Lessons from History

Saturday May 20, 2.15-3.30 pm

Moderator: Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya

Keagan Potts, “Freedom and Indoctrination into the Pervasive Surveillance Network: The Separation of Indenture and Racialized Slavery Laid Out in the 1688 Barbadian Slave Code”
Errol A. Henderson, “Giving Substance to Freedom: The Implications of the Slave Revolution in the US Civil War to Black Freedom in the Postbellum Era”
Neil Agarwal, “Yellowing the Logarithm: How Money Solved the Problem of Freedom”

Keagan Potts, “Freedom and Indoctrination into the Pervasive Surveillance Network: The Separation of Indenture and Racialized Slavery Laid Out in the 1688 Barbadian Slave Code”

The brutal living conditions on the English sugar islands necessitated particularly harsh punishment and vigilant governance over the slave population. Although colonists initially brand and mutilate slaves to mark them for closer surveillance, blackness quickly emerges as an additional perceptual sign of delinquency. An analysis of the 1688 Barbadian slave code provides access to the development of racialized slavery in the English Atlantic. The code compiles statutes drafted in response to a rash of revolts plaguing Barbados throughout the 17th century. As such, the laws paradoxically denigrate the mental activity of black minds in the face of evidence of extreme organization and planning in the execution of rebellions. Punishments in the code drive a wedge between the institutions of indentured servitude and racialized slavery to meet the demand for an increasingly powerful and pervasive policing body. The barrier between slave and free, servant and master, was solidified by restricting the privileges of the slave, increasing the severity of punishments, and employing a network of symbols that perceptually delineate the two social categories. In the face of organized and expansive revolts these slave laws attempt to recruit the occupants of the island into an omnipresent surveillance network. The prominence of punishments that perceptually mark unruly slaves for closer surveillance reveals the cost of freedom: to be free is to join the policing force.

This project begins by indicating the unique circumstances on Barbados that demanded the creation of a pervasive network of informants. Largely, the need for effective governance is particularly dire on Barbados due to the dearth of white indentured servants and hellish labor required to cultivate sugar. Next, I examine the birth of racialized slavery out of indentured servitude. Contrasting the corpus of punishments exacted on slaves against those used on servants shows not only that servants gradually earn freedoms, but that these freedoms correspond with policing duties. Finally, I indicate that beyond the cost incurred by those living on Barbados in 1688, punishments in the slave code lead to a denigrated model of the black mind that fuels racialized slavery and racist oppression far past the abolition of slavery. To be a member of the policing force is to demonstrate certain mental capacities. I aim to close with a reflection on implications this project has for the current state of police use of force in the United States.

Keagan Potts is a first year MA student in Philosophy at Western Michigan Universe (WMU). He has presented numerous papers on topics ranging from hate crime punishment enhancement, to food deserts, to hate crime punishment enhancement. His philosophical areas of study are perception, phenomenology, normative ethics, and legal theory. As an undergraduate he received honors in his two majors (Philosophy and English), researched as a provost fellow, and refereed for Stance: an International Philosophy Journal (http://stancephilosophy.com/feat). He is currently working on developing a principled restriction on qualified immunity enjoyed by law enforcement officers in the US.


Errol A. Henderson, “Giving Substance to Freedom: The Implications of the Slave Revolution in the US Civil War to Black Freedom in the Postbellum Era”

WEB Du Bois argued that black participation in the US Civil War approximated a “slave revolution” based on what he referred to as a General Strike, which was the “stubborn mutiny of the Negro slave” that furnished about 200,000 black troops to the Union “whose evident ability to fight decided the war”. Recently, Du Bois’ characterization was affirmed by Pulitizer Prize winning historian Steven Hahn (2004).  The US Civil War was a political revolution, and an economic revolution—both resulting from a black cultural revolution that generated the General Strike; but it was not an American cultural revolution. It radically transformed the polity of the US by advancing the citizenship rights of former slaves—the Confederate leaders were right that their political project was consistent with that of the Founders and Lincoln’s policies with respect to the manumission of slaves and the rights of secession were a revolutionary rejection of that vision. It also was an economic revolution that overthrew the system of chattel slavery; but the failure of the war to provide to blacks reparations in the form of land, material compensation, and broader legal redress for their centuries of bondage is the major unresolved issue of social justice that persists within the US politico-socio-economy. Further, the war did not overthrow the cultural system of white supremacism in the US. Although the black revolution in the Civil War had emerged largely from a cultural impetus that wedded political and economic factors in a larger thrust for racial democracy, it largely left unabated the cultural system of white supremacism. It was a black cultural revolution; but it did not generate an American cultural revolution, and this spoke to the resilience and persistence of white supremacism among white Americans, individually, and their institutions of power, generally, which would make black “freedom” a caricature of what blacks had fought for and thought they had obtained. With white supremacism intact, the political and economic gains that blacks secured through war were short-lived; and white racism provided justification for the political repression of blacks in the postbellum era, and the seizure of the few economic rights and limited resources they had secured. Given the persistence of white supremacism in the cultural system of the US, and the linkage between the cultural system and the political and economic systems, then white cultural transformation would be a salient factor in future liberation strategies; however, in future formulations, culture would need to be viewed as more than a mechanism to organize the black liberation struggle, internally, but also a focus of the liberation struggle, externally. Black liberation would require a cultural revolution, and one which both utilized and transformed the American culture system in such a way as to generate political, economic, and cultural democracy, which would establish racial democracy in the US, and meaningful freedom for African Americans.

Dr. Errol Anthony Henderson is Associate Professor of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches international relations, US foreign policy, the analysis of war and peace, and African Politics.  He earned his PhD in Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1993.  He is the author of more than 30 scholarly publications including three books; and he has lectured throughout North America, Europe and Africa.


Neil Agarwal, “Yellowing the Logarithm: How Money Solved the Problem of Freedom”

My project identifies a democratic impulse in the eighteenth-century British American monetary system and traces its afterlife in the nineteenth-century United States. At a time when Bank of England notes circulated primarily among merchants and within London, colonial freeholders from Barbados to Massachusetts issued paper currencies through representative assemblies and posited a link between this enterprise and the well-being of a larger provincial community within which the bills would circulate. Keeping in focus both civic republican conceptions of political society and liberal conceptions of market society, I ask: in a place where the majority of people were classed through markers of slavery, savagery, servitude, and felony, what was this social imaginary of borrowers, lenders, paymasters, waged laborers, and shopkeepers?

W.E.B. Du Bois famously observed a color line in the disenfranchisement of black workers and extension of civic privilege to white workers, “compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” 1 In its broadest formulation, my project considers how and why this public and psychological compensation took the form of a wage. In early modern England the independence of the freeholder was incompatible with relations of mutual interdependence and private interest ushered in by new instruments of credit. Landless workers who labored for a paymaster by the day or task were classed as servants alongside other forms of contractual labor such as apprenticeship and indentured servitude. All were considered to be dependent on the will of their employer and therefore without the requisite independence necessary for membership into political society. Men and women who did not earn a regular wage—the vagabonds, highwaymen, and beggars of seventeenth-century society—were described as “masterless men.” Across the Atlantic, two hundred years later and shortly before the collapse of Reconstruction, New York Representative Clinton Merriam called upon freedmen in his defense of the greenback by suggesting it as “the first thing they ever earned they could call their own, the first thing, save our flag, that stood before them a symbol of their freedom.” 2

While creole elites conducted their currency experiments in relative autonomy from the structural constraints of the Atlantic economy, the democratic impulse to their efforts would provide a foundation for the monetary organization of social life in a later age of emancipation and industry. An anthropology of these monetary forms is not a political economic analysis of the contradictions that propel the world system toward systematic crisis; it is a historical materialist study of the peculiar development of raw capacities available and at hand to restructure capitalist accumulation along new lines. In counterpoint to extensive scholarship on financial institutions tied to the guns-and-bombs belligerency of formal war, this is the story of a slower violence through which monetary infrastructures take root and assume their moral force.

Neil Agarwal is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and current Dissertation Writing Fellow at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics. Their dissertation explores money in early America through a framework of historical-geographical materialism that traces the formation of a political imaginary of borrowers, lenders, paymasters, waged laborers, and shopkeepers from a society in which the majority of people were classed through markers of slavery, savagery, servitude, and felony. They have previously organized interdisciplinary seminars on both historicity and international law through the Center for the Humanities, and taught in the Urban Studies Department at Queens College.