Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David S. Reynolds

Committee Members

Duncan Faherty

Cathy Davidson

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority


slavery, capitalism, resistance, prison, labor


Emancipatory and Retributive Labor follows the development of a concept that I call emancipatory labor as it appeared in the US and Caribbean during the period 1830 to 1855. Emancipatory labor is a subversive tactic in which enslaved people in the United States and Caribbean redefined a portion of their labor in capitalist terms. Re-theorizing a portion of enslaved labor stakes a claim to agency and humanity according to Western, humanistic logic. Examples of the types of labor being redefined include selling commodities, hiring time, and working “extras” for wages. I use enslaved person Lunsford Lane’s 1842 narrative as a case study to help understand how this re-theorization of labor can exploit tension between capitalism and slavery to challenge white supremacist notions of Blackness as victimization. In response to emancipatory re-theorizations of labor, enslavers and their allies began a repressive campaign of retributive labor: using prisons to punish Black inmates with painful, pointless labor. The very pointlessness of the labor, which did not produce surplus value, was a racist rebuke to the enslaved and Black workers who re-thought of their labor in capitalist terms. By forcing people to labor unproductively, advocates of retributive labor sought to challenge the ontological argument that Black labor could produce value as any other capitalist worker. I use Black inmate James Williams’s narrative Events Since the First of August to illustrate the process of retributive labor in the Caribbean and describe how Black workers resisted this racist practice. Finally, the dissertation explores how the contradictory ideas of emancipatory and retributive labor were remixed into one hybrid model by white abolitionists who denounced slavery but were not prepared to see Black labor equal to white labor. The white abolitionist hybrid, which I call racialized labor, argued that while Black labor could be absorbed into the capitalist system, Black workers should be capped in the positions that they could achieve. Racialized labor’s arbitrary cap on success preserved racial caste. I use Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novels Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred as case studies to understand the white abolitionist hybridization of racialized labor. The history of the theorizations around Black labor are important today because understandings of labor shape policies and affect material lives.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, June 02, 2025

Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.

Non-GC Users:
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.