Legacies of the Slave Past in the Post-Slave Present

By Nick Draper

One of the aims for LBS has been to connect more fully with the burgeoning scholarship in the US on slavery and American capitalism, and in turn to give LBS more visibility among academic audiences in North America. Accordingly, Catherine Hall and I accepted gratefully an invitation from David ScottDavid Scott of Columbia and Herman Bennett of CUNY to participate in joint CUNY/Columbia symposium in New York in early October. The genesis of the symposium was the sense on the part of the organisers (and shared by us) that LBS’ work needed to be thought through in the context of wider discussions of repair and reparation now underway, in the Caribbean, the US and Europe.

On Thursday 1st Catherine gave a wonderful and well-received lecture at the CUNY Graduate Centre on ‘What is a Man?’, which explored the importance of the writing in particular of the pro-slavery advocate Edward Long in constructing harsh racial stereotypes of enslaved Africans. On Friday 2nd, 6 scholars presented papers that to greater or lesser extents engaged with our work, and I attempted to provide a response to the papers and their relationship to our concerns in LBS. Jennifer Morgan of NYU gave a suggestive paper on the relationship between ‘political economy’ and the building of the slave-economy in the 17thC; Sven Beckert of Harvard reflected on the historiography of capitalism and slavery; Kathleen Wilson of SUNY at Stony Brook delivered a characteristically trenchant paper on liberty, slavery and Britishness; Natasha Lightfoot at Columbia supplied a densely-researched and conceptually nimble paper on Antiguan exceptionalism in dispensing with Apprenticeship; Melanie Newton of the University of Toronto complicated the CARICOM reparations claim with an wide-ranging sketch of the position of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean under both colonial rule and under post-independence nation states; and Richard Drayton at Kings College London closed with a powerful call for re-examination of the roots of modern inequalities in slavery and its colonial aftermath.

Together these papers gave Catherine and me a sense not only of the diversity and depth of American scholarship on race and slavery, but also an indication of the sometimes divergent concerns within that corpus of scholarship. In face of the very different approaches and adjacencies of the papers, I addressed the question of in what senses we – or at least I – conceive of LBS’s work as ‘reparative’ history. The audience, which stayed with us with great patience and commitment through the day, included Robin Blackburn and Eric Foner, who in relation to the question of slavery and industrialisation engaged fully in one case and resisted equally fully in the other.

We were privileged to be able to speak about LBS’ work to the audiences on both days: it both provided reinforcement of our own belief in the importance of the LBS project and furnished a salutary reminder that our work is only one contribution to a much larger scholarly endeavour to rethink slavery and modernity. Parts of the symposium will possibly be published in a future volume of the Caribbean cultural journal Small Axe.