Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
In this powerful novel, Johnson exposes the criminal nature of the slave trade business itself, not just the system of slavery in America. As the title of the book suggests, Johnson implores his readers to consider the horrendous slave trade, not as a business with exchange of property or products...
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In this powerful novel, Johnson exposes the criminal nature of the slave trade business itself, not just the system of slavery in America. As the title of the book suggests, Johnson implores his readers to consider the horrendous slave trade, not as a business with exchange of property or products but as human trafficking which affected the lives and souls of people and their families for centuries. He personalizes the impact of the economic bondage system, revealing the heinous legacy of a legalized national tragedy on all involved. He leaves no excuse for the marketing of human beings.
Johnson poignantly illustrates how blacks were objectified and humiliated by the constant grading and evaluation of their bodies and skin. Fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, wives and husbands—they were all evaluated like cattle.
The vitality associated with blackness might cancel out the vulnerability associated with femininity in the search for a field hand, while a "bright disposition" might lighten a dark-skinned woman in the search for a domestic servant; a "rough" face might darken a light-skinned man, while "effeminacy" might lighten a dark-skinned one; an outwardly dull demeanor and the presence of wife and child might make a light-skinned man seem less likely to run away; and so on. In the slave market, buyers produced "whiteness" and "blackness" by disaggregating human bodies and recomposing them as racialized slaves.
As tension and strife continued between the north and the south, whites involved in the slave trade even evaluated a slave's potential ability to escape, based on how white they might appear.
Some slaves, however, were "too white to keep." That was how Edmund was described by the man who had sold him from Tennessee. The man's hope was that such a sale would make it more difficult for Edmund to escape from slavery, but, as it was, New Orleans suited the slave well: within a day of arriving in the city, Edmund had slipped unnoticed onto a steamboat and disappeared.
In his work, Johnson also exposed slaveholders' tendency to try to appear paternalistic and caring, as if they were assisting helpless, poor blacks by having them work for free on their farms.
Occasionally, however, when chided by their slaves or others, slaveholders did act in concert with the better selves of their paternalist rhetoric. William Green's mother convinced her owner ("she having nursed him when a child") to sell her son in the neighborhood rather than to a slave trader.
Additionally, the novel reveals the tendency for many southerners to try to justify their involvement in the slave trade; many expressed that blacks were criminal, based on the supposed moral or mental defects of blacks who desired freedom or tried to escape.
In southern courtrooms and medical journals, slaves' misbehavior was often attributed to an inward disposition of character, which meant that there was something invariably, inevitably, perhaps biologically "bad" about the slave.
Slave "character" was likewise treated as an immutable fact by physician Samuel Cartwright, who held that running away and "rascality" were the misidentified symptoms of mental diseases with physiological cures-the most notable of which was getting slaves to work harder so that they would breathe harder so that their brains would get more oxygen.