Jennifer L. Morgan is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, author of Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, and coeditor of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in America. In her new book, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, she draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.
You open your book by pointing out the change in attitudes and legal codes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which increasingly sought to fix categories of difference through the concept of race. What significance does this have for our understanding of early American history?
By rooting our understanding of the development of race and racial hierarchy in the sixteenth century, I am arguing that early Americanists must take a longer view on the conceptual landscape that leads to the connection between race, slavery, and colonial settlement, one that precedes the formal entry of the English into the Atlantic world. We have recently been challenged to think about the origins of American History as rooted in 1619 rather than in 1776. I fully support this shift, but also want us to take account of all that precedes 1619. The circulation of people, ideas, and texts about race and what will become hereditary racial slavery begins in Europe in the fifteenth century. Those first Africans sold into North America came from first Portuguese, then English enslavers—the latter carrying authorization from Dutch and Italian merchants. In other words, the ideological and material structures that produce both slavery and race are deeply entangled in the medieval and early modern period. We need to be cognizant of such histories.
In your attempts to change the way we think about history, you argue against the use of the word “condition” in relation to enslavement, opting instead for the word “predicament.” Can you say more about this stance?
This is an intervention that I learned from the historian Vincent Brown. He argues, and I concur, that the word ‘predicament’ offers us a way to resituate the temporal and agential aspects of enslavement. A condition is fixed. It is a position in which one is settled. A predicament is a problem. It suggests that the person who is caught in the predicament is both aware of its constrictions and actively works against them. There is a crucial shift in imagination and analysis that accompanies the shift in language. When we identify a person as “a slave,” we have characterized their condition—it is timeless and is something that has happened to them. When we identify a person as enslaved, we clarify that someone has done something to them. There is an agent here who has caused the predicament, and in identifying the agent, we can imagine both the intentionality of the enslaver and the probability that the woman or man who has been enslaved both understands who has done this to them and is committed to escaping the confines of that predicament by any means at their disposal.
There is an intentional push, throughout your book, to recognize enslaved Black women and men as thinkers who not only experienced their predicaments but assessed them as well. What significance does this hold for scholars of slavery, the Early Atlantic, and Black Studies more broadly?
It has been at the forefront of scholarship on slavery and the early Black Atlantic for some time to understand Black women and men as historical subjects. To not reduce them to one-dimensional victims or revolutionaries, to understand the complexity of their personhood as we work to construct the processes by which they defined themselves and built new communities. My own effort to name Black women as thinkers, as persons who brought analytic power to the uneven terrain on which they found themselves, is part of that effort. It is a gesture on my part that is rooted in my concern that one-dimensionality is part of the afterlife of slavery, a part of the ongoing problem of racism and racial hierarchies. If we can’t see Black people as complex historical actors from the distance of time, I fear that we will always be mired in the violence of misrecognition, in the structures that reduce Black life and render people discardable.
In the vein of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, you argue for recognizing the simultaneity of racism and capitalism. It seems that the trade in women, too, is central to your project. How do Black women’s bodies figure into the processes of commerce and commodification? What do we learn by centering Black women’s experiences?
My work has always been organized in part around the problem of reproductive potential. What does it mean when your body can, even if it doesn’t, produce a child? What does it mean when the structure into which that child could be born is one that extracts the child as a commodity, not as a member of a family? By centering women, we get to what I believe is the heart of the system of racial slavery, the claim that the body is a site of commodification and the production of race as a legible sign of provenance. I am committed to thinking through Black women’s experiences of enslavement and freedom in the early Atlantic world both because they were historical subjects who are infinitely worthy of our attention as scholars and readers of history, and also because they enable us to make visible some of the ideological processes by which the entire history of capitalism was subtended by the hereditary mark of enslavability.
One of your major interventions is in examining numeracy and race together. At the same time, you note the presence of emotions—like wrath—hidden underneath the numeric, rationalizing logics of slavery. What do you wish your readers to gain from thinking about both numbers and feelings?
We often turn to numerical data—demographic or economic records—to offer ballast for historical narratives that are about emotions without recognizing that the separation between the two is in fact an artifact of modern knowledge production. In the history of slavery and the slave trade, the compilation of numerical data is an active process of obfuscating the violence of racial slavery. Human beings get situated in the historical archive only as data points, as evidence of economy, in part because racial slavery depends upon the fiction that some people are rationally enslaveable. It is not an accident that writing the history of enslaved people poses profound archival challenges—Black people were not meant to be historical subjects. By examining numbers and feelings in the same frame we move closer to understanding both the violence of such abstractions and the emotions—and liberatory possibilities—that such abstractions obscure.