Excerpted From: Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger, Overseers, Whiteness, and the Contradictions of the Slave System: An Introduction, 56 Creighton Law Review 109(March 2023)(35 Footnotes)(Full Document)


EschRoedigerThe Louisiana-based proslavery writer Dr. Samuel Cartwright straddled lines: master and professor, scientist and Christian theologian, management theorist and physician. So, too, did his positions on the place of overseers in the management of slaves. Cartwright insisted that the Bible endorsed racial slavery. In order for this to be accurate, White people would necessarily need to possess--objectively and/or naturally--a particular capacity for effectively controlling Black labor. Such a capacity would unite the owners and the overseers of the enslaved, groups whom Cartwright believed were in no way equals in their abilities to exercise rationality, reason, or even self control of the kind he believed was required to “manage.” But in arguing that the basis of white managerial supremacy was found in white blood, Cartwright then faced a contradiction: how to explain the existence of whites who managed enslaved people poorly. Cartwright's attempts to “theorize” and to defend this reading described the Biblical Adam as the master of a “negro gardener.” The gardener Cartwright references is Ham, typically described as the father of Cush, who, in the Bible, bore responsibility for the peopling of the African continent. But Cartwright instead describes Ham as Adam's “head man”--that is, the “manager, or overseer” of a race Cartwright imagined as “negro.” Scripture, he believed, “tells us certain facts about negroes which none but the best-informed planters and overseers know at the present day.” Though Cartwright imagined racial knowledge as solely belonging to those W.E.B. Du Bois would later call “the white masters of the world,” his emphasis on the significance of managing allowed otherwise lesser white men, those who worked as overseers, admittance to that elect group for a moment at least.

Nevertheless, as Cartwright and others exchanged what the historian James Breeden has called “advice among masters” in the nineteenth century United States South, Cartwright emphasized that the overseer himself required education and overseeing. Overseers seemed to him in dire need of the tutelage that he provided, as they were capable of losing their grasp on Biblical truths regarding race and work, susceptible as they were to bouts of laziness and fits of anger. In perhaps his most infamous foray into pseudoscience, Cartwright invented and described a “disease peculiar to negroes”: Dysaesthesia Aethiopica. The report identifying the “disease” simultaneously cautioned that overseers did not understand, and thus underestimated, the disease, appending to its name “Called by the Overseers, ‘Rascality’.”

Ambiguities abounded. Due to the subjectivity of overseers, the behavior of the enslaved, and the lack of clarity in language, rascality could imply duplicity and slyness; the cheekiness of the scamp, alternately delightful and deplorable; and the fearsome practices of the mob. Synonymous with rascality is “tomfoolery” and also “sabotage”. Yet the Oxford English Dictionary includes multiple citations to the word's use before the end of slavery in the U.S., overwhelmingly meaning malice and evil, even bad faith. Cartwright asserted the importance of an informed master who could correct and contain his overseers, who themselves were prone to assume ragefully that any “rascality” was either “intentionally done” or to be dismissed as childish. Instead, Cartwright insisted that the misbehaviors overseers labeled as(mere) rascality were serious manifestations of a pathology rooted in “the negro.” We might wish to take neither Cartwright's nor the overseers' viewpoints seriously in assessing a set of actions that, as enumerated by Cartwright, reads instead as a catalog of enslaved people's resistance:

The careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint ... are apt to do much mischief ... they break, waste and destroy everything they handle, paying no attention to the rights of property ... They wander about at night, and keep in a half nodding sleep during the day. They slight their work--cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief. They raise disturbances with their overseers.

Cartwright saw the overseer's explosive and subjective responses as potentially destructive to the bodies of the enslaved people he managed. This presented a financial risk for masters, who saw the impulsive rush to punish as something to be curbed by imparting the knowledge that slave “rascality” was diseased rather than willful. In doing so Cartwright made the master the ultimate arbiter of how to identify and diagnose problems in managing the overseers of Black labor.

Race Unequals situates, maps, and illuminates the historical contexts in which Cartwright included overseers among those who, through white positionality and experience, knew how to manage the labor of enslaved people. Simultaneously, McMurtry-Chubb demonstrates the important impact of Cartwright's doubt that such expertise could ever rise to the level held by the master class. Race Unequals reveals a plantation South in which overseers squared off in highly unequal courtroom dramas that gave them an opportunity to recover damages, often involving what we might now call “wage theft,” from masters. Without the access to high-priced legal talent that their employers had, overseers challenged the veracity, reputation, knowledge, and masculinity of their employers. In that sense, the very existence of this significant body of litigation is almost as important as its results.

We approach the book not as legal scholars but as historians of labor, race, and power. In what follows, we will situate Teri McMurtry-Chubb's study within historiographical traditions, describing how Race Unequals intersects with classic debates and new departures in the history of slavery and labor in the U.S. Two areas receive brief emphasis in this connection. First, is hegemony and the significance to McMurtry-Chubb of hegemony and hegemonic masculinity. Second, is the history of management in relation to slavery and overseers in the U.S. South. Both help us to understand the contradictions in Cartwright's position. More specifically, these foci provide a structure for understanding why, at times, Cartwright needed to assert that overseers were associates of masters in the command of racial and managerial knowledge, and at others saw them as inadequate and even suspect.

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In demonstrating how hegemonic masculinity was made not only by juridical processes but by cultural and social ones--processes that of course included the act of appealing to law and legislation--McMurtry-Chubb importantly centers ideology. Indeed, that thousands of white men became overseers in the hope of ascending to the planter class, something that rarely occurred, reveals the depth of what cultural studies scholars historically referred to as “customs in common.” It also indicates the accuracy of the author's claim that social control required the negotiation of real contradictions. The layered textures revealed through the study of ideology and the legal mechanisms to which it related in a dialectical fashion makes this work useful for those of us interested in the law's relationship to the extraction of labor from human beings in multiple forms economic, social and political arrangements.

In particular, McMurtry-Chubb's book, and the essays responding to it in this volume, help us to look again at the relationship between whiteness and property. In her classic work on that pairing, the legal scholar Cheryl Harris both argued for “whiteness as property” and showed why those without property sometimes could cling to whiteness as an identity so tenaciously. In the case of overseers, the key class difference between the two groups lay in the possession of plantation property by masters and the necessity of working on that property by overseers. Such class difference did not mean that overseers ceased to claim, and even realize, white advantage, especially relative to the enslaved. Moreover, they held other forms of property rights and expectations that Harris details. Whiteness, as the activist and writer Amoja Three Rivers long ago reminded us, rests on “political alliance,” not on racial essence, and claims to shape it came from those who could hope to command such an alliance and those who survived within it.


Elizabeth Esch is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas.