Book cover: Duke University Press


In the 1640s, as a child, Elizabeth Keye found herself misidentified on an estate in Virginia.

A white boy named John Keye called her “Black Besse.” Overhearing it, the overseer’s wife “checked him and said[,] Sirra you must call her Sister for shee is your Sister,” whereupon “the said John Keye did call her Sister.”

Keye, the daughter of a free white Englishman and an enslaved African woman, occupied a space in seventeenth-century Virginia in which she could simultaneously be “Black Besse” and the sister of a white boy. In this space a Black woman could claim ties of kinship that would be recognized and legislated, but this was both anomalous and temporary. Indeed, in response to Keye’s efforts to codify her own claims to freedom, slaveowning legislators would formally unravel the logic of the paternal link as they moved to clarify hereditary racial slavery.

Kinship could be claimed only in freedom, and by the middle of the seventeenth century in the English colonies, Blackness generally signified freedom’s opposite.

At some point in the late 1620s, the free white Englishman Thomas Keye, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, had impregnated Elizabeth’s enslaved Africa-born mother. What this woman (who is never actually named, appearing only as “woman slave” in the documentary record) hoped or believed about her daughter’s future is utterly lost. What is clear is that Thomas Keye’s death threw that future into some confusion.

Although Elizabeth had been placed in indenture as a child, after her father’s death she (or her indenture) was sold to another Virginia landowner. Selling the remaining term of an indenture was not uncommon, but because she was the daughter of an African woman, her race made her vulnerable to abuses from which an Englishwoman would have been protected.

Although the English had embraced the system of African slavery elsewhere in the Atlantic, in Virginia they relied on indentured servants, the vast majority of whom were themselves English. In the 1650s, there were fewer than three hundred Africans in the colony, or about 1% of the population of English settlers.

For the historian Ira Berlin, Keye would count as an Atlantic Creole, a person who traversed the Atlantic in relative or absolute freedom in a milieu that was soon to generate hardened categories of racial subjugation.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in Europe and in European colonies in the Americas, such individuals could acquire land, other forms of wealth, and the mobility conferred by these. The experiences of these women and men demonstrate the uneven development of racial hierarchy in the Atlantic world, and have been mobilized by historians as a reminder that racial categories could be less fixed than they appeared.

Despite this mobility, Keye understood that she was in danger, that her color could indeed dictate her status.  She spent her life assessing the terrain of race, inheritance, value, slavery, and freedom in the seventeenth-century world, which was at once a localized space configured around the English Atlantic and also part and parcel of a multicultural, multi-imperial universe. Keye lived in a community that recognized her paternal lineage, but kinship faltered when its members were asked to testify about her status.

Some said she was a slave, some that she was free, and some that she was indentured. She had a child, fathered by a free white Englishman, but this brought no clarity. When she petitioned the court to affirm her freedom in 1655, she clearly had a precise understanding of how her statuses as a woman, as a mother, and as a descendant of an enslaved African intersected.

Her suit was granted, then overturned, and finally won when the Englishman who was the father of her child brought her case to the General Assembly. After she was deemed free, the two wed, their marriage a buttress to the freedom of her descendants, as well as to her own.

For historians, the fact that Key prevailed shows that in seventeenth-century Virginia, racialized categories of enslavement were neither inevitable nor hardened. But Keye’s freedom suit suggests that she, and others like her, clearly understood that the life circumstances and experiences of those defined as Black were already brutally marked; the transatlantic slave trade had already indelibly shaped notions of race, the market, and the family.

By the mid-17th century, the underlying forces structuring the slave trade were steadfastly shaping ideas of difference, commerce, and kinship. This is not an argument opposed to historicizing the concept of race; rather, it brings kinship and commodification to bear on seventeenth-century ideologies to ask both how the obscene logics of racial slavery came to make sense to Europeans and also what Africans and their descendants in the early modern Atlantic could and did know about the terms of their captivity.

It is also an effort to dislodge the English Atlantic from its anglophone perch by placing it firmly in the longer history of the Atlantic. To understand Keye and the forces she navigated, we must conceive of a history in which the notions of heredity, motherhood, commodity, and race all cohered in and on the body of the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a free Englishman.

For Keye, the case rested on the assumption that affective relationships— those between father and daughter, husband and wife, mother and children—would prove a bulwark against the intrusions of the commercial market into her and her children’s lives and labors. Historians are accustomed to thinking of Keye as a woman enmeshed in these relationships, not as an economic thinker (a person versed in political arithmetic, speculative thought, and social calculation).

Yet economic concerns were the source of danger for Keye, and economic concerns drove the legislators to revisit this case less than a decade later. In 1662 the colonial legislators reconvened to decree that in all future cases, the condition of a child born to an African woman and a free man would follow that of the mother.

As English colonial settlers legislated new economic formulations that extended masters’ property rights to other humans, they brought matters of intimacy and affect out of the household and into the marketplace. Using arguments based in law, religion, and race, they located Africans and their descendants in ledgers and bills of sale, not as members of households or families. This social transformation was saturated with both spectacular violence and the brutality of everyday cruelties.

The insinuation of economic rationality into colonial intimacies is the crux of the matter.

Keye assumed she had a kinship relationship to her father. Her freedom suit was rooted in the notion that his paternal line was hers to claim.

However, in the context of a labor system wherein white men routinely, and possibly systematically, raped the women they claimed as property, their own paternity could not devolve to their children. Indeed, in this system, only women who were the daughters of free white men and white women could convey kinship, and thus freedom, to their children.

The legislative intervention associated with Keye’s case did more than just clarify the heritability of slavery; it also assigned legitimacy to white women’s kinship ties and white men’s property claims.

The inability to convey kinship—to have family represent something other than the expansion of someone else’s estate—is at issue here. If the children of white men and African women could assert their freedom, the primacy of property claims would be dislodged. But Englishmen did not want their property rights unsettled by sexual congress.

Reproduction (and thus enslavability) was tethered to enslavement in a way that foreclosed the possibility that kinship might destabilize capital. To be enslaved meant to be locked into a productive relationship whereby all that your body could do was harnessed to accumulate capital for another. In this case, sex, inheritance, property, race, and commodification were both displayed and delineated as the House of Burgesses amplified its core assumptions about the nature of racial inheritance in the New World.

In the historian Vincent Brown’s engagement with Orlando Patterson’s concept of social death, he concludes that instead of understanding slavery as a condition, we should see it as a “predicament, in which enslaved Africans and their descendants never ceased to pursue a politics of belonging, mourning, accounting, and regeneration.”

For Brown, the notion of social death as the condition of slavery fixes the enslaved person too statically in the category. I too want to problematize social death as a static condition that evokes but doesn’t actually engage with the maternal figure who is incapable of counteracting natal alienation.

Enslaved parents understood the potential birth of children as a predicament that clarified the foundations on which their enslavement was erected. The violence that suffused that predicament was regularized and indeed world-defining. Elizabeth Dillon has argued that such violence produced the “resourced, white, genealogically reproductive, legally substantiated, Enlightenment man.” The archival silences around the lived experiences of enslaved women at the birth of racial capitalism are themselves the technologies that rendered those women as outside history, feeling, and intellect.

How were race, inheritance, trade, freedom, value, and slavery condensed in the competing desires of white men and of Black women and men as the former sought to retain property in persons by destroying kinship and the latter sought to produce families opposed to that destruction?

Both white elites and the women whose corporeal integrity was so profoundly violated by the rule of property understood, experienced, and responded to these new ideas in ways that we still do not fully understand. Women who lived through the early decades of enslavement saw the identity of their children and the assumptions that governed their futures change drastically. That shift was rooted in a relatively new set of ideas concerning trade, value, population, and commodification, all of which might qualify as forms of numeracy.

Yet, the metaphors of value and valuelessness owe at least part of their power to the knowledge regimes set in motion by the transatlantic slave trade. Rational equivalence was increasingly understood as the antithesis of social, emotional, or familial categories, which were simultaneously delimited as the sole purview of Europeans. As a result, African women and their descendants—all members of families—were locked together into the very space that built a market based on the denial that they were there.

If we assume that Elizabeth Keye entered the House of Burgesses with little ability to comprehend the calculus working on and through her, we overlook her relationship to and understanding of all that was unfolding around her. She was embedded in a foundational epoch from which race, forced labor, capitalism, and modern economies emerged.

While the actions Keyes undertook to protect her children show that she did not see herself as commodified, they offer tacit proof that she saw that some around her were. What can we learn from the moments when those being commodified catch the process in action? From actions that reveal layers of meaning and complexities? It is obvious that Keye experienced this transformation, but might she have formulated thoughts about what she glimpsed?

The seventeenth-century English Atlantic world was a tangle of overlapping hierarchies, ideas of difference, and newly sharpened ideas about rationality and value. Concepts about race entwined with those about value, and ideas about inheritance with those about social reproduction and childbirth in ways that we still do not adequately understand.

Thus, we need to reexamine the new ideas about commerce, finance, value, and money that came to be understood as the heart of what was rational, knowable, and scientific.

The slave trade—the reliance on slave labor to extract commodities and to function as currency—was not simply one trade system among many. Rather, slavery exemplified the brutal logics of a new order, one based on a form of wealth that was produced not by exalted bloodlines but by commodity exchanges that were increasingly dependent on the invention of race to justify the inheritances of slavery—both those that adhered to the slave owner and those that adhered to the enslaved.

Arguments about the origins of racial thinking turn on economics to explain the why of slavery but don’t consider that economics and race might be mutually constitutive. To approach them, then, as two distinct arenas of thought misses the ways in which, for example, ideas about the English population are linked to ideas about Africans.

The constellation of early modern ideas related to trade, currency, population, and civility that formed the ideological foundation for the logics of race produced categories of thinking that depended on the ejection of reproduction from kinship and women from the category of the enslaved. Sexual violence, reproduction, and the conceptual importance of infants and children undergirded the work that race would do in justifying Atlantic slavery and had brutal consequences for women and men exploited by regimes of terror and control in slave societies across the Americas.

Jennifer Morgan is Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis & History at New York University. This essay is adapted from the introduction of Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, Copyright Duke University Press, 2021. To read the entire introduction and buy the book, click here.