Bodies, Race, and Rights in the Age of Abolition
by Kathleen M. Brown
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Pub Date 01 Feb 2023 | Archive Date 01 Feb 2023
Undoing Slavery excavates cultural, political, medical, and legal history to understand the abolitionist focus on the body on its own terms. Motivated by their conviction that the physical form of the human body was universal and faced with the growing racism of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science, abolitionists in North America and Britain focused on undoing slavery’s harm to the bodies of the enslaved. Their pragmatic focus on restoring the bodily integrity and wellbeing of enslaved people threw up many unexpected challenges. This book explores those challenges.
Slavery exploited the bodies of men and women differently: enslaved women needed to be acknowledged as mothers rather than as reproducers of slave property, and enslaved men needed to claim full adult personhood without triggering white fears about their access to male privilege. Slavery’s undoing became more fraught by the 1850s, moreover, as federal Fugitive Slave Law and racist medicine converged. The reach of the federal government across the borders of free states and theories about innate racial difference collapsed the distinctions between enslaved and emancipated people of African descent, making militant action necessary.
Escaping to so-called “free” jurisdictions, refugees from slavery demonstrated that a person could leave the life of slavery behind. But leaving behind the enslaved body, the fleshy archive of trauma and injury, proved impossible. Bodies damaged by slavery needed urgent physical care as well as access to medical knowledge untainted by racist science. As the campaign to end slavery revealed, legal rights alone, while necessary, were not sufficient either to protect or heal the bodies of African-descended people from the consequences of slavery and racism.
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Average rating from 2 members
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.
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.