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Abstract

This paper stages a critique of the existing literature on General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, which is commonly referred to as the bygone project of “Forty Acres and a Mule” in the American vernacular. For many in the Black community, in particular, the phrase itself translates as the federal government’s broken promise of debt repayment for centuries of enslavement. A number of scholars have worked to quantify the hundreds of thousands of acres lost to the Jim Crow Era’s legislation of terror to justify monetarily compensating descendants of the enslaved. When read alongside freedom suits and ex-slave pension funds, this iteration of Black reparations emerges as one and the same. To invoke the legacy of “Forty Acres and a Mule,” nowadays, is to make a narrow case for wealth redistribution alone. Recent accounts of this history thus foreclose the opportunity to consider how integral placemaking was to the problem of Black dispossession in the late nineteenth century American South. Many social scientists prefer to characterize recently freed Black people as citizen hopefuls or adherents of Jeffersonian republicanism rather than subsistence farmers disinterested in the politico-economic dictates of liberalism; cultural understandings of what happened in this liminal space are equally as confused. A central, yet overlooked question, is what expansive genealogy this received historical meaning obscures—not just for simplicity’s sake but also for reasons of epistemological efficiency and political pragmatism. How might we reread contemporary invocations of “Forty Acres and a Mule” in such a way that we foreground a communal interest in landed freedom? This paper accounts for the missed opportunity to think alongside the newly emancipated as they imagined collective ways of being beyond racial capitalism’s strictures. In doing so, it takes the loss of land as its starting point.

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