Slavery’s Metropolis: A New Book on Unfree Labor in New Orleans

This post is part of a blog series I am editing, which announces the release of selected new works in African American History and African Diaspora and Studies. Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions was recently published by Cambridge University Press.

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rashaunaThe author of Slavery’s Metropolis is Rashauna Johnson. Professor Johnson is an associate professor of history at Dartmouth College. A graduate of Howard University, she received the Ph.D. in history with a concentration in the African diaspora from New York University. Her current project, “A Looking Glass for the World”: Slavery, Immigration, and Overlapping Diasporas in the Rural South, is a family history of slavery and its overlapping diasporas in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes. She is the recipient of the Drusilla Dunjee Houston Award given by the Association of Black Woman Historians and has most recently been awarded fellowships at the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History and the Library Company of Philadelphia. At Dartmouth, Rashauna Johnson offers courses through the History Department, the African and African American Studies Program, and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She has been a fellow with the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth (GRID). Consistent with her commitment to engaged scholarship, she delivered the Sid Lapidus Lectures in public high schools in New York and Newark, served as a faculty mentor for the Summer Enrichment at Dartmouth (SEAD) Program, and has taught in state and federal correctional facilities.


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New Orleans is an iconic city, which was once located at the crossroads of early America and the Atlantic World. New Orleans became a major American metropolis as its slave population exploded; in the early nineteenth century, slaves made up one-third of the urban population. In contrast to our typical understanding of rural, localized, isolated bondage in the emergent Deep South, daily experiences of slavery in New Orleans were global, interconnected, and transient. Slavery’s Metropolis uses slave circulations through New Orleans between 1791 and 1825 to map the social and cultural history of enslaved men and women and the rapidly shifting city, nation, and world in which they lived. Investigating emigration from the Caribbean to Louisiana during the Haitian Revolution, commodity flows across urban-rural divides, multiracial amusement places, the local jail, and freedom-seeking migrations to Trinidad following the War of 1812, it remaps the history of slavery in modern urban society.

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Ibram X. Kendi: Did you face any challenges conceiving of, researching, writing, revising, publishing, or promoting this book? If so, please share those challenges and how you overcame them?

Rashauna Johnson: The mystique of New Orleans, which is itself a product of history, looms so large in the scholarly and popular imagination that, for many, it is still hard to conceive of the foundational role of chattel slavery – and the labor of enslaved people – in the making of that romantic, charming city. Often when I tell people that this book is about slavery in New Orleans and its intimate and international spaces, they remind me of all of the reasons that such an exploration is unthinkable. I have heard everything from “There was no slavery in New Orleans” to “The French were less racist than the Americans” and “But there were free blacks there.” Many struggle to associate everyday enslavement with a cosmopolitan city known for heterogeneity, lawlessness, and fun. It is hard to argue with a myth, but I draw on the archival record to illuminate the central role of slavery in that city’s history.

Such archival evidence, however, produced other challenges, namely a profusion of words and a paucity of enslaved voices. On the one hand, nineteenth-century New Orleans is an ideal subject for historians. The Catholic Church kept extensive records, as did notaries and city officials. There were many monolingual and bilingual newspapers. Many families were multilingual and literate. So I found a lot of rich source material written mostly by elites in several languages, which was illuminating, if time-consuming, to examine. I worked through as many of those documents as I could, and in the book I note the sources that could use further exploration.

On the other hand, this book is about transient bondspersons who circulated across the Atlantic World and across a city and region that underwent three successive imperial regimes. Finding even a quotation from an enslaved person proved difficult, let alone tracing them through all of those different contexts. Most of my actors were not literate and, even if they had been, they did not have the resources to archive documents. And they often had good reason to make themselves untraceable: Runaway bondspersons, for example, were invested in disappearing from the archive for their own survival. As many scholars have discussed, such silences raise challenges for historians of slavery. In response, I draw on the sources that bondspersons did leave, such as ex-slave narratives and WPA interviews, as well as secondary literature and interdisciplinary theories and methods to find evidence of enslaved people’s efforts to subvert and resist power regimes in archival documents and in society.

**Click here to read an excerpt of the book.


Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Kendi is currently a Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Slavery’s Metropolis: A New Book on Unfree Labor in New Orleans

  • Looking forward to this important read and field research. Completely enthralled in th valeant research effort of this book, serving further to give voice to the enslaved, while taking survey of the historical remnants of its times, some myth others celebrated — advancing the humanity of those enslaved and perhaps their surviving legacy. #RiteOn

  • Of the blacks residing in the South, 261,988 were not slaves. Of this number, 10,689 lived in New Orleans. The country’s leading African American historian, Duke University professor John Hope Franklin, records that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes owned slaves, or over 28 percent of the free Negroes in that city.

  • Thanks for this post. I’ve just finished the book and it is a *stunning* contribution to the literature.

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