Western History Association 59th Annual Conference

Session Submission Summary

Direct link:

The Birth Of A State: Slavery, Confinement, Incarceration, And The Origins Of Ethnic Cleansing In California

Thu, October 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Westgate Hotel, Floor: 2nd Floor, Conference Room 14

Session Submission Type: Session

Session Abstract

Slavery, observed Frederick Douglass, is a “hydra-headed monster.” In California, brutal regimes appeared and reappeared as if shape-shifting. For 250 years complex systems of confinement—detention, enslavement, incarceration and involuntary indenture--cohabited with democracy. Multiple forms of unfreedom offered profit and power, sexual access, and unpaid labor to settlers of many sorts who incorporated Native Americans, Chinese migrants, convicts, and enslaved African Americans into hierarchies of racial difference and explanations that made bondage appear natural, ideologically and practically linking California to enduring dreams of colonization, pressures from global migration, institutions of plantation slavery, and traditions of incarceration copied from Pennsylvania, New York, and Great Britain. This panel redefines global patterns of settler colonialism to include people as property as well as land as property, colonialism enacted in multiple systems of bondage and captivity. Bondage in California always depended on violence, forced mobility and race. As seen in the debates in the first Constitutional Convention and the first legislature, many Californians were dreaming of a white future. Efforts to ban Blacks from the state travelled south from Oregon and nearly became California law, despite the desperate need for workers in a raw state. These papers expose how ethnic cleansing contributed to a twisted knot of profit and power that launched and maintained California. Under terms that presumed the right to own and work the body of another in a constricted space, the carceral state was born. Now as we ban South Americans from entering the country at the southern California border, California faces a lack of laborers from the vineyards to the sweatshops to the marijuana grow and is turning to and tolerating new forms of human trafficking. Turning to over-layed discussions of legal practices, forced migration, incarceration, human bondage and institutional forms of racial control, this panel untwists the knots that delimited space and personal autonomy and exposes how Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx and incarcerated men and women held in bondage and detention—those who resided outside the definition of citizenships and notions of personal liberty—struggled to free themselves—before and after the promises of the 13th and 14th amendments.

This is a diverse panel that includes Filipina and Chicana scholars, graduate student, emerging and senior scholars, and three scholars deeply engaged in public history—from exhibits at the Smithsonian to Ted Talks to NEH Award Winning digital humanities.

Sub Unit


Individual Presentations