Christy Clark-Pujara is Assistant Professor and Anna Julia Cooper Fellow in the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This interview is based on her new book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (New York University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Dark Work?
CCP: After reading Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (1998), in graduate school, I became mildly obsessed with the history of northern slavery. I engrossed myself in the scholarship of northern slavery, everything from Lorenzo Greene’s The Negro in Colonial New England (1968) and Edgar McManus’ Black Bondage in the North (1973) to Leslie Harris’ In the Shadow of Slavery (2003). My focus on Rhode Island was rather serendipitous. I began researching slavery and emancipation in Rhode Island in the years after Ruth Simmons commissioned the report on Brown University and its connections to the institution of slavery in 2003. After reading the report and the secondary literature that highlighted Rhode Island’s overt investments in slavery, I was surprised to find out that no one had written a history of how those economic ties to the business of slavery had shaped the lives of the enslaved and curtailed the freedom of their descendants. Dark Work builds and expands on my PhD dissertation, “Slavery, Emancipation and Black Freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842, (University of Iowa-Iowa City, 2009).”
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Dark Work?
CCP: I contend, that the business of slavery—the economic activity that was directly related to the maintenance of the slaveholding in the Americas, specifically the buying and selling of people, food, and goods—encouraged race-based slavery, stalled the emancipation process and circumscribed black freedom in Rhode Island from the colonial period through the American Civil War. In response to economic, political, and social marginalization enslaved and free black Rhode Islanders resisted bondage, fought for their freedom and banded together to build institutions to combat their circumscribed freedom.
JF: Why do we need to read Dark Work?
CCP: There is no comprehensive history of slavery in Rhode Island even though the business of slavery was central to the development and economic success of the colony and state. Moreover, a full accounting of the institution of slavery in the Americas necessitates a full accounting of the business of slavery, which was concentrated in the northern colonies and states. I also hope that my work contributes to scholarly literature combating the myths that northern slaveholding was rare, that slavery was mild or that emancipation was quick and free blacks were fully incorporated into the new nation. Other denials include that only a few northerners were invested in the business of slavery or that investments in slavery were confined to the slave trade. These myths are powerful and dangerous, as the erasure or marginalization of the northern black experience and the centrality of the business of slavery to the northern economy allows for a dangerous fiction—that the North has no history of racism to overcome.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CCP: I decided to become a historian in college. To my great surprise I actually enjoyed my college history courses. In high school, I found my history classes to be rather boring—all we did was memorize names, dates and events. My college professors, on the other hand, emphasized what we could learn and change about ourselves and our world through historical analysis. History was means by which we could understand and transform the present. I was hooked. I wanted to do what they did—teach and write history, because history can make us better citizens.
JF: What is your next project?
CCP: My current book project, From Slavery to Suffrage: Black on the Wisconsin Frontier examines how the practice of race-based slavery, and debates over abolition and black settlement shaped white-black race relations from French settlement in the 1740s through the American Civil War. Black people were a tiny minority in Wisconsin territory, and later the state; nevertheless, race-based slavery and anxieties about black migrants led white Wisconsinites to debate the merits of abolition and the rights of black residents. In the mid-nineteenth century, fugitive slaves passing through Wisconsin often assisted; on the other hand, blacks who sought permanent residency experienced social, economic, and political marginalization. My project highlights the complexities of racism against black Americans in the formative years of the state and argues that histories emphasizing the favorable treatment of black fugitives obscured the limited freedom black people faced in early Wisconsin.
JF: Thanks Christy!