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Slave daze

People were money, babies were interest — a talk with the authors of ‘American Slave Coast’ about ‘Roots’ — and roots

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, released last fall, presents this argument: Everything from American expansion to the whole of the antebellum southern economy was built on an industry of deliberate and systemic slave breeding — particularly after 1808, when the American government outlawed the importation of enslaved people from Africa. Ned and Constance Sublette, the authors of American Slave Coast, coined the term “capitalized womb” to describe the engine of that expansion. “For enslaved women,” the Sublettes wrote, “who could be freely violated in the cellar, the barn, the field, or anywhere else a captor chose, it was a system of terror.” This suffering on the part of black women is a suffering that we have yet to fully explore onscreen. There has been no major film or television adaptation of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or other narratives and accounts by enslaved women. However, a Harriet Tubman biopic from Viola Davis and Entourage co-creator Doug Ellin is in the works for HBO Films. The American Slave Coast puts a much-needed spotlight on such accounts. Also important is Thavolia Glymph’s 2008 Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household.

The following conversation is about the entirety of History Channel’s Roots. It contains mild spoilers.


There are many instances in the new version of Roots that illustrate specific subjects you concentrate on in your book. In some instances, it’s small visual details, like the coffles used to march enslaved people to various destinations. But in others, it’s the way enslaved women are regarded as property and as livestock, and the tension in portraying the way they’re regarded by slaveholders versus the way the way they see themselves.

Constance: When I saw the (1977) Roots, we’d not done this book. After having done this book and watching the reboot, it was extremely affecting and I don’t mean in a happy way. We have gone deeply into these things, we see the details, we feel how people are feeling. I know how much worse than [either Roots] it was, and how long it went on. It was kind of soul-stirring, in a negative … way to watch this. This is very painful stuff and it was painful to write. Seeing it visualized makes it even more painful, and I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about anyone watching this. This is the thing that a visual depiction of these matters can do — to see how people are being divided, from each other, from their families, from their past, and being used purely as satisfaction, whether economic or in other ways, for people’s happiness. As Thomas Jefferson expressed: those who labor for my happiness.

Ned: It’s really important that the producers chose to show these aspects of the slave breeding industry. You can evoke it in dialogue, but you can never show what really happened because it’s just so much worse. However bad you thought it was, it was even worse than that. Consciousness really came into modern fiction not so much with Alex Haley’s 1976 Roots but with Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved — a milestone in showing just how bad it was. But it was worse than what Morrison depicted. Slavery — the slave breeding industry — was such an abomination it was hard for us to wrap our minds around what it’s like to live in a society that’s all that, all the time.

“You can evoke it … but you can never show what really happened because it’s so much worse. However bad you thought [slavery] was, it was even worse than that.”

Constance: Not only were the enslaved there to create money through their profit, through their labor — but their very bodies embodied money and profit. The product of their bodies were considered profit, including children, including their milk. In the Roots reboot there was mention of that … I think Kizzy mentions she’d been feeding one of the master’s children … and she’s resentful about that.

Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy and Laurence Fishburne as Alex Haley

Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy and Laurence Fishburne as Alex Haley

Courtesy of AETV

In the reboot, enslaved people are depicted resisting their condition — we see open resistance from Kizzy and from George that results in the deaths of white people. George is shown throttling Tom at a cockfight and somehow didn’t end up hanged for it. But you write, “rebellions existed wherever there was slavery.”

Constance: Sports are, they always have been — people are so passionate about sports, even back in the 18th and 17th centuries — almost a neutral ground where races and classes meet. As you notice at the cockfights, it’s not just the plantation owners. African-Americans had, if they were fortunate, money of their own that they could bet. The thought was, when it comes to betting, we’ll take anybody’s money. George is a very smart guy. He knows how to read situations — which of course is part of one’s survival skills in the conditions in which he was living — and he knew this was the moment where he could do it. And of course he’s got that charm as well. And of course, he delivered. If he had not delivered, it probably would have been a very different thing.

Ned: This is an important counterpoint to the narrative of atrocious victimization that the slave breeding industry supplies. The enslaved were always at war with their condition. It was always war. Rebellion was always there — whether in the quieter day-to-day resistance or in actual violent uprisings. There is no point in no era where there was slavery in the hemisphere that there wasn’t rebellion.

The enslaved were always at war with their condition. It was always war. Rebellion was always there … whether in quieter day-to-day resistance or in actual violent uprisings. There is no point in no era where there was slavery in the hemisphere that there wasn’t rebellion.”

You write that “in lieu of coin or trustworthy paper, people were money in the slaveholding south.” Can you explain how enslaved people functioned as credit in the American economy?

Ned: This is why this industry went on the way it did. There was no [gold and silver] in the South. There was no national currency at the time … so the accumulation of wealth in the South was in the form of slaves. Slaves qualified … as … money. For example, when Andrew Jackson’s mercantile firm accepted a boy as settlement of debt for merchandise. This kind of thing happened all the time. Or a slave being bet and lost in a card game. This use of people to purchase things directly was part of southern commerce. The next condition of being money is that it retains its value over time. Well, people don’t retain their market value over time. They depreciate in a slave economy. But the children are interest, which is why there could be no escape from the asset column. There could be no manumission. There could be no freeing of slaves, because the marketability of the children was the only force that could counter the inexorable accumulation of interest on a debt. A child born in the slaveholding South was worth, depending on the time or place, $50, $75, $100 at birth. That didn’t mean that the child was going to be sold immediately for that money, because there was no market in babies. It meant that the farm was worth that much more on paper and every year, the child would be worth a little more. The birth of each one created new money. Not merely made a farmer wealthier. It literally created new money because, according to modern monetary theory, credit is money.

So four million people on the books worth perhaps $4 billion in 1860 money was the wealth of the South. The South was not merely wealthy, it was fabulously wealthy. Mississippi was the richest state in the country in the 1830s through the 1850s. After slavery disappeared, Mississippi became the poorest state in the country because slaves were the only wealth Mississippi ever had.

Constance: How this is demonstrated with the new Roots’ Waller brothers — the plantation owner brother is perpetually in debt in that same process Ned has just described. The older brother has income from somewhere else. He’s a physician. He’s not dependent on his plantation’s land products for his wealth, so he is in a position to loan money and take as collateral his brother’s plantation which means, not the land, because the land itself is fairly worthless, but the people. That is where the wealth is stored.

We see that going on, and this is a process that goes on throughout the south, that people who actually have a cash flow can loan money and give credit to people who are in financial difficulties. Slowly throughout the south, the land and the other property, particularly the slaves, become aggregated in ever-fewer hands who own more and more of this wealth.

“People are so passionate about sports, even back in the 18th and 17th centuries — it’s a neutral ground where races and classes meet. At the cockfights, it’s not just the plantation owners.

So that’s why you call it a Ponzi scheme?

Ned: Absolutely it was a Ponzi scheme. And there was a conversion cycle. The hardest work was clearing the land. So at first, only Virginia and Maryland had the conditions to have a slave breeding industry. Their labor force was reproducing rather than dying off as the labor force in the rest of the hemisphere did. Virginia had slaves to export, as did Maryland. As they exported into the next territory down, and with the clearing of the land, and the establishment of a stable plantation workforce, gradually the territories that had been importing slaves from Virginia and Maryland became a net exporter into the next territories to be opened up as land was confiscated from the Indians and distributed to Anglo Americans and others. As this process rolled on, it drove American expansion.

That’s what the annexation of Texas was about. The mere thought of annexing Texas sent the price skyrocketing. And since a southerner’s wealth was based on how many slaves he owned, that’s the equivalent of having your Apple shares triple overnight. The annexation of new territory was an enormous bonanza to slaveowners.

In the new Roots, when Tom buys Matilda as a wife for George, he is pretty explicit in his expectations that they provide a return on his investment by having children.

Constance: He uses the words “start breeding.” Bring me a child every year is basically what he’s saying. That’s the payback.

Regé-Jean Page as Chicken George and Erica Tazel as Matilda

Regé-Jean Page as Chicken George and Erica Tazel as Matilda

Courtesy of AETV

Ned: The cornerstone of this system was that pressure that was very unsubtly put on enslaved women to have babies as early as their bodies would allow, as often as their bodies would allow and as late as their bodies would allow — after which they were appraised as worth nothing. That was a major incentive, a negative incentive: if you don’t reproduce, we’ll sell you, which is approximately like saying, we’ll send you to an even worse prison than the one you’re in now.

“Mississippi was the richest state in the country in the 1830s through the 1850s. After slavery disappeared, Mississippi became the poorest state in the country because slaves were the only wealth Mississippi ever had.”

Constance: It also includes the relationship that Tom has with Kizzy. It’s this constant push. He’s violently raped her and he continued to rape her throughout the whole time as George is growing up. At one point, he rolls off all the things she is to him, and how he can’t let her go away. And she says that she isn’t going to go away because she’s going to stay to protect her children. And she has something on him. What’s she going to say, that he’s been having children by her all this time? I’m sure everybody in the community knows this. But he wants something else. Tom wants some acknowledgement from her that she feels something for him that is not hostile, not contempt. He pushes for that more than once during these scenes in the series. And here’s this relationship he has with George, which is almost a transference of his desire to have Kizzy despite what he has done to her. He can get this from George because at first, George has a very high regard for Tom. He does not feel his condition in a certain kind of way although his mother continues to describe it to him to warn him that Tom is Tom. He’s a white man, he owns you, he will do what he damn well pleases, when he pleases, when the time comes around. And then of course, George does find out. But there’s this thing Tom and George share, which is not only their blood relationship, but they both love this sport. They love those birds … It’s these birds that we love, that we take such care of, and then we throw them at each other to destroy each other. It’s kind of like slavery. Tom is having this desire that Kizzy acknowledge him as something more than an owner, that she has some kind of affection, some kind of regard for him, and yet, when it’s useful for him, he will sell her children.

“The product of their bodies were considered profit, including children, including their milk.”

Ned: Why are black people as a group poorer than white people? It’s pretty clear when you look at the fact that generation after generation of slave owners could form large family webs and amass wealth based on the labor of others. The slave breeding industry was a machine for systematically splitting up the black family in every generation. The strength of the black family is astonishing. It’s unquestionable that the effect of the slave breeding industry was, in every generation, to uproot the webs that might have been formed. In every generation, the enslaved went farther down while the slave owners went farther up. It takes so many generations, and inherited wealth and all the connections with it to regress to the mean. This is not simply something that happened long ago and it’s over. This world that is being depicted in Roots — this world has everything to do with the way we live today.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.