Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery”

Vincent Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery.”  The American Historical Review, 114:1231–1249, December 2009.

First paragraph steal:

“Aboard the Hudibras in 1786, in the course of a harrowing journey from Africa to America, a popular woman died in slavery. Although she was “universally esteemed” among her fellow captives as an “oracle of literature,” an “orator,” and a “songstress,” she is anonymous to historians because the sailor on the slave ship who described her death, the young William Butterworth, did not record her name. Yet he did note that her passing caused a minor political tumult when the crew herded the other enslaved women below decks before they could see the body of their fallen shipmate consigned to the water. This woman was no alienated isolate to be hurled over the side of the ship without ceremony. She had been, according to Butterworth, the “soul of sociality” when the women were on the quarterdeck. There she had knelt “nearly prostrate, with hands stretched forth and placed upon the deck, and her head resting on her hands.” Then, “In order to render more easy the hours of her sisters in exile,” the woman “would sing slow airs, of a pathetic nature, and recite such pieces as moved the passions; exciting joy or grief, pleasure or pain, as fancy or inclination led.”1 Around her the other women were arranged in concentric circles, with the innermost ring comprising the youngest girls, and the elderly on the perimeter—a fleeting, makeshift community amid the chaos of the slave trade…”

Avail at University of Chicago Press ($$)

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