Everybody’s going old school these days–and by old school, I mean really, really old. Toni Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy, is set in 1682 New York*, and is the story of a little enslaved girl, Florens, who is sold to a farmer and works alongside a Native American slave and white servants. NPR featured an interview yesterday with Morrison, in which she speaks about her desire to “remove race from slavery.” This makes for a fascinating and rich plot conceit, but she is too quick to suggest that African slavery was essentially the equivalent of European indentured servitude.
In the interview, and in other promotional blurbs for the book, she says:
“The suggestion has always been that they could work off their passage in seven years generally, and then they would be free,” says Morrison. “But in fact, you could be indentured for life and frequently were. The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable.”
I have never seen any evidence that European or Euro-American people in colonial America were “indentured for life.” It’s true that indenture could effectively become a life sentence, especially in places like the early Chesapeake Bay colonies, where outliving one’s indenture was not a guarantee. Morrison has a good point about African people standing out in the colonial North before the eighteenth century. In the northern colonies in 1682, when her story begins, African and African American people were a small sliver of the population outside of Maryland, Virginia, and the Caribbean colonies, although in places like the Dutch-occupied Hudson River Valley where slaves were used more frequently, the African American population would eventually grow to 15% of the overall population. Florens would have been more vulnerable to capture had she tried to run away, not just because of her race, but also because of her sex and her age. Enslaved women and indentured servants in the colonial period ran away in much smaller numbers than their male peers, and I’ve never seen evidence of a small child running away on her own. Women were much more vulnerable on the road, to predation as well as capture, and enslaved women were also frequently tied down by small children, whom they usually refused to abandon but who made fugitive travel so much more complicated and difficult.
Visibility as an ethnic minority is only a small part of the story, however, especially for little girls like Florens. As a slave rather than a servant, Florens would never have been free to marry and have that marriage recognized by the state, unlike the white servants she worked with. She never would have been able to take her master to court or serve as a witness in court, because as a slave, she was an un-person, whereas white servants could testify in court and could even bring criminal complaints and civil suits against their masters (however unlikely in actual practice.)
Finally, the most important difference between enslaved people and indentured servants: masters owned slaves’ bodies, whereas they owned only the time and labor of indentured servants. This makes all of the difference in the world, because even as early as 1682, slavery was a condition passed to children by their mothers, whereas children of indentured servants weren’t consigned to servitude or slavery. If an indentured servant bore a child while in service, she was usually punished by her term of service being lengthened by a year or two, to compensate her master for the work time lost during pregnancy and recovery from childbirth. (This is a practice that seems to have been followed in most colonies in colonial British America.) But, the child herself would not be consigned to slavery–the critical difference, as far as I’m concerned, between slaves like Florens and indentured servants like her co-workers. Her co-workers could eventually outlive and outgrow their status, and become lawful wives and husbands, and parents of their own children. Already in 1682, Florens’s fate was sealed absent the intervention of a generous master. She was a slave, and her children would be enslaved after her, as would her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.
I’m all for explorations of indentured servitude–indeed, there’s a long-abandoned study in Historiann’s past on this subject from her undergraduate days. But, suggesting that temporary white servitude, however exploitative, was the same as racially-based, heritable slavery is just not historically accurate. Furthermore, it can be used to push a Kum-Bye-Yah, all-of-our-ancestors-were-oppressed narrative that is extremely popular with white people in this country. Check out this blurb, which praises the book for its “redemptive tone:”
[A] pristine landscape, a compassionate white Northern farmer, and a notable absence of racial animosity—felt even more keenly in an election year with a full deck of race cards. In A Mercy, Jacob Vaark’s collection of laborer-charges (a Native American, a black child, an orphan, and two indentured servants) are united by and against a spreading culture of servitude that has little to do with skin color.”
“Skin color” is of course too reductive, but suggesting that it was all just a random accident that only people of African descent were enslaved–well, call me when you get back from Disneyland. I’m putting A Mercy on my Christmas list, and I’ll hope that Santa Claus a copy drops a copy in my stocking. You can hear Morrison read excerpts from the book here–so far, it sounds fascinating. Watch this space for a review this winter.
*I’m assuming that Florens is brought to New York (the English name for the conquered Dutch colony of New Netherland), because her owner Jacob Vaark purchases her in Maryland but brings her north, and his name is Dutch. The promotional materials I’ve found on-line are frustratingly non-specific–I suppose that “the north” is as specific as most Americans think they need to be, to specify that Vaark keeps slaves but does not live in a slave society.
UPDATED: Aaaaand, the NPR listening audience learns exactly the WRONG lesson. (Click the link to hear the letters that people wrote to the program after hearing the Morrison interview.)
UPDATED, 10/29/08: I asked my American women’s history (to 1800) students if they thought Morrison was right about the equivalence of indentured servitude and slavery, and about the notion that the categories of enslaved, bound, and free people weren’t yet clear in 1682. Almost to a woman, they answered “no” to both questions. We’ve just finished reading Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), so they had plenty of information to work from in answering those questions. Well done, class!