The Stakes of Whiteness: Slavery and Law in the Americas

The stakes of the law

In his seminal 1995 text, How the Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev at one point asks what the stakes of whiteness were: “It did not mean that they all became rich, or even ‘middle-class’ (however that is defined); to this day there are plenty of poor Irish…To Irish laborers, to become white meant at first that they could sell themselves piecemeal instead of being sold for life…” It was the brilliance of Ignatiev’s work was to show that racial categories were both fluid and (given the paleness of most people of Irish extraction) fundamentally absurd. They had power nonetheless and the definition of distinctions between white and other produced fault lines that have shaped the politics of the Americas down to the present day.

This is especially true in the United States, where the process of accumulation by dispossession central to the slave economy was a central element in the primitive accumulation that formed the basis of capitalist development. Its consequences can be seen is the persistent exclusion of African Americans from the circuits of capital and economic development, as well as in the widespread racism, both explicit and implicit, that shapes American culture.

Writing of his experiences, one former slave put matters thus: “No day dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. It is all night — night forever.” These extremely evocative words describe the utterly devastating human consequences of enslavement. Much of the historiography of slavery in the Americas is devoted to illustrating and precisely enumeration the brutal and degrading conditions under which slaves were forced to exist.

Without wishing in any way to detract from or ameliorate the force of these histories, other threads of the historiography of slavery have sought to show the ways that slaves struggled to regain agency and some modicum of control over their lives. In Becoming Free, Becoming Black, Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross made a significant contribution to this project.

Working through legal records from the 16th to the 18th centuries, de la Fuente and Gross tracked changes in the legal understanding of blackness and its relation to slavery in Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia. This is a project with both synchronic and diachronic dimensions, making comparisons both between contemporary conditions across the three locations, but also tracking the ways that the situation changed over time.

The laws with respect to the slave system varied widely across the three locations. In Cuba, slavery was governed by a system imported from the peninsula, one in which manumission was, if not relatively common, not at all unheard of and a matter for which the law made allowances. This was much less the case in Louisiana, governed by the Code Noir during the era of French control, in which the transition out of slavery was effected less often. The situation in Virginia was complex in different ways, with the rigidification of the slave system intensifying in the 18th century to a more rigorous association of blackness with the condition of bondage.

Indeed, Cuba seems to represent a limit case at the opposite end of the spectrum. While slavery was widespread there, officials did not seem to feel the same impetus to essential racial distinctions along a fault line between freedom and slavery. This approach would have been foreign to both Louisiana and Virginia where, at certain points, even grants of manumission by slaveowners could not guarantee freedom if the reasons for the grants were not deemed valid by local authorities.

Becoming Free, Becoming Black addresses a number of issues which are of more than simply antiquarian interest. As a work of scholarship, it furthers our understanding of the ways that conceptions of race change over time, responding to both cultural and economic imperatives. Modern public conceptions of race have tended to essentialize racial categories, with the implication that race implies certain tendencies that are identifiable irrespective of context. De la Fuente and Gross’s research make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the complex, fluid, and often overlapping ways that race was understood.

At the level of cultural presuppositions, the imbrication of blackness with the condition of bondage not only supported the continued exploitation of those actually enslaved but functioned to narrow the life choices and opportunities of those legally free persons of color, exposing them to the implicit suspicion that their situation is exceptional and marginal. This then functions as an element of a self-reinforcing dynamic in which bondage is further normalized.

At the same time, by examining the ways that enslaved people sought to make use of the elements of the legal system to assert or recover their rights to personal autonomy, Becoming Free, Becoming Black takes steps in the direction of rehumanizing those dehumanized by slavery. Slavery was horrific in all of its manifestations, but it manifested in deferent ways at different times and in different places. The fact that at some points it was possible for slaves to work (at least to some extent) on their own account, and thereby to accumulate resources that might allow for self-purchase, in no way changes the degrading quality of slavery.

What the records of attempts to make use of the legal system to achieve freedom do show is that slaves did not passively accept their condition but sought to employ whatever resources they might find at their disposal to alter their conditions. The project of recovering the agency of enslaved peoples provides important information about resistance to oppression and about the human dimensions and consequences of slavery.

Explorations of legal history and documentation provide important data for our understanding of historical conditions and change. They constitute texts that can be read as expressions of the values and goals of a society, but their implementation can also show the fractious and complicated nature of the way such values related to conditions on the ground. Becoming Free, Becoming Black provides crucial insights into the ways that conceptions of race and power varied across the Americas in the era when slavery was at its most widespread. It is a valuable window on the ways that the system maintained itself, and on the resistance that, although often unsuccessful, showed the persistence of the will to resist under even the most horrendous conditions.

Photograph by D-Stanley. Used under a creative commons license.