Abolitionism and Slave Resistance: An Interview with Manisha Sinha and Sasha Turner

Manisha Sinha (left) and Sasha Turner (right).

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the planned discussion on Abolitionism and Slave Resistance, scheduled for May 3rd, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Manisha Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She was born in India and received her PhD from Columbia University where her dissertation was nominated for the Bancroft prize. Her recent book, The Slave’s Cause, was reviewed by The New York TimesThe Atlantic, and The Boston Globe, among other newspapers and journals. Her first book, The Counterrevolution of Slavery, was named one of the ten best books on slavery in Politico in 2015. In 2017, she was named one of the “Top 25 Women in Higher Education and Beyond” by the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. She is a member of the Council of Advisors of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg, New York Public Library, co-editor of the “Race and the Atlantic World, 1700-1900,” series of the University of Georgia Press, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of the Civil War Era. She is currently writing a book on Reconstruction under contract with Basic Books. Follow her on twitter @ProfMSinha.

Sasha Turner is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica, which examines the struggles for control over biological reproduction and how central childbearing was to the organization of plantation work, the care of slaves, and the development of their culture. She completed a PhD at Cambridge University and is Associate Professor of History at Quinnipiac University where she teaches courses on the Caribbean and the African Diaspora, women, piracy, colonialism, and slavery. Her research on gender, race, and the body, and women, children, and emotions has been published in the Journal of Women’s HistorySlavery and Abolition, and Caribbean Studies and has been supported by Rutgers University Race, Ethnicity, and Gender Studies Fellowship, Washington University in St. Louis African and African American Studies Fellowship, and the Richards Civil War Era Center and Africana Research Center Fellowship at the Pennsylvania State University. She is currently conducting research on her new book project, tentatively titled, Slavery, Emotions, and Gendered Power as a Fellow at Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.

CBFS: Can you tell us about your books and how you came to study and write about this abolitionism and slave resistance?

Manisha Sinha: I began writing my book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition over ten years ago with the idea that I would write a new book on African American abolitionists in the three decades before the Civil War. But when I started to research and write the book, I realized that you could not write a history of Black abolitionists in isolation as had been done many times before or ignore early Black writing in the colonial and revolutionary eras that most historians of abolition had not considered. So I decided to write a comprehensive history of abolition as an interracial social movement from the American Revolution to the Civil War. I also argued that slave resistance rather than bourgeois liberalism lay at the heart of the abolition movement and defined its radical nature.

Sasha Turner: I came to the subject of abolitionism fortuitously. My interest was really in telling the story of enslaved women in Jamaica, particularly around themes of pregnancy, motherhood, labor, and punishment. One of the prime archival discoveries that influenced the book’s exploration of British abolitionism was a letter written by a local agent in Jamaica to his employer in England. In the letter, the local plantation agent, David Ewart, detailed the ways he protected enslaved women’s pregnancy, by, for example, placing women in small work gangs to enable them to assist one another. Working in groups of 3 and 4 allowed enslaved women to punctuate feeding canes to the mill with rest. The letter came as a surprise, because quite in opposition to the dominant historical argument that the plantations were gender blind, the Jamaica agent’s report suggests that some planters made some adjustments to women’s labor to protect their pregnancy.

The ending of the slave trade shifted dependence from the importation of enslaved Africans to the biological reproduction of slaves locally in British colonies like Jamaica. My book looks at the implications of this transition for enslaved women, midwives, and community members, who, prior to slaveholders’ interest in biological reproduction had relative autonomy over childbirth and early infancy. My book defines this period as one of conflict, because enslaved women and caregivers did not willingly yield control over their reproductive lives. I discovered that slaveholders did not suddenly begin to pay attention to reproduction with the abolition of the slave trade, but that this shift began at least twenty years prior. It was British abolitionists who first suggested a shift toward reproducing the slave population locally rather than relying on the inhuman trade. I argue that while abolitionists stimulated improvement in the material conditions of slavery and protected childbearing women from some of the harsher elements of slavery, the changes deepened the exploitation of women by demanding that enslaved women reproduce the labor force.

CBFS: You both write about slave resistance, but in different forms. Can you share a story of a figure or an organization or a type of resistance that our readers might not be familiar with?

Sinha: Most historians are familiar with the history of slave rebellions and the underground railroad, but they rarely connect that to the growth of abolition. I argue in my book that fugitive slave abolitionists, of whom Frederick Douglass was just the most prominent, helped shape and radicalize the movement. Their slave narratives became what I call the “movement literature” of abolition and they gave the best response to proslavery ideology based on spurious ideas of slaveholder benevolence and paternalism. These fugitive slave abolitionists also helped to cultivate, what I see as the second most important argument of the book, transnational networks of radical protest. Many of them like William Wells Brown and Reverend James W.C. Pennington were active in the international peace movement and some like Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and Sojourner Truth in the women’s movement.

Turner: First, abolitionists’ critique of the failure of slavery to secure the material interests of the enslaved propelled the creation of new legal measures, including the ability of Justices of the Peace to lead inquiries into claims of abuse and neglect made by the enslaved. A flurry of court cases that I investigated showed how enslaved women took advantage of the new legislations to claim protection for their pregnancies and children. One significant case concerns Bessy Chambers who complained to the local magistrate that overwork caused her to miscarry. Although Chambers’ case was dismissed and those who accompanied her were punished, the case illustrates enslaved women’s awareness of the debates that raged over their bodies and how they sought to use the changing legal culture of slavery to better their conditions.

Second, enslaved women enacted a series of protective customs, including ritual baths and nursing each other’s babies, to secure their children’s health. By running away with their nursling, enslaved women also contested planters attempts to discipline their bodies to lactation periods that significantly reduced how long enslaved mothers breastfed their infants. Resistance was not only about thwarting the commodification of enslaved women’s reproductive ability by committing infanticide, but also extended to the care practices enslaved women adopted to guarantee safe pregnancies and to safeguard the health and life of their children.

CBFS: Given the continuing struggles for racial justice today, how does this history help us understand or act in our current moment?

Sinha: I wrote the Epilogue of my book with the history of radical social movements and current protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter very much in mind. I think radical activists today can learn a lot from the abolitionists in terms of grassroots community mobilization, resistance to unjust laws as well as using law and the courts as an instrument of liberation. There are some direct lessons here for those involved in the sanctuary movement and protests against ICE detentions from the ways in which black and white abolitionists resisted the enforcement of the federal Fugitive Slave Laws and rendition of runaway slaves. Even current day gun control activists can learn from abolitionists, after all slaveholders like the NRA and extreme gun rights groups believed that their rights were sacrosanct and protected by the Constitution even if it came at the cost of many lives. I gave an interview on this in Slate after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. In short, abolition like the Civil Rights Movement remains in my opinion the template for American radicalism and modern day activists.

Abolitionists were already talking about problems that we think arose only in the twentieth century like the criminalization of blackness and the racially differential application of capital punishment. The Garrisonians in particular led many petition drives against capital punishment. The problems of race, citizenship and democracy that we confront today were already being confronted by abolitionists, who after all fought for the destruction of slavery and also Black citizenship and equality. During Reconstruction, many of them demanded the redistribution of land among former slaves jump starting our current debate over reparations for slavery.

Turner: My study of white British abolitionists is a study in contrast to the abolitionists, particularly Black, in America. It goes beyond the history that defines abolition in terms of humanitarianism and sainthood. To understand how British abolitionists furthered the problem of racial hierarchy one must first distinguish between grassroots abolitionists who were part of the social movement for change and those abolitionists who were also agents of empire. The pronatal plan put forward by activists like William Wilberforce and James Ramsay, for example, echoed plans made by imperial bureaucrats who argued that biological reproduction and socialization of Black children from their infancy into British values would create generations of people in the colonies who could be more than brute laborers.

Contemporary discussions about the roots of racism must attend to the legacies of slavery as well as the legacies of British abolitionism. Learning from this history shows that the struggle for racial justice can neither be composed of homogeneous groups nor limited to protests, rallies, or critiques of current systems of oppression such as the school-to-prison pipeline or racialized mass incarceration. Activism must also include carefully crafted plans that do not simply recycle the problem, or worse, leave it to politicians. The long and complicated process of British abolition teaches us that for political leaders to act, we must not simply present the problem. Our activism must also incorporate alternatives that do not recycle prejudices and inequality.

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