The Author’s Corner with Terri Snyder

Terri Snyder is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. This interview is based on her latest book The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Power to Die?

TS: During my research for my first book, I was reading county court records from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia and noticed reports of suicide. Most of these accounts described self-destruction by young, indentured servants who died under bleak circumstances; their stories both absorbed and troubled me. I started collecting any references to suicide that I came across  — from courts and legislatures, newspapers and periodicals, slave narratives and plantations records, for instance – and amassed a surprising amount of material.  I ultimately focused on the suicides of enslaved men and women, however, because my research revealed that their deaths were understood, reacted to, and remembered distinctly, in ways that differed from those of free European Americans. For instance, in early modern Christianity, death by suicide was condemned as a grievous sin and a willful rejection of one’s God-ordained fate; it was also punished as a felony. When slaves killed themselves, their masters viewed those acts as powerful rejections of their authority.  In contrast, at least some enslaved people viewed suicide as a conduit to ancestral reunion and did not express reproach for others who had killed themselves.  In addition, by the era of the American Revolution, slave suicide was used for explicitly political ends. One of the earliest, popular printed anti-slavery tracts from 1773 (from which my book’s title is taken) used an enslaved man’s act of suicide to illustrate the injustice and inhumanity of slavery.  Given what I had uncovered about the visibility, meaning, and politics of self-destruction, I felt that the history of slavery and suicide needed to be written.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Power to Die?

TS: To put it most simply, suicide is part of the history of slavery in North America: the suicides of enslaved women and men were visible from the beginnings of the slave trade, evident across British American slave societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a focus for anti-slavery activists in the early United States, and remembered by ex-slaves and in African American folklore, literature, and the visual arts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Acts of self-destruction by enslaved people carried completing cultural meanings, exposed the paradox of personhood and property that was fundamental to the legal institution of slavery, and were a political force in challenging attitudes both toward slavery and suicide.

JF: Why do we need to read The Power to Die?

TS: The Power to Die allows us to see both slavery and suicide from an original perspective and to understand the complex implications of self-inflicted death under slavery in early America. Partly, the book is focused on experience.  It has many examples of enslaved people who died by suicide or chose death over enslavement.  In a sense, this book is a witness to those deaths and examines the circumstances, when knowable, that surrounded them as well as the range of responses to them.   At the same time, this book also looks to the larger cultural, legal, and political meanings of self-destruction by enslaved women and men.  Accounts of their deaths by suicide found in legal forums, periodicals and newspapers, and popular literature and drama reflected prevailing ideas about race, gender, and temperament, expressed competing legal, cultural, and political tensions over slavery, and in the hands of anti-slavery activists, were used to challenge the peculiar institution.  The book concludes with a consideration of the memory of slave suicide in modern America. All of this makes for a widely chronological and interdisciplinary study, which I hope will appeal to historians of slavery and race, scholars of early America, and those interested in understanding death and violence in the American past and present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TS: I decided to pursue a Ph.D. relatively late as an undergraduate, and I was divided about whether to study early American history or literature, so I wed the two interests by choosing American Studies. I was also working on feminist causes outside of the university, so I knew that gender was going to be an element of my work.  But, honestly, I think I only began to become a historian when I took a class in early American women’s history with Linda Kerber; her example continues to profoundly inspire and shape my own work. I also attended graduate school with an amazing cadre of fellow students, and they also influenced my development as a historian.  Even today, these relationships still form the core of my scholarly networks, intellectual exchanges, and friendships.

JF: What is your next project?

TS: I am working on a biography of an early American family. The study begins on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1703, with the marriage of a free woman of color to an enslaved man.  The couple had seven children, and my book follows the life stories of those children as they and their descendants mature and migrate across and beyond the Atlantic seaboard.  I am particularly interested in using this family history to understand the changing experience of race, law, and freedom in early America. 

JF: Thanks, Terri!