What Do We Mean When We Talk About Freedom? | Michelle McKinley | Wings


Hi, everybody What do we mean when we talk about freedom? What do we mean when we talk about fractional freedom? For the past 10 years, I have thought a lot about freedom, but mostly
in the context of slavery. I have wondered what it means or what it would have meant to claim
freedom as a woman who is enslaved for herself and for her family. When I’m at a dinner party and people ask me what I do, I say I’m a
historian of slavery. That’s generally a conversation killer as most people feel very
uncomfortable making small talk about such a heavy topic. And so what I do as they are looking forward to getting away from me is
I tell them a story and the story generally goes like this. We know that over 12 million people left the African continent for the
new world as part of the slave trade. Many of those people did not survive. Approximately 2 million did not
survive the middle passage. However, of those 10 million people, less than half a million came to
the United States. That’s 5 percent. Yeah, what we know about slavery in the new world is vastly
disproportionate to the totality of the experience of African slaves in
the Americas. The brunt of the scholarly conversations, the movies, the things that
you know, the abolitionist movement is all U.S. focused. But what about the other 9.5 million people who came to the Americas? What were their lives like? Where did they go? What was it like to
claim freedom for them? As a legal historian of slavery, I work with legal codes. And I won’t
go into, you know, sort of nerdy details about legal cultures of 16th
and 17th century Spanish America. But I do want to highlight a couple things that are important to my
story. One is slaves have legal personality or what we would call the ability
to sue in court. Slaves could marry and their owners had to respect their marriages. Slaves could earn wages and those wages they used to purchase their own
freedom. 75 percent of the women who I study and work with in the centuries and the places that I worked with bought their own freedom. This is an important thing for you to think through when you think
about slavery. This is a code from the 13th century that drives home the point that
the civil law created more paths to freedom than the common law. Now, unfortunately,
I cannot, even though I really wish I could, I cannot take you physically to Peru
this evening. I can take you visually there. Many of you may not think about Africans in the context of Peru. Right? You’ll think about Machu Picchu or you will think about the magnificent
faces and visages of the Andean cordillera. But it might be interesting to
you to know that in the 1600s, Lima was a majority black city. Most of the city’s magnificent architectural designs, it was, you know,
their monasteries, their palaces, their gardens were all maintained by slave labor. When I started doing research in the archives, I read a case brought by a young woman named Ana de Velasco and Anna went to court to file a complaint against her master. She asked for a new owner by filing a petition alleging that her owner
was lustful and had withheld her wages. In her petition, she asked to be placed in a new position that allowed
her two hours a day to attend to her litigation, which, as she claimed, was the customary
amount of time that she would need on a daily basis to attend to her legal affairs. Now, there’s a lot here, you know, about her. Her owner, and that’s scandalous, he was like lascivious and all of
that. So he was lustful. And, you know, here she is outing him and talking about their
illegitimate children to of a panel of his peers. But it was the assurance that she said that she needed two hours a day
to attend to her litigation, which as a lawyer, we know that that’s probably
right. And also the assurance that it would be respected that was exciting to
me. Nowhere in the U.S. could I ever have found a petition like this. So I began digging deeper and deeper. And over the next 10 years, I found many women like Ana de Velasco and
was dragged into daily dramas and stories full of passion and the messiness of
interpersonal relationships as people like Ana negotiated fractions of freedom over their time and
over their lives in bondage. So where do I find these things? Where do I find
these dramas, these legal dramas? These treasured finds are the result of painstaking
research through crumbling and old folios. They actually drive this man crazy over the
past 10 years. And so I ask him to bring me more and more folios so that I can find
new dramas and new stories that I can share with you. This is what historians call
the allure of the archive. I’ve also gone through many readers. I might have started at 0.1. I can’t tell you what I am at right now. So this is the cast of colonial. Latin American history. These are the
guys. That conquer stuff. They rebel guys. They find new republics and write constitutions there,
guys. This is the standard cast of colonial Latin American history. My folks
are people like Ana. My subjects are people like Ana who work in a domestic slave-holding
household. And I approach this site. As a raucous, crowded, noisy, political site. This for me is a site of politics as our Congress right now. This is a place of every single piece of dirty laundry that you could
imagine that this woman is hanging out. This is a place of tension, joy, envy, desire. This is a place of aggression and sadness and grief. And I don’t want to do this in this sort of upstairs, downstairs sort
of masterpiece theater, you know, type of thing. But I really want to look at the household as a political site, a site in which relationships are forged. And these are thick relationships. These are robust relationships. And I want to use that site to unpack these very, very easy conflations
that we make of law and justice or even that sort of uncomfortable hyphen between
master and slave. And I really want to think about all of these things together through
the household. So to do so, I really have to do this. But this is a great story and
I’m just going to rush us through it. It was the fourth chapter of my book, so I’m really
going to rush us through it. It’s a story of betrayal and mania. OK, so boy meets girl. Very, very bare bones. Boy meets girl. Boy falls madly in love with
girl. Boy asks for her hand in marriage, the mother, for her hand in
marriage. It’s the 1600s. You know, they can’t go to Vegas. And the problem is that the girl is owned. She’s a slave, and she’s owned by the wealthy and formidable Dona
Beatriz. The mother goes straight away to Dona Beatriz and she says, look, you know, let’s keep this real. A wealthy Spaniard of good birth wants
to marry Maria. Of course, her name is Maria, right? Like I was gonna sing for you. I just met a girl named Maria, but I didn’t sing that because I
shouldn’t sing I should leave that to the jazz ensemble. Anyway. So Beatriz right? She
should have been down with the program, like she should have said, oh, this is true. I free Maria. Anyway, she doesn’t. So I encounter Pedro in the archive
suing for annulment on the basis of fraud. The court asks Maria, why didn’t you tell Pedro
that you were enslaved? And she said he never asked. So like. She was right. Actually, you know. So the point here about this story is not whether, you know, Pedro is
like dealing with a full deck. Like, he’s clearly quite damn right. Or that the community covers up for Maria and they’re like, you know,
that’s not the point. The point is for me that Beatriz and the mother and Maria and you know
Pedro, they’re all part of a very, very close-knit community. Beatriz is very much part of Juana’s life. Juana’s the mother. Despite their relationship as human property. They pray together every
day. They eat lunch together every day. They were at each other’s bedside
when Beatriz died, which I found after, you know, harassing that poor man. She died at
home in her bed, surrounded by her confessor and all her family, which included Juana
and Maria. So the point is that Juana didn’t like get her freedom and say peace
out, I’m not going to see you anymore. She still remained in the life of
Beatriz. Early modern worlds were intimately and deeply intertwined. There were no free agents wielding their autonomy and their
individualism. In this time, people’s survival depended on their position within
multigenerational households and those carried dependencies. Those dependencies grew out of the
drudgery of care work, and that came with legal purchase in court. My goal has been here to
focus on the power of these relationships that tend to be relegated in the study of slavery
as an economic system and you know, all of that stuff has tended to be relegated to the side of
mere sentiment. None of this suggests that any of this was easy and it was not the
result of arduous work. But it does suggest that in order for us to understand slavery, we have
to understand freedom and we have to think about fractional freedom. So before you heard this, you would have thought, like if I asked you, because this is what professors do like they randomly say, OK, what do
you think about freedom? And somebody lifts their hand up and says, well, I don’t actually have
a very well thought-out philosophical and, you know, sophisticated answer but I think it probably means that I have autonomy over my time and
control over my body and the ability to do with it what I want. And then I would have said,
well, what do you think about slavery? And then you would have said the antithesis of that.
Right. You would have said the lack of autonomy and the lack of control. But my goal in these few
minutes that we’ve had together is to come not just to complicate questions and categories,
because we’re wonky academics. And that’s what academics do. We complicate things. But my goal has been for you to think beyond the label and to suggest
that this is where people lived. Ninety percent of people who were enslaved lived in this zone.
Right. This is where they lived. This is where they loved. This is where they
fought. This is where they struggle. This is why I call what I do the accrual of fractional freedoms. Ana claimed the wages that she earned, she claimed the right to her
children. She recouped her dignity in that zone. And so most of all I want to do
is for you to step away from the label of thinking, oh, Ana was a slave and think about how she
lived in that gray zone. And I also want to reiterate that 90 percent of the people who came to
the Americas lived in that gray zone. Thank you very much.

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