African Post-Slavery: A History of the Future

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Abstract: How useful is the notion of post-slavery to the study of African emancipation? Post-slavery is generally thought to refer to a set of circumstances identifiable in regions where slavery was a fundamental social institution and its legal abolition was followed by resilient legacies of past hierarchy and abuse. The abolitionist bias of most contemporary research in this field risks building a teleological argument that sees post-slavery as a stage that follows the abolition of the legal status of slavery (henceforth ‘legal status abolition’) and leads to the inevitable, if sometimes slow, death of the ‘peculiar institution’. This way of framing our analysis potentially hinders our understanding of contexts characterized by the simultaneous coexistence of abolitionist ideologies and worldviews in which slavery is seen as integral to the constitution of society. In such contexts we should try to explain the co-presence of slavery and post-slavery, and not the transition from the former to the latter. This article argues that only future developments of current circumstances can determine whether post-slavery will turn out to be a relevant concept for the study of African emancipation.