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Putting Rights in Their Place

WALTER JOHNSON GIVES A BRACING critique of two ways of telling the history of slavery. One uses the rhetoric of humanity, the other the contemporary discourse of human rights. Rejecting both these trends on ethical grounds, Johnson offers an alternative vision of politics—and thus an alternative way of writing history. By and large I agree with him, but sometimes for other reasons than he gives.

Take “humanity” first. Johnson insists that not only did victims of oppression never risk losing their humanity (an offensive question in the first place, underwritten by the logic of white supremacy); masters did not betray their own humanity, either. Instead, slavery illustrates precisely what humans so often and so willingly do to other humans. Our bleak history is not one of dehumanization or inhumanity, but instead of the all too human capacity for domination.

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Boston Review
Winter 2017
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Following W. E. B. Du Bois and Cedric Robinson, Walter
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In addition to the work of our contributors, the editors
Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist, and teacher. His