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Modern Voices
Thomas Davis on Anthony Johnson
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Q: Anthony Johnson is among the earlier shipments of Africans to the Americas. Describe him, and what he is encountering?
Thomas Davis

A: [Anthony Johnson] comes to Virginia. He finds a society that is just developing. He's getting in on the ground floor, as it were. I don't know if he was able to immediately envision that there would be opportunities for him here that weren't available elsewhere. I don't know that anyone could have foretold that. Johnson's story becomes, though, something of an exception in that he demonstrates first, that slavery is not lifetime tenure, it's indefinite tenure. The key is not that you're going to be slave from the day you born until the day you die. Because after all, slavery is a status, it's not inherent in any individual. It's relationship with others and a relationship recognized by the society. And the key to it is that it's indefinite. You are a slave until someone who has authority over you declares you no longer to be a slave in the eyes of the practicing society and in the eyes of the law.

So Johnson works his way to the opportunity to become his own person, as it were -- to leave behind him that status of slave. And then he goes on to do what he sees his neighbors doing; he seeks to get his own piece of ground, his own piece of land to cultivate some foodstuffs, to cultivate some foodstuffs that he can sell to others, not only to consume but to enter into the economy, to barter, to argue with his neighbors about the encroachment on his lands and encroachment on his rights. To argue about his contract rights. What he demonstrates is an early fluidity that exists. And what that reflects is that there is vast opportunity and a relatively small population to take advantage of that opportunity. So that people aren't confining everybody immediately to a niche. The areas are rather broad and they allow movement in and out.
Thomas J. Davis
Professor of History
Arizona State University

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