Jennifer L. Morgan

Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic

Duke University Press, 2021

312 pages

$ 27.95

Reviewed by Eduarda Lira Araujo

In Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, Jennifer L. Morgan brilliantly unveils a fundamental contradiction that characterized early racial capitalist development in the Atlantic world. That is the contradiction of negating African kinship, which was critical for establishing and maintaining the transatlantic slave trade, and concomitantly having utter dependence on African women’s productive and reproductive labor for moral and economic justification of hereditary slavery. From this contradiction stemmed African women’s embodied reckoning with the experience of racial slavery, the reasoning for their affirmation of kinship ties, and their praxis of self-valuation, which Morgan convincingly demonstrates to be at the roots of the Black radical tradition in the Americas. Placing the experiences of African women at the center of a historical analysis of early slavery allows Morgan to make significant historiographic and methodological interventions, expanding on the works of other Black radical thinkers who investigate the meanings and ramifications of the introduction of humans to the marketplace as currency and value in the crucible of the sixteenth-century. Reckoning with Slavery examines the destructive path of commodity-making in the early modern world. It begins with the very construction of racialized, gendered concepts of commodity and value developed by enlightenment writers and artists to investigate the meanings of women’s experiences as they were sold and kidnapped in African ports to cross the Atlantic in captivity. In the Americas, Morgan critically explores how they understood their predicament at the moments of sale and the myriad ways they found to protect, rebuild, and affirm kinship and private life under slavery.

Reckoning with Slavery demonstrates in its first chapters how the transatlantic slave trade and modern western concepts of numeracy, value, credit, and demography were mutually constituted. Morgan’s analysis of early European travelers’ accounts, as well as studies in finance and demography, show how English ideas about population growth, sovereignty, economic value, investment, and trade were informed by fictive narratives of African women, as well as ideas about African kinship (or the alleged lack thereof). A detailed analysis of these primary sources demonstrates how numeracy turned deeply ideological narratives on gender and race into seemingly neutral, standard forms of western knowledge while portraying Africa as a continent to be taken and African women and girls as bounty. Furthermore, the abstractions that numeracy made possible—resulting in the slave ship ledgers and plantation inventories that constitute the archives of slavery today—actively worked to mystify the human suffering and madness that inhabited the slave ships, slave markets, and the plantations of the Americas. The horrors to which African women and their children were subjected disappeared from the record once the ship captain or slave owner wrote them down as a number or in terms of their productivity and investment potential. Occluding and naturalizing the monstrosity of commodity-making in the Atlantic, the practices of numeracy shaped the historical archives we access today. Reckoning with Slavery does precisely the work of laying bare their deeply ideological nature.

Historians of slavery often fail to undo numeracy’s work of naturalizing human commodification and continue to silence the presence of African women in the early transatlantic slave trade. Thus, this book’s intervention is also a methodological one. The association of the word “slave” with male enslaved Africans, the purposeful omission of women’s presence to exempt traders from moral condemnation, and the need to turn Africans into indistinguishable commodities produced African women’s elusive presence in historical archives. Morgan’s critique of numeracy and the quantitative character of abundantly present primary sources invites a more careful reflection on the possibilities and limitations of using archives such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, for instance, in research and teaching. This demands from historians an acute awareness of the social and economic processes that generated these incomplete sources and the possibility of mindlessly reproducing the same violent accounting practices that caused these gaps in the first place.

A devoted analysis of the archive’s violent nature, such as the one Morgan performs in this book, requires methodology capable of subverting the Othering constructed in the European travelers’ accounts and the thingification solidified in the slave ship ledger. Saidiya Hartman’s call for critical fabulations of enslaved women’s histories and radical thought reverberates through Morgan’s analysis of historical documents ranging from travelers’ accounts to newspaper advertisements and freedom lawsuits in colonial North America. The careful examination of the historical record which Morgan performs unravels the meaning of an embodied experience of slavery for African women. Because the market in enslaved workers and the institution of hereditary slavery depended on the reproductive and productive labor of African women to birth and care for children (who were also considered commodities and returns in investment), their experiences of sexual violence and the disruption of their private family lives were foundational to the formation of racial hierarchies—not incidental.

The actions of African mothers in captivity, often described in simplifying terms of madness, sadness, desperation, illness, and carelessness may have expressed a clear comprehension of the kind of disruption they were experiencing and careful analysis of their role in producing children to be consumed by the market. Through critical fabulation, the author explores the possible meanings enslaved African women associated with their captivity, how they might have used their previous experiences in commerce and trade networks to evaluate their position in the marketplace, what they might have assumed to be the future for themselves and their children, and how these considerations may have informed their actions. Throughout the book, Morgan discusses infanticides, miscarriages, suicides, and even the decision to ‘willingly’ go onto a slave ship as ways in which women have responded to the gendered horrors to which they were submitted in attempts to take hold of their future and that of their kin and communities. Towards the end of the book, we are invited to consider African women’s experiences of marronage and truancy, for which there is ample but elusive evidence. The documents which describe maroon women as victims of violent rebellious men may testify precisely to their ability to play with gendered, racialized expectations of docility to create opportunities to collaborate in rebellion, participate as maroon leadership, support truancy, hide, and run away.

Finally, this book can reveal the fundamentally racialized, gendered character of theories and knowledge that still orient much of the way we understand the world. Liberal economic principles enmeshed in the histories of racial hierarchies are seldom questioned as products of social relations rather than as forces of nature. International organizations inform economic policies by demographic projections based on notions not too distant from those Morgan analyzes in travelers’ accounts from centuries ago. Welfare and public health institutions reproduce, in their policies, profoundly racist ideas regarding Black motherhood. Morgan’s work and the questions it asks have the potential to destabilize these modern categories. As Black women lead worldwide movements to affirm the worth of Black lives in the face of white-supremacist violence today, Reckoning with Slavery illuminates some of the roots of this radical tradition of imagining Black futurity and making the world anew against the seemingly all-powerful forces of the state and the market.