A Curse upon the Nation

Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World

Title Details

Pages: 292

Trim size: 6.000in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 08/15/2017

ISBN: 9-780-8203-5127-8

List Price: $64.95


Pub Date: 04/01/2019

ISBN: 9-780-8203-5547-4

List Price: $28.95

A Curse upon the Nation

Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World

How the specter of a race war has justified violence, molded collective memory, and permeated the rhetoric of slavery and freedom

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  • Reviews

From the inception of slavery as a pillar of the Atlantic World economy, both Europeans and Africans feared their mass extermination by the other in a race war. In the United States, says Kay Wright Lewis, this ingrained dread nourished a preoccupation with slave rebellions and would later help fuel the Civil War, thwart the aims of Reconstruction, justify Jim Crow, and even inform civil rights movement strategy. And yet, says Lewis, the historiography of slavery is all but silent on extermination as a category of analysis. Moreover, little of the existing sparse scholarship interrogates the black perspective on extermination. A Curse upon the Nation addresses both of these issues.

To explain how this belief in an impending race war shaped eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American politics, culture, and commerce, Lewis examines a wide range of texts including letters, newspapers, pamphlets, travel accounts, slave narratives, government documents, and abolitionist tracts. She foregrounds her readings in the long record of exterminatory warfare in Europe and its colonies, placing lopsided reprisals against African slave revolts—or even rumors of revolts—in a continuum with past brutal incursions against the Irish, Scots, Native Americans, and other groups out of favor with the empire. Lewis also shows how extermination became entwined with ideas about race and freedom from early in the process of enslavement, making survival an important form of resistance for African peoples in America.

For African Americans, enslaved and free, the potential for one-sided violence was always present and deeply traumatic. This groundbreaking study reevaluates how extermination shaped black understanding of the Atlantic slave trade and the political, social, and economic worlds in which it thrived.

Lewis draws from newspapers, political tracts, correspondence, and court documents to describe the perseverance of racialized fears from the early seventeenth century through the twentieth. The result is one of the first sustained studies about extermination as a historiographical approach to slavery and African American history. . . . Lewis’s book is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on race and slavery, and a must-read for scholars of race.

—Jessica Parr, Black Perspectives

A deeply-researched and wide-ranging book that carefully unravels the ways in which racial violence shaped Atlantic and American history. Lewis’s attention to the perspectives and fates of Africans and African Americans is particularly noteworthy, and her treatment of the transatlantic story in this context is especially intriguing in those chapters that venture beyond the United States and its colonial precursors.

—David C. Atkinson, Diplomatic History

This important volume offers an innovative, profound, and striking approach on the origins of racialized violence in the United States. . . .Wright Lewis’ ideas are original, her prose is absorbing, and her contribution goes well beyond that of a simple historical study. It will serve to inform not only current historiographical debates but also public debates on the situation of African Americans in the United States today.

—Manuel Barcia, Slavery & Abolition

In this thought-provoking book, Lewis reminds readers of the violence inherent in American slavery and how it was deployed by white Americans to traumatize the enslaved so that they would never attempt to rebel against white authority. In this regard, her book is a powerful effort to challenge the paternalistic ideal espoused by defenders of slavery and by some historians who continue to use paternalism to understand American slavery.

—W. Bryan Rommel-Ruiz, Journal of Southern History

It will now be impossible to recount the history of race in America without taking into account Lewis’s important contribution.

—Stephen E. Maizlish, Civil War History

About the Author/Editor

KAY WRIGHT LEWIS is an assistant professor of history at Howard University.