THE LASTING EFFECTS OF SLAVERY
Why a story about slavery in 2020, 155 years after the “peculiar” institution was outlawed? Why dredge up a shameful and hurtful past most of us would like to forget?
Well, here’s the answer. Because we’re not over it. Not even close.
Considering the spotlight that’s now being shone on systemic racism, I think this is a good time to remember the most traumatic part of our history in this country. With protests roiling our cities over racial injustice and police brutality, I believe it’s instructive for Black people, if no one else, to understand the real impact of slavery on our past and future.
If we cannot free ourselves from the trauma of this hurtful part of our past, we’re destined to continue to suffer from its wounds. Call it lingering-traumatic stress disorder (LTSD), if you will.
I believe it would do us good to learn the true nature of American slavery and how it continues to affect us today.
Despite the host of books written on the subject, I still don’t think the true story’s been told. So traumatic was this 200 year long torture of our physical and mental wellbeing, that as a community, we still find ourselves feeling the ghosts of patrollers and night riders haunting our collective psyche.
The end result of this nightmarish episode is continued divisiveness and mistrust among us. Our inability to unfetter the shackles of this shameful past hinders us in our quest to devise a coherent strategy for our future liberation.
THE MAKING OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA
We all understand that the main tragedy of American slavery was the harm done to those frightened and helpless individuals who were uprooted from their homes in Africa. Then, like cattle herded to slaughter, they were transported here in the cargo holds of dirty, stinking, and diseased infused ships.
Their destination? A strange and alien land.
Once in this strange and alien land, all connections to the homeland were severed, including family, customs, names, religion and beliefs.
During this era of slavery, rife in most areas of the world, the social and economic subjugation of indigenous peoples was a science. It was believed that in order to make a good slave (called buck breaking), not only did the will have to be broken, but so did all ties to the captive’s former life.
Because I truly believe one doesn’t become a slave unless he accepts being a slave, I will never refer to my ancestors in America as slaves. To me, they were captives, taken illegally from their homelands, and forced to endure a racist and morally illegitimate subjugation.
As familiar as we are with the economic benefits slavery brought to America, far less attention has been given to the devastation wreaked on the African continent.
Quite simply, the story of American slavery, and European slavery in general, is the wholesale rape and pillage of a continent, its people, its resources, and its future. American and European slavery was about the depopulation of a cultural and resource-rich area to bolster the economic fortunes of Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas.
Even Asia was to profit from the labor and resources of Africa (which I explain in greater detail in my book “The Clan of Southern Man”.
THE TRUE NATURE OF AMERICAN SLAVERY
The first misconception I want to clear up about American slavery is the untrue narrative that Blacks accepted slavery.
Some apologists, over the years, have even claimed the captives enjoyed their lot in life. Enjoyed being civilized by their enslavers. Enjoyed two meager meals and a pallet on the floor of a dilapidated shack. Enjoyed being raped, beaten, dehumanized, and worked to death. Enjoyed having their families split up, separated and sold, and in many instances, never to see them again.
I mean, what’s not to like, right?
According to my research, not only did the captives not enjoy slavery, they never accepted it. I was happy and proud to discover that rather than docilely serving as happy, watermelon-eating, gospel singing, servile victims of slavery, most of the captives constantly fought, agitated, and died to gain their freedom.
I was even more shocked to learn that many of the captives refused to even think of themselves as slaves. To them they were prisoners of war. Political and economic prisoners. An oppressed group, much like we think of ourselves today.
Most felt they’d been unjustly ripped from their home lands and enslaved. They felt strongly that God knew their enslavement was wrong, and would one day free them. This is why they never stopped fighting, rebelling, and pushing back against the system that oppressed them.
This belief in God, and their cause, was what gave them faith and strength in the face of unimaginable horrors. It was what kept them going.
SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SLAVERY
Here are some other common misconceptions about American slavery:
One misconception was that slavery, in some ways, was humane. It was not! It was brutal, degrading, and dehumanizing. The only dispute about this is just how brutal it was.
It was brutal beyond belief. No way our modern minds can comprehend it. Just imagine being owned by your worst enemy in a place where it was legal to profit from your blood, sweat, and tears. Then, years later, after you’re broken and beaten, you’re discarded like a dirty dish rag. That was slavery in America.
Another common misconception was that slavery was a successful economic system. It was not. It mainly enriched a small group of rich, plantation owners, mostly in the south. It did not spread wealth and prosperity throughout the entire economy, leaving out many Whites as well.
In addition to creating a chasm between the haves and the have nots, American slavery was considered an unfair system because of its use of free labor. Many nations in Northwestern Europe, particularly Great Britain and the Netherlands, were practicing capitalism during the early years of American slavery.
Europe wasn’t happy to be competing with a budding power utilizing free labor as the engine of its economy. It wasn’t out of sympathy for the black captives, or their abhorrence to slavery, but because they felt the American system put them at a disadvantage.
Over the ensuing years some economic models have shown the slave system to be wildly inefficient and wasteful, both in blood and treasure. Slave labor was no substitute for roads, bridges, canals, railroads, steel mills and shipyards. Slavery and the parochial rent-seeking culture it promoted inhibited the growth of capitalism in the south.
No nation used the system of slavery to create wealth like the United States. A decline of profits eventually weakened the hunger for slave labor. Some economists believe the Industrial Revolution, particularly in Britain, hastened the end of slavery
Slavery apologists will have you believe that the captives did not resist slavery. Poppycock! They certainly did. In many and varied ways.
They staged work slow downs, faked illnesses, broke tools, killed livestock and work animals, stole, destroyed property, feigned ignorance, ran away, and even revolted.
The fear of the captives sneaking up to the Big House in the dead of night and killing them kept many slave owners up at night.
According to another false narrative, the north was against slavery. Not true. Many Northerners owned slaves. And while it was true they didn’t have as many big farms or plantations in the north, slavery was an accepted and well respected part of northern life and culture.
Many northern slaves were treated just as cruelly as their southern brothers and sisters, and even free Blacks received scant better treatment. Any attempts by free northern Blacks to compete equally with Whites were met with much resistance, and some had their homes and businesses burned and razed if they did too well.
THE UNHOLY ROLE OF WHITE WOMEN
One of the most overlooked and under reported elements of slavery was the role of White women in the horrid practice. For the most part, they’ve been thought of as benign participants, forced to go along with an evil system perpetuated by their fathers, husbands, and brothers. This is far from the actual role of White women in the perpetuation of slavery.
White women not only prospered from the institution, some of them lived in the lap of luxury because of it. According to many slave narratives, many of them relished their roles as slave mistresses. Especially when it came to disciplining and controlling captive women.
Just as it’s only recently coming to light how some White women sought to sideline Black women in the fight for female suffrage, it’s now coming out about how cruel many White women were to their black captives. In many instances, they were considered more cruel than the slave masters themselves. Many, personally, and in some cases gleefully, flogged any captive who displeased them.
White women often inherited captives from their husbands or fathers, and rarely freed them… even after they’d worked to pay for their freedom.
They also played favorites with the captives, rewarding those loyal to them and cruelly punishing those who were not. Some of them were known for their cruelties, overworking house captives, physically abusing them, denying them time to properly care for their own children, and wreaking vengeance on any female captive she thought her husband had an interest in.
Many times it was the white mistress who decided who would be separated and sold from their families. Suffice it to say, any “fair” skinned captive child was the first to go, along with the mother, if she could swing it.
For far too long White women have gotten a pass in America. Their past atrocities toward Blacks were unacknowledged or misrepresented by white men, who wanted to continue to perpetuate the stereotype of them as kindly, delicate flowers, as pure as the driven snow.
THE FIRST BLACKS IN AMERICA
Yet another misconception about American slavery was that Blacks were always slaves. Not true.
The first Africans who came to the colonies were not slaves, but indentured servants.
Indentured servitude, a system whereby a poor or captive individual served as a servant for a number of predetermined years before being freed, was a common practice throughout Europe. It was exported to the colonies of North America during the 17th century, and not only were incoming Africans indentured servants, but so were white Europeans.
This form of bondage, though little different from chattel slavery, at least offered the possibility of freedom. Over a period of time, as more Blacks were brought to the colonies, the terms of servitude became longer and harsher, finally culminating in the legalization of slavery for Blacks around the middle of the 17th century.
So, how could the first Blacks brought to the colonies have been slaves when slavery wasn’t even legal?
Nor was it needed during the formation of the early colonies since there were few settlers and even fewer large farms or plantations where slave labor might be needed. As time wore on and more settlers arrived and more commerce was established, particularly in the agricultural area, the need for mass labor became more acute.
White land owners, after having seen the failure of white indentured servitude, and indigenous labor (Native Americans), turned to black labor to fuel the largely agricultural economy.
I know it makes a better story to say Blacks arrived in America as slaves, but it’s just not true.
Truth be told, some of the first Blacks to arrive in the colonies, after serving out their terms as indentured servants, became free men and went on to become prosperous land owners. This, naturally, sparked a backlash that led to the legalization of slavery for Blacks in the colonies.
WHO WERE SLAVES IN AMERICA?
Another misconception about American slavery is that only Blacks were slaves. Again, not true.
What we need to understand about slavery, American or otherwise, is that it was a cold, cruel, and callous system. It ensnared many and spared few. This was especially true during the early years of slavery, which goes back thousands of years.
The first slaves were those mainly captured in war. Color of skin wasn’t a determinant of whether you could be enslaved. Over the millenniums, anyone could be enslaved, and were, Whites included.
Slavery knew no race, creed, or color. It was circumstance more than anything else that increased the chances of being made a slave before the time of European exploration and the discovery of the so-called “New World” (though I’m still at a loss to understand how you can discover something that’s already there).
During American slavery, anyone could be enslaved… Black, White, Native American, men, women, children. The colonies, and later America, operated on the one-drop rule. This meant that a single drop of “black” blood in your veins made you black, and therefore you were subject to being enslaved.
The “one-drop” rule meant that a white man, or woman, with a single black relative in his or her family tree could be classified as black and be enslaved in America. Some were.
Many slave owners enslaved their own children produced by Black women. The offspring of a White woman and a Black man, if it was spared, could be enslaved. The offspring of Black and Native Americans could be enslaved, sometimes by Native Americans themselves.
American slavery was a mish mash of informal, and sometimes incomprehensible, rules, beliefs, and prejudices. Some Native Americans owned black slaves. Even some free Blacks owned black slaves.
Slavery in America was confusing and contradictory. It touched on the lives of all Americans in some form or fashion. All of America was soiled and tainted by it.
SLAVERY AND THE CIVIL WAR
The last misconception about slavery I want to clear up is the belief by many Blacks that the Civil War was fought over slavery. This, too, is untrue.
In the beginning the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, though it eventually became about slavery when president Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the captives.
Nor was the war fought over the dubious claim of states’ rights as proclaimed by many southerners. Though the ongoing Abolitionist Movement may have been on the minds of the seceding states, outlawing the vile practice wasn’t even on Lincoln’s mind when he declared war.
The Civil War started over the expansion of slavery, particularly in the unsettled western territories, which the South wanted and the North did not. Halting the expansion of slavery in the country was a slippery slope the South feared would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery.
The tug of war between the north and south for political and economic power had been ongoing for decades before the advent of the war. More slave states would help the south, and this was a proposition the north certainly didn’t want to see come to fruition.
During this time slavery was being outlawed all over the world, especially in Europe, and while Lincoln didn’t see slavery ending in America anytime soon, he, nonetheless, didn’t want to see the practice expanded. His main concern was to save the Union, not end slavery.
Truth be told, Lincoln was alright with black slavery. He thought Blacks were inferior to Whites, and had even proposed sending Blacks back to Africa to solve the racial problem.
Only after the North was getting its butt kicked by the well motivated South did Lincoln decide to add fuel to the fire by freeing the captives.
And, as we know, the rest is history. When Blacks were finally allowed to fight for their own freedom, the tables began to turn, and the south was soundly defeated.
THE LESSONS OF SLAVERY
Why is it so important for us to have an accurate depiction of slavery after so many years? As the old saying goes, the truth will set you free.
We need to be set free. Free from lies and misrepresentations about our history… and ourselves.
We need an accurate picture not only of who and what we are, but where we’ve been.
In order to finally throw off the shackles of a past that’s imprisoning and hindering us in our modern pursuit of happiness, we have to understand what we’ve gone through. Straight and unadulterated.
Most importantly, we need to understand we’re not the only ones to have been enslaved. We’re not the only ones who’ve suffered.
Many races, cultures, and groups have been enslaved over the millenniums. Many peoples have been oppressed and brutalized. Genocide against many groups have occurred in many parts of the world, from time immemorial. We are not alone in having cruelties and atrocities practiced against us.
Many groups have experienced dark days and lived to tell about it. Many have survived and recovered from it.
We must not continue to allow ourselves to be defined by past atrocities and indignities heaped on us.
We, ourselves, are not innocent of sin. We have committed atrocities against others. Some of us have committed atrocities against each other.
We have to free ourselves from a culture of grievance.
While we must never forget the past, we must not allow ourselves to remain prisoners of it.