Fatal Differences: Suicide, Race, and Forced Labor in the Americas

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This essay examines the relationship between race and suicide in the Americas. I show how ideas about suicide helped generate and reinforce multiple forms of racial difference and demonstrate how colonial ideas survived long after independence and the abolition of slavery, often in new forms. The extant historiography on suicide emphasizes moral, religious, and medico-legal responses to self-destruction. Less attention has been paid to race or to the brutal fact, widely acknowledged (though rarely discussed in depth) by scholars of slavery, that forced servitude also made suicide a quintessentially economic issue—a threat to planters’ and traders’ bottom line and a threat to production. As slavery and forced labor became dominant global value systems that determined who counted as human, the ability to perish by one’s own hand became a means for making that determination. Eventually, exceptional stories of heroic suicide by native or black martyrs became part of national narratives, but that process depended on the decoupling of self-destruction and economic production, which helped turn acts once seen as threats to colonial foundations into stories of sacrifice and national birth. Over time, and despite significant changes, self-destruction consistently functioned as a durable marker of racial differentiation.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)317-345
JournalAmerican Historical Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2017


  • suicide
  • slavery
  • Brazil
  • Latin America
  • Zumbi


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