DC Public Library Podcast

Access This: Slavery & Disability, A relationship that shapes disability in America today

Episode Summary

Deborah and Dr. Dea Boster discuss the themes from the historian's book African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800-1860

Episode Transcription


Deborah Access Final_Mar2022 

Mon, 3/7 10:06AM • 57:55


slaves, disability, conditions, unsound, slave holder, abolitionists, enslaved, slaveholders, people, disabled, slavery, labor, sold, assumptions, slave traders, women, means, history, cases, records


Dr. Dea Boster, Deborah


Deborah  00:00

You're listening to the DC Public Library Podcast recorded from The Labs recording studio in the historic modernized Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington, DC. I am Deborah and welcome to Access This, our series on disability culture and community brought to you by the Center for Accessibility at DCPL. 


Deborah  00:24

In today's episode, we are discussing the often overlooked significance that disability played in the 400-year institution of slavery in the United States of America. We will explore the history of slavery through a disability lens with insight of Dr. Dea H. Boster. Dr. Dea H. Boster is an associate professor of history in the humanities department at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio. She teaches U.S. history and the history of western medicine, which is the first ever Community College medical history survey course sequence. She is the author of numerous journal articles, book chapters and reviews on medical history and disability studies topics. Her published books include "African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property and Power in the Antebellum South" and (co-authored with Joe Howe) "Medicine at Michigan History at the University of Michigan Medical School at the Bicentennial". She also co-wrote with Benjamin Pugno, the textbooks "A History of Western Medicine, Disease and Public Health, vols. 1 and 2" . 


Deborah  01:31

Thank you so much, Dr. Boster, for joining us today.


Dr. Dea Boster  01:35

Thank you, Deborah. I'm happy to be here.


Deborah  01:37

Great! I know that this is a broad topic, but I'm hoping that before we really dive into really looking at the relationship between slavery and disability, that it might be very helpful to really get some clarification about the definition of disability. So how would you define disability?


Dr. Dea Boster  01:59

Well, that's a really big question in and of itself, we could record an entire interview on just that. I think one thing that's important to keep in mind, as we talk about any type of disability is that disability studies, scholars focus on what traditionally is called the social model of disability, which is not seeing disability as a condition or impairment that exists solely in one individual's body, but rather as the collective social and cultural responses to those perceived impairments or conditions.


Dr. Dea Boster  02:34

Um, so in that respect, disability can be defined very broadly, it can refer to things that traditionally might have been called defects or handicaps. But it can also refer to psychological conditions, it can refer to chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, basically, a wide variety of conditions or traits that society has deemed to be disabling. And I think that's really important for us as we move forward. Because in that respect, you could say disability is a construct. It is not something that exists inherently and absolutely, but rather, it is something that is constructed in a specific cultural moment, or, or a specific time period. So what it meant to be disabled in the 19th century is not necessarily the same as what it means to be disabled in the 21st. 


Dr. Dea Boster  03:39

And the reason why I think this is an important concept to kind of wrap our minds around with, right at the beginning, is because for so long, many people tended to view disability in what's known as the Medical Model or through the Medical Lens, right? Disability was a condition to be treated, it was something to be isolated, it was something to be controlled. And because it existed in an individual, it usually resulted in that individual being taken out of society, if they were deemed unable or disabled from participating in society, then they needed to be institutionalized or isolated in a private home, right? And so disability was really viewed more as something that needed a medical or institutional response. 


Dr. Dea Boster  04:40

But really, since the late 20th century, many scholars and activists have focused instead not on the condition itself, but rather the way people respond to the condition. And that really turns the narrative inside out. Disability is no longer something that exists only in an individual. It is something that afflicts you know a large swath of society because many people are being faced with those expectations with those limitations with that discrimination. 


Dr. Dea Boster  05:04

And I think one of the most, you know, really seminal works in this was written in the 1980s. And it was a book called Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. And it really focused on the deaf community in and around Martha's Vineyard in New England. And the argument there was, if everyone in a community where hereditary, deafness was common, was raised to speak sign language, right...so hearing and non hearing members of the community alike. Was deafness, in fact, disabling? And arguably, it's not. And so that really kind of opens, you know, a lot of avenues of inquiry, it opens a lot of possibilities to rethink what disability really means and how it operates in society. 


Dr. Dea Boster  05:51

Because if all you're looking at with disability is people in institutions, or people who are seeking or receiving medical care, you're going to take a very limited view of disability. But if you see it operating in a variety of different ways, in society. If you're looking at responses to disability, in culture, in art and design, in education, in law... in citizenship, then you can really see how disability operates at all of those levels in different ways, which makes it a really fascinating avenue of inquiry. And you can also see how it intersects with other categories like gender, religion, social class, ethnicity, and race, which is going to be very salient for our discussion today.


Deborah  06:39

Yes, yes, absolutely. And I, I'm just... I mentioned to you when we first started getting to know each other that it just felt like, why is this such a...? Why do I feel like I'm learning about this for the first time? Like, why hasn't anyone ever mentioned disability in slavery? And so I just think it's, it's so important to have this conversation and the cultural context is so important. And I, I'm just curious about who or what inspired you to start researching this relationship between slavery and disability?


Dr. Dea Boster  07:19

Well, it I kind of came to it in a very roundabout way. I actually started my academic career in psychology and neuroscience, before I realized that I didn't want to do that kind of math for the rest of my life. And I was very interested in medical history, specifically the history of neuroscience and the history of psychiatry. And while I was in graduate school, I was doing some research for a class studying ideas about race and epilepsy in the late 19th, and early 20th centuries, so I was examining how some medical writers were identifying a noticeable increase in the number of cases of people of color who were identified as epileptic, and the reasons why they thought that could be. And in that research, I encountered purely by accident, the case of a young woman in Virginia, in the pre war period, whose name was Virginia, she was 15 years old, and that she had been accused of arson and found guilty and which, you know, for slaves at that time period, arson was a capital offense, and she was sentenced to be hanged.


Dr. Dea Boster  08:40

Now, this was a young woman who had been hired out to a different person, so not her slave holder, but a temporary employer in Richmond, Virginia. And that was where this incident took place that she was accused of starting a fire. And her slaveholder appealed to the governor of Virginia on her behalf saying, you know, this young woman-- who was only 15 at the time--she couldn't have done it. This isn't the type of person she was it was most likely an accident and begged for her life. Not so much, I think because he was concerned about her but because at that time period in Virginia, if a slave was found guilty of a capital offense and executed, the slave holder was responsible for all of their legal and jail fees. 


Dr. Dea Boster  09:33

So I suspect that the slave holder wanted her sentence commuted more for financial reasons, but at any rate, he was successful. And the governor of Virginia, put a stay on the execution and instead ordered Virginia to be sold out of the Commonwealth. But on the day that Virginia was going to be sold, was going to be taken from the Richmond jail and sent to a slave traders jail. She experienced what they described as an epileptic fit and continued to experience fits on probably a daily basis for about a month before the slave trader, and a physician that he had hired to, to diagnose this young woman, they threw up their hands and said, we can't sell her in this condition, you have to take her back. And so this young woman who had been arrested, who had been found guilty of arson, who had been sentenced to death, and then sentenced to being sold out of Virginia, which, from a slaves perspective was probably tantamount to a death sentence. She was actually deemed unfit for sales. She was deemed to be in the parlance of the time unsound, which, you know, was a disability, it was something that, you know, impeded her value as a slave. And as a result, she actually went back home to the farm in rural Virginia, where she had been born with her parents with her, you know, her siblings. And as far as I can tell, from the primary record, she remained there. 


Dr. Dea Boster  11:11

And what really fascinated me about this case was that, you know, this young woman's diagnosis and the consequences of that diagnosis. They were being written about by the white free players of the story by her slaveholding family, by the governor by the slave trader, by the physician, and yet they were drawing conclusions about her life and her condition that were vastly different from what she must have been feeling. Because for her being classified as disabled actually meant that she had a successful outcome in her own experience, right? Rather than being executed, rather than being sold, she was able to return to her family. And that really got me thinking about how ideas about disability, about unsoundness, you know, they really meant something different for a person who lived in bondage than for, you know, their enslavers. 


Dr. Dea Boster  12:12

And it, that one case, really opened a floodgate for me to start investigating this and not just looking at, you know, a neurological condition like epilepsy, but disability very broadly defined. And so in my research, I identified a number of characteristics that, from a medical legal standpoint in the pre-war South were considered "unsound". And this term "soundness" was never very clearly defined or classified. But it certainly encompassed both the expectation of labor that slaves were required to perform, but also whether or not those individuals would be fit for sale, okay, which was a very common possibility in the pre-war South. And so this encompassed a range of conditions that, you know, from things that were congenital or inborn, to perceived defects, whether that was crippled limbs, whether that was blindness, deafness, any sort of developmental or cognitive impairment to things like fractured limbs that did not heal properly, to chronic illnesses, to, umm...


Dr. Dea Boster  13:37

in some cases, propensity to disobey or run away. There were some medical writers in the South who considered that to be evidence of mental illness. And, you know, so as I was doing this research, it absolutely surprised me just how much this was being discussed in the pre-war South by Southern slaveholders, by slave traders, by physicians... by courts. It just was amazing how much evidence there was of this discourse of this discussion, and how little it was being talked about in histories of slavery even in histories of slave illness and disease.


Deborah  14:22

Yes, yes. And I...if we if you could go a little bit into what the actual like health and living conditions were of slaves during that time that maybe would have led to some of those disabilities the that might have created the the label of being a sound or unsound slave, but particularly, we're focusing I guess, on the issue of unsound slaves, but if just getting a better understanding of what was the general health and living conditions of enslaved people in Antebellum America. And even just like how often were slaves experiencing disability during that time period?


Dr. Dea Boster  15:08

Well, it's it's difficult to generalize. Because, you know, on the one hand, there were a lot of different circumstances that slaves lived in during this time period. So the life of a domestic servant in a-an urban area, like Richmond, Virginia, or New Orleans, Louisiana, that would be very different from the living circumstances of a slave on a large cotton plantation in a more rural community. But, you know, I think actually studying plantations was really useful because by, you know, the mid-19th Century on the eve of the Civil War, a significant number of slaves had been relocated from the eastern part of the South, to the the Cotton Belt. The deep Southern cotton plantations, which were slowly moving further and further West, into regions like, you know, the Mississippi River Valley and Texas and Arkansas. 


Dr. Dea Boster  16:11

And, you know, even though only a very small percentage of slaveholders in you know, a small percentage of Southerners overall, but even even smaller percentage of those in the pre-war South were classified as planters. A planter was someone who owned at least 20 slaves. They did own at least half of all of the slaves on the eve of the Civil War. Okay, so according to the 1860 census, less than 4% of Southerners legally possessed more than half of slaves more than 2 million people, right. So slaveholding was increasingly being concentrated into the hands of this very small planter class. And about half of all slaves would spend at least part of their life on a plantation in a plantation system, right, whether because they were born there, or because they ended up being sold there. So plantation systems, in general terms that really did help provide a lot of information about living circumstances. And even those could vary quite widely. 


Dr. Dea Boster  17:22

But the primary goal of plantations obviously, at that time period was cotton cultivation, not exclusively, but that was the the big cash crop for the South. And many slaves were purchased for field labor. So, their primary objective was to cultivate and pick the cotton crops from the field so that that cotton fiber could be transported to a cotton gin and be processed for textile manufacturing. 


Dr. Dea Boster  17:52

So that means that on plantations, you know, sort of a typical, you know, living circumstance for a field hand, would be living in slave quarters in cabins, which were generally, pretty rudimentary. They could be built out of wood, less often out of stone or brick, but they would generally house you know, large, extended families. They would spend most of their days during the growing season in fields, which could be pretty backbreaking labor. You know, this involves a lot of, you know, physical repetitiveness. It could be quite strenuous without adequate hydration or food. And in the picking of cotton itself, that could actually lead to crippling arthritis to finger fractures to infections.


Dr. Dea Boster  18:42

And in some cases, slaves actually provided a lot of labor for Southern governments. So public works projects, whether that was mining, whether that was tunneling, building railroads, building roads, or dams or canals. A lot of that labor in the pre-war South was being performed by slaves. Many slaves had been hired out to do that. And so that could also lead to crippling injuries, things like fractures...limbs that would have to be amputated after significant accidents with industrial tools with explosives. But then again, it's also kind of difficult to say which of those conditions might be considered sound or unsound for slave. And here, we get into the really complicated and messy history of this discourse, because, you know, many Southern physicians, Southern courts, you know, they were tasked with the job of determining the future of slaves who may have incurred injuries or it may have been identified as sound or unsound. 


Dr. Dea Boster  19:47

And one really interesting and rich area that I found for research was in breach of warranty litigation in the South. I was really surprised to find just how common this came up with slaves who had been sold or hired to do a specific type of labor may have been found to be unsound or may have incurred some sort of injury or accident that rendered them disabled. And these things would come up in court where an original slave holder might sue a hired-out master for, you know, a breach of contract for damage to their human property. Um, because of a condition that a slave incurred, like a fractured leg or an injury that rendered them unsound, or a slave may have been sold from one slave holder to another. And then, you know, at some point in the future, after that transaction, the new slave holder identified a condition that they deemed to be unsound. And then they would sue the original seller for breach of warranty. Because a lot of southern slave transactions involve warranties or guarantees of general soundness, which, when you look at some of these court records, you know, judges are drawing very fine lines between does that mean healthy, not necessarily, slaves might be both healthy and unsound. As in, they have a condition that is chronic, that they've had their entire lives, but they are, by and large, pretty healthy, or they might be perfectly sound and unhealthy. 


Dr. Dea Boster  21:27

But they also weigh in on a lot of conditions, ranging from deafness or, you know, crippled limbs all the way to nearsightedness. And in fact, it's interesting that, you know, in some cases, a breach of warranty, litigation around I read about a woman whowas found to be near sighted, she had stigmatism in her eyes and needed glasses. And the judge actually determined that was probably not an unsoundness.  It could be seen as an unsoundness, or a disability for a free person who would need glasses in order to, you know, perform their sorts of labor to learn how to read and write. But the judge deemed that for a a woman who was enslaved, that wasn't necessarily disabling, because she wasn't expected to do the type of you know, work that would require that sort of visual correction. So there really is a lot of very interesting discussion around this. And it informed a lot of medical decision making too. There were records of Southern surgeons and physicians who would treat slaves and take that person's status in society, their possibility of freedom, or lack thereof, in most cases, as you know, factors in their decision making of what to do. 


Dr. Dea Boster  22:54

So in one case, I read about a slave who had fractured their leg, a young man who had been injured on the job, you know, the surgeon had to make a decision of whether to try and reset the fracture or amputate the limb. And they determined that for the slave, it was a better course of action to amputate the limb and very deliberately wrote in their decision, the record of this in the Southern Medical Journal, that because a slave would never need to be a primary breadwinner, would never need to, to support their family and be independent. They did not need the limb as much as say, a free white laborer who had incurred the same injury in the same circumstance. So you know, when you look at these examples, and I could go on and on with this, but when you look at these examples, you can see that these calculations of what it means to be able bodied or disabled, what it means to be dependent or independent. These were not fixed categories. They were constantly being negotiated and renegotiated in these arenas...whether it was the sale of slaves, whether it was court, you know, decisions around slaves who had been found to be unsound or injured, or whether it was medical decision making. 


Deborah  24:16

All of this...if there's just seems like that could be a really strong economic decision that's influencing what is going to happen and the doctor was making an economic decision in terms of what the future potential this this enslaved person could provide... as a provider. The the courts are making decisions, the slave owners are making decisions. So it seems very economic throughout this this process that like just tran... very transactional.


Dr. Dea Boster  24:51

In a lot of ways that's absolutely true, especially when you look at these records that concerned sales or possibility of sales. And yes, I mean, there is a very significant transactional and economic factor to slave experiences in general. And that can be, you know, very cold that can seem very calculated. But it's also important to keep in mind that that is not the only factor. And that's particularly true when we look at disability. Because ideas about disability, you know, even if we can recognize that there was no single sort of understanding of what disability meant, culturally, economically, socially, those assumptions, those expectations were very deeply ingrained in American society. So any participants in this discourse, whether it was white slaveholders, whether it was courts, doctors, or even the slaves themselves, they brought to these encounters their own sort of baggage, their own assumptions about what it meant to be able bodied or disabled. So we cannot really discount the more kind of nebulous cultural factors of stigma, of pity, disgust, or even things like aesthetic expectations, right? And, you know, when we look at the experiences of individual slaves, you can also see those considerations coming up. Because, you know..


Deborah  26:25

Could you share more about that, that perspective of what how slaves viewed disability, it would be great to hear more about about that. 


Dr. Dea Boster  26:34



Dr. Dea Boster  26:35

And again, it's a very complex story. There's no simple way that slaves idealized or, you know, stigmatized, certain types of disability. There are, of course, folkloric records of slave communities that valued people who had some sort of difference whether that difference was blindness, whether that difference difference was a condition like epilepsy or any sort of fits. There is some evidence that individuals with those conditions may have been seen as, or may have been held aloft as spiritual leaders that they may have been seen as some sort of supernatural force. But there's also a lot of evidence of people like that being stigmatized within their own communities, within black enslaved communities. But many slaves clearly recognized that they were participants in this discourse as well, right? 


Dr. Dea Boster  27:37

And the gray areas around disability and soundness, gave slaves a lot of opportunities to negotiate and even resist the terms of their bondage. And this is something we tend not to see or at least, historically, many scholars didn't focus on these more subtle day to day negotiations for a very long time, really, until about the late 20th century, when historians were looking at slave agency and activism. They tended to look at more examples of revolt and aggression, or running away. And that certainly was something that a lot of abolitionists in the north wanted to emphasize as well.


Dr. Dea Boster  28:22

But when you look at the records, the primary sources you can see that slaves were actually very active agents in their own bondage, even if they had no hope or realistic expectations of being able to run away permanently or being able to rise up against their enslavers in active, aggressive rebellion. But, on a more subtle day to day level, slaves could adopt a number of strategies ranging from malingering, which is feigning a disease or disability in order to avoid a sale or to negotiate the terms of their labor. Some slaves who did have disabilities could downplay those conditions, or they could exaggerate them, sort of what the disability theorist,Tobin Siebers, called the "masquerade of disability" to amplify the visual cues of a certain condition in order to evoke a public response, right?


Dr. Dea Boster  29:25

And there are many, many examples of this from a man named James Smith, for example, who wrote a memoir of his bondage after the Civil War. He had been injured by an accident at a sawmill when he was a very young man and it clearly was something that he felt strongly identified with. In his memoir, he described how important it was for him to go back to that location later on in his life to visit the place where he had become physically disabled. But he also... was very savvy about how he might utilize that condition in his body to negotiate the terms of his labor. Sometimes he would exaggerate the pain and limitations of his crippled leg in order to get out of doing certain types of work that he didn't feel like doing. But then again, he also described very proudly how he was able to walk 10 miles down the road to visit his family, at one point. Um, he was able to escape permanently. He actually ran away, and there are images of him making his escape, where you see absolutely no evidence that he had a crippled leg. In fact, in one very notable image that I found in that book--an engraving--he is carrying a cane which he described in the text as being necessary for him to walk. But he's not using it in the image, he is using the cane to carry a bindle over his shoulder. So the cane is just the stick over his shoulder carrying his belongings and his legs seem to be perfectly functional as he is running away.


Dr. Dea Boster  31:07

So there are many accounts of this. Certainly a number of slaves identified later on in their lives through interviews with abolitionists, or with the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression, that certain conditions, whether it was epileptic fits, whether it was missing limbs, whether it was open sores, or any kind of cues that might indicate some kind of mental unsoundness, or developmental disability, those could be really useful in sales transactions. And a number of scholars have identified that when slaves were being sold. During the physical sale itself. During the auction, slaves were in a highly visible position, and they could recognize the power they had in that circumstance to sway potential buyers opinions about them. 


Dr. Dea Boster  32:02

So some slaves for example, utilize that to feign epileptic fits if they wanted to avoid being sold, kind of like Virginia did. But there are other reports of slaves literally doing that on the auction block to the point where they would have to be carried away and the sale would have to be postponed. There were slaves who intentionally disabled themselves; who sabotage their own bodies by aggravating open wounds to make them more chronic conditions, or who would even go towards chopping off their own fingers to try to present themselves as unsound. 


Dr. Dea Boster  32:43

One very memorable case was a woman who was being offered at auction and this was a record by an abolitionist who was one who had witnessed this, she had somehow managed to sneak conceal a knife and bring it with her on the auction block. So as she was standing there in front of these prospective enslavers, she actually brought out a knife and cut off her finger in front of everybody. Which not only rendered her physical body less sound missing limbs was considered to be or missing appendages was considered to be an unsound quality and slaves, but it also invited these prospective buyers to question her mental health. And they did. Literally they asked her, Why did you do that? And one of them even said, cuz you're mad, meaning insane, you know, are you crazy? Why did you do this? And she responded, No, it was just bothering me. So I cut it off, which really did not, you know, appease the concerns about her mental illness. 


Dr. Dea Boster  33:48

So, you know, again, I think many slaves were clearly recognizing these cultural assumptions and economic assumptions around slave soundness and unsoundness. What it meant to be considered sound. Most slaveholders adopted the view regardless of their labor needs, regardless of their own personal experiences or biases. The overwhelming desire for enslavers was to have human property that was predictable. Okay, so they wanted slaves that were physically, you know, able to manage labor. 


Dr. Dea Boster  34:27

In market terms. The term "full hand" was used as sort of a shorthand to describe a person who was physically healthy, physically able-bodied and could manage a full day's worth of hard labor in the field. And then of course, there were other modifications to that, whether it's, you know, there's "half hand", "quarter hand", "likely"-- meaning a person who seemed to be "very likely" to be healthy, sound agreeable, and able to perform labor. And then "unlikely", someone who, for a variety of factors could not be expected to do that. So slaveholders really wanted to be able to predict what their slaves would be capable of providing to them. And they wanted slaves who could be disciplined, and any slave who fell outside of those categories. slaves who, because of their bodies, because of their minds or their temperaments could not be disciplined could not be relied upon, to or predicted to perform the labor that was expected of them. Those slaves were deemed to be "unsound", and in a lot of cases, unsellable for a variety of reasons. That does not mean that they would not be sold, it just means that they could not necessarily be expected to turn a profit for their sellers, they could not be expected to be sold without or with a guarantee of soundness.


Deborah  35:57

And also wonder what impact that had in terms of if the, if the slave owner was not...the enslaver and was not able to... sell this person easily? did how did that impact the the life of that enslaved person? Did it? Did it change their experience? Was there punishment for that, especially if there was the suspicion that you were malingering? Or were or if there was just just the frustration that an enslaver might have that you have this unsoundness and I'm frustrated with that, and I'm not able to sell you or work you in the way that I need you to or want you to?


Dr. Dea Boster  36:42

Absolutely, and again, it's difficult to generalize, there was no single response or punishment or consequence for those circumstances. But the expectation of slave malingering,particularly for conditions that were not immediately visible--things like having a history of depression, or running away, or epilepsy, or for women, a history of reproductive dysfunction. You know, these things that were harder to verify just from a glance. There was very commonly a suspicion of malingering. In fact, a lot of slaveholders a lot of physicians, they provide, you know, in their their written accounts, they provide copious evidence of this suspicion that slaves were in fact feigning or exaggerating certain conditions as a negotiation tactic. And there were recommendations of how to try and catch those people out to, you know, sort of pull them out of the ruse, some more extreme and violent than others. And yes, there were punishments. There were cases of slaves who were significantly punished for having attempted these sorts of ruses. 


Dr. Dea Boster  37:56

One very memorable example was of a man who had been very tricky. He had run away multiple times and been caught and brought back. He had sabotaged and malingered in a number of ways. And finally, his enslaver had just said, I'm done with this guy, I'm going to sell him. And on the eve of this man sale, so the the slave had been taken away from his, his enslaver he had been taken to a slave trader, and was being held there in a slave traders jail. That night before the sale itself, his slave holder broke into the slave traders jail--so he's trespassing-- and branded the man on his face. So he took a searing hot iron and branded, I think his initials, I could be wrong about that, but he branded the man's face. And he did this knowing full well that having that scar on his face would decrease the man's value at the auction. Because those types of signs physical signs of corporal punishment were read as marks of bad character. They were stigmatized for slaves.


Deborah  39:08

Would that include scars from being whipped, as well?


Dr. Dea Boster  39:13



Deborah  39:13

Yeah. Okay.


Dr. Dea Boster  39:14

Yep, scars from being whipped. Any kind of laceration or deliberate scarring, like branding, but also it was not uncommon for people to cut notches in ears, nostrils, faces and hands. And these were done primarily not exclusively for slaves, mind you. Those marks were often inflicted in honor fights and other sorts of corporal punishment in the South because they were so visible and disfiguring. But for slave and market transaction, yes, they could be read as signs of bad character. You're not necessarily that this slave had been abused, but that the slave had done something to warrant that punishment. And so in a lot of cases, slaves who had those sorts of visceral, visible scars sold for markedly less than slaves who did not? And so yes, in this case, the slave holder did this purely for his own sense of vengeance. He did this to vindicate himself, knowing full well that it would lead to a lower profit. And that, again, shows that the the purely transactional and financial factors in these negotiations, they weren't the only ones, right?


Deborah  40:31

Yes. And I'm also you began to talk some about the experience of women who were enslaved. Could you talk a little bit more about that? Because there was there because of their roles in slave life. There had to have been, I'm sure specific experiences that women went through that... that males that did not go through, you could talk a little bit about that.


Dr. Dea Boster  40:56

Oh, absolutely. And it's a really fascinating story. There are actually other scholars who have done much more research on this, like Jennifer Barclay. And, you know, they focus a lot more on the the gender dimension. But one thing I will point out is that, you know, it's important to keep in mind in this time period that I studied the 19th century, the international slave trade had been made illegal, right, so the international slave trade, the legal slave trade had closed, meaning that the vast majority of the enslaved population was born in the United States, by the 19th cent...or, you know, over the course of the 19th century. Not exclusively, there were still some illegal imports from elsewhere in the Atlantic world. But, you know, the notion that the slave population was domestic by this point was an important consideration.


Dr. Dea Boster  41:52

So women's role as reproducers, as sort of the mothers of future generations of slaves was really important for slaveholding interests. And when you look at market records, a lot of women pertaining...the "likely", excuse me, the "likely women", those who had who were considered healthy, who were relatively young, but not so young, that they might die from childhood diseases... they often sold for significantly more than their male counterparts, because of their breeding capacity, their capacity to bear more slaves, which would also be considered the property of the mother's enslaver. And so that means that women's reproductive health was a significant factor in these calculations of disability or unsoundness. And women who had histories of reproductive dysfunction, whether that was amenorrhea, whether that was, you know, histories of miscarriage, that was a significant unsoundness factor that was exclusive to women. And there is some evidence that slaveholders took women's reproductive health and ability into account in how they treated them in terms of the resources they provided for women who were pregnant, in terms of how they treated women postpartum after they had delivered their their children. 


Dr. Dea Boster  43:23

But it's also important to note that in this time period, understandings about pain, for people of color were very different. There was a very widespread assumption that people of African descent did not feel pain, in terms of intensity and endurance, the same way that white Europeans or people of European descent did. And that's particularly true for women of color. There was an assumption that women of color, felt pain at less intensity and were able to endure pain more than white women could. And so, the idea that women did not need anesthesia for difficult childbirth for the postpartum complications, whether that was vesicovaginal fistula, ah..whether that was eclampsia, other conditions that resulted from, from pregnancy and childbirth. That was fairly widespread, but at the same time, because women were, you know, the the reproducers because their value as mothers was so economically significant to slaveholders...there is a lot of medical attention paid to the best ways to ensure good outcomes for slave mothers who were experiencing reproductive difficulties. 


Dr. Dea Boster  44:44

But at the same time, you know, physicians had to walk a very fine line between you know, what is good for a slave's body like slave's health and what is the interest of the slaveholder? Because even though many were called upon to treat slaves and make advice for slave health, ultimately, they were being paid by the slaveholder. So they have to negotiate the different interests and, um, and you know, ideas. And it's really interesting because in terms of slave health, you know, for women, it was sort of a tacit, and sometimes very, you know, open or overt assumption that slaveholding prerogatives included sexual access to female slaves, that slaveholders, you know, took it as sort of a given that they could have sexual access with their female slaves whenever they wanted, however they wanted.


Dr. Dea Boster  45:41

And yet, you know, physicians would have to be very careful about saying, Well, okay, but you know, there are certain types of labor that pregnant women shouldn't do, there are certain types of, you know, sexual trauma that could impede a woman's reproductive function down the road. And so there's a lot of really interesting kind of tap dancing, going on around women's health in this time period about, you know, this is what should... you know, this is how women should be treated, this is how they shouldn't be treated. You don't see the same kind of tap dancing around enslaved men, in a lot of cases. There, the clear overriding interest seems to be the, the masters, the slaveholders, not the slaves, kind of like the man who had broken his leg and the physician who was treating him said, Okay, our best course of action is just to amputate this because you don't need to be able bodied for the rest of your life. We're not going to go through the the riskier procedure of resetting the fracture and hoping that it heals. You don't see the same kinds of consideration for women when reproductive health was on the line.


Deborah  46:47

And with the the issue of how the the disability... the experiences of unsoundness and violence that might have created disability, or just through the through the time period as the abolitionist movement was growing....Could you I know in, in your, in your book, "African American Slavery and Disability" you do talk about how this movement they utilized for lack of a better word, the concept of disability, the concept of sound isn't unsound is to to advocate for the freedom of enslaved people? 


Dr. Dea Boster  47:32



Deborah  47:33

I would, I would love it if you would explain a little bit more about that.


Dr. Dea Boster  47:38

Absolutely. And it's a really fascinating topic. Because at this time period, in the first half of the 19th Century, abolitionist literature was a huge part of literary culture in the United States, really, in the Atlantic world overall. And you know, you have this spread of printed material, unprecedented, not just text, but also lithographs, engravings visual images that abolitionists were producing. And in a lot of ways, the sort of visual and literary metaphors about disability more broadly, were really, really firmly connected with literary and visual metaphors of slavery in abolitionist art. 


Dr. Dea Boster  48:26

But what's really kind of fascinating is that you see a lot of the same assumptions about disability going unquestioned, even as abolitionists were questioning meanings of slavery, right, what it means to be a slave, whether people of color, as many pro slavery advocates said, we're inherently disabled, we're inherently unfit to be free. Many abolitionists would turn the tables and say it is not the...you know, the person of color that is enslaved, or that is disabled, it is the institution of slavery, that is disabling the slave. So there's a really interesting cause and effect discourse going on between pro and anti-slavery arguments in the 19th Century, whether or not the institution of slavery itself was causing this rampant widespread unsoundness among black people in America. 


Dr. Dea Boster  49:22

But at the same time, many abolitionists would say actually, once you remove people from slavery, they become sound, they become able-bodied, they become fit for independence, for labor for citizenship. And that's particularly true in radical abolitionist rhetoric, like that being published by William Lloyd Garrison in his "Liberator" newspaper. So, in that sense, you see a lot of you know, this idea that slave disability could be cured by freedom by emancipation. It's like a bracing tonic and this gets repeated a lot in postwar narratives of emancipation. 


Dr. Dea Boster  50:03

You know, the the idea that you know when slaves heard the news of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which is kind of a problematic document by itself. We're not going to get into all of that right now. But once they heard the news that emancipation was coming, you know, they describe how slaves who could not walk, were throwing away their crutches and dancing with joy, because they had been freed. Right? There are many accounts of slaves who described horrifying disabilities and disfigurement and impairment in bondage. But as soon as they became free, they found it in themselves to become strong, to become independent, to become able-bodied. And what's fascinating about that, is that you can really see how anti-slavery advocates, you know, are utilizing these very widespread assumptions about disability. They are not questioning the notion that disability was something to be pitied, something that rendered a person burdensome or dependent.


Dr. Dea Boster  51:07

They're not questioning that at all. They're just saying, no, no, no it's slavery that is causing all of this. Once a slave becomes free, the disability goes away, right? And it's really interesting how closely intertwined narratives of disability were with narratives of slavery. In fact, many people may have heard of the book "Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl", Harriet Jacobs account of being enslaved, which was, it's still a very popular example, in history classes. It was a popular book in the 1860s. It was directly inspired by an earlier memoir called "Incidents In the Life of a Blind Girl", which had been published two years before. And so the Harriet Jacobs' memoir, very deliberately chose that title, and just substituted the word slave girl for blind girl, because they were sort of backpacking on that, you know, the, the literary trope of disability memoir. So in a lot of ways, those connections were very, very closely linked. 


Dr. Dea Boster  52:16

But ultimately, you know, it was these ant.. these abolitionists who were saying, you know, once you get rid of the disabling institution of slavery, people of color will become free, right? They will become independent, they will become able-bodied, they will not be burdens. And so there's this really kind of reinforcing of that stereotype that stigma of disability itself trying to remove this the unsoundness of slavery, but not really questioning disability itself-- as something to be pitied something to be isolated, or shunned something that leads to dependence, which was really anathema to that sort of American ethos of freedom and independence, and, you know, success. 


Deborah  53:05

...and able- bodiedness.


Dr. Dea Boster  53:06

And able-bodiedness. Yes.


Deborah  53:07

So it's, it's to be American is to be able-bodied. And the concept also independence and freedom connected to able-bodiedness. So it's very fascinating. I could talk with you all day about this! (laughter) And I do want to point out that your your book, African American slavery and disability bodies, properties and power in the antebellum South will be re added to our collection. And it's been in our archives, where we are going to be re-adding it to the archives as well as to getting some copies to add to our general collection. Because this is a topic that, as I mentioned to you just seems like the knowledge of these relationships and intersections of disability just seem to be missing in the general popular knowledge. As we come to a close if you...if you have any thoughts or if there's...what are some key lessons that you feel people of this time period need to understand?


Dr. Dea Boster  54:14

Well, I would say that, you know, above all, I guess my you know, the common wisdom I give to my students is, wounds never heal until they are exposed to light. So learning about how racism, how institutions like slavery, has influenced and continue to influence American institutions, American culture, American assumptions, you know, that is absolutely crucial. That is something that we cannot and should not take for granted because history is not about the things that happened. It's about the way we interpret the past and that is constantly evolving that is constantly changing. 


Dr. Dea Boster  55:00

But I think it's also important to understand that, you know, the structures around racism in this country are also in a lot of cases, the same structures around ableism. We cannot disentangle ableism and racism, they they fit together very neatly. And that's particularly true when you consider how, in, you know, sort of the the period of Industrialization in this time period, sort of modern America, you know. The discourse around what it meant to be Black and what it meant to be disabled were, were very firmly entrenched right from the beginning. You can see this in histories of blackface minstrelsy, in the freak shows of P.T Barnum, and his American museum. And in fact, his very first major success was a curiosity named Joice Heth, an African American woman who had been enslaved and supposedly was 131 years old. She, you know, kind of exemplifies, in a lot of ways, this very deeply entrenched connection in assumptions about blackness and disability, right. And this process of stigma, this process of othering, continues in a lot of ways in United States history, and trying to ignore it, trying to pretend like it didn't happen, does no one any good. 


Dr. Dea Boster  56:31

So, you know, I think it's very important for us to really take a step back and question our assumptions, not just about race, but also about able-bodiedness, and to see how structural a lot of these factors are these assumptions are in American society. It can be very humbling, it can be very disturbing. But at the same time, that discomfort is part of the learning process. And I encourage everybody to keep asking questions to remain curious to try and root out how deep these structural ties go. Because they've always been a part of our society. And until we can really unpack them and analyze them, they always will be.


Deborah  57:15

Thank you so much, Dr. Dea Boster. Just really appreciative of you joining us today. 


Deborah  57:21

You just listened to access this on the DC Public Library podcast recorded from The Labs recording studio in the historic modernized Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington, DC. You can reach out to the Center for Accessibility at DCPL by emailing DCPLaccess at DC dot G O V. Stay safe and stay accessible. 


Dr. Dea Boster  57:50

Thank you. 


Deborah  57:52

Thank you.