The Story Starts Here
Season 1, Episode 1
Season 1, Episode 1
The family policing system builds upon slavery’s foundation, attacking the humanity of families seen as undesirable. In the first episode of Season 1, we explore the notion of abolition then and now, and the idea of abolition as a project of not just removal, but also creation of the society we all deserve.
About Our Guests:
Professor Ndjuoh MehChu teaches torts, civil rights law, critical race theory, and remedies at Seton Hall Law School. His scholarship explores ways to shore up protections for marginalized groups in the carceral state. Ndjuoh was formerly a legal fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he helped incarcerated people press their claims to improve their conditions of confinement and worked on issues involving educational equity in K-12 schools.
Dr. Vanessa M. Holden is an Associate Professor of History and African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky where she is the Director of the Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative. Dr. Holden is the author of “Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community.
Hosts: Josie Pickens & Jaison Oliver
Producer: Sydnie Mares
Editor: Imani Crosby
MODULE ONE: FAMILY SEPARATION AS TERROR
Review the history of family separations in the United States that began during the era of human chattel slavery and the harm that results from these separations through the narratives of formerly enslaved people. This is a companion to The upEND Podcast.
On this episode of The upEND Podcast.
And what is the labor that children in the system are tasked with doing now? Back in the period that I study, it’s it’s harvesting cash crops, it’s chopping wood, it’s hauling water, it’s enduring sexual violence, it’s enduring beatings, it’s enduring all sorts of horrific abuse. What are children now? What labor are they being asked to do and in service to who and what systems?
Families separated through Child Protective Services voiced their anger on the steps of the state capital today.
They say the system has a history of racial discrimination.
Stop kidnapping Black children.
This CPS system is just a part of a bigger system. We have to destroy the whole damn thing.
53% of Black children will be investigated by the child welfare system by the time they turn 18.
The family policing system forcibly separates over 200,000 children from their families every year. Can a system that began with racist intent ever become a system that makes all children and communities safe?
We know the answer is no. Absolutely not.
Welcome to the upEND Podcast, a podcast that looks toward the abolition of the child welfare system, which we end up in more accurately called the family policing system.
In this podcast, we contemplate the history of family separations in the US, the current state of the family policing system, and what a future without family policing can look like.
We’re your hosts. I’m Josie Pickens.
And I’m Jaison Oliver. Let’s get started.
Alright, welcome to the upEND Podcast. In this episode, we’ll discuss how family separation was a key issue used to advance the movement to end slavery in the United States and how the family policing system builds upon slavery’s foundation in attacking the humanity of families seen as undesirable. We explore the notion of abolition then and now, and the idea of abolition as a project of not just removal, but also creation of the society we all deserve.
Alright, and we are excited to have two guests here today who are going to be able to offer us so much important and interesting information on this topic.
Professor Ndjuoh MehChu teaches torts, civil rights law, critical race theory, and remedies at Seton Hall Law School. His scholarship explores ways to shore up protections for marginalized groups in the carceral state. Ndjuoh was formerly a legal fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he helped incarcerated people press their claims to improve their conditions of confinement and worked on issues involving educational equity in K-12 schools.
Dr. Vanessa M. Holden is an associate professor of history and African-American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky, where she is the director of the Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative. Dr. Holden is the author of Surviving Southampton, African-American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community.
So thank you both for being here today with us and yeah, let’s get started.
It’s great to be on.
Happy to be here.
Ndjuoh can you tell us about your personal experience that led you to this work? I know this is something that you’ve been coming into in terms of writing about family separations. How’d you become interested in focusing on family policing and family separations?
Yeah, so I appreciate that question. As Josie mentioned in the intro, prior to my being in legal academia, I spent some time at the Southern Poverty Law Center. And there I got to work on issues that are closely related to children’s rights and educational equity. And before then, I taught in a public school in the South Bronx, where I, of course, worked closely with children.
And my background being someone who was a child of immigrant parents from countries that are the place where enslaved people were principally brought over to the land. It’s an effort rooted in solidarity as I think about family separation and its continuing legacy today, as of course upEND thinks about the broader applications of what that looks like breaking up families. And so my work is really informed both by my previous professional experiences and my own personal experiences as I think about how racialized groups are marginalized and the role that breaking up families, breaking up groups has played in that marginalization.
And Vanessa, can you talk about the connections between your work and family separations?
Sure. I’m a scholar of US slavery and women in slavery in particular, but I’m also a scholar of resistance and resistance to enslavement. And one of the main forms of resistance to enslavement was truancy and sometimes freedom-seeking, but often fleeing enslavers in search of family time and again. When enslavers advertise for enslaved people in the newspaper who fled, they list places where family members live.
And so the persistent quest to knit family and kinship networks back together is deeply embedded in the ways that enslaved people define freedom. If you wanna know what freedom is, ask an enslaved person and they will tell you. And often they’ll tell you with their feet. They won’t write it in a diary. They’ll tell you with their actions. And the ways that family preservation and restoration are central to African-American resistance really bring me into this conversation from a point of view of resistance. The ways that African-American abolitionists talk about family separation are not the same ways that white abolitionists do. The ways that enslaved people who are seeking freedom or family talk about family, both in slavery and emancipation, are not the ways that the dominant culture talks about Black families. And so that’s how I come to this work.
Thank you both. And so continuing to have this conversation around family separations and chattel slavery, how are those family separations or how were they used as a tool of terror and oppression during slavery? And I’ll start with you, Vanessa.
So I think it’s really important to be really clear about what US race-based chattel slavery as a system was. Of course, forms of unfree labor and forms of slavery have existed since antiquity. But what is it about the US system, the way that in the United States the system was practiced? Of course, it was practiced all over the Atlantic world. But what is it about the US that’s new, different, deserves its own title by the late 18th century? And it really is that the system is both race-based and hereditary, that you can pass it on. By the late 18th century in what becomes the United States, it’s not just hereditary, it’s permanent unless someone is monumented. And it is based on this new social category called race that’s coming together in that time period.
Race and slavery grow up together in the United States. And the role that children play in this system was not very well defined initially, but by the late 18th century, it’s clear that enslaved children are a category, that they follow the condition of their mothers, whether they’re mothers, free or slave, and that they represent a continuation of an economic system that is overwhelmingly beneficial to what will become early America. They’re laborers and movable property. Their labor is significant. So when we talk about family separation and US chattel slavery, we’ve got to talk about the economic benefit.
It’s not that enslavers are looking at enslaved children and separating them from their families simply because they devalue Black families. It’s because they value actual real hard cold cash value of moving people who they are continually refining the law to define as property. At a point in the early 19th century many enslaved people are worth more money than the land they’re working. They are worth more as financial products, they are worth more on the open slave market. And so we can’t really divorce conversations about devaluing someone’s humanity and valuing them with a very specific cash value.
Daina Ramey Berry has a whole book about the life cycle of enslaved people that really lays this out, that enslavers are thinking about cold hard cash. They really are. They really don’t have to make moral justifications for what they’re doing. They care about the bottom line and they care about their ledgers. And those ledgers say separating families and disregarding that families are even possible for African Americans makes their economic balance sheet look better. And that’s, you know, I think when we talk in economic terms, it can sound really crass, but that is the historical reality. That is how enslavers are viewing enslaved people. I’d love to talk more about how enslaved people view themselves and define themselves and their own value. But when we talk about separation, we got to talk about cold hard cash, and we’ve got to the way that value is assessed through labor.
I think that’s absolutely right. I think the centrality of the commodification of enslaved people, this idea that at the end of the day that the profit-driven motive is what will dictate who is bought and sold is absolutely a central part of it. My own mind also goes back to some of the other aspects that Vanessa mentioned, which relate to the way that family separation is used to coerce. The way that it is used to make enslaved people compliant, to quell rebellion in situations where white folks were perhaps outnumbered or to punish people for non-compliance.
A key tool of that was a threat of separating families. And so whenever enslaved people were encountered with the threat that children could be taking away from kin or relationships of care and intimacy could be interrupted. That was something that made, as Professor Holden said, made the institution of slavery in the US different from other forms of unfree labor that have existed throughout time.
And the people at the time who were engaging in the buying and selling of human beings understood that the cruelty that practice was intended to capture even beyond the economic considerations, which are certainly important. But they would speak about it as, in some instances, replicating death to the people who were separated and the families that were broken up, or in some instances worse than death because they understand that those individuals were still alive, but in distant lands such that they might as well not be alive. And so I think the aspect of using the threat of family separation and carrying out the family separation by buying and selling enslaved people certainly should also be appreciated from the perspective of how it regulated the system itself and how it kept people in check, so to speak.
You know, to that end, it’s important to add that family separation happens in more ways than on the auction block. That’s one site, a major site, of family separation. But enslavers separate families in other ways. So for example, Harriet Jacobs, who’s a very famous author of her own narrative of her time and slavery Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Most of her narrative actually revolves around the ways that she could remain in contact with her children, even though she absolutely had to flee her enslaver. And one of the threats her enslaver levies at her is that he’s going to send her children away from her to one of his plantations in the countryside. And ultimately her story of resistance involves her hiding for years with only a small view of her children. But her hiding out meant that her children could live with her grandmother, another person in her family.
There are numerous stories of separation that involve slave hiring, children being hired out to do small chores. There’s a great WPA narrative from right here in Lexington, Kentucky, where I’m sitting, where a man is remembering being a small boy who was hired out to a doctor in downtown Lexington, and he remembers the first time he ever sees a slave coffle, a group of enslaved people chained together on their way to the market. And he talks about sweeping the front step of this doctor’s office, seeing and hearing the coffle coming, and running and hiding because he’s afraid that they’re going to scoop him up too. He’s separated from his family who live somewhere else in Kentucky. But even what would be a quick car ride now would be a very long journey, certainly for a little boy on foot. So there are all sorts of ways that enslavers separate families and threaten or threaten to separate families. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that that’s also a part of this.
I want to go back a bit. You used an acronym WPA and for people who may not be familiar with what that means, can you share a little bit more?
Sure, during the Great Depression, a number of programs were instituted by the federal government as a part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. One of those was the Works Progress Administration that did a lot of work to hire out of work academics and artists to do public works projects. A lot of places have post offices or huge, you know, great dams in the far west were built by the WPA. One of those projects was a project to interview people who at the time were called and called themselves ex-slaves, people who had survived slavery.
So of course, if it’s the 1930s, these folks were often very, very young when they were enslaved. Some folks are born only a couple of years before slavery is abolished in 1865. So often their memories are actually memories of childhood in slavery. Or they are the stories of older family and kin that have been passed to them. So the story that I’m talking about, he was actually a fairly young boy, I think he was five or six in the story he’s recalling, and there he is, there’s that economics, he’s being sent out to work and he’s collecting those wages, his enslaver, and he’s remembering what it was like to be a child sent away from family, sent away from home, to go work for this doctor.
We hope you’re enjoying The upEND Podcast. A quick note: upEND is funded through the generosity of people like you who believe that ending the harm of the family policing system will help us to create a safer future. If you’re enjoying this podcast, we hope that you’ll consider donating to our work. Visit upendmovement.org/donate for more information.
Some of the things that just came up are reminding me of reading about how Thomas Jefferson is talking about how the griefs of Negroes at the time are transient, right? Like the griefs of slaves are transient. Like they don’t feel in the way that normal people or regular humans do, and that being used as a justification. So we see these deliberate choices being made to exclude Black people from the category of the human altogether. Ndjuoh, can you talk more about the ways that’s showing up, especially legally, but yeah, just some of the ways that showed up.
No, absolutely. And you mentioned Thomas Jefferson as a prime example of how these logics were used to justify stripping people of their children, interrupting relationships of care, kinship and intimacy was one of the tools that enslavers used to justify and maintain slavery in an attempt to deny enslaved people from the opportunity to participate in the progression of generations into the future. To interrupt the passing down of languages, ways of being, forms of knowledge, foods, culture. And one of the things that I think most people, or many people rather, it’s easy to adopt the mindset that people at the time of the founding generation, if you go back that far, did not know that slavery was wrong.
But the reality is that many enslavers did recognize that taking children from their families was indeed something that was cruel. And with that in mind, one of the ways that enslavers defended themselves in relationship to this practice was to deny that such things even happened. And so by doing so, it demonstrated that they understood perfectly clear that it was wrong. And some whites bragged about never selling enslaved people or separating families from their children because they realized the horror and pain that it caused families.
But for people like Thomas Jefferson who couldn’t plausibly deny that they were taking children or made no attempt to do so, justified it by attributing a subhuman standard to the people who were taken away. And so in that same passage that you mentioned previously, he talks about, Thomas Jefferson, Black people being inferior to whites in both body and mind and are akin to animals, I think is the phrasing that he uses. Such that if we can understand these individuals, or the perception is out there that these individuals are less than human, then it becomes acceptable to commodify them in the way that Vanessa described to buy and sell them on the auction block to separate them in other ways that family separation was expressed. So, this is something that people who leaned into the practice of slavery use as a tool to make it seem more insidious in terms of what the institution actually entailed by treating people who were enslaved as less than human, dehumanizing them in both body and spirit.
Anything you want to add there Vanessa?
Racial formation, a process by which we end up with what we call race, was a really long process. And not all European colonists bought into it. It took a long time to figure out the ins and the outs. Some of those ins and outs were even influenced by Black people’s resistance, by Indigenous people’s resistance. And I think, you know, it’s important to think, especially when you think about folks like Jefferson, you know, what he’s trying to do by the late 18th century is justify a legal and economic system that’s developed for a couple generations before he really was alive to begin benefiting from it. And to try to make the power he benefits from natural. But it wasn’t. And actually many people in his, in his generation were very clear that enslaved people did not want to be slaves, that they were not happy being slaves, that any chance they got to not be slaves, they would take it. That violence on the part of enslaved people was a serious risk. That really was real. It was not an exaggeration.
Many of the myths that folk know about enslaved people develop later in the Antebellum period and then really become a part of cultural ideas about memories of slavery in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the time, enslavers didn’t necessarily, no matter how many, you know, doctors wrote whole studies about what’s so different about Black people, no matter many pro-slavery advocates tried to say that slavery was to the benefit of enslaved people. On the ground in day-to-day life, people’s actual experience with enslaved people made it undeniable that enslaved people did not want to be slaves. And so the tension there, really, really becomes so, we know that these folks are human. And they know that we know that they know that we know that they’re human. But the prerogative of power is to define reality. So we’re gonna figure out ways to define their lives, to exercise that power over their lives.
And that’s where that sort of nuanced dynamic around, well, did they know? Did they not? Of course they knew, of course they knew what they were doing and many relished it. Many relished what they were doing. They relished that power. They relished building into the system new ways to have that power even if you couldn’t afford to own a single enslaved person. And so, you know, I think that when I think about folks like Thomas Jefferson, you know, the mental gymnastics that he’s engaging in, right, are incredibly, incredibly transparent to us in his place and time. It’s less about quelling a conscience that he has and more about shoring up real power.
And I think that that’s, he’s famous for saying that, slavery is like having a wolf by the ears, there’s all this back and forth about which founding fathers had empathy for enslaved people. Ultimately, their actions speak, I think should speak for who they were and whether, whatever their feelings were they legislated, they acted in service to shoring up that power over Black people’s lives.
So Vanessa, this is a question for you. Thinking about what you said earlier about, first of all, wanting to always, as much as possible, refer back to the stories of the enslaved and making sure that those stories are being presented. And also, thinking about family structures and how the enslaved created family structures as an act of resistance or non-traditional family structures or trying to figure out how to create family structures as an act of resistance, how that was resistance. So I would like to ask you, what were the ways that enslaved people redefined the notion of family and exhibited care for one another, even in the midst of this violence that we’re talking about right now? Are there examples that come to mind from your research and from your reading that you can share?
So the definitions of family were in a lot of flux in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Industrial capitalism was on the rise. Urbanization was also on the rise. And units that folks recognized as family increasingly had to contend with the market economy. And that is an economy that in which people purchase a lot of the goods they need to survive rather than make them at home. And that shift in the early 19th century meant that what the dominant European American culture was defining as family was unstable and in flux. And a lot of the literature, a lot of the cultural ideals of that dominant structure that really become what we tend to think of now as like the traditional family. They really gel up in that area.
So it’s important to note that it’s a time of flux for what the dominant society is thinking about family. But the idea that there’s a nuclear family that is one man, one woman, children. That’s something that shores up as an American ideal in this period. And it’s something that explicitly enslavers deny enslaved people. Explicitly deny them. Deny them any rights that come along with legal marriage, deny them rights to their children, explicitly as a way to define them as inferior in the legal system and in the social system. So what do African-Americans, what do Black people do in response? Well, folk brought a lot of different types of family structures and traditions with them across the Atlantic, with them through the Middle Passage. Ideas about generation, respect for elders and ancestors, the ability to knit together kinship networks, some of which are about blood relationships and some of which are more about generation and age. And reliance on knowledge across generations.
Enslavers, another way that enslavers separated families was in service of the workday on larger plantations and farms. Folks were split up during the day. Adults couldn’t tend to their own children and raise them, they were not allowed, they were barred from doing that. So often it was older enslaved folks, sometimes disabled folks, sometimes children that weren’t quite old enough to work yet, but could hold a baby, who were in charge of child rearing labor. By the age of about five or six, folks were expected to be learning how to work, which meant that some of the labor enslaved adults did was training children to work, and training them to work was also training them to survive and resist slavery. So, thinking about the ways that folks built communities of care, looked after folks who maybe weren’t their own child, but were the age of their own child. Some of that is born in duress, but some of that comes from other cultural traditions that are outside of the dominant tradition.
As historians like Jennifer Morgan have examined, those differences in gender roles, those differences in family structures, led to European colonists judging folks around the world who they encountered, be they Indigenous peoples or West Africans. They judged that, well, those families don’t look like ours do, so they mustn’t be, they mustn’t really be families. Women must not really know how to take care of their children. That must be what it is. Difference does not mean inferiority. Noticing difference should not mean inferiority. But over time, it did in the system of US child labor.
I want you to add on to that and kind of talk about how are anti-slavery abolitionists using families. So you have this kind of propaganda tool of talking about the families, this propaganda technique that you’re talking about. But then on the other side, you have family separation being used as a propaganda tool to appeal to people who might be sympathetic to anti-slavery abolitionists and that work that’s happening. So how were people using that to push, using family separation as a galvanizing issue?
Yeah, one of the most famous examples in American history and American cultural history is the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And it’s written by a white woman who lived in Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who certainly observed slavery from a distance. And she wrote a novel in the tone of the day. It’s very sentimental. It has some sort of adventure novel sort of pieces. It has these characters who at the time in US literature people were either completely bad or completely good. You know, there’s not a lot of room for nuance and characters. And for better or worse, her novel aimed at middle-class white women becomes a national sensation. And at the time, was seen as a really progressive narrative that aimed to humanize enslaved people.
Well, how did she do it? Well, the humanization actually comes in the context of families and African-Americans relationships with children broadly. So one of the most famous episodes is of Eliza, a woman enslaved right here in Kentucky where I am, who actually leaps across the Ohio River on ice floats holding her infant. It’s one of the most dramatic scenes in the book. And she and her husband flee slavery because they’re being threatened with separation. It’s dramatic, it’s sentimental. It pulls at upper middle-class white women’s heartstrings to think of this mother fleeing for her life with her infant child. Really paternalistically racist. White people are set up to be the saviors of the story. Eliza is set up as even having the intelligence and initiative to escape slavery because she’s mixed race. The title character of the book, Uncle Tom, is made to endure all sorts of sadistic torture worthy of the sympathy of white readers.
Contrast that with a really famous slave narrative also of a Black Kentuckian Henry Biv, also threatened with family separation, also sold along with his family further south as a mechanism to maybe keep him in check, so to speak. Who with his family attempts escape multiple times, is separated during those escapes multiple times, and returns, he makes it to freedom multiple times, and returns to slavery to get his wife and child over and over and over again. He fights off wolves in the forest. He has to go across rivers. He ends up in what at the time was called Indian territory, but we would call Arkansas, Oklahoma. He makes it all the way to Canada and is still searching for his wife and child. Only to be told by her, please don’t come to New Orleans after me because I can’t handle it if you are captured and put back into slavery too.
So contrast, right? This sentimental, cultural, Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only becomes a popular book, it becomes one of the most popular stage plays of the 19th century. It’s so popular that there are white actors in blackface performing as characters from the book well into the 20th century. They make it to television. That’s how long this is a cultural phenomenon, right? Contrast that sentimental, to be generous, very problematic story with the reality. of a Black father multiple times returning to slavery to get his wife and daughter. That involves violent resistance that does not involve silently enduring punishment. That involves his wife having a role in that resistance. That involves him successfully moving to Canada, remarrying and starting an important abolitionist newspaper and his new wife starting a school for self-emancipated folks.
And the real life story is not only far more interesting, but really exposes the holes in the generosity, right? These sort of philanthropic, generous narratives from white reformers. They maybe wanted to challenge slavery, but they were not interested in challenging racial hierarchy. And it’s the reason why Black abolitionists advocated for abolition right now and social equality, while white abolitionists advocated for an end to slavery. And those are sometimes the same thing, but not always.
Yes, and that kind of leads into this next question that I have for you, Ndjuoh. I’m talking about the 13th Amendment and abolishing slavery. Most people understand that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but people may not understand the exception that it makes. Can you explain the exception that the 13th Amendment allows for criminality? What connections can we draw between the 13th Amendment and family separations? I know that you wrote a paper called Help Me to Find My Children, a Thirteenth Amendment Challenge to Family Separation. Can you tell us more about the ideas you were putting forth in this paper and just this topic overall?
No, absolutely. I think it’s a couple of things. And if I could jump back to where Vanessa left off in thinking about the centrality of family separation in the abolitionist agenda and how that was co-opted into, to be a white abolitionist campaign. And, as Vanessa correctly pointed out, abolitionists made the dehumanizing practice of separating children from their parents, a key weapon in their anti-slavery agenda. They repeatedly told stories of mothers and children separated. They built grassroots movements through their urgent work in churches, founded anti-slavery societies, organized work out at colleges and universities. And when slavery was made into an issue of separating children from their mothers, abolitionists were powerfully successful in insisting that it had to be ended, that it was a moral and spiritual evil that had to be opposed.
And we know that it was powerfully successful because when we get to the actual formal process that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment, at that time, slavery and family separation was so wedded together in the anti-slavery imagination that was what the Radical Republican lawmakers pointed to in thinking about perhaps the most cold and stark element to use the right quote from one of the architects of the 13th Amendment. And so this is really something that framed Radical Republicans lawmakers’ call to action when we thought about the goal of the 13th Amendment.
And if we think about, well, what exactly does the 13th Amendment do to answer your question more directly, Josie. It’s the first of the Reconstruction Amendment, which is also known as the anti-slavery amendment. And it comes in two parts. The first part of the 13th says that it abides to slavery and all forms of involuntary servitude, except as a condition for punishment and that except becomes central as we think about the legacy of slavery today. And the second part of the 13th amendment gives power to Congress to effectuate the provisions of section one. And that second provision has been interpreted to abolish not just literal slavery. but what are also known as the badges and incidents of slavery. Things that are the hallmark features of slavery, of course, family separation, racialized violence, child abuse, violence against women being aspects that people have drawn a legacy from slavery to contemporary practices today.
So there’s an ongoing scholarly debate about what is embraced in the concept of badges and incidents of slavery. But what we do know is that the Radical Republicans had a very ambitious understanding of what the 13th Amendment was supposed to do. And so what I attempt to do in the paper that you described Help Me to Find My Children, and the title of the paper actually comes from a book by historian Heather Andrea Williams, who I believe is at Penn Now, Help Me to Find My People, where she talks about the efforts of enslaved people to retrace their kinship networks after the system was abolished. And so what I do in that paper is to locate the system of family separation under the Trump administration, which we understand, although now, of course, the White House has changed hands that is still ongoing, to locate that in the tradition of various instances where state actors or government agents, government actors have separated racialized groups, people who are non-white, and situating this within the legacy of that practice.
And one of the reasons that I thought it’s particularly important to highlight that is because at the time, and every time things like this happen, whether it’s in the context of the Indigenous children being moved to boarding schools or internment during World War II of Japanese Americans, there’s a tendency for people both on the left and the right to say, this is not who we are. But the more we can fill the void in terms of the narrative that is being elevated as what the actual history is, it helps to locate what is happening now as not an isolated incident, but this is actually who we are. It’s the opposite of what people are saying is the reality.
And so by locating the separation of migrant children from the border as something that is being effectuated as a way of deterring and punishing people who are criminalized, people who are marginalized because of their race, it was an attempt to tie it to something that the United States has always engaged in when we talk about people. that are non-white and the criminalization of non-white people is one of the core, I guess I would say remnants of slavery as we see in the fights over abortion today, as we see, of course, most visibly in the context of mass incarceration. So the 13th Amendment was really an effort by the Radical Republican framers to put an only to literal enslavement, but to practices that resonate with the aspects of slavery that made it unique, that made the system as insidious as it was. And that’s something that I do in that piece and other projects that are ongoing.
Yeah, can you share a little bit more about what’s this larger ecosystem that feeds into the systems that allows slavery to exist and hold strong, right?
Thinking something that Vanessa had mentioned was how these interests of abolitionists didn’t always align. Like it wasn’t one single issue of, all right, slavery is gone, right, everything’s done, we can go home now. What are some of the ways that other demands for equality and liberation that were being made at the time that weren’t met or were undermined as we see Reconstruction taking place?
So if I’m understanding your question correctly, are you thinking about how some of the after effects of slavery are expressed today? Or are we thinking about the different ways in which the system, the institution of slavery, manifested at the time of the 13th’s passage?
So I think beginning with what were people demanding outside of just the abolition of slavery? What were people demanding or looking for alongside that in creating what people might call an abolition democracy or what were people looking for in the terms of creating a new society that is not reliant on and supportive of the system of chattel slavery.
Yeah, so we can think about the abolitionists’ demands and then we could also think about demands that were less transformative. People who were perhaps motivated by the profit-driven, underlying dimension of slavery perhaps had other concerns that, yes, they were wary of the fact that children were being bought and sold, but perhaps they were not fundamentally opposed to the institution itself because they understood that the exploitation and the forced labor was something that generated profits and that was in a capitalist society and that will be a good thing for them.
And so at the time where there were abolitionist demands to eradicate the system entirely, there were other demands, you know, by people. who we would not describe as progressive, but perhaps people that we would think about as reformists, who would say that we need to introduce interventions that will make the slave system less violent, make the slave system less insidious. And one of the ways that they approached that was to think about the connection between family separation and slavery because it had become so wedded and because in the public imagination and because it was something that even casual observers would recognize as cruel and dehumanizing. In order for them to maintain the institution they tried to disentangle the connection between enslavement and family separation.
And so we saw as abolitionists relentlessly hammered away with these images of children being torn apart from the mothers, whether at the auction box or at other settings, one of the ways that reforms were introduced in that space was that there were laws that were specifically passed to make sure that Southern states could not sell the people. We saw that states began outlawing taking infants from their mothers as a limited reform that would enable states to continue to protect the institution of slavery and those laws would also take the form of drawing specific categories in terms of the age at which someone could be sold or perhaps instead of separating mother from child, mother and child would be separated from the family. And so drawing distinctions in that way towards an effort of making the system more palatable, tinkering with the system, but also preserving it in a way that will continue to generate the profits in this economic project that was central to slavery.
Can I jump in here? Yeah, so I think when we look at the 13th Amendment, it’s exactly right that the authors of the Amendment, what they were trying to do, what their intention to do was, it very much wrapped up in narratives of all the kinds of cruelty, but especially the cruelty of separating families. That is very true. The second part of the amendment that’s gotten so much attention and traction, this except for in punishment for a crime, really speaks to the ways that systems of labor and extraction carry on post emancipation.
It’s not that 19th century lawmakers saw imprisonment and incarceration as slavery, it’s sort of the other way around. They always sort of thought of slavery as a type, a type of incarceration. And that had long existed as a form of punishment back to antiquity, back to ancient forms of slavery that resulted from capture or defeat in battle. And so the idea that you would get rid of labor stipulations for folks who are incarcerated, they couldn’t quite get their head around that, or what the consequences of not getting rid of that might mean. But well before the Civil War, issues around work and who should be working and doing what work when were already in the legal, cultural, and social realm that there’s already some issues. One of which being what do you do with rebellious slaves.
In the rebellion that i studied the Southampton rebellion in 1831 led by Nat Turner one of the national outcomes was that a number of states instituted non-importation laws. That Virginia could not just sell enslaved people who were involved in rebellions to them, to their state. Now that’s not all southern states by any stretch, but Kentucky had one. There are quite a few bordering states to Virginia that had one. And so Virginia had to decide, well, what do we do with these people then? If slavery is kind of like a type of prison then what do we do? And what they did was invent the category criminal slave. And they actually began hiring out Virginia’s criminal slaves to public works contractors to do public works, which for your listeners probably sounds really familiar to a system that cropped up right after emancipation, the convict leasing system. In Virginia, they were already doing sort of a proto version of that before the Civil War.
One question that actually came up for them is, not all these rebellious enslaved people are men. Some of them are women and some of them end up pregnant. So does that mean children who follow the condition of their mothers are born criminal slaves owned by the state of Virginia? What do we do? And before the question could really be answered, the US Civil War started. But one thing that continues post-Civil War is the indenture and apprenticeship of Black children. That was a system that existed actually all across the United States and affected children who were white, Black, Indigenous, whose parents had passed away and they had no kin to take them in, whose parents were deemed unfit by a group of people who, at least in Virginia, were called ministers of the poor, who were tasked with overseeing poor populations in individual counties. And Black parents could be deemed unfit for a whole host of reasons. And their children were taken and bound out overwhelmingly to white landowners, boys until the age of 18, girls until the age of 21.
White children who entered into the system, it’s based on the apprenticeship system, but the system of indenture, were handed a sum of money at the end of their indenture and were required to be taught to read and write and do basic arithmetic. It was illegal to teach free Black children those things. But what landowners got was access to Black children’s labor through a number of their significant laboring years. And while sometimes white children were taught trades, they were apprenticed to blacksmiths, to barrel makers. Overwhelmingly, at least in the Virginia case, Black children are indentured to do either field work or housekeeping.
So something that’s important to note is that free Black adults also were entering into year-long labor contracts. They were not getting waged labor. They’re entering into year-long contracts and in rural areas, often living alongside enslaved people, embedded in enslaved communities. So there’s this other system that actually ministers of the poor are using to access free people’s labor, free children’s labor, and often requires them to separate those children from their parents by deeming their parents, the terms at the time were indigent. There are other pejorative terms used in the documents, but unfit, but how you assess someone as unfit has everything to do with racialized expectations for who a fit parent is. And while they couch this in, you can hear from the term minister, they’re couching this in terms of benevolence, they’re couching this in terms of work as rehabilitation. That these children would not know how to be productive workers had they not been bound to white landowners. And they do this for poor white children too.
They are couching it in all these sort of reformist, moral reformist terms of the early 19th century. So on the one hand, you have free Black children being bound out and taken from their parents because their parents are “unfit.” On the other hand, you have these overarching systems trying to figure out how to define the term criminal, exactly. What is criminal? How do you define a criminal? And after the Civil War, those terms come to bear. If slavery is gone as a system of social control, what can be relied upon to control a laboring population? Because somebody’s got to do the work. Somebody’s got to rebuild the farms and plantations.
Yeah, so if I could jump in really quickly, and as I was thinking about listening to Vanessa speak, one of the questions that you had asked previously Josie, about that except part of it, and I think with the benefit of hindsight, we can better appreciate what that except condition of punishment was really about, because shortly after we see the actual slave system we begin to see new forms of enslavement emerge, right? Principally through the Black Codes, right? So, you know, the Radical Republicans as ambitious as we might describe their agenda, wasn’t that ambitious when we recognize that Southern states began to pass Black Codes, which basically criminalized Blackness.
And so if you’re making a carve out on the 13th that indentured servitude is permissible, as a condition of crime, and then states have passed laws criminalizing Blackness, then you essentially see a similar system emerge but under a different umbrella. So it’s really important to link that exception to other forms of marginalization that we saw not only in the Reconstruction or Redemption period after the Civil War, but right up to Jim Crow, and even till today, where we see much of the way that Black activity is criminalized vis-a-vis activity that falls under what the dominant class would carry out. So just something that came to mind as I was listening to Vanessa speak.
Yes, making these connections is so important. Also, what we want to talk about a bit before we head out is the connections between what the experience was during chattel slavery, what Black people experienced kind of shortly after chattel slavery, and really kind of what is happening today with in policing systems and family policing system, so which are inextricably tied, but that’s another conversation. So, Ndjuoh, how does this history still have ramifications today in policing and family policing? What are the after effects of slavery that we’re living with today when we’re thinking about and looking at these systems?
I appreciate that question. Lots to think about. And I go back to this idea that the 13th Amendment was not only about literal enslavement, right? It was about what we might describe as the badges and instances of slavery. And what exactly that means, you know, no one really knows. There’s no consensus around it, but there are some thoughts that have been circulated that people who are progressive thinkers about race will identify as correct. And one of which is this idea that to be racialized, right, to the social category, to be non-white categorically marks you as unfit to parent. And that is something that we saw was pervasive, of course, during the system of enslavement. And that is something that we see as one of the hallmark features of the family policing system.
It does not uniformly impact all racial groups. Of course, we know that people who are drawn into the iron grip, I’ll use the term of the child welfare system, are primarily people who are Black and brown Indigenous folks and Black folks. And this is a direct connection that can be drawn, of course, to enslavement, but of course, we also know that another period of wide scale family separation happened with Indigenous communities being separated. Child taken as a way of destroying this passing on of culture, this passing on of language, these kinship networks.
And so much of that is reflected in the present system of family policing, where we say, well, we think that this family is depriving a child of some substance or sustenance, right? We think that they are neglecting a child. Okay, well, what is the solution to that perceived or alleged neglect? One option is to provide some sort of material relief, which of course we know when families are white, they do have the benefit of that type of material support. But overwhelmingly, when we’re talking about Black and brown family, the presumption is that because these people belong to this category, a racialized category, but also the status of their class being subjugated on the basis of class. The answer is not to provide material support, but the answer is to break up the family. And that is something that is somewhat perceived as being as an inevitable consequence of that absence of material support because of this history and tradition that exists dating back to slavery and other iterations that we’ve seen throughout time.
So you can’t really think about what happens in the child welfare system without appraising the institution of slavery, appraising the boarding schools and other episodes of mass scale separations that non-white folks have experienced, also the recent episode with the Trump administration. So all of that is intricately connected as we think about what happens today. And another consistent theme is that this has largely gone unrecognized. This being the separation and the family policing because of this benign umbrella of child saving. Because of the same narratives that the boarding school, where the stripping of culture was in service of allowing Indigenous children to prosper, or so was the narrative, or enslaved people benefited from slavery, as we see circulating in different pockets. So that is something that has also been consistent throughout that.
We don’t think about, we as a society, family policing as an extension of the carceral apparatus because it operates under this benign package of saving children from people who are a danger to those children. And that’s something that has a history rooted in all of these different episodes.
Of course the relationship between US chattel slavery and the present day is nuanced. And there’s a lot between then and now. But something that better understanding what was happening in the antebellum period helps us better understand now is that ideas about poverty are rooted in 19th century reform movements that place the onus on impoverished people. The concept that poverty is a moral failing. It’s not a failing of the economic structure. It’s not a failing of the legal structure. It’s not a failing of societal factors as a whole, that it’s on the individual, feed into racialized notions of participation in the economic system.
One of the biggest lies of antebellum enslavers who knew full well people didn’t wanna be enslaved, but the biggest lie was that without slavery, Black people would not work. And I’ve studied a lot of greats in US history, great men and great women, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, but there’s no period of time in Black history called the great vacation. That’s not a thing. One thing that Black people did was work. Was work for their families, was work to sustain themselves, was fight daily to preserve kinship networks, and fight post-emancipation. That Heather Andrea Williams book you mentioned earlier is about information wanted ads. Black people were searching for people they’d lost during slavery into the 20th century. Any information on family.
So I think it’s important to see the ways that Black people acted in opposition to these characterizations consistently. And consistently were very clear about what they wanted freedom to be. They wanted freedom to be schools. Black soldiers funded schools post emancipation. They wanted freedom to be elected office. They wanted freedom to be, in some cases, marriage. In some cases, pulling together family and kin from all over the place if need be to sustain community.
And one of the legacies of the era of slavery are racist notions of African-Americans in pain, that Black women don’t experience pain That Black parents don’t care about their children. And these racist lies feed into the same sort of benevolent rhetoric that allowed for indentures, that allowed for child labor, and that allowed for systems that were destructive of families, explicitly aimed at destroying cultural connection.
I also think we gotta get down to the money and who benefits, because it’s not families, so somebody’s benefiting. And following the money during the time of slavery meant ending up in all sorts of pockets, it meant ending up in judges pockets in insurance companies in Boston and then ending up in shipmakers, you know, shipyards, it meant ending up all sorts of places. And so who does this benefit? Who does it benefit to criminalize parenting? Who does that benefit? Because it benefited folks pretty concretely to define folks as enslaveable and, post emancipation, as socially unequal. There’s a real monetary benefit to that. And what is the labor that children in the system are tasked with doing now?
Back in the period that I study, it’s harvesting cash crops. It’s chopping wood, it’s hauling water, it’s enduring sexual violence, it’s enduring beatings, it’s enduring all sorts of horrific abuse. What are children now? What labor are they being asked to do? And in service to who? And what systems? And these are questions that I think can be brought forward from the time period that I look at.
Wow, this is a great foundation for the podcast, really helping us to think about some of the themes that will be coming forward as we keep this going. So those questions I really hope people hold on to as we move forward. So thank you to both of you for joining us today. I want to ask you, where can people connect with you and your work? So, Ndjuoh, let’s start with you.
Yeah, so my work attempts to be really front-facing. And so right now I’m working on a couple of projects that deal with policing in various forms. So I just had a piece in the California Law Review that was published at the end of June called Policing as Assault, which folks can access. And that basically makes the argument that policing is, in the way that is experienced by race class subjugated people as a threat to physical harm, even if it’s not actually effectuated. So that’s one we should think about it. I have another piece actually when Alan contacted me that looks at participatory budgeting as a way of introducing a non-reformist reform to family policing. Not sure where that will be, but folks can look out for that. I have another piece that is in the UC Irvine Law Review that’s going to be coming out in the spring that also looks at other aspects of policing. So actively working in this resistance effort and trying to make our communities safer, make our children safer. So just a couple of projects out there.
You can find Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community, wherever fine books are sold. That’s everywhere from the Amazon to your local bookstore. You can also find me on Twitter while it lasts. We’ll see how long the Bird app is still with us. But while it lasts, you can find me at @drvholden. And for news about the Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative, you can find me at uky.edu.
Alright, thank you to both of you. And that wraps up the first episode of the season of the upEND Podcast.
Thank you. It was great to be in conversation.
Thank you. Thank you, lovely to be here.
Thank you for joining us for the upEND podcast as we explore family policing system abolition. To learn more about, upEND and our work to strengthen families and communities, visit our website at upendmovement.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @upendmovement.