The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America

Univ. of Illinois. Apr. 2021. 264p. ISBN 9780252085703. pap. $28. SOC SCI
Barclay’s (history, Univ. at Buffalo) short and extremely engaging first book addresses the many ways that American slavery and the antebellum discourse on Blackness were intertwined with disability. She examines a wide array of sources to prove how central this concept was: the economic worth of enslaved people was entirely dependent on their ablebodiedness and strength, although proslavery rhetoric, especially in medicine and law, always argued that Black people were disabled and in need of paternalistic “care” via slavery. As Barclay takes care to detail, even though slaves with disabilities were seen by slave owners as a financial burden, they took on a special role in slave communities as conjurers and caretakers for children. Abolitionists also used slaves’ disabilities, sometimes results of punishment and overwork, in their arguments, resulting in rhetoric that associated Blackness and impairment. Lastly, Barclay effectively shows that other scholars have overlooked how central disability was to the popularity of some depictions of Blackness in 19th-century mass culture, such as Jim Crow blackface performances and freak shows.
VERDICT This original work adds an important new voice to conversations about slavery, disability, and medical history. Exceptional analysis of an understudied topic.
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