Category Archives: Slavery

12 Years a Slave in Theatres Now

12 Years a SlaveLike many of you I am very much looking forward to seeing this movie. It looks like Hollywood’s sesquicentennial trifecta will go down with Lincoln, Django Unchained, and now 12 Years a Slave. These three movies collectively have both reflected and come to define current thinking about- and memory of the Civil War Era.

This image alone gives me hope that the movie will be both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. In doing so, let’s hope it challenge many of the public’s assumptions about the “peculiar institution.”

Anyone who has read Solomon Northrup’s narrative will agree that his story is worthy of Hollywood’s attention, but it is interesting that it beat Frederick Douglass’s much more popular account of slavery and freedom to the big screen.

History of the Slave South With Stephanie McCurry

I certainly understand the concerns expressed by many regarding the impact of MOOCs on higher education. At the same time, for those people who are interested in furthering their understanding of American history, it is impossible for me not to see the value of spending some time online with a scholar of Stephanie McCurry’s caliber. The course begins in January 2014.

The issue seems to be how MOOCs are utilized and assessed within a college curriculum rather than the educational value of the course itself.

Silas Chandler Redux

Silas Chandler

Descendants of Silas Chandler Reading About Their Famous Ancestor

You didn’t really think that I would allow the publication of a column on Silas Chandler in The New York Times to pass without comment, did ya? Thanks to Ronald Coddington for bringing the story of Silas (r) and Andrew (l) to the Disunion blog. [Ron and I shared a stage last year at the Virginia Festival of the Book to discuss our research.] As many of you know it is the story of Silas and Andrew that launched me down the road of taking the myth of the black Confederate soldier seriously. My relationship with Myra Chandler Sampson and our subsequent essay published in Civil War Times about her famous ancestor reinforced for me on so many levels why it is important that we correct these stories of loyal and obedient slaves that continue serve the interests of a select few. Continue reading

Slavery Was Money

OK, so I decided to take the plunge and read the first chapter of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. It’s incredibly dense and I will likely have to read it again to more fully grasp the argument. What I do understand is quite fascinating. In the process of showing how future slaveholders gradually supplanted Jefferson’s idea of a west that would guarantee a republican vision of small and independent landowners, Johnson emphasizes the connectedness of the new slave economy to international market forces. For Johnson, slavery must be understood as helping to forge a vibrant capitalist economy.

What held these regional, national, and international economies together over space and time and across time was money. The abstract scale of dollar values allowed business to take place in a space not strictly delimited by the physical properties of the thing being traded. The value of a barrel of salt pork, which would go bad if it sat on the levee waiting for the crop to come in, could be noted and paid off in sugar when it finally did; the value of a young woman in Virginia in May might be compared to that of an old man in Louisiana in September, although their bodies were distant in time and space, and distinct in physical proportion and capacity; the value of either might be compared to a bale of cotton in Liverpool in January, a barrel of sugar in New York in June, or a plot of land that was for sale down the road two days hence. Yet money sometimes moved while things stood still: the ownership of a bale of cotton in a warehouse in New Orleans or a descendant’s claim to a particular slave in a share of an estate on the Red River, for example, might be transferred several times, although the actual bale of cotton or the actual slave was never carried away. Nothing in this economy moved without money. The real problem, it sometimes turned out, was moving the money. (pp. 42-43)

There is quite a bit to unpack in this short passage and the rest of the chapter, which I am not going to do. I suspect that Johnson is not the first historian to emphasize the international economic context in which American slavery existed and thrived. The passage beautifully captures the interconnectedness of it all over time and space. It also leaves you appreciating the extent to which the value of even the most mundane material items was somehow connected to the value of cotton and slaves. More importantly, Johnson is forcing me to reconsider my tendency to think of slavery as somehow backwards or pre-modern. Far from it. Johnson paints a picture of slaveholders engaged in creative speculation in numerous domestic and overseas markets. Yep, sounds pretty modern to me.

Perhaps in a nation that fully embraces capitalism as a moral system we resist the idea that it was responsible for generating an exorbitant amount of wealth and suffering. In other words, there was nothing incompatible between capitalism and slavery.