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Monday, May 18, 2020

Fragile Rights: The History of Voting in the United States


This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on May 1st, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason. 

In 2013, the Shelby v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court decision gave states permission to change their election laws without needing advance clearance from the Department of Justice. This decision invalidated a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required preclearance with the DoJ to protect voters of color. Most people might ask: How did we get to this point?

But Professor of History Greg Downs is not interested in asking “how did we get here?” In fact, he sees this as the wrong question. The United States, he argues, has never been a country where the government guaranteed the right to vote. Indeed, the United States is a country with a tradition of disenfranchisement, rather than enfranchisement.

The White Woman's Slave Market: Black Wet Nurses and Reproductive Violence


This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on November 13th, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. Additionally, the original article was unfortunately plagiarized (albeit in a way that mangled its content) by a website I won't repeat here. Therefore I am re-publishing it here as it was meant to be. 

On Wednesday, November 8th, Assistant Professor of History Stephanie Jones-Rogers of UC Berkeley brought to light the market for enslaved wet nurses in nineteenth-century America in a talk hosted by the DHI Research Cluster Women and Gender in the World.

In a talk entitled “‘She could spare one ample breast for the profit of her owner’: White Mothers and Enslaved Wet Nurses’ Invisible Labor in American Slave Markets,” Jones-Rogers argued that studying enslaved wet nurses reveals white women’s complicity in expanding slavery in the south and demonstrates how white mothers were at the forefront of these market transactions. White southern women had created a “niche sector of the slave market” dedicated to providing them with the specific maternal labor that they sought from bondswomen.

Jones-Rogers emphasized that we cannot forget about the reproductive and maternal violence white women perpetrated against black bondswomen. Indeed, the commodification of slave mothers provides an important example of the disturbing “quotidian” horrors of slavery.

Defining Capitalism: Commodification, Fungibility, and Plantation Slavery

The new history of slavery and capitalism | Aeon Ideas

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on May 8th, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

For UC Berkeley Assistant Professor of History Caitlin Rosenthal, the history of capitalism will remain impenetrable as long as we continue to provide weak definitions for “capitalism.” Though countless scholars have tried to define capitalism, no definition has been settled on. In her new book Accounting for Slavery, Rosenthal hopes to change that.

Described as one of the premier historians of capitalism, Rosenthal visited UC Davis on April 25th to field questions about the arguments at the center of her forthcoming book. Put simply, she contends that nineteenth century southern plantations need to be studied as businesses, much as northern factories are, in order to better understand capitalism.

For Rosenthal, capitalism is commodification. As such, she argues that the commodification of slaves allows us to better understand how capitalism and slavery were related. But beyond commodification, she believes that “at the center of capitalism is capital,” and that systems of managing capital were “advanced” in the South by the late antebellum period.

From Slavery to Servitude: Making Free Labor Unfree in Nineteenth-Century Brazil


This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on January 29th, 2018, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

In 1888, Brazil became the last country to abolish slavery. But the seeds contributing to its demise had been planted decades earlier. As Assistant Professor of History José Juan Pérez Meléndez revealed in a talk on Tuesday, Jan. 23rd, Brazil implemented laws regulating free immigrant labor as early as 1837, marking a period of transition from the use of black slaves. But perhaps because slavery was so entrenched in Brazil, its free laborers were, in practice, far from being truly free.

Pursuing Fundamental Questions: James Oakes on the Relationship Between Capitalism and Slavery

The Plantation System | National Geographic Society

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on April 17th, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

Is the debate over the relationship between capitalism and slavery over? Many historians argue that it is. But for James Oakes, much work remains to be done. And indeed, his talk focused on complicating one of the arguments made by several scholars: namely, that slavery and rapid economic growth are inherently connected. He did this by demonstrating how slavery only ever constituted a small percentage of economic growth in developing industrial societies. For instance, he says that 10 percent of the Northern United States’ manufacturing economy relied on slave cotton. Significant, but not responsible for the majority of the North’s economic growth.

A key tenant of the relationship between capitalism and slavery is the idea that slavery (as an external factor) can be used to explain economic transformation in England and the Northern United States. But Oakes suggests that this might not be the case. Instead, there may have been internal factors (something akin to Weber’s Protestant Ethic), or other external factors that had a greater influence on the economic dynamism that came to define these regions. Scholars have yet to come to a consensus as to what these other factors may be.

Perhaps slavery only promoted the growth of some industries, while having little to no effect on others. Which is to say, maybe slavery was connected to the rise of capitalism in some ways, but not to the extent that historians have previously argued. Or as Oakes puts it, “was slavery capitalist and not crucial to the North’s development, or was it not capitalist and indispensable to the North’s development?” Answering that question would go a long way in discovering the extent to which slavery and capitalism are related.

Lastly, Oakes discussed the need for a gendered analysis of capitalism and slavery. He says that a study investigating the relationship between “laws of marriage and the family” in the North and South, and how they intertwined with their respective economic systems, might shed further light on the capitalism/slavery debate. One of his more controversial theories is that paternalism may have had more of a role in shaping the North’s economy rather than the South’s, which is the opposite of what historians have traditionally argued.

In the questioning that followed the talk, one professor asked about the political implications of scholars arguing that a system as repugnant as slavery was responsible for creating the modern world. That is, how might such an argument influence politicians whose core beliefs are inextricably tied to the fostering of economic growth? It is difficult to say, but such hypotheticals can be avoided if scholars work to complicate the discourse on capitalism and slavery in the manner that Oakes suggests.

Who Really Led the Haitian Revolution?


This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on May 22nd, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

Jane Landers, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, recently gave a lecture on the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). In the process, she noted how historians have mischaracterized it by using mostly French and English sources in their analysis. Landers demonstrated how it is possible to reframe the narrative of the Haitian Revolution by analyzing it through the lens of oft-neglected Spanish sources.

Indeed, one of the central questions of Landers’ talk dealt with geography. Given that Spanish Santo Domingo (the present-day Dominican Republic) bordered Haiti, why have historians of the Haitian Revolution neglected to use Spanish sources?

Typically, Toussaint Louverture is regarded as the leader of the Haitian Revolution. But who really led it? Using Spanish sources, Landers reveals how Toussaint Louverture served under Jorge Biassou before 1796. Biassou envisioned himself as a servant of the Spanish King, and thus had a friendly relationship with Spaniards living in Santo Domingo. As a result, the Haitians allied with Spain against the French from 1791 to 1796.

Because only mountains separated Haiti from Santo Domingo, the border between the two regions was fluid at best. Spaniards sent weapons and supplies to the Haitians, who in turn fought against the French in the name of the Spanish King.

However, this symbiotic relationship did not last. Once King Louis XVI was dethroned and executed (a result of the French Revolution), the Haitians aligned themselves with the new French Republic. After which, they began attacking their former allies, Spanish Santo Domingo.

Landers’ Spanish sources do much to explain why the Haitians began targeting Santo Domingo. According to correspondences she uncovered, the Spanish recognized Jorge Biassou as the Haitian Revolution’s leader, primarily because he showed such deep respect for the Spanish King.

This created tensions between Biassou and his subordinates over whether he was fit to lead the Haitian Revolution. Viewing this political power struggle as an opportunity, Toussaint Louverture rallied Haiti’s troops and reorganized them under his command, dedicating the Haitian Revolution not to the Spanish King, as Biassou had, but to the autonomy of Haiti.

Landers closed her talk by contending that the primary value of these Spanish sources is that they prove Jorge Biassou was more powerful than Toussaint Louverture before 1796. By focusing on French sources, Toussaint Louverture is unfairly highlighted as the Haitian Revolution’s only significant leader. Without investigating the Spanish sources closely, Jorge Biassou’s role in the Haitian Revolution is unfairly minimized.

Thus, to truly understand history, we cannot ignore certain sources in our analysis. As Landers reveals, doing so may leave us blind to the true stories of even well-researched events like the Haitian Revolution.