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American Studies Book Talk: Jean Pfaelzer on "California, A Slave State"

Jean Pfaelzer opened her talk on her recent book, California, A Slave State with an 1858 map of the United States, shaded to show the status of slavery in the states and territories. The map showed California as a free state – a distinction that aligned with my own understanding of the state’s history. Pfaelzer shared that she, too, had believed this. Meeting the audience in their assumptions, she then dispelled them – California, in fact has a deep history and connection to slavery, one that centuries-old maps and contemporary history lessons alike fail to recognize. The contents of her talk gave the audience a sense of what that history was, from the nineteenth century to the modern day. 

Pfaelzer began with the California state constitution, a document authored by mostly white men, the majority of whom were slaveholders. Prior to 1850, when the state was admitted into the union, California was already an economic powerhouse, shipping billions of dollars of goods east to established American and global markets. Even before it was officially a state, California had a massive impact on the United States economy, due in no small part to its reliance on enslaved labor. Slaves were brought from the deep south to dig gold mines, and assist white settlers in their journeys west, carrying goods and tending to animals. Americans were not alone in their exploitation of racial others in the state: Spanish, British, and Russian imperial powers enslaved Native Americans throughout California for their own economic gains. California wasn’t just a hub of American slavery – it was a site of global exploitation. As an American Studies student, Pfaelzer’s attention to international imperial powers served to expand my own understanding of California as a site for nation-building projects around the world. 

The book is an exploration of bonds: between humans and land, bondage and resistance, and empires and their people. As she illuminated the enslavement of African American, Native American, and Chinese people in the state, she too shed light on the history of resistance, weaving it into the audience’s understanding of the institution of slavery itself. Enslaved Native people revolted, enslaved Chinese sex workers ran away. In debuting her book, Pfaelzer shared that many audiences didn’t seem to find this part of the history as important or interesting as they did the role of the slave holders. Nonetheless, the attention she pays to the history of resistance demonstrates a refusal to erase or further marginalize the experiences of the enslaved. Their agency factors into the history of slavery in California as much as that of the national empires, and its oft-forgottenness makes it, I would argue, the most revelatory part of the history Pfaelzer has exposed.

Despite its admittance to the union as a free state, slavery was very much alive in California. It still is today. Convict labor and human trafficking persist within the state’s borders, a harrowing truth Pfaelzer left her audience with to reflect upon, one that remains with me as a student and as a California resident. Her book talk was as informative as it was thought-provoking: what uncomfortable realities do we obscure by falsely viewing enslavement as a relic of the past, a blip in American history, confined by state borders?

By Marlane Bosler '24