Cover image of book Reckoning with Slavery by Jennifer L. Morgan What did rationality look like to an enslaved woman?

In Reckoning with Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan works toward an answer, wrestling with sources that were often designed to deny even the possibility that an enslaved woman could have a perspective on rationality. I first read this book a couple weeks ago and it has stuck with me. I don’t entirely understand it yet—I will have to re-read and work through the evidence and arguments more slowly. But I agree with historian Patrícia Martins Marcos, who tweeted this:

Morgan is doing a lot and any attempt at summary or synthesis feels fraught. I’m going to attempt to draw out why this book is so important to the history of quantification, and I welcome corrections or critique.

Here’s what has stuck with me after reading: when a historian (like Morgan) treats enslaved women as thinking people (as intellectuals without a printing press, maybe) it becomes possible to also see what they witnessed up close: how white elites built “modernity” or “rationality,” and how frequently ugly, even horrifying, that process was. But “ugly” or “horrifying” are too vague. The historian who looks at rationality from the particular perspective of enslaved women can see more clearly than others have how it has been built to encompass and sometimes depend upon a series of lies and false premises, which together make possible the persistent injustices of racial capitalism.

If we follow Morgan and try to see the world through the eyes of enslaved women, we see how the building of “rationality” for Europe or America resulted from disavowing or erasing the evidence of rationality in Africa—these disavowals created a contrast that elevated capitalist modernity; these disavowals also justified the continued practice of slavery and the associated increase in wealth and power. Stories of an uncivilized Africa look foolish, Morgan explains, when we attend to the robust market economy through which enslaved women were sold to the Portuguese in the first place. European commentators could only claim that Africa lacked money and markets by discounting the money and markets that Europeans relied on to become rich. “In the sixteenth century,” Morgan writes, describing this rhetorical sleight of hand, “the Portuguese secured their dominance of the cowrie trade and, with it, the illusion that Africans lacked a rational currency.” (137-138) Cowries were a currency that Portugeuse traders used to purchase people and from which they built fortunes; and yet, contemporaries who wrote about the trade and about cowries denied this money any legitimate status. Money became, almost by definition, that which Africans did not have.

Following Morgan as she follows the journey of enslaved women, we see slave ships differently too, not merely as machines or spaces where terrible violence took place, but also as spaces of resistance and rebellion where women were often crucial, where some women would choose even to blow up an entire vessel, rather than subject themselves and their kin to continued violence.

In America, Morgan argues that the sale of enslaved women and their children should not be understood in terms of dehumanization. Even as the enslaved were commodified, they maintained their humanity: “thinking of commodification as the ultimate space of dehumanization suggests (perhaps because of the completeness of their reduction to ‘thingness’) that those being commodified were unable to perceive that the property claims made upon them were, in fact, entirely exterior to their personhood.” This path misleads, writes Morgan, because “mobilizing this concept risks obscuring that the claim that a slave was a thing was always rooted more in the status of the slave owner than the status of the slave.” (205) Morgan insists instead that enslaved women persisted in understanding their own humanity. They evidenced that understanding at times through resistance: by, for instance, aborting pregnancies or by running away to join Maroon communities. European and American writers might write about man-eating among Africans or maroons, but these women, Morgan argues, saw how those who sold them were the real cannibals.

Finally, false depictions of enslaved women’s family lives served as foil to the emerging ideal of the home as a sentimental space apart from the market. White commentators had somehow claimed simultaneously that African mothers routinely failed to care for their children, that they lacked some innate connection to their kin, and yet also described how traders could capture African women by using their children as bait. In the United States, the inviolability of the white family by the market became a central value just as such a distinction was explicitly denied to African slaves. White families saw that violation all around them in early years, as the sale of enslaved people involving the forced separation of loved ones, intimates, and parents and children took place in public view all over: “on piers, on board ships, after long marches through towns and into the countryside, on corners, in the back of shops, in the post office or the public house, on wharves, from the backs of wagons, inside urban living rooms, with a stranger, with a child, with a spouse, alone or in full view of those who sale would come next.” (174) Morgan argues that the contrast was part of the point: “The claims that Black women’s childbearing took place outside the realm of family life, that it was painless, that it was inconsequential, and that it did not involve emotional intensities served to sharpen the connection of birth and domesticity with privileged European women and their descendants.” (213)

For the history of quantification, this is an important book precisely because it argues that whiteness and calculative rationality were constructed together around the imagined failures of Africans. Working to the see through the eyes of enslaved women allows us to see that co-construction and surely challenges us to work out the implications of a rationality built in part on racist lies and violent exploitation.