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Professor confronts slavery

Mandi Stirone | Friday, September 15, 2006

While the slave trade dehumanized a race of people, women were especially objectified, a visiting professor said Thursday.

Jennifer L. Morgan, an associate professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, presented a lecture entitled “Accounting for Women in Slavery: Demography and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” in crowded McKenna Hall rooms 210-214 Thursday afternoon,

Morgan discussed the dehumanization of slaves and, more specifically, female slaves, whom she described as being “invisible” to their masters.

The slave trade “reduced humans into mercantile units,” Morgan said. She gave the example of the Dutch Colonial New York City. The original Dutch settlers brought only male slaves, bringing just three women a little later.

This demonstrates, Morgan said, the prejudice that women slaves were only sexual outlets for the males. While female slaves were originally outnumbered 4-to-1, they eventually outnumbered the population of Dutch settlers in New York City.

In the aftermath of her first book, Morgan said she began to think about the process of dehumanization, which went on in the colonies and their parent countries during the slave trade. One idea she focused on was that Englishmen of the time viewed being counted – taking a census – as an objectifying action. They had done this to the Irish and did the same to the Africans they were enslaving.

“Wrath, I think, is intimately connected in the transformation of a human being into a commodity,” she said, citing the cause for dehumanization of Africans.

At the time, taking a census gave those being counted a specific value, Morgan said. Along with the idea of being counted, the ideas of difference were in the process of being articulated. Science played a key part in this, introducing the idea of race being in a person’s blood. English colonists were – for this reason and others – reluctant to consider intermarrying with natives.

This was the first in a series of three lectures, according to American Studeprofessor Heidi Ardizzone. As the organizer of this lecture, Ardizzone explained that the series would concern different aspects of race and gender in African-American and American culture.

The reason for the lecture series, as well as the choice of Morgan as lecturer, was primarily a feeling of growing momentum building in the departments, Ardizzone said. That momentum began when the Gender History Reading Group read Morgan’s book. The departments of American Studies and History along with the Gender Studies and African Studies Programs are involved, Ardizzone said.

Morgan earned her Ph.D. in History in 1995 at Duke University and her B.A. in 1986 at Oberlin College. She is the author of the book “Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery” in addition to several other publications. She is currently in the beginning stages of a new project.

The lecture will not be Morgan’s only event on campus. She will meet with graduate students at an informal dinner and will attend an African-American literature course.