Humanities scholar Ford looks at the myriad—and uncompensated—contributions African Americans have made to the economies and cultures of the U.S. and beyond. The author opens with a little-known court case from Colonial Virginia wherein an indentured Black man sued not just for release from his expired contract, but also for “freedom dues.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the court ruled in his favor, voicing “a belief that power and wealth created from the labor of others entitled those who helped create that power and wealth to their fair share.” Unfortunately, the enslaved far outnumbered the indentured and were accorded no such entitlement. As Ford observes, the slave trade by its very nature had ripple effects that enriched societies such as early modern Holland, whose banks financed shipbuilding. For their part, the enslaved afforded not just labor, building such infrastructure as the water system that still fuels Washington, D.C., and, of course, the entire agricultural economy of the American South. Their lack of liberty afforded their owners freedom: If not for the labor of the enslaved, the White farmers of the Colonial South could never have mounted a revolution against Britain—a revolution that helped shore up slavery. Ford writes of the lives of the first enslaved people to arrive in British North America, turning up little-known episodes and figures in American history—e.g., the multiracial Melungeon people of Appalachia and the celebration among Black residents of upstate New York of Emancipation Day: not June 19, Juneteenth, but instead Aug. 1, when slavery was outlawed in the British Empire in 1834, “freeing some 800,000 men and women in the West Indies, South Africa, and Canada.” The book teems with ideas, sometimes in an onrushing embarrassment of riches, and often repeats the inarguable idea that as makers of much of the modern world’s wealth, Black people continue to deserve a share.