Slavery, Capitalism, and Empire: A CBFS Interview

Denmark Vesey Monument, Hampton Park, Charleston, SC (Wikimedia Commons)

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 Robyn Spencer with 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 discussion on Slavery, Capitalism, and Empire, scheduled for April 7th, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Justene Hill Edwards is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia. She is a scholar of African-American history, specializing in the history of slavery in the United States. She received her doctorate in History from Princeton University in 2015. She also holds an MA in African New World Studies from Florida International University and a BA in Spanish from Swarthmore College. Her first book, Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina, explores the economic lives of enslaved people, not as property or bonded laborers, but as active participants in their local economies. Her dissertation, “’Felonious Transactions: The Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787-1860,” was a finalist for the C. Vann Woodward Prize from the South Historical Association, a finalist for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize from the Society for Historians on the Early American Republic, and a finalist for the Herman E. Krooss Dissertation Prize from the Business History Conference.

Daniel Immerwahr is Professor of history at Northwestern University, specializing in twentieth-century US history within a global context. He received is PhD from UC Berkeley in 2011. His first book, Thinking Small, offers a critical account of grassroots development campaigns launched by the United States at home and abroad. It won the Merle Curti Award in Intellectual History from the Organization of American Historians and the Society for US Intellectual History’s annual book award. His second book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, tells the history of the United States with its overseas territory included in the story. That book was a national bestseller, a New York Times critic’s choice for one of the best books of 2019, and the winner of the Robert H. Ferrell Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

CBFS: We’ll be discussing the intersections of slavery, capitalism, and empire this month. You each deal with these issues, but from different vantage points. Can you tell us how you came to the particular focus of your book?

Justene: It was in 2006, when I started a master’s degree in African Diaspora studies at Florida International University. I enrolled in seminars on slavery in British Colonial America and African American History where I read books that explored the lives of enslaved women, specifically how they navigated public marketplaces in colonies such as Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina. I was fascinated by how women were at the center of networks of trade in these plantation economies. I wanted to know more about the legal and economic culture in which enslaved women established their presence in these commercial spaces. But as a read more, I continued to have questions about if market women, and enslaved people more broadly, were able to transform the economic leverage that they cultivated in these marketplaces into something more tangible. I wondered: Did enslaved people earn enough in wages buy their freedom?

As I transitioned into a doctoral program, I made this question the focus on my doctoral research. I decided to focus on South Carolina because in my preliminary research, I was finding fascinating sources in the South Carolina archives that showed me that the slaves’ economy was ever-present. I was surprised at the sheer number of records I was discovering that revealed how the economic activities of enslaved people functioned. But it wasn’t just the number of sources that surprised me, it was the types of sources that I began to accumulate. I was finding legislative records, court records, and accounting books with evidence of enslaved people not only selling goods but buying and trading them as well. This astounded me and I decided to not only focus on South Carolina, but to explore the longer history of the enslaved economy over the period of legal slavery.

Daniel: For me, it came out of teaching. I’d been teaching US history in the standard way: the Depression leads to the New Deal, then you have World War II, suburbanization, the Cold War, civil rights—like that. But then I traveled to Manila, and a fact I’d known—that the Philippines had been colonized for the United States from 1899–1946—suddenly seemed to leap out in importance. If the Philippines had been part of the United States, shouldn’t that change how I teach, say, the Depression? And what about Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Alaska, the Northern Marianas, or all the other places over which the United States has claimed jurisdiction? I came to feel that the way I’d learned US history—and the way I’d been teaching it—was leaving out key elements. So my book, How to Hide an Empire, is my attempt to retell US history with the overseas parts of the country as part of the story. As it turns out, a lot of US history happens in those places.

CBFS: Can you share the story of a particular figure or event from your work that our readers might not be familiar with?

Daniel: Yes, please! I feel like Pedro Albizu Campos has been oddly scrubbed out of US history, and he shouldn’t be. Albizu led a formidable independence movement in Puerto Rico and cut a large historical swath. The largest police massacre in US history, the Ponce Massacre in 1937, was a shooting of Albizu’s followers. In 1950, Albizu orchestrated a multi-city revolt in Puerto Rico that culminated in an assassination attempt on the island’s governor and a surprisingly close assassination attempt on Harry Truman in Washington. Four years later his followers opened fire in the House of Representatives and shot five congressmen. Within Puerto Rican history, Albizu is a titanic figure (in my home city, Chicago, there’s a high school named for him). Yet astonishingly few non–Puerto Ricans have heard of him—and that includes US historians, I’ve found.  

Justene: There’s a historical figure that I discuss in the book, but from a different perspective. That person is Denmark Vesey. I’m interested in how Vesey purchased his freedom in 1799 and what happened after he was executed for the foiled insurrection plot that bore his name. I found that even though white South Carolinians complained about the economic autonomy that enslaved people were exhibiting, with lawmakers creating more stringent laws that attempted to curtail the expansion of the slaves’ economy, their efforts were in vain. In fact, as long as enslaved people invested in their own networks of trade and found ways to make money for themselves, white South Carolinians, especially those at the very top and bottom of the economic ladder, supported enslaved peoples’ economic activities. Enslavers continued to encourage enslaved people to dedicate their free time towards money making pursuits and poor whites continued to seek out enslaved people as trading partners. The slaves’ economy continued to grow as the economy of slavery evolved, especially in the 1820s and 1830s around cotton. 

CBFS: Considering the current movement for Black lives, how does knowledge of this history help us understand and even act in our current world?

 Justene: I hope Unfree Markets makes readers rethink the history of race, capitalism, and freedom in America.  Ultimately, the connections between capitalism and freedom have always been tenuous for African Americans. Wages and money alone were not going to solve the social, legal, and economic hurdles that people of African descent faced. It is in this way that the remnants of slavery lingered long after the institution’s end. Even though the freed people brought with them concrete knowledge about how to engage as actors in America’s capitalist economy, they had to fight for what they believed rightfully belonged to them. African Americans entered Reconstruction with no capital and no wealth. Despite their eagerness to live with full citizenship, with the hopes of taking advantage of all that American citizenship had to offer, their economic prospects were grim.

 In Unfree Markets, I argue that if we look at the economic lives of enslaved people, then we get a different message about how much our investment in capitalism will free us from the vestiges of slavery in American society. Moreover, to fully understand why the intersection of racism and capitalism, especially around the racial wealth gap, continues to emerge in conversations about economic inequality, we need to fully understand how the twin engines of capitalism and slavery emerged in the United States—and how it played out in the economic lives of enslaved people.

Daniel: I love the slogan “Black Lives Matter” because it directly addresses the underlying problem: some lives matter within the existing power structure of the United States, and others don’t. I dedicated my book about the US territorial empire “to the uncounted” because it seems to me that colonized people have systematically not counted in the minds of the US political leadership. Sometimes they’ve been scorned, but even in the absence of overt racism, they’ve still suffered enormous hardships on account of their lives seeming unimportant to those in power. In my book, I document how during the Second World War the United States shelled and bombed its own cities, killing possibly hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in them, simply because it was willing to bear high rates of collateral damage in Filipino lives in its war against Japan. If a politics based on lives mattering forces us to recognize the ways that racism structures our world, it also ought to force us to recognize the ways that empire does, too. 

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Erik Wallenberg

Erik Wallenberg is a PhD candidate in the History Program at CUNY Graduate Center. He has taught courses in history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and currently teaches global history and American environmental history at Brooklyn College. He is a Presidential Research Fellow working with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His research is on radical theatre and environmental movements, politics, and ideas.