Smith on Hunt-Kennedy, 'Between Fitness and Death: Disability and Slavery in the Caribbean'

Author: 
Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy
Reviewer: 
Sean M. Smith

Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy. Between Fitness and Death: Disability and Slavery in the Caribbean. Disability Histories Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020. Illustrations. 244 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08506-2; $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04319-2.

Reviewed by Sean M. Smith (Rice University) Published on H-Slavery (November, 2021) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56706

Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy’s Between Fitness and Death is an excellent introduction to disability studies for scholars rooted in histories of slavery and of the Caribbean. The book argues that racialized slavery in the British Caribbean can be better understood through the lens of disability studies, and it neatly uses its novel lens to revisit traditional debates over the relative timing of the emergence of anti-Blackness versus that of racialized slavery as well as discussions of enslavers’ conflicting views of their enslaved property as both humanly able and yet less than human.

Between Fitness and Death uses the concept of “disability” to highlight the liminality of enslaved people as legally and physically between life and death and also between human and animal. Hunt-Kennedy demonstrates how Britons used early modern categories of deformity and especially monstrosity to position Africans as questionably human even before England had established formal colonies in the Americas or participated in the Atlantic slave trade. The association between monstrosity and Africans’ Blackness culturally disabled Africans and placed them in “the liminal space between the human and the animal” (p. 14). Coupled with the contemporary concept of “maternal imagination,” Britons rendered Blackness a heritable form of monstrosity. Heritable monstrosity then provided a convenient social and legal justification for racialized slavery, one that was reified in law as a new category of disablement. Hunt-Kennedy also shows how enslavers constructed this depiction of enslaved Africans as disabled humans to extract their human capacity for work while treating them legally as animal property.

Not only did Britons discursively disable enslaved Africans, but enslavers also physically disabled their human property purposefully. The legal culture of Britain’s Caribbean possessions, particularly Barbados and Jamaica, allowed slave owners and drivers to physically disable their slaves because, Hunt-Kennedy maintains, enslaved Africans were understood to already be disabled. She continues on to explain the myriad ways that enslaved people were purposefully disabled, both mentally and physically, throughout their experiences aboard ships during the Middle Passage, during sale in slave markets, and while laboring and living on plantations. Drawing on Achille Mbembe’s understanding of slavery as a “state of injury,” Hunt-Kennedy argues that the “space between fitness and death served a purpose for slaveowners, for it suspended the enslaved in a liminal space where their bodies were too broken to rebel but fit enough for forced labor” (pp. 79-80). Therefore, the disabling of enslaved people should be understood as a core tenet of the racialized slavery system, rather than its side effect.

Hunt-Kennedy also challenges the idea that modern understandings of disability emerged in Europe with the Industrial Revolution and instead joins a tradition going back to C. L. R. James (The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution [1938]) in pointing to the Caribbean as the birthplace of modernity, including capitalism and disability. She argues that the category of disability emerged first in the Caribbean sugar islands, themselves home to the earliest form of industrial labor. Following Sidney W. Mintz (Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History [1985]) in understanding sugar plantations as a hybrid of agricultural and industrial workspaces, Hunt-Kennedy stresses that the dangerous industrial work of refining sugar cane into saleable sugar caused the physical disablement of innumerable enslaved people who lost fingers and limbs and suffered other impairments in the Caribbean’s sugar boiling houses. The presence of these disabled bodies on plantations contributed to the construction of disability and its racialization. Hunt-Kennedy also insightfully explains that while industrial laborers in Europe and North America experienced disability as individuals, the economics of slave ownership made the impact of enslaved people’s disablement a problem for the slaveowner as well as the enslaved. Disabled enslaved workers were accordingly not excluded from labor but made to work in other ways, sometimes suffering further punishment for not being as productive as more fit laborers.

Hunt-Kennedy underscores the ubiquity of enslaved people’s physical disabilities through a study of 1,200 runaway ads collected from newspapers published in Barbados and Jamaica. These ads recount a host of scars, missing limbs, brands, and other disfigurements, and they reveal not only slave owners’ efforts to disable enslaved people and the enslaved’s attempts at self-liberation but also the pervasiveness of enslaver surveillance. Hunt-Kennedy further argues that the repeated representation of enslaved Black bodies in runaway ads as marked and disfigured paradoxically made them less personal, “rendering the individual anonymous and implying the interchangeability of black people” (p. 103). Advertisements for runaway enslaved people thereby contributed to the larger process of racialization by which African bodies were connected to disability. However, enslaved people did not necessarily understand those conditions in the same way their owners did. While the slave market interpreted marks left by enslavers’ brutal punishments as devaluing, Hunt-Kennedy points out that these were also marks of the enslaved’s personhood and individual resistance to the slave regime. Additionally, some Afro-Creole religions, such as Obeah, could render physical disability as a sign of spiritual or supernatural ability, giving disabled enslaved people special authority and granting them a significant role in community building. Hunt-Kennedy also points to instances where enslaved people exaggerated or feigned disability in efforts to assert some control over themselves.

Hunt-Kennedy’s analysis of disability and Caribbean slavery also considers how debates over abolition and emancipation perpetuated the association of Black bodies with disability. Specifically, she explains how British proslavery and antislavery writers shared a fear of Black revolutionaries after the Haitian Revolution and used discursive tropes of the disabled Black body in their arguments. While slavery apologists stressed emergent racial science to link Black bodies with monstrosity and animality, Hunt-Kennedy explains, antislavery writers responded by portraying Black bodies as weakened and disabled and therefore posing little threat. However, this rhetorical move limited the revolutionary potential of emancipation. Abolitionists, Hunt-Kennedy explains, chose a model of emancipation rooted in “imperial humanitarianism and subjecthood,” rather than “revolutionary human rights and citizenship” (p. 129). In doing so, they perpetuated a disabled model of Black inclusion.

Given Between Fitness and Death’s emphasis on the entwined origins of capitalism and disability, direct engagement with the larger literature on slavery and capitalism could have led to further insights about the relationship between slavery and capitalism.[1] Hunt-Kennedy instead stops her analysis of capitalism by taking the well-established tack of rendering sugar plantations as capitalist via the industrial modes of production used to refine sugar, and I was left wondering if modern understandings of disability could have emerged in capitalist contexts beyond those strictly related to industrialization whether on the plantation or in urban areas. Despite such an opportunity for further investigation, Between Fitness and Death clearly demonstrates the importance of applying disability studies to future studies of slavery in the Caribbean and beyond.

Note

[1]. For instance, see Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014); and Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). Admittedly, much of this literature is focused on the United States rather than the Caribbean.

Citation: Sean M. Smith. Review of Hunt-Kennedy, Stefanie, Between Fitness and Death: Disability and Slavery in the Caribbean. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56706

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