Slavery, Capitalism, and Empire: Conversations in Black Freedom Studies

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, history of capitalism

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on Slavery, Capitalism, and Empire, scheduled for April 7th, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Justene Hill Edwards is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia. She is a scholar of African-American history, specializing in the history of slavery in the United States. She received her doctorate in History from Princeton University in 2015. She also holds an MA in African New World Studies from Florida International University and a BA in Spanish from Swarthmore College. Her first book, Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina, explores the economic lives of enslaved people, not as property or bonded laborers, but as active participants in their local economies. Her dissertation, “’Felonious Transactions: The Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787-1860,” was a finalist for the C. Vann Woodward Prize from the South Historical Association, a finalist for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize from the Society for Historians on the Early American Republic, and a finalist for the Herman E. Krooss Dissertation Prize from the Business History Conference.

Daniel Immerwahr is Professor of history at Northwestern University, specializing in twentieth-century US history within a global context. He received is PhD from UC Berkeley in 2011. His first book, Thinking Small, offers a critical account of grassroots development campaigns launched by the United States at home and abroad. It won the Merle Curti Award in Intellectual History from the Organization of American Historians and the Society for US Intellectual History’s annual book award. His second book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, tells the history of the United States with its overseas territory included in the story. That book was a national bestseller, a New York Times critic’s choice for one of the best books of 2019, and the winner of the Robert H. Ferrell Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

CBFS: We’ll be discussing the intersections of slaverycapitalism, and empire this month. You each deal with these issues, but from different vantage points. Can you tell us how you came to the particular focus of your book?

Justene: It was in 2006, when I started a master’s degree in African Diaspora studies at Florida International University. I enrolled in seminars on slavery in British Colonial America and African American History where I read books that explored the lives of enslaved women, specifically how they navigated public marketplaces in colonies such as Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina. I was fascinated by how women were at the center of networks of trade in these plantation economies. I wanted to know more about the legal and economic culture in which enslaved women established their presence in these commercial spaces. But as a read more, I continued to have questions about if market women, and enslaved people more broadly, were able to transform the economic leverage that they cultivated in these marketplaces into something more tangible. I wondered: Did enslaved people earn enough in wages buy their freedom?

As I transitioned into a doctoral program, I made this question the focus on my doctoral research. I decided to focus on South Carolina because in my preliminary research, I was finding fascinating sources in the South Carolina archives that showed me that the slaves’ economy was ever-present. I was surprised at the sheer number of records I was discovering that revealed how the economic activities of enslaved people functioned. But it wasn’t just the number of sources that surprised me, it was the types of sources that I began to accumulate. I was finding legislative records, court records, and accounting books with evidence of enslaved people not only selling goods but buying and trading them as well. This astounded me and I decided to not only focus on South Carolina, but to explore the longer history of the enslaved economy over the period of legal slavery.

Daniel: For me, it came out of teaching. I’d been teaching US history in the standard way: the Depression leads to the New Deal, then you have World War II, suburbanization, the Cold War, civil rights—like that. But then I traveled to Manila, and a fact I’d known—that the Philippines had been colonized for the United States from 1899–1946—suddenly seemed to leap out in importance. If the Philippines had been part of the United States, shouldn’t that change how I teach, say, the Depression? And what about Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Alaska, the Northern Marianas, or all the other places over which the United States has claimed jurisdiction? I came to feel that the way I’d learned US history—and the way I’d been teaching it—was leaving out key elements. So my book, How to Hide an Empire, is my attempt to retell US history with the overseas parts of the country as part of the story. As it turns out, a lot of US history happens in those places.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives