Reviews | We still can’t see American slavery for what it was
As for the sources themselves, it may be possible to use their physicality – the fact that these fugitive slave ledgers, bills of sale and listings are real, tangible objects – to tell stories about the humans involved in this age-old nightmare, to use the means of objectifying others to undermine objectification itself.
“There’s a strange way the everydayness of the document helps you understand the extraordinary power imbalance and evil,” said Walter Johnson, professor of history and African and African-American studies at Harvard. “If someone is inkblotting a large book, you have to imagine a person writing that. And once you imagine a person writing that, you imagine the extraordinary power that those words on a page have on someone’s life. That someone’s life and lineage is actually passed on through this wandering pencil stroke. And then it brings you to a point where you have to imagine these people.
Indeed, the sheer banality of this material can help us understand how this system has survived and thrived for so long. “I’m not a historian of slavery because I want to spend my time understanding massive moments of spectacular violence,” Jennifer Morgan told me. “I actually want to understand tiny moments of violence, because that’s what I see as adding to a kind of numbness – a numbness of empathy, a numbness of human interconnection.”
All this to say that with the history of slavery, the quantitative and the qualitative must inform each other. It is important to know the scope and scale of the slave trade, how it was standardized and institutionalized, how it shaped the history of the whole Atlantic world.
But as all the historians I spoke to for this story have pointed out, it is also essential that we have an intimate understanding of the people who participated in this story and more specifically the people who were forced into it. It is for good reason that WEB Du Bois once called the transatlantic slave trade “the most magnificent drama of the last thousand years of human history”; a tragedy that involved “the transport of 10 million human beings from the dark beauty of their mother continent to the new Eldorado of the West” where they “descended into Hell”; and an “upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution”.
The future of SlaveVoyages will include even more information about those involved in the slave trade, slaves and slaveholders. “We would like to add an intra-African slave trade database as there is a lot of slave movement on the eastern side of the Atlantic,” said David Eltis. He also told me he could envision a merger with scholars documenting the slave trade across the Indian Ocean, whose roots go back to antiquity and whose more modern form was a competitor to the transatlantic slave trade. “We’re really leaning into territory that was unimaginable in 1969,” he said.
We may not have many slave statues – we may not have enough letters, portraits and personal documents for the millions who lived and died in slavery – but they were nonetheless living, breathing individuals, as real to the world as men. and the women we put on pedestals.
As we learn new data and new methods, it is paramount that we keep the truth of their essential humanity at the forefront of our efforts. We must exercise awareness, care and respect, lest we recapitulate the objectification of the slave trade itself. It is possible, after all, to disturb a grave without ever touching the ground.
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