Cover Image: Undoing Slavery

Undoing Slavery

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Member Reviews

With the recent release of the Will Smith film 'Emancipation' about Gordon, or more popularly known as "Whipped Peter," whose image millions of people worldwide have seen for years of an enslaved Black man with a scars and lacerations so severe on his back from lashings and other mutilations, 'Undoing Slavery' comes at a time when more critical examinations of bodies in the context of transatlantic slavery are needed.

There really was a time not too long ago when people (mostly white and non-Black people) believed that people of African descent bled black blood whereas white Europeans bled red blood.... Enlightenment 'race scientists' were some of the most unenlightened imbeciles in history, which we know now, but the historical context is important of what allowed their ridiculous and baseless theories to proliferate beyond just white supremacist ideologies.

"The long attempts to use a biological notion of race to justify slavery and white supremacy has rightly made scholars of both slavery and diasporic Africa wary of a focus on the body." In her introduction, Brown focuses on the notions of bodies in the context of slavery and abolition. She brings up the Reverend Easton who pointed out that whether suffering from the lash herself or witnessing another's suffering, an enslaved mother transmitted the injury to her unborn child. "Even when emancipation lifted the formal constraints of slavery, former slaves could not shed bodies that had been beaten, disabled, malnourished, diseased, sexually abused, and traumatized by the loss of family connection."


Historical experiences did and do leave the body's plasticity to physically imprinting.

There's a brief discussion of inheritance of bodily status, as with Roman principles like jus sanguinis (law of blood or ancestry), which was used as the basis for 'partus sequitur ventrem,' stipulating that if a child was born to a mother of African descent whose status was enslaved and owned as property, this child would inherit that unto themselves and also be considered enslaved. The French also integrated this into their Code Noir (1685), "a digest of colonial practices that reflected the Crown's effort to regulate and rationalize the exploitability of slaves but conceptualized race as akin to lineage." The discussion also goes into notions of birthright, racist medicine and science, and more.

The author also goes into the criticisms lobbed at [white] abolitionists, rightly criticizing them for shortcomings "ranging from creating self-aggrandizing taxonomies of feeling, displacing Black subjects with white empathy, analogizing slavery to other abuses of power, and relying problematically on universal claims." Further to this, the author adds discussions of white voyeurism that obstructed the 'empathic road' to meaningful political action, which were 'painfully obvious' to Black abolitionists.

The discussion of Black abolitionists and a small number of their white allies turning to militant responses as resistance, including escape, is particularly salient and crucial.

Extremely comprehensive and granular in its scope, 'Undoing Slavery' is a crucial academic text that traces the issues discussed from European migrations to North America and prevailing attitudes of several Western European groups, Britain's loss of North American colonies, the East India Company, Thomas Jefferson and his trips to Paris while serving as US minister to France, to William Penn's arrival in Pennsylvania, the British and French and their relations with Native American groups, Quakers and their religious beliefs, abolition movements, and so, so much more.

There's also a fair amount of medical history in the volume, particularly as it concerns beliefs about blood, transfusions, coagulation, and other experiments. The 'one blood' principle gets considerable attention as do several wars and battles.

As well, the remarkable and gifted Black poet Phyllis Wheatley Peter, known more commonly as Phyllis Wheatley, gets highlighted including her arrival in Boston in 1761 after being stolen from her family in Senegambia.
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I find it very strange that a white woman has written an entire book on "undoing slavery" and is now about to make money off of it as well. This is a thick and heavy book with a lot of regurgitated knowledge. I am thankful to NetGalley and University of Pennsylvania Press for the physical arc. I am going to re-read and annotate soon - I have a lot of thoughts. For now, I will say this is important information and Black Women should be getting paid for this work.
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This is such an interesting book, bringing new and confronting perspectives to the analysis of slavery and its impact on both individuals and society.  I thought it was very clever of the author to break down the concept of slavery to the physical body, almost forcing the reader to face the reality of commodifying humanity.  There is a lot of dark content here, too, but they are stories and ideas which need to be told out of respect for the people who were enslaved and exploited and to acknowledge the lasting impact  which such injustice continues to have.
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