Slavery and Silence: Latin America and The U.S. Slave Debate

Slavery and Silence: Latin America and The U.S. Slave Debate

Slavery and Silence: Latin America and The U.S. Slave Debate

Slavery and Silence: Latin America and The U.S. Slave Debate


In the thirty-five years before the Civil War, it became increasingly difficult for Americans outside the world of politics to have frank and open discussions about the institution of slavery, as divisive sectionalism and heated ideological rhetoric circumscribed public debate. To talk about slavery was to explore--or deny--its obvious shortcomings, its inhumanity, its contradictions. To celebrate it required explaining away the nation's proclaimed belief in equality and its public promise of rights for all, while to condemn it was to insult people who might be related by ties of blood, friendship, or business, and perhaps even to threaten the very economy and political stability of the nation.

For this reason, Paul D. Naish argues, Americans displaced their most provocative criticisms and darkest fears about the institution onto Latin America. Naish bolsters this seemingly counterintuitive argument with a compelling focus on realms of public expression that have drawn sparse attention in previous scholarship on this era. In novels, diaries, correspondence, and scientific writings, he contends, the heat and bluster of the political arena was muted, and discussions of slavery staged in these venues often turned their attention south of the Rio Grande.

At once familiar and foreign, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and the independent republics of Spanish America provided rhetorical landscapes about which everyday citizens could speak, through both outright comparisons or implicit metaphors, what might otherwise be unsayable when talking about slavery at home. At a time of ominous sectional fracture, Americans of many persuasions--Northerners and Southerners, Whigs and Democrats, scholars secure in their libraries and settlers vulnerable on the Mexican frontier--found unity in their disparagement of Latin America. This displacement of anxiety helped create a superficial feeling of nationalism as the country careened toward disunity of the most violent, politically charged, and consequential sort.


The early twenty-first century has been marked by a series of crimes and tragedies revealing, to the apparent surprise of many Americans, the longevity and pervasiveness of racism in the United States. Despite the fiftieth anniversary of important landmarks of civil rights legislation and the election of the nation’s first African American president, a “postracial” future has not arrived. the bluntly discriminatory administration of justice reveals that the day-to-day lived experience of many nonwhite Americans differs significantly from that of whites. These sadly repeated discoveries of crude discrimination inspire equally regular calls for a “national conversation on race.”

Considering how much the subject of race is openly debated at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems surprising that the need for further discussion is consistently invoked. But in the United States, race, for all its notoriety, is usually talked about in intimate contexts among people expected to hold roughly the same opinion. It is too loaded a topic to explore with strangers. Although it is a subject that affects the entire nation, there is nothing “national” about the conversation about race. in a society still much more segregated than we like to admit, it is difficult to talk freely, and frankly, about race.

In the thirty-five years before the Civil War, it was comparatively easy, for white people at least, to talk about race, to broadcast what today seems blindingly hateful and woefully ignorant and to present it as scientific fact. “At least 3/5ths of the northerners now believe the blacks are an inferior race,” estimated abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld in 1836. Not all white people declared blacks were less than human, but most believed they were decidedly less than whites. Even if people of African descent were free, declared Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision, they could never be citizens, and “the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them.”

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