Academic scholars and experts who study slavery and justice convened at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Monday night to discuss the relationship between slavery and capitalism. The conversation addressed the impact of race and racism on historical thought and the complexity of studying history through the lens of race. The event, titled “Slavery, Capitalism and the Making of the Modern World,” was co-hosted by the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Professor of History at Harvard University Walter Johnson, a panelist at the event, emphasized the importance of considering the history of capitalism as inherently connected to race.
“It’s empirically true … at root, when you talk about the history of capital in the Atlantic World, the capital you are talking about is in many instances human beings,” Johnson said, referencing the English cotton trade. For example, “the capital that … supports the industrial capitalism of Liverpool, that capital is either stolen land or stolen people.”
Johnson concluded with an imperative to incorporate racial consideration into the history of capitalism. “If one insists upon capitalism as always already racial, one imagines a different sort of historical subject as the central subject of our studies, our history and the lessons we can draw from history.”
In response to a question from the audience, Johnson compelled his listeners to embrace the “enormously complicated and not always synchronous stories” of history.
“At the risk of oversimplifying, I want to say that race and racism make us lazy thinkers,” said Jennifer Morgan, department chair and professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and panelist at Monday’s event.
Morgan established what would become a theme throughout the talk: dealing with the scale and complexity of the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Race and racism “stand in for careful consideration of processes and offer up simple explanations for complex and foundational historic phenomenon.”
She contextualized her point by saying that “we live in a moment when we simply cannot fathom an encounter between an African and a European-descended person unsaturated by racial recognition or racial hierarchy.”
Anthony Bogues, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and professor of Africana Studies at the University, started by speaking about his research project, a book that “began as a study of freedom. But I realized in writing it that I cannot do a study of freedom without doing a study of the history of capitalism itself,” he said.
“What you’re looking at is the reduction of man to labor … and so therefore to think about this particular reduction … means in my mind you have to think through a different conception of freedom,” Bogues said.
The seminar also included consideration of the broad, invisible network of material goods linking slavery to the northern United States and beyond, led by panelist and Associate Professor of History Seth Rockman. The discussion also touched on theory about the intersections of sexuality and reproduction with slavery, in addition to using W.E.B. DuBois essays to provide a theoretical framework to link different modes of thought.
Massachusetts resident Kevin Smith and Providence resident Teury Marte both came to the seminar out of an interest in “the history that hasn’t been told here,” Smith said. After the talk finished, the two engaged in their own, smaller discussion, touching on gold mines in Haiti and the way history is taught in schools today.