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History Matters

WALTER JOHNSON ARGUES AGAINST a triumphalist narrative of liberal human rights that elides the bloody past of racial slavery and land expropriation in the United States. Taking to task eminent slavery scholars Philip Morgan and James Oakes and a voluminous literature on human rights, Johnson argues that “we are separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity from the sorts of exploitation and violence” that may well typify human behavior itself, “separating ourselves from our own histories of perpetration.”

By invoking the black radical intellectual tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, C. L. R. James, Angela Davis, and Cedric Robinson, Johnson counters the subterranean creep into historical scholarship of liberal notions of justice. In its place Johnson proposes an alternate genealogy in which the original sins of indigenous land seizure and the Atlantic slave trade served as the genesis of global capitalism. Calling on historians to revisit and expand their understanding of primitive accumulation, Johnson explains, “Rather than asking over and over what Marx said about slavery, we should follow Robinson in asking what slavery says about Marx.” He laments that slavery remains insufficiently integrated into the history of capitalism, just as the historical experience of enslaved people themselves has become marginalized in some of the most elite academic circles.

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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.