... important ... A great strength of this book is its sheer sweep ... To its immense credit, Black Ghost of Empire shines a light on what popular understandings of emancipation often leave out: that emancipation both within and beyond the U.S. often sought to placate the economic interests of slaveholders, while denying Black people any sustained protection from their former owners or the economic means that might ensure genuine Black equality. To highlight this fact certainly adds weight to the moral necessity of reparations, but in its relentless focus on the real failures of emancipation, it privileges a deeply pessimistic interpretation of the past that may in fact undermine its cause ... Rather than understanding Black people as agents of their own emancipation, Manjapra presents them as victims of the political processes that set them free. While Manjapra provides ample space for Black resistance, so concerned is he with prosecuting emancipation laws and the white abolitionists who advocated for them, that he either ignores or downplays the ways enslaved and free Black communities created the political context that made these laws possible and the ways Black communities often endorsed these laws and used them to push their struggle forward ... In Manjapra’s telling, there is little room for these interracial, populist coalitions, ones that achieved tangible gains. Instead, he is more invested in recovering pan-Africanists of the past whom he believes light the way toward true historical redress. Yet here too Manjapra gives us only a selective reading of the past ... Manjapra is rightly focused on challenging a liberal triumphalist account of slavery’s demise. But in the process he obscures how specific political contexts shaped Black emancipations ... one hears precious little about how the American, French, and Latin American revolutions—to say nothing of the Civil War—provided Black people with both the political language and material circumstances to fight for and win their own freedom ... The deeply pessimistic view of emancipation Manjapra’s book embodies will undoubtedly appeal to certain readers. But whether it will ultimately help the cause of reparations—a moral and political necessity—remains to be seen. Perhaps the most useful histories that might serve the cause of reparations will not focus exclusively on how slavery ended but on the nearly four hundred years of slavery itself.
Though Manjapra ranges widely across the history of the 19th century, he suffuses the narrative with vivid and often enraging details ... This is an essential contribution to understanding the legacy of slavery.