The History of Mary Prince describes Prince’s life as she was enslaved and fought for freedom. This personal narrative was an incredibly important to Abolition 4/13’s reading list for the week because, as the only primary source on the reading list and as told by a woman, this narrative will prove incredibly fruitful in discussions about women’s experiences in slavery.

Contrasted to Prince’s narrative, Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property discussed slaveholding girls’ and young women’s understanding of slavery and treatment of slaves. Attempting to depict this complicated relationship with slavery, Jones-Rogers breaks down this relationship by explaining how it different from that of the other members of their families. Unlike the young women, the adult slaveowners were much more violent. According to Jones-Rogers, “while many slaveholding parents tried to shield their children from the brutality they and members of their communities perpetrated against enslaved people, many others, …saw no need to do so.”[4] Therefore, many of the children grew up either seeing the violence their elders inflicted upon the slaves, or at the very least, the results of that violence. Their unique relationship with slavery, then, occurred because they were not the perpetrators of the violence, and yet they were complicit by being bystanders who could have acted but did not. This relationship is further complicated when considering that the young girls often befriended enslaved children from a young age. Although they “generally thought of and treated enslaved children as playmates and companions,” somewhere along the road to becoming more mature, the slaveholding girls later began to believe that “enslaved children were their property, and they treated them as such.”[5] Attempting to focus on slaveholding young women’s experiences with slavery, Jones-Rogers attempts to draw out an answer as to how this mindset evolved.

Saidiva Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” continues this discussion of women’s experiences in slavery. Discussing enslaved women’s experiences, Hartman attempts to answer questions about their lives and the violence they faced. Recognizing that lacking sources means she will not be able to answer certain questions, Hartman pivots to discuss the “archive of slavery.”[6] Returning to the question of enslaved people’s agency, Hartman declares “I want to tell a story about two girls capable of retrieving what remains dormant—the purchase or claim of their lives on the present—without committing further violence in my own act of narration.”[7] In an attempt to describe agency without furthering this violence, Hartman uses an emotional approach to state that in “the archive of slavery, the unimaginable assumes the guise of everyday practice, which we can never fail to forget as we gape at the grim faces and stripped torsos of Delia, Drana, Renty, and Jack, or recoil from the mutilated body of Anarcha, or admire a naked Diana, so lovely.”[8] By discussing the sources in this manner, Hartman evokes strong feelings in the reader and describes the archive of slavery.

Jennifer Morgan’s “Partus sequiter ventrum” (2018) focuses on the importance of reproduction to slavery. According to Morgan, “Atlantic slavery rested upon a notion of heritability. It thus relied on a reproductive logic that was inseparable from the explanatory power of race.”[9] This “reproductive logic,” according to Morgan, is the idea that, in Atlantic slavery, the children of slaves would automatically become slaves themselves. As many scholars have previously pointed out, Atlantic slavery was unique in this “reproductive” logic because slavery was previously not seen as “inheritable.” However, as Morgan claims, once this claim for heredity began, it soon became “inseparable from the explanatory power of race.” Therefore, once slavery came to be understood as inherited, it became easier to assume that one’s position in that slave society was entirely dependent upon race and that their race inherently determined their position withing that society.

With this combination of readings, Abolition 4/13’s discussion seems like it will be fruitful and could go in numerous directions. We might perhaps spend some time looking at understandings of the Reconstruction Era and the Reconstruction Amendments as an inability to reach a form of abolition democracy in regards to slavery. To that end, we could potentially devote a significant amount of time to tracing the Thirteenth Amendment’s impact since the 1860s to understand how it allowed for the creation of the prison industrial complex. We might instead look at the institution of slavery itself and attempt to best represent women’s involvement in slavery, or we could take a deeper dive into the archives of slavery. Finally, we might also look at the impact of slavery’s inheritability. Whatever direction(s) we go in, Abolition 4/13’s reading materials will be a rich source to draw upon.

Notes

[1]Joseph P. Reidy, Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[2] Dennis Childs, Slaves of the State- Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 101-102.

[3] Childs, Slaves of the State, 92.

[4] Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 9.

[5] Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property, 6.

[6] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, No. 26, Vol. 12(2), June 2008, 1-14.

[7] Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 2.

[8] Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 6.

[9] Jennifer Morgan, “Partus sequiter ventrum: Law, Race, and Repoduction in Colonial Slavery,” Small Axe, Volume 22, Number 1, March 2018 (No. 55), 1.

Fonda Shen