Jenifer L. Barclay - We Saw in Him Each of Us: Disability, Social Cohesion, and Survival in American Slavery

Lecture | March 13 | 12-1:30 p.m. | Women's Faculty Club, Lounge

 Jenifer L. Barclay, University at Buffalo (SUNY)

 400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Injustice, Othering & Belonging Institute

Enslaved people developed numerous strategies for survival and resistance. Many factors influenced those strategies such as geography, labor, family, community, and gender. This talk emphasizes how disability, too, played an important, subtle, and long overlooked role in this struggle. Disability intersected with resistance in obvious ways when enslaved people feigned disability to escape bondage and to avoid forced labor or engaged in self-sabotage of their body to render themselves “worthless” and unsellable so they could remain with their loved ones. Resistance also, however, included simply surviving. Because they were devalued and dismissed in the eyes of slaveholders, slaves with disabilities were often positioned to provide important labor, continuity, and social cohesion to their vulnerable communities. Some enslaved people’s disabilities—particularly those who were elderly or healers—signified spiritual power and garnered respect from within and outside of their communities, even among slaveholding whites who left them to their own devices. Nondisabled slaves also often identified with their disabled counterparts in ways that aligned with and added to a broader sense of solidarity. As Mary Prince once explained about Daniel, a “lame” man enslaved alongside her who was often beaten because he could not keep up, she and the rest of their small community “saw in him each of us” and their shared vulnerability as slaves.