According to a recently published book by a historian from the University of Buffalo, many enslaved people with disabilities in pre-war America, declared unfit for work by their owners, played important social roles and provided a degree of stability to the vulnerable communities in which they were held.
Until now, the historical narrative has been largely silent about these valuable contributions and the people who made them. With “The Sign of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in America Before the War,” Jennifer Barclay, Ph.D., associate professor of history at UB College of Arts and Sciences, has written an important addition to literature on African American history and the history of slavery in the United States that provides new insights.
“My work uses disability as a prism to carefully study the nature of people’s daily lives within the institution of slavery,” Barclay says. “But the book also examines the ways in which derogatory beliefs about disability have been linked to ideas about Blackness, revealing a deep historical connection between racism and Eblism.”
Some form of disability affected about 10 percent of America’s enslaved population, and because slave owners determined value by a person’s presumed ability to work, physical, sensitive, and other disorders devalued enslaved people in the eyes of their owners. As Frederick Douglas said – describing a enslaved woman who lost her hands in a fire when she was a child – slaveholders often saw enslaved people from disability as capable of doing “very little but carrying heavy burdens.”
The potential separation of families was a constant fear in slave communities. But enslaved people with disabilities were less likely to be sold and remained immobile figures in the communities. Ignored by slaveholders, they took advantage of this autonomy and became guardians, doctors and custodians of memory.
“These men and women usually did important work focused on society and the family, such as caring for children while their parents worked, caring for those in need of care, cooking, making clothes and shoes, maintaining slaves, caring for slaves. temporary gardens that were important sources of food. and much more, “says Barclay.” They were central figures in slave communities who provided a critical sense of continuity and social cohesion, serving as a bulwark against some of the most dehumanizing and unstable aspects of slavery. “
One story Barclay revealed from the WPA Slave Story Collection was told by a man who was enslaved as a child. He remembered that his father was not considered a valuable worker due to physical handicap, but every day he carried babies from serfs to fields where their mothers worked so that children could nurse.
She says this is one of the sharpest examples found in her research for the book.
“At least these mothers could see their children and hold them in their arms, and all thanks to the services provided by this man,” she says.
But these roles were performed not only by adults with disabilities. Enslaved people of all ages made a significant contribution, including older children, the disabled, who often cared for other children too young to work.
“These are such powerful forms of community service that have been invaluable to enslaved mothers and their children. It has been about nutrition and upbringing,” Barclay said.
That Barclay can find these voices and bring them to life in his book stems from her reading of traditional sources “against the grain”.
She says there are not many sources available for scholars who study the institution of slavery from the perspective of enslaved people. The WPA collection is one source. Stories of runaway slaves also serve as primary sources, but the focus of research on disability further narrows the field. However, well-known sources gave Barclay surprises.
“Dear Frederick Douglas shares disability stories in his widely read autobiographical works, but no one has read his work with a focus on disability,” Barclay says. “He even shares personal stories about his grandmother, who felt disabled as she got older. He was furious because of how she “turned out to be dead,” as he put it, a slave owner who no longer considered her valuable enough to care for because, despite the wealth she brought to the family through a lifetime of coercion work and children she endured. “
Barclay also read decades of pre-war medical journals, some of which presented case studies of enslaved people with disabilities with clinical language that described specific conditions and treatments, but also provided clues about how people experienced life.
“These were powerful sources,” she says. “They helped me shed light on the daily lives of enslaved people with disabilities, but they also gave me the opportunity to explore the complex relationships between race and disability in nineteenth-century American culture.”
A sign of slavery: disability, race and gender in America before the war. www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=p085703
University of Buffalo
Citation: The book explores the intersection of slavery and disability in the United States (2022, February 16), obtained February 16, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-02-explores-intersection-slavery-disability.html
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