Posted in African Americans, capitalism, material culture, racism, slavery

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

In River of Dark Dreams, Walter Johnson presents a “materialist turn in the study of slavery” in the way that he examines how the “lives of enslaved people were limited, shaped, even determined by their enslavement–bales per acre per slave, pounds per day, lashes and rations, field and woods, solidarity and betrayal: these were the circumstances in which slaves made history.”[1] Johnson reveals slaves as historical agents within the limitations of their enslavement, furthering his ongoing project on agency.[2] Johnson’s 2003 essay, “On Agency,” admonishes social historians for trying to “give the slaves back their agency,” claiming that such attempts obscure important questions about the experience of the enslaved that need to be asked.[3]  Johnson claims that the term “agency” remains ensconced within a (white) liberal notion of self-determination that is inherently at odds with the conditions of slavery, which reduces the complexity of human agency  to just “resistance” to slavery.[4] He implores historians to “try to imagine a history of slavery which sees the lives of enslaved people as powerfully conditioned by, though not reducible to, their slavery.”[5] He asserts that a new way of thinking about slavery can evolve from  questioning the conditions of enslaved humanity, rather than searching for evidence of resistance (“humanity as indexed by the presence of acts of self-determination”).[6] Johnson proposes that to sort “humanity” from “agency” from “resistance,” historians should focus on forms of human “agency” that are not considered practices of resistance at all, specifically, collaboration and betrayal.[7] In order to correctly address human agency, Johnson prompts historians to ask how enslaved people created relationships and political movements; how they talked to one another about slavery, resistance, and revolution; and how they figured out who they could and could not trust.[8]

In River of Dark Dreams, Johnson sheds light on the love, practices of solidarity, and “ethic of care” within communities of enslaved people that took shape through sharing food, tending to the wounded, sheltering the escaped, and mourning the loss of those who had been sold.[9] In one telling example, John Parker, “whose hunger drove him to ‘desperation’” tried to steal some food, but was discovered by the cook. In that moment, he was sure that “it was all over” for him, but she recognized his situation. Parker said, “Without either of us saying a word, she went to the cupboard, took out a good-sized bowl, put it in front of me, handed me a ladle, pointed at the pot of soup, and went out of the room.”[10] This enslaved woman’s willingness to put herself at risk to help a man that she did not know hints at a “wordless affiliation among the enslaved.”[11] For Johnson, slaves cannot be reduced to the conditions of their slavery. Their actions transcended and actively reshaped their environment.[12]

Johnson’s call for historians to consider the conditions of slavery when addressing issues of agency is not meant to suggest that historians should steer clear of stories of violent resistance. In “On Agency,” he also urges historians to consider how individual acts of sabotage and subterfuge might have led to an explicit threat to slavery and to question the relationship between individual and collective acts of resistance.[13]  The Haitian Revolution, as discussed in River of Dark Dreams, is a case in point. Johnson declares that the history of the Mississippi Valley’s cotton empire, which sad come to symbolize the word “slavery,” has always been closely tied with the history of the most successful slave revolt in the world, the Haitian Revolution.[14] Johnson asserts that in Napoleon’s global vision of the French Empire, the Mississippi Valley would “provide the food that would support Haitian slaves as they cultivated sugar for European markets.”[15] The success of the Haitian Revolution diminished the value of the Mississippi Valley to Napoleon significantly, which consequently facilitated the Louisiana Purchase. The first image insert in the book notes, “The revolution in Haiti haunted Valley slaveholders all the way up until the Civil War.”[16] Throughout River of Dark Dreams, Johnson shows how the success of the world’s most successful slave revolt influenced pro-slavery discussions and decisions.[17]

Whether through simple acts of kindness or large-scale violent revolts, slaves are shown to be historical agents in River of Dark Dreams.

[1] Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), 217, 473fn22.

[2] Ibid., 217.

[3] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 114.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 115.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 116.

[8] Ibid., 118.

[9] Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, 146.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 147.

[12] Ibid., 217.

[13] Johnson, “On Agency,” 116-17. Emphasis in original.

[14] Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, 22.

[15] Ibid., 23.

[16] Ibid., 23, 33, image insert 1.

[17] Ibid., 84, 314, 17, 21, 61-63, 405.

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