Disabled Black Slaves and "Free Labor": Towards a More Comprehensive Disability Justice

The American nation/Empire/State seeks “economic recovery” and the soothing of its nonblack psyche. It equates Blackness with being “dependent,” “defective,” and disabled. It concludes that disabled people have nothing to offer to said economic recovery, and therefore do not deserve to live.

Disabled Black Slaves and "Free Labor": Towards a More Comprehensive Disability Justice

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the faultlines of a number of contradictions within the United States. One such contradiction is ableism, with numerous questions being raised about the fundamental ways in which disabled people are discriminated against and disadvantaged within society. Despite this, disabled people often continue to be left at the periphery of discussions about the ramifications of the government’s obsession with “opening back up” and, in particular, “getting back to work.” In reality, “getting back to work” communicates the horrors of Workism within America and that the very concept of “free labor” emerges from the captivity of others, and that untangling this fact requires that the history of disabled Black slaves no longer be neglected.

The term “able-bodied” emerged in the early 1600s and from the very start was found principally within English laws that concerned the collection of taxes and distribution of aid to the poor, but specifically those poor who were “able-bodied.” American concerns over welfare and who is “deserving” of aid have carried over from these English laws, both legally and socially, and expressed themselves in a particular form with the wide-scale practice of chattel slavery in the United States and its continual reshaping. This is because, as property, Black chattel slaves did not factor into the question of receiving “aid” and the redistribution of resources—this would only become the case later.

This isn’t to say that the concept of being abled versus disabled as applied to slaves was an alien concept. To the contrary, in the antebellum South, it was often the case that slaves were labelled as “useless” if disabled and marked according to a “hand system,” a measure of proportional function that could be used to rank different slaves within any specific job category,” where, “in general, a person who was able to perform the expected amount of a full day’s labor for an adult, able-bodied male slave was assessed to be a ‘full’ hand.”[1] This allowed for seemingly contradictory circumstances whereby a slave could be considered a “full” hand, yet simultaneously be labelled “useless.”

In reality, this contradiction only appears as such if we restrict our scope exclusively to labor exploitation. Rather, “a variety of other factors—including issues of control and discipline, and psychological or emotional reactions to impaired enslaved bodies—were involved in how planters assessed the utility and performance of slaves with disabilities.” This apparent contradiction therefore, is an extension of the complex ways in which anti-Blackness mediates the very concept of “value” and its manifestations, whether it be ontologically, economically, libidinally, etc. One such example that is directly engendered by the presence and subjugation of disabled Black slaves is the very notion of “freedom” itself.

During the Civil War, whenever the Union entered, claimed, and occupied Confederate strongholds in the South with slave populations, these slaves would often flee their plantations to find safety behind Union lines. Initially, they were denied access to Union strongholds as, contrary to the mythos of American moral virtue, the Union’s interests concerning the “freedom” of slaves was negligible. It was not until they recognized the utility of escaped Black slaves both in disrupting the Confederate economy through the General Strike and taking upon their labor for its own use, that the enslaved were accepted behind Union lines, as famously pointed out by W. E. B. Du Bois in his essay Black Reconstruction. What is most relevant to note here is both that this labor was the condition for escaped slaves gaining food and shelter from Union camps and that this employment rested upon the slaves being “able-bodied.” Becoming “free” therefore became tied to one’s capacity and “ability” to perform labor. In other words,

“slaves were not free because the Civil War ended or even because the federal government passed the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. Rather, slaves were freed because they were willing and able to work.”[2]

This revelation unsettles the normative conception of freedom that is laced within Euromodernity and is taken up by even leftist revolutionary thinkers who insist, as Engels himself argued, that “the slave frees himself when, of all the relations of private property, he abolishes only the relation of slavery and thereby becomes a proletarian.” The presumption that the transition from a “slave-based” economy to a “wage labor/proletarianized” economy represents a revolutionary restructuring of economic relations carries some weight from the perspective of the proletarian, but not from the perspective of the slave, the Black slave in particular. The Civil War therefore demonstrates the material consequences of this form of logic, as slaves escaped their plantations only to be captured once again.

The ramifications and true nature of what Saidiya Hartman appropriately terms the “nonevent of emancipation” were felt most explicitly by disabled Black slaves who could not flee plantations to the same degree as “able-bodied” slaves. Indeed, after the construction of the Freedmen's Bureau to facilitate “former” slaves from slave labor to “free labor,” Bureau agents would often find disabled slaves, whom they referred to as “helpless,” still trapped on plantations and in precisely the same conditions as prior to “emancipation.” Despite this, these agents refused to free disabled slaves from these plantations, viewing these relations as benevolent and “supportive” and therefore presenting masters as being “gracious.”

In reality, this was a convenient situation to preserve slavery materially as well as extend its tendrils in the face of the restructuring of the system to advance the supremacy of “free labor.” The conditions of disabled Black slaves not only did not change under “emancipation” but was also one of the forces central to maintaining Black slavery generally.

One particular tactic was utilizing disabled Black slaves as a fault line to destabilize community among slaves. During the antebellum period, when a slave became disabled and/or became too elderly to perform assigned tasks, it was not uncommon for them to experience one of two fates. The first was manumission, i.e., being released into “freedom.” In actuality, this “freedom” meant that they were sent off from the plantation, away from their family and community, and into a Southern city to fend for themselves. In the cases when this was not functionally a death sentence, it forced them into a harsh state of barely clinging onto survival, where they often resided in an institution or on the streets engaging in sex work. As strict legislation against manumission towards the end of the antebellum period became more frequent, masters would sometimes opt for allowing these slaves to “escape.” The more common fate however was not manumission, but instead these slaves being abandoned to seclusion on the plantations they worked. They would be forced to reside alone in a shack or a single room in a dwelling where they would be given inadequate food and clothing and essentially left to die.

This system of abandonment-as-freedom continued during the post-War period and up to the present—molded into different, but still recognizable forms. The federal government had soon found a “use” for disabled slaves: orienting who was “deserving” of aid and federal benefits. While able-bodied freedmen who found their way behind Union lines were forced to work for food and shelter, the disabled were not expected to work much, if at all. This appears benevolent at first, however recall that to work was to be “free”. To be able to “control one’s destiny” and be able to travel at one’s whim required that one work. Therefore, in order to receive aid, one had to give up freedom. Therefore, to be free was incompatible with being disabled.

The ramifications of this extended to “free” Black people as a whole, as there were various attempts to carry forward slave labor through transferring “freedmen” back to the South to rebuild its economy—in many cases attempting to get them back on plantations to cultivate cotton once again. Similarly, those disabled were forced into work as well, but to perform particular types of labor. Those sent back to plantations would commonly be forced into care work for white families, a status that would eventually become signified in the mammy caricature, as the idea of sexual desirability was barred to Black slaves who were also disabled.

When not thrust into care work, yet another common form of labor they performed was, in a cruel irony, to maintain asylums where they would work to preserve an institution that neglected other disabled slaves. These asylums were, in many ways, the ideal “dumping ground” for the federal government. Remember, the federal government—or the Union if you prefer—was not sincerely interested in the total decimation of slavery. Rather it sought its own preservation while advancing the supremacy of “free labor.” Therefore, placing disabled slaves in asylums diminished Black people’s capacity to form community as well as largely removing disabled slaves from the purview of the labor economy, which was the sphere of “free labor” and therefore of “freedom” itself.

As I write this piece, I have witnessed an example of convergence between the State’s disastrous responses to a viral pandemic, and an “environmental disaster” (perhaps at this point these should be named more aptly as colonial-capitalist climate crises) that were both engendered by an intersection of anti-Blackness and ableism. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic was at its onset an overwhelming assurance to the American population that those that were youthful and without “preexisting conditions” would be largely safe—a resounding reminder that in the eyes of this country’s government, the elderly and disabled are expendable. I was then reminded of how successful the institutionalization of this sentiment has become through a news story of over 800 elderly, disabled nursing home residents in Louisiana, instead of being transported out of the path of Hurricane Ida, being shuttled and cramped into a warehouse, which resulted in the death of four of said residents.

The American nation/Empire/State seeks “economic recovery” and the soothing of its nonblack psyche. It equates Blackness with being “dependent,” “defective,” and disabled, and engages in a genocidal campaign against those it deems expendable, because it concludes that disabled people have nothing to offer to said economic recovery, and therefore do not deserve to live. Disabled, particularly Black, people are rendered simultaneously hypervisible while also facing perpetual “removal”. It is a particular form of necropolitic that we (and I speak to other Black people here specifically) must recognize as integral to maintaining fissures among us to prevent the development of community and therefore radical forms of care. This disposability is a prerequisite for legitimizing the capture of Black flesh more broadly. This capturing is then obscured through a mystification of Black “free labor” qua Black self-determination. After Black Africa having been cast out of History itself through the likes of Hegel, Black freedmen were lent a voice filtered through the universalized Subject that masked their enslavement in the form of “labor struggles.” Black slaves’ struggle as Black Slaves was unrecognizable, incomprehensible even, and therefore to be able to have their testimonies “entered into the historical record when they participated in contract negotiations, submitted claims of unfair wages, offered affidavits in court cases, applied for jobs, and filed pension requests” was to be granted a proximity to being Human. Free Labor being the sphere of whiteness was not altered through the introduction of Black slaves—it was, instead, reified thanks to the denial of the presence of disabled slaves into the labor force.

We chase the coveted status of Human through free labor which in turn requires taking up the anti-Black logics that sustain it. “Lazy” and “insane” are two among many markers for Black people as a consequence of our resistance to labor. These are, of course, traps. They carry an implication that if we simply work hard enough, we can escape them—we can become “productive” or “sane.” However, an anti-Black world cannot be satisfied. After having our labor, our bodies, our very flesh, consumed and cannibalized, has that ever been enough? We have yet to have a complete reckoning with chattel slavery, and it would appear that even among the so-called “radical left,” the principal focus regarding it has been to downplay its world-historical impact, while conceding ever so slightly when this absurdity is laid bare.

Baked within Euromodernity’s mythos is the presumption that, no matter how hard Black slaves worked, they could bring no significant quantitative or qualitative change in terms of “economic growth.” While traditional Marxists fought classical economics with the claim that it was technological progress, not profits, that brought economic growth, the laboring of Black slaves under the brutality of the whip had already proven this dichotomy to be false—a revelation detailed in The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist.

“The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved African Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860, when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds. Eighty percent of all the cotton grown in the United States was exported across the Atlantic, almost all of it to Britain. Cotton was the most important raw material of the industrial revolution that created our modern world economy. By 1820, the ability of enslaved people in southwestern frontier fields to produce more cotton of a higher quality for less drove most other producing regions out of the world market. Enslaved African Americans were the world’s most efficient producers of cotton. And they got more efficient every year, which is why the real price of the most important raw material of the industrial revolution declined by 1860 to 15 percent of its 1790 cost, even as demand for it increased by 500 percent” (113).

Slavery had to be obscured and therefore it was the general consensus among those whites who were pro- and “anti-” slavery by the 1850s that slavery was an antiquated labor relation, and that there was a limit to its possibility for economic growth that was usurped by industrialized labor. Where they diverged was their explicit rhetoric. Those pro-slavery argued that by entering the economy of “free labor,” slaves would gain the capacity to determine their own fate through hard work, while those "anti"-slavery argued that slavery was necessary to “protect” Black slaves from themselves because self-determination was impossible for those lacking the proper Spirit (Hegel), or the universal Reason. Therefore for the latter, slavery was necessary to manage Black people, lest we give in and plunge ourselves into our so-called animalistic nature.

Again, this difference in opinion was merely rhetorical, and its disastrous consequences manifested in a reification of slavery because Black labor was necessary while Black people rejected the commandment to labor whenever possible. Indeed, the consensus that the production of the much-coveted cotton would dramatically increase under free labor than under slavery turned out to be false; and it turned out to be false precisely because the greatest innovative production of the United States was its innovation in the most brutal ways to increase slaves productivity. The “pushing system” as outlined by Baptist was a system to satisfy an increasing expectation of production through direct supervision and torture, and this system could become quickly widespread because sharing these innovations in violence was encouraged:

“Individual producers had no reason to hoard innovations in the extraction of labor from neighbors, for a neighbor’s increase in production did not change the price the innovator received by a visible amount. Enslavers also had a vested interest in the ability of their neighbors to suppress their own slaves’ resistance. So planter-entrepreneurs readily shared their labor-control innovations” (117).

Consequently, unable to directly compel freedmen under the whip, during the Reconstruction period it became necessary for the federal government to ally with the Southern states and create a new carceral system to capture Black bodies. This collaborative effort betrayed the supposedly “anti-slavery” position of abolitionists, as these innovative forms of perfected slavery could don the mask of “free labor” on a whim. As a result, the discourse surrounding who was “deserving” of federal welfare and benefits could be levied against freedmen; and this, combined with austerity measures that, naturally, targeted Black people, formed a feedback loop funneling a constant supply of Black labor that could be compelled to work.

Simultaneously, at the heart of this State-directed violence lies a genocidal campaign against disabled Black people. The gratuitous violence of anti-Blackness is particularly felt by those of us who are disabled and this is borne out, for example, in statistics about who dies at the hands of police. Roughly 31% of people killed by police are Black, despite Black people making up roughly 13% of the population in the US.[3] At the same time, roughly one-third to one-half of all people killed by police are disabled.[4] Violence does not end for us at the hands of police, however; and in general terms, disabled people are at least 2-2.5 times more likely to experience violence than non-disabled people.[5]

This intersection is mediated by a number of factors that weigh into Value, including who is deemed Desirable as well as one’s active and/or passive capacity to be enjoyed. This is seen perhaps most explicitly through examples such as the Ugly Laws, which targeted disabled and poor people who were deemed “unsightly” and “undesirable,” and punished them for appearing in public.[6] We can also however witness more “subtle” ways this is expressed, such as the way in which Black slaves who resisted slavery through fleeing plantations were characterized as being “mad” or “crazy” and diagnosed with a mental illness named Drapetomania, or the way that Black people’s supposed lack of “work ethic” was similarly diagnosed as another mental disorder, Dysaethesia Aethiopica.[7]

This mutually constitutive criminalization of Blackness and disability in my eyes lays bare the limits of filtering our struggle through “free labor” and productivity. Disability Justice requires that we recognize the vast variety in needs for everyone, which stands in fundamental contradiction to the flattening effects of chattel slavery, which requires an overdetermined Subject that is capable of laboring to produce at an ever increasingly capacity. It requires recognizing that at every turn, Politics has failed us and that the historical erasure of disabled Black slaves and the prevention of the first-hand telling of their stories has only served to mask this fact. It requires a fundamental shift in how we perceive our relations with one another and abandon the implicit internalization of the Hand system. In this way, “necropolitics” can become redundant, distracting us from the fact that at the heart of all Politics ultimately lies discourse around Value and who “deserves” to live. Disability Justice won’t be found through the State— it will only be achieved through a rejection of the logics that sustain the State and therefore a rejection of anti-Blackness and racial capitalism.

[1] https://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10125/58499/1/391.pdf

[2] https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/112/112

[3] https://www.vox.com/2014/8/21/6051043/how-many-people-killed-police-statistics-homicide-official-black

[4] https://rudermanfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/MediaStudy-PoliceDisability_final-final.pdf

[5] https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2018/invisible-hate-crime

[6] https://www.ststworld.com/ugly-law/

[7] https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2005/november.htm