Ramcat Reads #11
Sinha, Manisha. The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016.
Echoing compliments Nell Irvin Painter and John Stauffer pay to The Slave's Cause in their blurbs,
one can say Sinha has written "a revolutionary narrative" that "should be required reading for every scholar in the humanities and social sciences who is concerned with the American condition." Ought not the book be required for scientists who have a slight interest in being well-rounded? Is the segregation of disciplines not a reprehensible gesture of correctness?
The Slave's Cause is instructive for all readers, professional and lay, especially readers who are curious about the nature of historiography. Those readers, of course, must have the conviction Stefan M. Wheelock champions in Barbaric Culture and Black Critique (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), the belief that "one can never be so narrowly fixed on the evils of race slavery to miss the modern cultural practices, both sacred and profane, that made the institution possible and gave it an enduring consequence" (xi). The condition which enslaves Americans in the twenty-first century is a logical consequence of material and symbolic factors in the whole history of the United States, those that endow colorblind bondage with meaning. Astute readers are receptive to implications of longue durée suggested by Wheelock and exploited well by Sinha. Their minds and bodies register those implications in their experiences of daily life.
Sinha's extensive research and reader-friendly eloquence draw attention to the impact of words on our sense of being-in-the-world. She meets the high standards of scholarship that the rhetoric of partisan criticism often minimizes, thereby securing grounds for refutation in a refreshingly principled fashion. Without apology for her moral sensibility, she produces an attractive, illuminating historical narrative. Conservative, liberal, and centrist American readers can disagree with her angles of interpretation, but they would have to plunge into the absurd to disagree with her verifiable particles of evidence. It is difficult to argue with quarks without exposing oneself as a barbarian.
The Slave's Cause is quite appealing to readers who can agree with the physicist Carlo Rovelli that "the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities" (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, 33). It can be argued that words and the ideas they enclose are anti-ephemeral but not devoid of animosity. As we are swiftly learning in the Age of Trump, we may need to read The Slave's Cause as a guidebook for re-enacting the history of abolition.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. May 10, 2016