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To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice

IT IS A COMMONPLACE to say that slavery “dehumanized” enslaved people, but to do so is misleading, harmful, and worth resisting.

I hasten to add that there are, of course, plenty of right-minded reasons for adopting the notion of “dehumanization.” It is hard to square the idea of millions of people being bought and sold, of systematic sexual violation, natal alienation, forced labor, and starvation with any sort of “humane” behavior: these are the sorts of things that should never be done to human beings. But by terming these actions “inhuman” and suggesting that they either relied upon or accomplished the “dehumanization” of enslaved people, we are participating in a sort of ideological exchange that is no less baleful for being so familiar. We are separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity from the sorts of exploitation and violence that history suggests may well be definitive of human beings: we are separating ourselves from our own histories of perpetration. To say so is not to suggest that there is no difference between the past and the present; it is merely that we should not overwrite the complex determinations of history with simple-minded notions of moral progress.

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About Boston Review

Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.

Other Articles in this Issue


Boston Review
CEDRIC J. ROBINSON’S PASSING this summer at the age
But for is always game. A man can be murdered twice
To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and
WALTER JOHNSON ARGUES AGAINST a triumphalist narrative
WHAT LANGUAGE SHOULD WE use when we talk about slavery?
EVERY GREAT HISTORICAL EPOCH in the freedom struggle
RETHINKING OUR NOTION OF JUSTICE through the history
OUR IDEA OF RACIAL CAPITALISM, as Walter Johnson explains
WALTER JOHNSON IS UPSET at the state of the historiography
WALTER JOHNSON GIVES A BRACING critique of two ways
Following W. E. B. Du Bois and Cedric Robinson, Walter
Walter Johnson demonstrates how little liberal humanism
BLACK HUMANITY IS UNEXCEPTIONAL, Walter Johnson exhorts.
IT HAS BEEN WORSE. Let’s not forget “The Nadir,” as
Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making
And I point to the list of the names of the missing
Births of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric
Symptomatic of being a slave is to forget you’re a
In addition to the work of our contributors, the editors
Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist, and teacher. His