Monday, June 7, 2010

Dispatches from the Historical Society Conference, Day 3: New Directions in the Study of Race and Slavery

Randall J.Stephens

Historians of the last two generations have been fascinated by the question of what race amounted to, or, how race was made. How was racial inferiority constructed and how did slavery take root in the early modern era? This panel, fitting with the umbrella theme of the conference, looked at some recent trends in the study of race and slavery. The three presenters skillfully spanned the centuries and ranged over several continents. (See the Youtube videos here, which record the first 10 minutes of each presentation.)

Room 413-14

Chair: Mark Smith, University of South Carolina

Joyce Malcolm, George Mason University School of Law, “Slavery in 18th-Century Massachusetts and the American Revolution”

Robert Cottrol, George Washington School of Law, “Race-Based Slavery and Race-Based Citizenship: How Brazil and the United States Became Different”

Amy Long Caffee, University of South Carolina, “Hearing Africa: Early Modern Europeans’ Auditory Perceptions of the African Other”

Joyce Malcolm (George Mason University School of Law) spoke about the legacy of slavery in the North during the Revolutionary War. She began by describing the surprising number of slaves in Massachusetts. Military service and its link to freedom varied widely between the North and the South. Malcolm called on historians to closer examine what happened to black soldiers after the war. She also pointed to the need for greater scrutiny of the possibilities and limits of freedom in the emerging nation. (The last New Hampshire slaves, noted Malcolm, died in the years before the Civil War.)

Robert Cottrol (George Washington School of Law) invited historians to think of the issue of slavery and its

legacy beyond the antebellum narrative and beyond the South. He called on historians to look at Latin America, opening up a bigger, hemisphere-wide picture. Slavery in Brazil, for instance, took place for a much longer period and was much more intensely tied to the African trade. Comparisons and contrasts between national legal systems explain some basic differences between North and South America. America's egalitarian ideals were embarrassed by slavery. Slavery's justification in the US revolved around race and black inferiority. Brazil, by contrast, was not a liberal society and was not as contradicted by the institution of slavery. Cottrol also asked several larger questions that are part of a broader project, including: "What is slavery's impact in terms of race relations?" And, he wondered: "How has slavery continued to shape the Western Hemisphere up to the present?"

Early in the European-African encounter white perceptions of Africans were shaping ideas of racial difference. Amy Long Caffee (University of South
Carolina) discussed the auditory notions English traders had of Africans in the early modern period. White traders and travelers reported their views to a larger public back in England. The documents of such venturers, observed Caffee, are "rich with sensory details." These reports speak volumes about what Englishmen thought of as a "barbarous land and people."

Summarizing the panel Mark Smith (University of South Carolina) commented that slavery was not an anomaly in the 19th century. It was the norm. Smith also linked the stereotypes, sensory and otherwise, of the 19th century to similar ones in the 20th century.

During the q and a session, participants considered where the field is headed. Malcolm thinks that more connections will be made between regions and eras. She also believes that the stereotypes of the antebellum period will be challenged more. Cottrol suggested that changes in graduate education--encouraging students to ask larger questions and requiring language work--could shift the field. Smith finally pointed out that emancipation and questions of slavery and freedom will possibly become a greater part of how historians in the area work.

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