X-POSTED REVIEW: Madar on Morgan, 'Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic'

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Jennifer L. Morgan
Allison Madar

Madar on Morgan, 'Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic'

Jennifer L. Morgan. Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021. 312 pp. $27.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4780-2145-2; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1414-0.

Reviewed by Allison Madar (The Webb Schools) Published on H-Early-America (July, 2022) Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57293

In Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, Jennifer L. Morgan examines the relationship between “economy, ideology, and kinship” and seeks to uncover “the explicit link between human commodification and the rise of market economies” (pp. 10, 11). Her study centers enslaved women, historical actors whose lived experiences, due to both the violence of the archive and the reliance of historians on quantifiable data, are often difficult to uncover. Moreover, Morgan seeks to elucidate “the role of kinship in authorizing hereditary racial slavery and in shaping the development of slavery as a financial and commercial instrument” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (p. 26).

Morgan takes an interdisciplinary approach in her study, using the scholarly approaches of both social history and Black feminist theory. In so doing, she puts Reckoning with Slavery in conversation with the work of such scholars as Stephanie Smallwood, Herman Bennett, Alys Weinbaum, and Saidiya Hartman. Most notably, though, Morgan “write[s] in the tradition of Hortense Spillers and Cedric Robinson” (p. 10). Throughout, she engages with Spillers’s concept of the reproduction of kinlessness forced upon enslaved women and builds on the insights of Robinson in Black Marxism (1983) and the relationship between racism and capitalism. More specifically, she “engage[s] Robinson in tandem with the concept of reproduction” to assert the centrality of the reproductive labor of enslaved women in the simultaneous emergence of slavery and capitalism in the early modern Atlantic world (p. 16).

Dividing her work into two parts, Morgan seeks to answer a number of questions. Key among them—and central to the first half of the book—is: “In the face of the commodification of human beings, what did New World kinship come to mean?” (p. 24). To answer this question, she first considers the sex ratios of slave ships and the relatively small number of ships that actually logged this information before moving on to an in-depth discussion of numeracy in chapters 2 and 3. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Morgan argues, saw the emergence of “a relatively new set of ideas concerning trade, value, population, and commodification.” All of these ideas, she continues, “might qualify as forms of numeracy” (p. 6). In chapter 2, Morgan traces the connection between Europeans’ justification for slavery (and the retention of “their moral core”) and numeracy, and in chapter 3 she turns to the western coast of Africa to explore numeracy in concert with the experience of commodification by African men and women (p. 24).

In the second part of the book, Morgan delves into the experiences of women, from their capture, to transport, to sale. Chapter 6 delves into acts of resistance employed by enslaved women “to disrupt their commodification” (p. 26). It is in these chapters that Morgan emphasizes the violence and inhumanity of the institution of slavery and the ways enslaved women came “to understand the role of kinship at the heart of early modern slavery and ... racial capitalism” (p. 25). Morgan’s task here—or in the first half of the book—was not an easy one, but she interrogates extant sources for both what is there and what is absent.

At times, she introduces sources familiar to scholars of slavery and the early modern Atlantic world and reads them through a new lens. For example, in a section titled “Recording Middle Passages” in chapter 4, she takes the well-known image of the Brookes and, despite the image’s original purpose as a piece of antislavery literature, uses the image to reinforce her assertions regarding the process of commodification and enslavers’ attempts to ensure that enslaved laborers were without kin.

Reckoning with Slavery is a valuable addition to the studies of enslaved women, slavery, slavery and capitalism, and the violence of the archive. It is a wonderful example of the importance of centering the lives and experiences of enslaved women and their own understanding of the connections between kinship, slavery, and capitalism. Morgan clearly illustrates that “kinship is antithetically tethered to the processes of commodification and capitalism set in motion in the early modern period” (p. 248). In addition, Morgan demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary work and the necessity to think of slavery and capitalism not as opposing forces but as parts of the same whole.

Citation: Allison Madar. Review of Morgan, Jennifer L., Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57293

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