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Slave law was overwhelmingly concerned with the state of individual bodies, from the earliest colonial iterations of race-based statutes through to the end of the antebellum era, becoming a key index in shaping the concept of race from that point forward. In this time, white legislators were trying to answer several burgeoning questions including: Are enslaved bodies inherently damaged, broken, criminal, or worthy of manumission? The answer, it seems, is that every enslaved person’s value was determined almost strictly on the value of their labor, and therefore, their ability to work (and thus, by implication, their value as salable property). Slave laws, designed to arbitrate property disputes, dole out punishments, and determine the eligibility of an enslaved individual for manumission among other official tasks, were centered around black bodies and minds, particularly those considered possibly damaged and defective. These laws constructed a legal narrative of blackness that persistently embedded a range of qualities often associated with disabilities into the meta-discourse of race. Disability, much like race, class, or gender, is socially constructed, meaning that it has no inherent definition or reality. Therefore, it can be helpful to study the ways in which disability can be viewed intersectionally with other social constructions (race, class, gender, etc.), in order to shed light on how dominant groups use those qualities associated with the disabled to justify patterns of injustice and inequality both towards the disabled and non-disabled. Slave laws highlight the conceptual relationship between race and disability in particular, as well as the institutionalization of the perceived links between blackness, internally and externally visible disability, and a defective product. These links in the legal realm were, by the mid nineteenth century, completely fundamental to the structure of the society, their gradual introduction making it seem as though they’d always been a part of daily life. Nevertheless, in reality, these connections had only been building since the colonial era.


Undergraduate Research Awards - 2022 Finalist, Junior/Senior category

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