Aaron Carico

Black Market: The Slave’s Value in National Culture after 1865

The University of North Carolina Press, 2020

296 pages

$29.95 (Paperback), $90.00 (Hardcover),$22.99 (E-Book)

Reviewed by Debjyoti Ghosh, PhD

The age of social media and quick information has highlighted several instances of race-based violence in the US, which have been documented and are commonly acknowledged today. From the farcical “Karen” to the all-encompassing nightmare of George Floyd, the recent past has thrown into light several aspects of a failed emancipation and civil rights project. With the deaths of Trayvon Martin (2012), Michael Brown (2014), and Eric Garner (2014), the “Black Lives Matter” movement took ground, and with the movement getting close to almost a decade old, Aaron Carico’s Black Market has been published at a very pertinent time in American history. Black Market guides readers to rethink abolition and how the dream of freedom has remained unfulfilled. While Carico acknowledges that many of the failings of the abolitionist movement are well-known, it is imperative to reconsider how, particularly in the US, the Black body, as well as Blackness, has become the “national fetish sine qua non.” As Carico states, “[a]bolition awaits.”

Black Market endeavors to account for American cultural history post-1865. Instead of deploying historical linearity, Carico engages with several aspects of cultural production to showcase the materiality of history. He surmises that slavery was never expunged from the American politico-legal psyche, merely reformulated and renamed. For instance, slavery was relegated to the South by the Northerners, despite the Northerners being complicit in slavery. The plantation trope used by the Northerners created a smokescreen over their own fallacies –of failing to protect emancipated slaves, of replacing slavery with convict labor camps, of allowing bonded labor to carry on, and so on.

Through six chapters – including the introduction and conclusion – Carico encapsulates the problematics of the modern American Dream and how it was built and is still being constructed on the backs of Black people. He charts a journey through the American Civil War and the abolitionist movement to the present, examining how the failed promises from the American government have continually increased over more than a hundred and fifty years. The book title captures the proscribed trade of banned goods and the thriving market for Black bodies even after emancipation. Carico posits that through bonded labor, enforced indebtedness, ghettoization, and segregation, “the quilt of the American nation is stretched and constructed on the frame of antiBlackness.”

Carico investigates slave racial capitalism rather than simply racial capitalism, thus centering the figure of the slave, both abstract and material, at the center of the American nation-building project. He quotes Stephen Best, who says that “[s]lavery is not simply an antebellum institution that the United States has surpassed, but a particular form of an ongoing crisis involving the subjection of personhood to property.” Chapter One, Freedom as accumulation, discusses how Black labor in the newly emancipated US was poorly paid—a system designed to send members into debt. In the aforementioned system, instead of being beholden to the slaveowner, the newly freed Black citizens were now beholden to the white man behind the store counter. This chapter propounds several important questions such as: what was gained by abolition?; which variables of slavery remained and which were removed? Moreover, neither money nor land changed ownership from the oppressor to the oppressed. Instead, new legislation protecting plantation owners’ land was pushed through. From exploitative white merchants to sharecropping, Carico contends that “[r]ather than a triumph of humanitarian principles, formal abolition enacted an elaborate money-laundering scheme.”

Chapter Two, The Spectacle of Free Black Personhood, is where Carico really blossoms. By showcasing the commodification of the spectacle of the Black person in paintings and cultural productions, he transports the reader from the realms of history to sightings of the Black person and Black personhood over time. While the first chapter details the Black person being re-commodified into new forms of labor and financial entrapment while still being capital for others, Carico examines differing forms of art showcasing the connection of Black citizenship and enlisting and laying down their lives, while fitting into particular categories of the white gaze. The emancipated Black citizen is gazed at as a body that is useful to serve the State and a body that feeds national nostalgia. The paintings depart from the usual mockery of portraying Black people as lazy, ignorant buffoons as was prevalent at the time. Instead, they imply the connection between Black citizenship and enlisting and laying down their lives.

Through the aforementioned journeys of art, Carico reminds readers of how the Black person and the Black body become the backbone of a story-telling mechanism. The slave is at once a figure of critique and a figure of aesthetic value. This art spectacle goes beyond the portrayal of former slaves showing their scars for white people and is carried into theatrical productions such as Black America. Art spectacles such as this were full of the stereotypes that were expected on a Southern plantation and fed into plantation nostalgia. Black America ended with the Black cast singing patriotic songs under large pictures of abolitionists. In a way, this theatrical moment parodies Black citizenship. Carico connects the stereotypes showcased in Black America with the commodification of Blackness in products and later in the US music industry – from ‘“black” sounds’ to “coon songs”, and later, the segregated jazz music clubs, where white people go to relax, in an eroticization of the forbidden.

In Chapter Three, Cowboys and Slaves, Carico delineates formations of US society through frontier literature. He contends that the premise of the Cowboy as the hero of American lore is built on a stage set-up by slaves. Indeed, at times villainy in Cowboy literature is associated with the taint of Blackness. Carico mentions Wister’s The Virginian as a case in which the plantation is unified with the frontier. Throughout the story, there are constant parallels between events in the South versus frontier happenings. In Chapter Four, Southern Enclosure as American Literature, Carico describes the evolution of American Literature from the 1830s, concluding that many stories of enslaved Black lives were retold through re-characterizing Black individuals as poor whites. In these re-characterizations, poor whites represent the insider-outsider as opposed to the dehumanized slave. It was easier to serve the white audience the trope of the poor white person versus the (freed) slave to communicate the capitalist devastation on the proletariat. Yet, at the same time, as Carico says, “[t]he American project demands that the generation of surplus-value be wedded to racist exploitation and domination, whose object remains the slave.” I enjoyed this part – it engages with the failure of Black inclusion of both authors and characters. Furthermore, this book recounts the first hundred years of American literature (1830-1930) while examining the heroism of whiteness and the chicanery completed on the backs of trampled populations—the indigenous, the enslaved, and lower-class whites.

Overall, Carico creates a thorough narrative of art and literature pre- and post-abolition; he also creates an apt framework to problematize the notions of abolition and emancipation and excellently encapsulates the politico-cultural failings of post-abolition America, and keeps the reader wanting more.