Sunday, March 03, 2013

Slavery without race; abolitionism without race?


After an interesting Shabbat discussion at Eliezer, Ben Karp Facebook-messaged me a query from Ken Perkins:

Rob, Ken asks:
"Question: What is the relationship between abolitionist movements in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and its colonies, and the extent to which slavery had been "racialized" in many of those places? If slavery had been more "equal opportunity" (e.g., significant numbers of Black or Native American slave owners with large plantations of White slaves in the Deep South), how would this have changed the dynamic of abolitionism?"

My response:

Big question. There are at least a couple of books embedded there. A few observations in the direction of formulating a hypothesis:
First, while I don't believe there was a full-fledged ideology of race at the time, the African origins of New World slaves probably camouflaged the extent of the institution to a degree: they tended not to be considered. That changes over the course of the 1760s-90s, as Africans become extremely visible in England (Albert Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley, Cuguano, Equiano). Ironically, the result is that black slaves become kind of fetishized, depersonalized (e.g. the Wedgwood "Man and a Brother" kneeling slave image), fully associating slavery with blacks and in effect "racializing" abolition. (This is what makes modern slavery so invisible, btw--we don't see it when it's happening to Ukranians or Thais.)
I think that blacks enslaving whites in the Lower South is too great a counterfactual to process meaningfully. But there is a more accessible example: the enslavement of Europeans and Americans by the Barbary pirates. They made an outcry, threatened to convert to Islam, etc., and were always a "policy issue" for their native governments, but I don't think they ever became a "movement" in the way that African abolition did.
One can also look at the non-racial defense of slavery by figures such as the Florida planter Zephaniah Kingsley, who felt that the American racializing of slavery was absurd and counterproductive, and who ultimately moved with his black wife and mixed-race children to the West Indies to escape American prejudice (and its threat, as he saw it, to the safety of the slave regime).
The racialization of slavery, then, led to a shorthand racialization of abolition on the one hand. On the other, it ensured that free blacks would always be tarred with the stigma of slavery until slavery itself came to an end. In most slave societies, the manumitted class identifies fiercely with the master class, to distinguish themselves from their slave roots. In America, this was impossible because of the racial binary. Thus in two directions--anti-slavery and anti-black--the racialization of slavery pointed powerfully to slavery's demise.
We have a modern test case to determine whether this is generally so or not. Will it be possible to mount a global movement against slavery when slavery has no "racial" component, as in the present post-Cold War world? Or will slavery return to its classical status of a ubiquitous condition that anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time can fall into?

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