‘Unrequited Toil’: A New Book on the History of U.S. Slavery

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Unrequited Toil: A History of United States Slavery was recently published by Cambridge University Press. 


The author of Unrequited Toil: A History of United States Slavery (Cambridge University Press) is Calvin Schermerhorn. Schermerhorn is currently Professor of History and the Director for Undergraduate Studies in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. His research interests include African American history, slavery, capitalism, and public history. Schermerhorn received his PhD in History from the University of Virginia. In addition to Unrequited Toil, Schermerhorn is author of two other books: The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Yale University Press) and Money over Mastery, Slavery over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper North (Johns Hopkins University Press). Schermerhorn is currently working on a new book Disinherited, Dispossessed, and Decapitalized: The Limit of Black Wealth in America, 1619-2019. Follow him on Twitter @calscherm

Written as a narrative history of slavery within the United States, Unrequited Toil details how an institution that seemed to be disappearing at the end of the American Revolution rose to become the most contested and valuable economic interest in the nation by 1850. Calvin Schermerhorn charts changes in the family lives of enslaved Americans, exploring the broader processes of nation-building in the United States, growth and intensification of national and international markets, the institutionalization of chattel slavery, and the growing relevance of race in the politics and society of the republic. In chapters organized chronologically, Schermerhorn argues that American economic development relied upon African Americans’ social reproduction while simultaneously destroying their intergenerational cultural continuity. He explores the personal narratives of enslaved people and develops themes such as politics, economics, labor, literature, rebellion, and social conditions.

In ‘Unrequited Toil,’ Calvin Schermerhorn offers a fresh study of slavery, synthesizing what we know about the institution thus far. From the cotton fields to coal mines, he tells the story of American slavery in many forms. His bold and direct language makes this history plain, palatable, and personal. This book will be used for years to come as it offers the perfect overview of US slavery for scholars and the general reader.” – Daina Ramey Berry, Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies, UT Austin

Keisha N. Blain: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?  

Calvin Schermerhorn: Unrequited Toil explores how a highly commercialized version of slavery developed within U.S. political borders –and why. It tells that story primarily through the voices and perspectives of enslaved subjects, like Harriet Jacobs, Boston King, Henry “Box” Brown, and Nat Turner. It joins their personal understandings to an analysis of the rise of American capitalism through cotton and the financial integration of Britain and the U.S. that made it possible.

Unrequited Toil argues that forced labor was at the heart of a process that made the United States a modern political nation, synthesizing recent studies while adding original research in areas like finance and the literary contest over the meanings of slavery and enslaved people in the early United States. It explores family life and factories as well as fields in order to present the lives of enslaved people in their historical complexity. Unrequited Toil carries the analysis through the Civil War and Emancipation and into Reconstruction, arguing that the disappearance of chattel slavery and the heroic civil rights struggle that supposedly guaranteed equal protection of the laws and enfranchised Black men did not overcome the structural features of the American economy that were infused with racist characteristics.

Future histories of slavery in the United States will draw out the concrete connections among race, gender, and the larger contexts of capitalist development. I am anxious to read Daina Ramey Berry and Leslie M. Harris’s forthcoming Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in America, featuring essays putting sexuality at the center of analyses of modern slavery in the Americas. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s forthcoming They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South explores the brutality of female enslavers in their contexts, showing a side of enslaving practices once thought to be white men’s domains. Justene Hill Edwards’s forthcoming Black Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and Capitalist Enterprise in South Carolina views enslaved people as entrepreneurs, detailing their creative strategies that enslavers constrained through violence and theft. It has big implications for our understanding of how American capitalism was shaped by racialized practices and racist violence. Alexandra Finley’s research into women who were the domestic partners of slave traders significantly reevaluates the value of women’s labor in enslavers’ economies. These histories share a common theme of connecting the most intimate of human relationships and Black intentionality to the major processes shaping modernity.

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on “‘Unrequited Toil’: A New Book on the History of U.S. Slavery

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    Powerful essay and valuable knowledge I can build my understanding of the subject outlined!!

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