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!”
As scholars of slavery writing books on the historical value(s) of black life, we are concerned with the long history of how black people are commodified by the state. Although we are saddened by the unprosecuted deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless others, we are not surprised. We live a nation that has yet to grapple with the history of slavery and its afterlife. In 1669, the Virginia colony enacted legislation that gave white slaveholders the authority to murder their slaves without fear of prosecution. This act, concerning “… the Casual Killing of Slaves,” seems all too familiar today.
This legislation declared that a grand assembly [jury] could “acquit” those who killed their slaves during a “correction” because a slaveowner could not be guilty of a felony for destroying “his owne property.” Given such laws, the history of commodification before 1865 is clear: The enslaved were chattel—movable and disposable forms of property valued only as long as their labor produced wealth for their owners. A slave in need of “correction” could be destroyed with impunity. Black life existed on a pendulum, either valued or worthless according to the vagaries of the marketplace. With the abolition of slavery, it appeared that black life would no longer be determined by the starkness of a racial marketplace; however, in the aftermath of slavery, the devaluation of black life continues.
The abolition of slavery did not do away with the commodification of black people. Instead, in a nation founded on the idea that black life was only of value when it produced wealth for the elite, free black people became associated with sloth and violence. Slavery meant that black people had no intrinsic human worth, but were only of interest for the monetary value that they could convey. Apparently, freedom could not dislodge the fundamental belief that casual killing could be excused. Free or not, black men and women have remained disposable.
In 1886, in the heart of the Jim Crow South, Hal Geiger, an African-American attorney and prominent leader of the black community from Texas, was shot five times in court. The prosecuting attorney and confirmed shooter, O.D. Cannon, did not like the way Geiger spoke to him. Taking the law into his own hands, Cannon pulled out a pistol and shot Geiger, who died a month later. It took 10 minutes for a jury to acquit Cannon of this “crime.” Twenty years after slavery, the state exonerated the murder of an African American, killed in full view of a judge and jury in a courtroom. Clearly Geiger’s life, and the lives of the black women he was defending, had no value in the eyes of the jury. Black death was deemed the legitimate and justifiable response to a black man who’d transgressed the boundaries of his proper place...