Rashauna Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Slavery’s Metropolis?
RJ: I grew up in New Orleans, but I had no idea how central slavery was to that city’s history. I wanted to know more about the daily lives of the actual enslaved people who lived there as well as the ways that slavery as an institution shaped the city’s physical, economic, political, social, and cultural landscapes.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Slavery’s Metropolis?
RJ: This book argues that, in New Orleans, black Atlantic journeys and intimate interracial assemblies were neither exceptional to nor subversive of chattel slavery, but were instead essential to that system of domination. By decoupling cosmopolitan journeys and assemblies from their liberatory associations, we deepen our understanding of the malleability of modern power in New Orleans, early America, and the Atlantic world.
JF: Why do we need to read Slavery’s Metropolis?
RJ: From monographs to movie theaters, we as a society are grappling with chattel slavery and its legacies, especially the ways that the institution shaped everything from capitalism to the nation’s colleges. This book adds to that effort by shifting focus from the paradigmatic rural plantation to show how a seemingly permissive, heterogeneous port city could at the same time be a capital of slaves and slavery. Ultimately, it shows how heterogeneity and interconnectedness can deepen inequality just as easily as they disrupt it.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RJ: My mother kept her prized copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom under her nightstand’s telephone; as children, every time we wanted to make a call we had to confront history. But it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I realized I could use the historian’s tools to produce such knowledge. Several generous mentors and great internships later, I became a historian.
JF: What is your next project?
RJ: My current project uses my grandmother’s family history to examine the global history of immigration and labor in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes from the colonial period to the early twentieth century.
JF: Thanks, Rashauna!