Event—Scholarly Seminars

Jordan Alexander Stein, Fordham University


Queering Abolition

Devoting an entire chapter of A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to “Separation of Families,” Harriet Beecher Stowe propounded what might be considered the capstone of the inexhaustible abolitionist trope of the broken slave family: “The worst abuse of the system of slavery is its outrage upon the family; and, as the writer views the subject, it is one which is more notorious and undeniable than any other.” If indeed it is “notorious” that slavery unmade families, however, it is much less often recognized that anti-slavery discourse went a long way toward making them in the first place. The abundant mediascape and distribution networks of the antislavery movement committed enormous—and, more to the point, unprecedented—energies to edifying the agency and power of domestic life in the US. These transformations fomented by anti-slavery media, and their impact on US culture more generally, are this paper’s subject. As we shall see, anti-slavery media tries to resolve the inhumane labor of the plantation into the sentimental scene of the home––and along the way imagines that a scheme for expropriated labor and capital accumulation (slavery) could be successfully countered by redefining the terms of social reproduction (family). The aim of the this paper is to elaborate the ways that anti-slavery media might be understood as a historically significant part of what Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner have called “the project of normalization that has made heterosexuality hegemonic.” My argument, then, is that anti-slavery media creates a version of slavery whose opposite is neither freedom nor wage labor, but heterosexuality.