In 1831 Virginia, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion that killed fifty-five whites; after more than two months in hiding, he was captured, convicted, and executed. The figure of Turner had an immediate and broad impact on the American South, and his rebellion remains one of the most momentous episodes in American history.
Working against the historical caricature of Turner as befuddled mystic and self-styled Baptist preacher, Christopher Tomlins (UCB Professor of Law) probes the haunting persona of this legendary American slave rebel — exploring Turner’s self-discovery, the dawning of his Christian faith, and the impossible task given to him by God. Tomlins also undertakes a critical examination of William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, which restored Turner to the American consciousness in the era of civil rights, black power, and urban riots.
Christopher Tomlins is the author of many books and articles on legal history. His primary affiliation at Berkeley Law is to the Jurisprudence and Social Policy (PhD) program, in which he teaches courses on legal history and, in particular, the history and law of slavery.
The uprisings in recent weeks against police brutality and institutionalized racism in the United States has brought the long wound of slavery into greater relief for everyone, whether we’re out in the streets or listening to newscasts. In recognition of this moment’s fury and demand for justice, we offer two special issues from our archives that address the issue of slavery head-on. Their engagements with questions of reparation, identity, dispossession, and the archive remain brilliantly, if painfully, pertinent today. All content in these issues is free through the end of 2020.
Special Issue (Representations 92): Redress Edited by Saidiya Hartman and Stephen Best
In discussing her book, Professor Jones-Rogers will engage with two UC Berkeley colleagues: Bryan Wagner*, Associate Professor in the Department of English, and Leslie Salzinger, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies.
Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, this book makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery. Jones-Rogers draws on a variety of sources to show that slave-owning women were sophisticated economic actors who directly engaged in and benefited from the South’s slave market. Because women typically inherited more slaves than land, enslaved people were often their primary source of wealth. Not only did white women often refuse to cede ownership of their slaves to their husbands, they employed management techniques that were as effective and brutal as those used by slave-owning men. White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment. By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave-owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.
On Sunday August 18 the New York Times launched The 1619 Project, an initiative whose purpose, in the words of editor Jake Silverstein, is to “reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 [the date of the first arrival of slaves on the North American continent] as our birth year. Doing so requires us to put the consequences of slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”
Although scholarship on slavery and its consequences has not been a singular focus of Representations, we have been publishing on the topic steadily over nearly four decades, and our archives reveal a surprisingly relevant cross section of critical readings on the subject. We highlight a few of them here in endorsement of The 1619 Project (all available free of charge through the end of September):
In The Tar Baby: A Global History (Princeton, 2017), Bryan Wagner explores how the tar baby tale, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents. Examining the fable’s variation, reception, and dispersal over time, he argues that this story of a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine is best understood not merely as a folktale but as a collective work in political philosophy. Circulating at the same time and in the same places as new ideas about property and politics developed in colonial law and political economy, the tar baby comes to embody an understanding of the interlocking systems of slavery, colonialism, and global trade.
Bryan Wagner is Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on African American expression in the context of slavery and its aftermath. In addition to The Tar Baby, he is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery. His essay “Disarmed and Dangerous: The Strange Career of Bras-Coupé” appeared in Representations 92.