It was with great regret that I was unable to attend a conference organized by Daina Ramey Berry and Leslie Harris at the University of Texas in Austin in 2011. The audience of three hundred showed that a new generation of scholars and students is responding to clarion calls to highlight neglected aspects of the African American past. The following year, a selection of the conference presenters workshopped their papers at a closed meeting with invited critics at New York University, which I was pleased to attend. The stellar lineup of historians in both venues were working on sexuality and slavery, across a vast period of time and space, scattered across diverse cultures and geographies, and tackling foundational topics. I had always dreamed a book might address these key aspects, and I felt uplifted by the energy these articulate and dramatic researchers generated. Although those inspirational marathons of new research and spirited exchanges cannot be captured between two covers, the present volume joins essays from both meetings with additional essays solicited by the editors, gathering new momentum for this topic.
Forty years ago, when I undertook my first investigations of slavery, slavery studies seemed to catch fire within and outside the academy. People were glued to their television sets watching Alex Haley’s ancestors portrayed in the blockbuster miniseries Roots. Reviews of Time on the Cross appeared in Time magazine. The number of publications in the field nearly tripled from the 1960s to the 1970s. A handful of award-winning studies blazed onto the scene—from Stanley Elkins to Eugene Genovese, from John Blassingame to Herbert Gutman to Orlando Patterson. From economics to demography to the cultural turn, from community studies to microhistories to transnational works, these scholars were poised to investigate almost every aspect of slavery’s past. There seemed only one unifying factor for all of these diverse scholarly trends: the persistent neglect of gender. This glaring omission was an ongoing dilemma, but after the 1980s, sparks began to fly. In the wake of Jacqueline Jones’s Labor of Sorrow, Labor of Love: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (1985) and Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985), a new generation of historians was unleashed on the archives, on the academy, and the rising tide of black women’s history became a force to be reckoned with.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, a cadre of determined interrogators questioned not only women’s absence from historical accounts but also the way in which sexual issues were skewed to reflect patriarchal projections. The meta-narrative primarily defining slavery as an economic issue was challenged. No longer would these fresh and vibrant academics allow the trivializing of personal and social aspects of slavery’s corrosive impact. The minimizing of violence and sexual exploitation within the historical reframing of slavery during the remarkable revisionism of the 1970s has been replaced by serious engagement with gender and sex, intimacy and identity. But these sweeping changes within the American historical canon, the project of integrating desire and resistance, intimacy and exploitation deserves to be moved front and center.
Once obligatory gender analysis began to appear with regularity, women’s work in the field of slavery studies began to introduce more complex appreciation of matrifocal legacies, concepts of demarcation and labels of illicit that transcended previous usages, aspects of masculinity, and sex role subversions within slave communities brought up from the footnotes. Naturally, scholars began to disagree, and this only enriched an already burgeoning field.
This anthology assembles the best and brightest stars in the field, emerging voices whose cutting-edge criticality and provocative suggestions can reshape the historical landscapes of bondsmen and women on land and sea, on islands and mainland, within memory and competing communities.
I am awed by the bounty of detailed analysis of individual lives and collective experience, of those struggling to redefine citizenship and identity, and those resisting enslavement within a system stacked against them. Men and women are highlighted at their most vulnerable on the pages within. Several essays rely on a master’s or mistress’s self-serving accounts—with acidic detection of alternate meanings for those scratches from nibs dipped in ink and dissemblance. But tales of resilience and the survivalist struggles of those fighting against the system of bondage are featured as well. Essayists draw on a range of riveting accounts—from physicians’ and travelers’ accounts, from official records or voices of the enslaved themselves, through court records and published narratives or buried evidence in scattered archival repositories. Most impressive is how this new generation can scour the world, in digital or physical searches, tapping into the vast array of materials available, and weave fascinating tales of slavery.
In the face of glacial resistance among American historians to recognize that we need to look to the past in order to guarantee the future, I stand in wonder of the immense talent represented here. I am grateful to witness such new and invigorating campaigns of revitalization and to have such sharing colleagues working toward making past lives matter—lives that once were abandoned at the side of the road along history’s fast lane. Our authors allow the rest of us to celebrate (however briefly in the face of historic challenges ahead) and to wish our imaginations could have foretold such a prophecy.