Most of the cotton grown in the Mississippi Valley in the 19th century was the hybrid strain Gossypium barbadense, otherwise known as “Petit Gulf.” The strain was patented in 1820 and prized for its “pickability,” as Walter Johnson explains in River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, new this week. Petit Gulf’s singular dominance in the region produced what Johnson characterizes as a “radical simplification” of both nature and man: “the reduction of landscape to cotton plantation and of human being to ‘hand.’ ”
These two simplifications were intimately linked, but their limits differed. “Cotton mono-cropping,” writes Johnson, “stripped the land of vegetation, leached out its fertility, and rendered one of the richest agricultural regions of the earth dependent on upriver trade for food.” The land, then, could become what was made of it, at least for a time. Human beings, though, could not so readily be reduced, as scholars have long been helping us to see.
And yet, according to Johnson, some of the undeniably important work on slave subjectivity has by now perhaps distanced us from the facts of life in the Cotton Kingdom. From River of Dark Dreams:
The history of the enslaved people who toiled in those fields has generally been approached through durable abstractions: “the master-slave relationship,” “white supremacy,” “resistance,” “accommodation,” “agency.” Each category has been indispensable to understanding slavery; together they have made it possible to see things that otherwise would have been missed. Increasingly, however, these categories have become unmoored from the historical experience they were intended to represent. The question of “agency” has often been framed quite abstractly—counterpoised against “power” as if both terms were arrayed at the ends of some sort of sliding scale, an increase in one meaning a corresponding decrease in the other. But “agency,” like “power,” is historically conditioned: it takes specific forms at specific times and places; it is thick with the material givenness of a moment in time. “Agency” is less a simple opposite of “power” than its unfinished relief—a dynamic three-dimensional reflection. The history of Gossypium barbadense suggests that beneath the abstractions lies a history of bare-life processes and material exchanges so basic that they have escaped the attention of countless historians of slavery. The Cotton Kingdom was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.
While it is easy to lose sight of the elementally human character of labor—even that of forced labor—in light of the salutary political effect of labeling slavery “inhuman,” it is important to recognize that slaves’ humanity was not restricted to a zone of “agency” or “culture” outside their work. When slaves went into the field, they took with them social connections and affective ties. The labor process flowed through them, encompassed them, was interrupted and redefined by them. Slaves worked alongside people they knew, people they had raised, and people they would bury. They talked, they sang, they laughed, they suffered, they remembered their ancestors and their God, the rhythms of their lives working through and over those of their work. We cannot any more separate slaves’ labor from their humanity than we can separate the ability of a human hand to pick cotton from its ability to caress the cheek of a crying child, the aching of a stooped back in the field from the arc of a body bent in supplication, the voice that called time for the hoes from that which told a story that was centuries old.
Johnson’s first book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, did a great deal to document the inseparability of hand from humanity. Soul by Soul, published in 1999, is one of the 100 significant books we’ve chosen to highlight from our first 100 years, and over at our centennial site you can read an excerpt detailing how slaves could sometimes “create themselves in the slave market,” braving great risk to shape their own sale.