Skip to main content

American Studies Book Talk: Jean Pfaelzer on "California, A Slave State" (Yale UP, 2023)

Sponsored by

This event is over.

Event Details:

Stanford’s American Studies Program Presents Jean Pfaelzer, Professor of American Studies, University of Delaware, speaking on her book: California, a Slave State (Yale UP, 2023).

February 15, Thursday, 12:00 PM | Terrace Room, Margaret Jacks Hall (BLDG 460)

Lunch will be served! | Please RSVP with this form no later than February 13th.  
This event is sponsored by the Program in American Studies, and is cosponsored by The Bill Lane Center for the American West.

In American lore, California is Eden, a land of unending sunshine, long coastlines, and rich harvests—a prize for a country hellbent on fulfilling the promise of manifest destiny. But in her brilliant and groundbreaking new book CALIFORNIA, A SLAVE STATE (Yale University Press; June 27, 2023) Professor Jean Pfaelzer shows that, since the very first colonizers crossed the border, the Golden State was and still is powered by slavery—a piece of American history that many still try to bury.  
This once-shrouded history spans three centuries of diverse types of slavery and slave revolts. Spanish invaders captured Indigenous people to build the chain of Catholic missions. Russian otter hunters shipped Alaska Natives—the first slaves transported into California—and launched a Pacific slave triangle—Alaska, California, China. Plantation slaves were marched across the plains for the Gold Rush. chain gangs supplied convict labor and San Quentin Prison incubated California’s carceral state. Kidnapped Chinese girls were shipped across the Pacific, and sold in caged brothels to lonely settlers who flooded the state to capture their fortune in gold and land. Indian boarding schools forced children to work in California’s new farms and hotels.
Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a “free state,” through unyielding research and vivid interviews, Pfaelzer exposes how California gorged on slavery; its appetite for unfree bodies and unpaid labor persists today in the global traffic in human beings who end up sold into the sex trade or trapped in sweatshops and remote marijuana grows. 
Looking West, Pfaelzer upends the long-held North-South map of American slavery and reveals the slave revolts that mark California’s history: the burning of Spanish missions; prison uprisings; a West Coast underground railroad; and countless battles for freedom in the streets and the courts that we still see today. 
Jean Pfaelzer reveals the untold history of California as a state that was built on slavery, shredding the state’s utopian brand. She rewrites our understanding of race in the West and redefines America’s uneasy paths to freedom. 
Jean Pfaelzer is a public historian, commentator, and professor of American studies at the University of Delaware. Her books include Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans; Rebecca Harding Davis: Origins of Social Realism; and The Utopian Novel in America. She lives in Washington, DC.