Q: Chapter 15 includes a new comparative discussion on the aftermath of slavery in various Western Hemisphere societies. You see important commonalities in the struggle over land and labor in post-Emancipation societies. How do you situate the experiences of former slaves in the United States in this borrowed content.
A: Well, just as slavery was a hemispheric institution, so was emancipation. It’s useful for us in thinking about the aftermath of slavery in the United States, the Reconstruction era and after to see what happened to other slaves in places where slavery was abolished. What you see is a similar set of issues and conquests taking place everywhere slaves desire land of their own—this is the No. 1 thing, they want autonomy, they want independence from white control. All of these regions are agricultural, everywhere former slaves demand land. In some places they get land fairly effectively, like in Jamaica, West Indies, where there’s a lot of unoccupied land they can take. In some places they don’t, but that battle to who’s going to have access to land and economic resources is a commonality in the aftermath of slavery. So too is the effort of local plantation owners trying to get the plantation going again and to force slaves to work back on the plantations, or if not, to bring labor from somewhere else—in the West Indies they bring workers from China, from India, from southeast Asia to replace slaves who were moving off on land of their own. They can’t quite do that in the United States—they tried to bring in a few Chinese, but the national government here prevents it; they say, no, you’ve got to deal with these former slaves equitably, fairly, and then you won’t need foreign labor. What’s different in the United States, and I think it shows the difference between this country and others, is how the right to vote becomes so critical to former slaves. This is a democracy that prides itself on being a democracy and freedom in the United States includes the right to vote. That’s why the women’s movement made the right to vote such a key demand, even though the issues facing women were not political, there were social, economic, etc. In the United States if you are denied the right to vote, you are stigmatized as being outside the boundary of freedom. That’s not true in places where the right to vote is not as restricted for everybody like in the West Indies where you have to own a lot of property to vote. So here the issue of black political power and black political participation immediately comes to the fore in the aftermath of slavery in a way that it doesn’t in other parts of the Western Hemisphere that abolished slavery.