George E. O’Malley discusses balancing quantitative analyses of slavery with understanding slaves’ experiences of bondage:
“In learning about the cultures enslaved people created in various American regions, I had become convinced that historians needed to ground such research in a better understanding of the networks that delivered enslaved people to the Americas. After all, where in Africa a captive was from would profoundly shape the knowledge, beliefs, and tastes that they carried. But in looking at the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database—which focuses solely on voyages crossing the Atlantic—it struck me that we had better information for some places than others. The database can tell you a great deal about voyages delivering captives to South Carolina, for example, but virtually nothing about voyages to North Carolina because enslaved people rarely arrived in North Carolina (and many other less prosperous or populous colonies) directly from Africa.
As I began investigating the networks of human trafficking that dispersed people from the major American ports of the slave trade to myriad other sites of slave exploitation, I resisted suggestions to quantify the research at first. Inspired especially by Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul, I wanted to focus on the experiences of captives and the meaning of this intercolonial traffic to both slaves and traders alike.
But I quickly realized that I couldn’t write about what this network of intercolonial dispersal meant if I didn’t know where it began or where it went. At a fundamental level, I didn’t know what I was talking about….”
“We live in a nation that has yet to grapple with the history of slavery and its afterlife.” – Daina Ramey Berry and Jennifer L. Morgan
In an essay for The American Prospect, slavery scholars Daina Ramey Berry and Jennifer L. Morgan place #blacklivesmatter protests around the world in context with “the historical value of black life and the casual killing of Eric Garner:”
“In less than a month, our nation will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. This should be a time of celebratory reflection, yet Wednesday night, after another grand jury failed to see the value of African-American life, protesters took to the streets chanting, “Black lives matter!…”
“…In the race for digitality, we find ourselves struggling to understand the relationship between our deep investments in discourses like intersectional feminism or critical race theory and digital humanities. The burden of representation falls on us. Our acts of representation should not be bids for power but for what [Barbara] Christian would call the need to become empowered – “seeing oneself as capable and having the right to determine one’s life” (61). At stake for us is not power in the putative hierarchies of digital humanities, rather the empowerment that our work on the African diaspora can effect.
To empower – ourselves, a new generation of scholars, diasporic subjects – we need to embrace multiplicity and the specificities of diaspora. We must answer Christian’s question, “For whom are we doing what we are doing?” (61) to make legible all our scholarship has to offer. This is, in part, a question of method – which tools do we use? We may recall Audre Lorde’s statement “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” which comes up often in critiques of digital humanities, but we must not mistake the master. It’s not digital humanities – it’s the effects of white supremacy on knowledge production. That’s where we are called to intervene. But how…”
“In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human “property”.
In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.
Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their “valuable property”, the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of “a few slaves” at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned “objectivity”’ for “advocacy”….”
“We think of authors as people who lay themselves bare in their books, but perhaps reviewers of books reveal their innermost fears and beliefs as well. That can be true even when—as in the distinguished British periodical the Economist, founded in 1843—the reviewers hide behind anonymity. When Mr./Ms. Anonymous of the Economist reviewed my book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism on Sept. 4, they didn’t much care for it, and that didn’t surprise me. In the last couple of decades, the Economist and its suspender-wearing core readers have usually been reliable allies of market fundamentalism—the idea that everything would be better if measured first and last by its efficiency at producing profit. I, on the other hand, argue in the book that U.S. cotton slavery created—and still taints—the modern capitalist economy which the Economist sometimes seems to prescribe as the cure for all ills. I’d like to think we all agree that slavery was evil. If slavery was profitable—and it was—then it creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?”
“…Although there is no date on the prospectus, Schomburg’s book project on Negro Painters was part of the third and last phase in his career as a Harlem/Brooklyn intellectual, antiquarian, and race leader. This phase begins in 1926, after he sells his legendary collection to the New York Public Library and uses the money to travel abroad on a two month “grand continental tour” in search of representations of and by Black subjects throughout the great art museums of Europe. Schomburg scheduled research and acquisition visits to archives, booksellers, and antiquarian shops throughout his trip, including consulting at Seville’s Archivo General the ecclesiastical records of the city’s Cofradía de Negritos and purchasing 185 bibliographical items that he later donated to the NYPL Schomburg collection. Still, we know from his letters and writings that Schomburg’s main concern in this voyage was the study of European studio painting by or about Afro-descendants dating from or inspired by High Renaissance academic techniques in portraiture and spatial perspective.
Schomburg’s fascination with the explosive artistic innovations and accomplishments of the Early and High Renaissance, particularly those of the escuela de Sevilla, date back to a 1916 piece he published in Crisis on the legend of Sebastian Gómez, el mulato de Murillo. Here Schomburg referred to Juan Ceán Bermúdez’s 1800 Diccionario Histórico de los mas illustres profesores de las Bellas Artes en España in order to present Gómez as a slave who won both his freedom and his admission into the Seville school because of the painting skills he learned surreptitiously, watching his master work while serving as a pigment crusher. Schomburg would later write a short biographical article about another famous Renaissance mulatto servant/painter, Juan de Pareja, who posed for one of his master Diego Velazquez’s most famous portraits. The participation of black slave artists in the school of Seville was the topic of Schomburg’s most important (and still unpublished) address to the American Negro Academy during his tenure as president—“Fragmentary Tribute to Spanish Negro Painters of the School of Seville,” given on December of 1923…”
As 1862 drew to a close, as far as emancipation was concerned the nation’s attention was riveted on whether President Abraham Lincoln would finalize the Emancipation Proclamation. They had little to worry about on that score. In the last days of 1862, Lincoln and his cabinet were not debating whether the administration should go ahead with the proclamation, but fussed over its exact wording. While these details certainly were important, it was clear from the discussions that the Emancipation Proclamation was going ahead.
Far from Washington, D.C., however, out in the country other things were happening that make the Lincoln administration putting the final touches on the Emancipation Proclamation seem not quite so important, as titanic a milestone as it was. One such place was Helena, Arkansas, west of the Mississippi River, far from the national capital. Like other parts of the Confederacy that had come under the control of federal forces, slaves in the vicinity fled to Union lines. Yet instead of finding protection, many of the slaves in Helena, Arkansas, instead found mistreatment from the Yankee soldiers and officers.
A committee of chaplains and surgeons reported these injustices to the Union commander of the Army of the Southwest, Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, in a letter dated December 29, 1862. They wrote:
The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. It also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. But the remaining 3.1 million, it declared, “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The proclamation did not end slavery in the United States on the day it was issued. Indeed, it could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control. But it ensured the eventual death of slavery — assuming the Union won the war. Were the Confederacy to emerge victorious, slavery, in one form or another, would undoubtedly have lasted a long time.
A military order, whose constitutional legitimacy rested on the president’s war powers, the proclamation often disappoints those who read it. It is dull and legalistic; it contains no soaring language enunciating the rights of man. Only at the last minute, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, did Lincoln add a conclusion declaring the proclamation an “act of justice.”
Nonetheless, the proclamation marked a dramatic transformation in the nature of the Civil War and in Lincoln’s own approach to the problem of slavery. No longer did he seek the consent of slave holders. The proclamation was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of compensation for owners, and made no reference to colonization.
Amidst the widespread discussions of Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln, few have sought to place the film within its own tradition of Civil War films. There’s nothing new, of course, about focusing a film on the character of Abraham Lincoln, though it has been well over thirty years since a major television or film production took him seriously (Hal Holbrook in Sandburg’s Lincoln ).
In the early days it was different. The American film industry grew around his figure. In The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s ground-breaking, racist masterpiece of 1915, Lincoln appeared as a wizened and tolerant executive at war with the maniacal Radical Republicans, whose racial tolerance merely masked their desire for vengeance against the rebels. In Griffith’s film, Lincoln’s premature death unleashed the Radicals, necessitating the bloody turmoil of Reconstruction. In the form of the Ku Klux Klan, only the energized spirit of white supremacy could save white womanhood — and, indeed, Anglo-Saxon civilization — from the rampaging black beast.
The Conversation Blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed hosted a roundtable on Spielberg’s recent release Lincoln:
As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, historians are raising different issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.