Afrohumanism is crucial to the forward-looking “project of thinking humanity from perspectives beyond the liberal humanist subject, Man” (Weheliye 2014: 8). It is another question, however, whether such a humanist approach provides the best historical analytic for understanding slavery and its carceral afterlives. This question becomes particularly pressing when we consider that today’s prison-industrial complex, like the American slaveholder of the past, extracts profits by strategically exploiting—rather than denying—the lucrative humanity of its captive black and brown subjects. To illustrate these claims, this article examines a seldom-discussed slave case, United States v. Amy (1859), which was tried before Supreme Court chief justice Roger B. Taney two years after his infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Centering on the figure of the legal person rather than the human or the citizen, United States v. Amy alerts us to the lethal legacy of slave personhood as a debilitating mixture of civil death and criminal culpability. Nowhere, perhaps, is that legacy more evident than in viral videos of police misconduct. And nowhere do we see a more vivid assertion of black counter-civility than in the dash cam video of the late Sandra Bland’s principled, outraged response to her pretextual traffic stop by Trooper Brian Encinia. The essay closes by considering Bland’s arrest and subsequent death in custody in the context of her own and other African Americans’ efforts to achieve and maintain a civil presence in an American law and culture where black personhood remains legible primarily as criminality.

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