Andrew W. Thornhill is one of those human types novelists love. You can follow him around endlessly. He can easily fill up many colorful pages. Just giving him his proper due with a well-thought-out, elaborate introduction, can go on, and on, and on, and on, page after endless page.
He is a slightly over-sized, light brown skinned man with a large mustache that covers most of his upper lip. He is also full of bluster and self-importance, and can just as easily fill-up a room with the same ease he fills up the pages of a novel.
And, unlike countless others like him, he is blessed with a highly intelligent mind, filled with obscure bits of information that he artfully uses to its best advantage.
"What!" he might suddenly say, grazing at you with a look of absolute disbelief, "You didn't know that term limits was really the Willie Brown law?"
Pity the poor, uninformed fool who crosses his path!
But, if you look a little closer at Thornhill, you can spot through all the attempts at intimidation and generally know-it-all-ness—a twinkle in his light brown eyes—his little wink to you that only a part of him is serious.
I hadn’t seen him in years. Yet here he was in downtown Los Angeles, in March of 2003, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street giving a lecture before a small audience.
Thornhill had moved to Seattle about ten years ago, after living in the Southland for years, surprising everyone, including me.
Now that our paths had crossed once more, I asked him after his well-presented lecture on the future of television, how did he like living in Seattle?
“It’s the most racist place I have ever lived,” he answered straight-out, without a hint of hesitation, and with more than a hint of heartfelt bitterness.
Racist! I was momentarily confused. This was clearly not the answer I had expected. I quickly searched the data bank in my mind and pulled up everything I could concerning Seattle: a lovely place continuously shrouded in a cool, gray, non-stop mist coming in from the Pacific; a violent demonstration against globalization; serious looking young Asian and white men with close haircuts and little beards, quietly sitting around in numerous coffee bars with open laptops; Grunge, a gloomy Kurt Corbin, computer software and fantastic scenic beauty, with greenery and sparking water everywhere—but no racism to speak of.
“Trust me,” he said, staring firmly at me, clearly suffering me gently, and perhaps noticing the look of confusion on my face.
For most of the next week I pondered Andrew’s remark, mainly because it had sparked a sudden realization that I really hadn’t thought about racism in a long, long time.
Sure, I hated the movie business, because I thought they were racist. Sure, I hated the Los Angeles Times, especially the book section, because I thought they were racist. Plus, and worse, they wouldn’t review my books, or invite me to sit on one of their panels at their annual book fair!
Sure, I still kept one eye opened for white policemen, even while walking down the people-less streets minding my own business. But not that deep, obsessive thinking about racism; that sometimes over powering feeling I would get living in my hometown of New York.
“Jeeves,” I thought, “I haven’t thought about racism with the same bitter intensity since when?” I searched my brain. “Since when?”
I had been living back in Los Angeles now for three years. I hated the place as much as I did when I left in 1980 after six years of living here. When I left, I did something totally spontaneous as the Greyhound bus moved swiftly through Hollywood, up 101, headed for the I-5 and the mountainous Grapevine.
All at once an overpowering feeling overcame me. I suddenly turned around and looked back out of my window at what was left of a fast disappearing Los Angeles, and gave it the finger.
That remains until this day, the most heartfelt finger I have ever given!
I remembered the vivid dreams, the constant nightmares of my being gunned down by white cops. These inner fears, which brought me many sweaty, sleepless nights, were well founded. I had had guns drawn on me four times in six years for no reason— honest cases of mistaken identity the cops explained before they drove away.
The first time it happened I was pulling into a parking lot headed for my office at 6464 Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. The top was down on my brand new, shiny red sports car, and I was one happy man, even considering that my girlfriend who came here with me from New York, had just left me.
I worked for a large public relations company, hanging out with clients like the Temptations, Bill Cosby, Johnny Mathis, the O Jays, Earth Wind and Fire and people I never dreamed I would meet in person.
“This town is not so bad,” I often told myself.
Out of nowhere, this mental fantasy was suddenly shattered, forever. White men in suits and ties surrounded me.
I looked up and all I saw was a pair of narrow blue eyes, a stern face, and the barrel of a small caliber revolver pointed directly at my head. I knew one false move, and I was a dead man!
“Don’t move, and keep your hands where we can see them.”
I was quickly saved, however
“That’s not the guy,” someone said.
They let me go without a word of apology, not even saying it was just a case of mistaken identity.
I was shaken, but more angry than scared.
What was this, a Goddamn banana republic!
I was to find, much to my discomfort, that Los Angeles was indeed a banana republic, devoiced from most anything I had experienced in New York City. This first incident occurred only a few months after I had arrived from New York, and over the years there were more incidents, just as serious, just as frightening.
I learn to hate cops. I also learn to hate cars, and suburbs, and the movie business, and white racism, and social Isolation. I hated the fact that few people read anything. In other words, I hated everything! Except the warm weather. And my two young daughters.
I still hate most things LA, but Andrew’s statement about cool, damp Seattle made me realize that now there was a clear absence of the kind of racism that I felt the last time I live here; the kind of racism that the great James Baldwin once said, “filled the conscious Negro with a sense of constant outrage!”
What had happened to Los Angeles between 1980 and 2003 bedsides earthquakes, fires, drive-byes, rain, mudslides, Rodney King, twice, O.J., low-paid immigrants and the never-ending drama of getting from point A to point B?
Modern Los Angeles is not a town for Cosmopolitans. In a way, this is rather odd statement, and seems anti-intuitive, in that it is perceived as perhaps the most racially diverse city in America. As I write this, I also realize that my perspective might be a bit skewed because I don't speak a word of Spanish, although I am surrounded by the language, and hear more of it on a daily basis than I do English.
The vast Hispanic, or Latino population that is now the clear majority in Los Angeles, are Hondurans, Guatemalans, San Salvadorians—in fact, all of Central America, although just as clearly, Mexicans are still the clear majority in that group.
So within this Hispanic world, in which I can never be a part of, maybe it is indeed cosmopolitan.
Whatever the case, for those who love the concept of diversity, Los Angeles is a great example of how it can work. But first, let’s be absolutely clear about what diversity means. It is about separation and segregation. Here, street signs like Little Tokyo, Koreantown, and Little Armenia are part of the landscape.
Armenians are supposed to live happily with Armenians. Koreans with Koreans. Jews with Jews. Hispanic with Hispanic. And the good thing is that these groups are not at each other’s throat—which is a real good thing indeed!
But strangely enough, given the fact that so much of what we think America is, comes from Los Angeles, the two groups, Northern Europeans and blacks, that are most associated with the so-called “American Experience,” clearly the face of America in books, magazines, television and in the movies, and who just as clearly dominated popular culture in this country-- have not thrived in this environment in Los Angeles the way other groups have.
One has to look long and hard to find a white face outside of the Westside and the Valley in most of LA; and chances are, if you do, their last names won’t be Jones or Smith, and, if it is, they will be taking to themselves in disjointed mumbles.
The black population is also rapidly shrinking, replaced by an army of homeless, unemployed black men valiantly hanging on.
What has intrigued me most about Los Angeles is not that the Central Americans took over, or that blacks were given a swift kick in the ass, with the strong suggestion that they get out of town as swiftly as their little legs can carry them, but that the Northern Europeans, the so-called Anglos, just walked away, leaving an incredible infrastructure mostly intact.
(Maybe they all moved to Seattle, and are now bedeviling my poor friend Andrew!)
When all is said and done, modern Los Angeles is a city designed by Anglos, although Jewish film Moguls obviously had a lot to say about it.
Here are the grand results of their efforts. In a small, but well-crafted essay in the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara, who writes a regular column entitled: L.A.Centric stated it best in a piece entitled “Personal space in cruising cocoons”: "It is a local hobby, the drive by crush. Occasionally, you see attempts at connection in classifieds or on the Internet—“You: hot in a red Camaro with the bashed-in left taillight; me: staring from the cream-colored Cooper.”—but the chances for follow-up are pretty small.
“The real dream machine in Los Angeles is not Hollywood, it's freeway culture and freeway culture is not big on follow-up...
"For all its purported body worship and collective gym membership, Los Angeles is not a physical city. People visiting here are stuck by the lack of direct contact required by daily life-unlike in New York of Paris or Tokyo or Rome-- you can go about your business for days in Los Angeles without touching another soul or even bumping shoulders.
“The secret," she concluded, " to Angelenos is that many of us like to be left alone. If that seems a strange preference for citizens of the second most populated city in the country, then you haven't quite grasped the meaning of freeway culture."
I agreed with most she said, but unlike what I would have done, she wrote about the city with approval; whereas, I would have made some of the same observations, but I would have wrote it in a sneering, cynical tone, sorely pissed off at having to live in such a hideous place.
From that column, and from all available evidence, the Anglo builders of Los Angeles wanted to create a city were the different population groups had as little contact with each other as possible. At that, they were very successful. They used all the available space, built those famous freeways, built outward, not upward, made sure that there be no public transportation to speak of, thereby forcing everyone into a car. They also made sure that there would be no neighborhood bars and corner grocery stores.
Neutron City, as one writer has described the lack of people on the street. (A Neutron Bomb kills people but leaves the buildings alone).
Yet, as Ms. McNamara so ably pointed out, Los Angeles was able to grow to the second largest city in the country. Many of the reasons are obvious. One is the most obvious, is that Southern California boasts the best weather in the world. With mostly a small swing, both up and down, of 20 degrees from the norm of the mid-60’s-- even the bad days are good days.
Although it has been cooler than I remembered the last few years I have lived here, most times it is still sunny, warm, with low humidity—the perfect place for large outdoor squares, city parks and common meeting grounds for people to meet and mingle.
So it is puzzling, to say the least, that the city fathers would have taken such an approach to their city and try as mightily as the could to isolate everyone indoors in enclosed shopping malls and enclosed “cruising cocoons.”
Nevertheless, despite the poor choice of design, people still came in droves. Another reason for this is also rather obvious, as any one who has spent anytime here, will testify. I can remember when I lived in Los Angeles during the 70’s as editor-publisher of Neworld: The Multi-Cultural Magazine of the Arts; weekly people would come to my office fresh off the bus, plane, or train, and ask me how could they break into show business.
The stream was constant, never ending. I felt most time, after having seen so many frustrated, highly talented would-be actors and singers in the short time I was here—to tell them they should pick up and return back from which they came.
I never gave that advice, however. Because I also remember, how, more than once, I’d be walking down Hollywood Blvd when a loud, insistent car horn would get my attention. I would turn to the heavy traffic and soon spot the same wide-eyed person who had been sitting in my office sixth months earlier.
Now he was driving a brand new Rolls, top down, waving vigorously at me, with a broad smile spread completely across his happy face. He was the Next Big Thing.
(This was the late 70’s. We were soon to learn by the early 80's, that too much free love, and mind-altering drugs like cocaine and speed, was bad for us-- just as the preachers had warned. But this was still the good times, and this was the last time people in Hollywood still showed off, unscripted. No dark tinted, tank-like SUV’s for these cutups!)
These things happen in Hollywood. Someone has to have a hit record, hot television show, or HUGE movie. There will always be the Next Big Thing. That’s what Hollywood was all about. So who was I to say to that bright, hopeful young man or woman from Eugene, or Detroit, or Macon, or even from tough, should-know-better New York—that they were pipe dreaming?
Somebody was going to make it big. Why not them?
But the key reason for our large population, bar none, is the Hispanics. There are many reasons for their being here, not the least of which being that all of California was once part of Mexico. This is their native land, and the whites, and the blacks are the “illegal aliens,” as have had pointed out to me, time and time again.
In America, there is always a dollar sign connected to any phenomenon. Money is the real reason why they are here in such large numbers.
Los Angeles needs servants. What is a mogul or movie star to do without them? Someone has to mow those king size lawns, and make all of those beds, and wash all of those expensive cars, and maintain those huge mansions.
There are no "illegal aliens" living in Los Angeles. Every Mexican, sitting in his small, poverty stricken village buried somewhere deep in the interior, which his government does little to help, knows that all he has to do is make it across the border to LA, and he need not be able to speak a word of English, or Spanish, for that matter, or have any education to speak of--a job awaits him, plus a decent place to live, as well as a community to lean on for support.
You don't find armies of Hispanics men standing around their communities doing nothing, like you might find in black communities. They are the workers of choice, and they know it.
The big money people invited these Central American here to subsidize their lifestyle. The Hispanics work hard, don't complain, don't start unions, don't ask for raises and health insurance and are apolitical--just glad to be in the promise land. In many cases, they are the difference between someone being a mere millionaire, to really living large, as a high-flying multi-billionaire, as a recent article in Forbes candidly admitted.
All of this did not bode well for the Anglos and the blacks, mainly, because they made lousy servants. The blacks talked back, and were always loudly complaining about something, always pointing out that slavery was over! (Given the assertive black personality, how did slavery last so long? There had to have been many compromises made between master and slave, or else the violence would have been overwhelming.)
The Northern Europeans, with a sense of entitlement unmatched by any other group on earth, also talked back, but they also insisted that they sleep with the lady of the house, or they would burn the mansion down, with the owners inside!
Chief Parker, Chief Davis, Chief Gates, Mayor Sam Yorty notwithstanding, no wonder no one wanted to keep them around!
Some people blame the earthquakes on why the Anglos left. If you have ever been in one (I have been in 7) it is the most terrifying experience imaginable, because it totally surrounds you. The impact is everywhere. Color, money, fame are now meaningless. There is nowhere for anyone to run or hide. Seconds seem like hours as you wait to see if the shaking and the low rumble will just increase and grow stronger.
Even so, earthquakes and Hollywood disappointment still does not completely explain why Anglos and blacks were unable to make much of a future for themselves here even as other groups prospered.
Maybe looking at the experiences of other groups could help answer that question. The group I find most interesting are not the mighty Jews, who you might have expected, who have obviously thrived in Los Angeles, this now having the second largest Jewish population after New York City.
This city also is home to one of the largest concentrations of Armenians in the new world. Most of us know the history of the German holocaust and attempted genocide of the Jews by Hitler. And many assume, wrongly, that this was the first attempt in the 20th century to wipe out an entire people.
Don’t tell that to an Armenian! I first discovered this during the 70s while working for the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles. We presented a program starring a group of Whirling Dervishes from Turkey. First, the FBI came to warn us of possible bomb threats. Then, on opening night, with the LAPD in our area on tactical alert, we were greeted with a huge crowd, but not the kind we had expected. Instead, hundreds of Armenians showed up in protest.
And they had reason to protest. During the closing days of the once powerful Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. It was one of the largest wholesale slaughter of a people ever.
Many of the survivors of that holocaust made their way to the United States, and most settled in California, especially the Central Valley, where they because expert raisin growers, among other things. The greatest known Armenian is the writer William Sarayon, although Cher would come in a close second if she would ever acknowledge her roots. Armenian George Deukmejian served as governor of the state of California from 1983 to 1991, and despite serving two terms in such a high profile state, he made little splash on the national scene.
With such a highly dramatic history, you would think that Armenians would have a higher profile in American society. But the truth be known, I knew nothing about them until I started working part time at Macy’s a few years ago and met a number of them.
I wrote about one in my novel, The King of Macy’s, I described her thus:
Just two days ago, he had had a conversation about the non-stop workload with a woman who worked full time in ties right across from him.
She was always watching him. She was a beautiful, thirty something Armenian. Many of the workers at this store were Armenians. Some had arrived shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but many had long roots in this country. Before he came here, he didn’t know that many Armenians existed in this country.
She was one of the newcomers. She had already informed him that she had been an accomplished musician before she came to America. She had a long nose, and dark, mysterious, sexual eyes, and a sly smile that said all kinds of nasty things.
For some reason, this quiet night at Macy’s, besides the usual bitching and moaning about work, and how full-timers like her were always at the beck and call of the managers, the topic also turned to sex.
“You know what my husband said to me last night,” the Armenian woman said to Randy.
“I’m going to tell you something very private.”
“He asked me to get on top of him when we were making love. He said ‘baby, come on, get on top of me’.”
The Armenian spoke in a broad, low toned, conspiratorial accent, and moved closer and closer to him. She suddenly reminded him of all those bad Hollywood movies of the veiled harem girl whose dark eyes said volumes.
“And did you? He asked.
“Yes. But I fell asleep!”
They both laughed loudly, with Randy letting out a loud howl. Her face took on a young, goofy look. That was funny! Randy had been working here for only a few months, and only part time, but he fully understood the meaning of that joke.
Most nights, the conversation was not about sex, but their answers to the many questions I had concerning their hidden, mysterious culture. They told me that they had settled in Fresno and Glendale and as far away as Sacramento. And now many have moved to Hollywood, creating Little Armenia. I learned first hand why it was Armenians were so hidden from the rest of us, and why many in their community wanted to keep it that way. I how knew just how closed their culture was to non-Armenians.
To be frank, I was greatly surprised that a white, Christian group could have stayed that segregated from the rest of America. After all, wasn’t that the promise of America? Wasn’t that the essence of the melting pot, which was the direct opposite of diversity? That all whites would be met with a hail-fellow-well-met ness and welcomed into the world of whiteness?
But you can see just how a city like Los Angeles could work in the Armenians favor, and help them maintain a separateness, as everyone cruised by in their cocoon, not sure who, or what was in the car ahead, or next to them, or following close behind.
For the Hispanics, the same set of circumstances also worked well. Because so little is seen, only dry numbers in a newspaper. Who knew just how brown the city was becoming year after year. I knew what was coming in the 70’s when I lived here. The day my last child was born in 1977, at the nursery at Hollywood Children’s Hospital there was one black new born, one white, one mixed and over twenty Mexicans (or Hispanics). It was clear to me that day what the future of Los Angeles was.
I have been asked more than once why I thought it was that the Hispanics overtook the city. Simple, I always reply, they found an easy way for ordinary people to have sex.
One of the most interesting observations made by Ms McNamara was “freeway culture is not big on follow-up.”
The practical outcome of that observation is that if you spent all, or most of your time indoors, locked away in what is really a moving living room, how the hell are you going to meet anyone?
The rich, as the actor Charlie Sheen notoriously demonstrated with his $26,000 a year sex bill, can just pick up the phone and call someone.
I remember one of the scariest moments in my life. It was a beautiful Christmas day in 1979. I was at Venice Beach with my wife, and our two lovely young daughters, Alexis and Tama. I loved going to the beach on Christmas day and New Year’s, just as I loved picking an orange off a tree and eating it on the spot. That was my finger to the bitter cold winters of New York City.
We were walking near the basketball courts, where young black men soar sky-high. Out of nowhere, a clearly angry young black man came up in back of us and started yelling, “I can have a family! I can have a family! You think you’re the only one that can have a family!”
I instinctly pulled the two-year-old Alexis, and the six year old Tama closer to me and steered my family away from the disturbed man. I looked back at him to make sure he wasn’t following us, and also to take a better look at him. He was still glaring at me as we moved further way, still mouthing the words, “I can have a family. I can have a family!”
He scared me. Yet, he also moved me deeply because I thought I understood the source of all that obvious pain. I knew he was filled with heart-aching loneliness, unbearable sexual frustration and deep, unmet, emotional needs—triggered perhaps to a feverish pitch by the sight of me, a young black man just like him, my beautiful Hispanic wife, and my two young girls.
I knew he was one of those hopefuls I sat talking to in my office on Hollywood Blvd, gladly giving my bits of wisdom, glad for the company. I knew he was drawn here by big dreams and grand hopes, but has been unable to connect with anyone expect the basketball players.
And this was Christmas. A day for family. A happy day.
The Hispanics avoided this lonely world. They didn’t come here for show biz. They came to work at anything they could get their hands on. It was this low income and willingness to work at any job that worked for them in unsuspecting ways. For example, they used public transportation, often waiting for an hour-and-half for a crowded bus, to get back and forth to those low paying jobs.
Kerouac wrote in On The Road about Los Angeles, “there was no comradeship on those streets.”
But there is comradeship on those buses, as women chat away in Spanish, and the quiet men nod signs of recognition at each other, and the teenagers make eyes, and the young girls giggle and wore tight t-shirts that read: “Tell your boyfriend to stop bothering me,” or, “Talk to me, not to my tits,” and everyone admires the latest baby, and old women make subtle, playful faces at two-year olds.
A letter to the Los Angeles Times rebuffing Ms McNamara’s observations surprised me. The writer, with an Asian sur-name, called her views “very 70’s,” and called attention to the new social interaction on our new subway system.
But the truth be told, this social interaction has always been there, even in Kerouac’s late 40’s. This non-freeway culture the Hispanics create also led to a lively street life, which also increased personal interaction. Friendships were made on the warm, sunlit street, and flirtations abound.
So it is little wonder their population just kept increasing!
With the success of the Armenians, the Hispanics and the Jews, as well as an assortment of Asian groups, we can see a real pattern. A strong sense of people hood seems to be essential to overcoming the isolation of the freeway culture. For the black population, historical forces were busily working against them establishing that sense.
In the black world, for example, there are many who hate the idea of separate but equal, including me. It has always meant bad schools, lousy jobs, nightriders, and white fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson denying their children-- and being kept away from the grand party, which was America.
Even if people like me were in a small minority, and most blacks did want to be left alone, whites were always sneaking around in the dead of night spying on our churches and juke joints—stealing our culture.
No disrespect intended, but it’s hard to imagine a young Elvis hiding in the dark shadows outside a synagogue in the Fairfax District, or a church in the barrio, letting the soulful seeds of creativity envelop him, and change his very essence, thereby helping change the very essence of America.
As one Hispanic comedian so artfully put it recently, “Without blacks, America would suck!”
The world, especially the white world, just wouldn’t leave blacks alone. We became, in a weird, paradoxical sort of way, the most sort after, segregated people on earth.
So something needed to be done. Some effort had to be made for blacks to get in touch with their inner separateness. Something that would make them stop pining longingly away for integration with Anglos, who continued to publicly thumb their noses at them, turning their backs on them, pretending they didn’t like them.
Something that would give blacks an old world distinctness like the other groups, something that goes back thousands, and thousands of years to mother Africa, something that would make them more than just, well, plain old Americans.
Black nationalist Ron Karenga, LA’s own ingenious provocateur, understood this, and deftly pulled off a yeoman-like effort to do something about it. Applying what he called “ancient African principles,” he created out of whole cloth, Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa has grown over the years into something like an affirmative action, equal opportunity quasi-religious holiday, little understood even by those that sing its praises.
You can’t fault Karenga, however. He will go down in American history along side Joseph Smith, Elijah Muhammad and L. Ron Hubbard as one of the truly inspired ones who created home-grown religions that millions of people now follow!
Kwanzaa or not, in the end, it still couldn’t make blacks a “pure” culture, sat down intact like the other pure cultures, in the semi-desert of Los Angeles. They were unlike the Asians, Hispanics, Armenians and Jews.
What about the Anglos? Didn’t they have a strong sense of people hood? Why else would they have designed a city where the key factor for survival is a strong sense of us ness? But alas, the Anglos were plagued with the same deep, dark curse as the blacks. Try as they may for old world distinctness, in the end, they were stuck with just being plain old Americans.
White folks, as it were.
Their melting pot upbringing, which helped remove the British, the French, the German, the Irish from their inner being, made them strangely enough, just like the blacks.
The Goddess of Historical Irony must not have just chuckled at that, but she must have thrown back her old head in a loud guffaw.
After I was half way through the second of the many books I would review for this assignment on American slavery-- as all the shameful, stomach churning details slowly unfolded before me-- it suddenly became crystal clear why this subject is rarely taught at our institutions of learning in this country, or why we have never had a Ken Burn’s type PBS treatment on television, despite the fact that we have been a slave holding country more years than we have been a true democracy.
If the full truth was fully told, it would cause too much pain. The religious would ask, as many Jews must have surely asked after the Holocaust, where was God? Whites, especially those with a British background, would hang their heads in shame. And Blacks would be filled with a burning, bitter anger at what happened to their ancestors.
So it’s best to let the subject go, and pretend that only crybabies like Randall Robinson care about this aspect of American history.
But this is a subject that won’t go away, as the lingering affect of 244 years of slavery is still with us. In fact, in the past year, a flood of new books on almost every aspect of American slavery has been released.
The best overview available which brings into play the beginning of the slave trade, is the magisterial, and widely used college text, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, Knopf, by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A Moss, Jr.
A version of this book was first released in 1947, and has never been out of print. In this current eighth edition we have a look at Africa before millions of people were stolen by first the Arab Muslims, and then the Europeans, and sent to every part of the Middle East, Europe and the New World.
Professor Franklin and Professor Moss makes several important points in their book: One, slavery was wide spread in Africa before the Arabs and Europeans arrived; secondly, at the beginning of the slave trade, the Africans were used primarily as servants, and therefore, relatively few were captured. It was the discovery of the New World, and the need for laborers to tame an enormous, wild landmass that made the demand for Africans increase incredibly.
American slavery differs from slavery in other parts of the New World in many respects. Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery, 1619-1877, Hill and Wang, released ten years ago, and now in paperback, gives an excellent overview. He divided American slavery into three distinct eras: Colonial, Revolutionary and Antebellum.
But before he gets into his description of these periods, he makes an important observation:
“Although precise figures must remain elusive,” Professor Kolchin writes, “according to the best current estimates a total of 10 million to 11 million living slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century…the force migration of slaves to the Americas significantly exceeded the voluntary immigration there of free people until the 1830s, and the cumulative total of African migrants exceeded that of Europeans until the 1880.
“America absorbed relatively few of these Africans. The great bulk—more than 85 percent of the total—went to Brazil and the various Caribbean islands…the United States, or more accurately for most of the slave-trade years, the colonies that would later become the United States, imported only 600,000 to 650,000 Africans, some 6 percent of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World.”
During the Colonial Era, when slavery was prevalent throughout the entire original thirteen colonies, the British settlers confronted pure Africans, complete with language, custom and political differences.
“Most American slaves came from the coastal region of West Africa…A much smaller number came from the Congo/Angola region…both the slave traders and their American customers were (unlike their nineteenth-century descendants) conscious of the slave’s diverse origins, and showed marked preferences…for certain nationalities. Among South Carolina slave owners, for example, big, strong, dark slaves from Gambia and the Gold Coast were most in demand,” he writes.
“Ibos, Congos and Angolas were said to be more effective as house servants because they were “allegedly weaker.”
This was also a time when the Africans shared their bondage with both white indentured servants and enslaved Native Americans.
The native people proved hard to subdue, however, because they understood their physical environment; but ultimately, it was diseases introduced by the Europeans, along with the mass murder and oppressive labor, that reduced their worth as laborers. It is estimated that a century after Columbus, the indigenous population of both North and South America had shrunk by about ninety percent.
Noted historian David Brion Davis called this “the worse known (catastrophe) in human history.”
As for the white Europeans, for a variety of reasons, including their white skin, which also allowed them easy escape from the evil clutches of slave holders, “by the end of the seventeenth century,’ Kolchin writes, “It was clear that indentured Europeans could no longer fill the needs of the Southern colonies.”
In that sense, the Africans, because of their physical differences, their confusion with their new environment, and their hardy nature, became a God sent for the English settlers.
As the years passed, slavery became increasingly concentrated in the southern colonies. By the time we arrive at the Revolutionary Era, 40 per cent of blacks in the north were now freemen, in contrast to 4 per cent in the south.
This period also gave the first real challenge to slavery. “The Revolutionary War had a major impact on slavery—and on the slaves,” Kolchin points out. “Wartime disruptions undermined normal plantation discipline, and division within the master class offered unprecedented opportunities that they (slaves) were not slow in grasping. The Revolution posed the biggest challenge the slave regime would face until the outbreak of the Civil War some eighty-five years later; indeed, it appeared for a while as if the very survival of slavery in the new nation was threatened.”
In addition to the “disruptions,” of white men away from the farm at war, the British obviously tried to exploit the situation by offering freedom for the slaves if they join them in their fight against the rebellious colonies.
Later, after the revolution proved to be successful, the highflying rhetoric of the movement came back to the haunt the white Americans.
Thomas Jefferson, one of history’s greatest villains, wrote “that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Great words coming from someone who kept his own mixed-raced children in bondage, and didn’t free his slaves on his deathbed as George Washington had done.
But, anyone who has lived in the state to Virginia, like I have, could also understand Jefferson.
It is a blessed land filled with soft, green rolling hills, and highly productive soil for growing all things, barely imaginable. And today, it is still as beautiful as it was in Jefferson’s time.
As I recently past through this blessed area, on my way to a writer’s conference in Brooklyn-- a area that held many of my own past secrets, I fully understood something about my English ancestors: this was far better than the crowded, dirty place the came from. The Gentry owned the countryside in England, as in all of Europe, as Counts and Dukes and Duchesses, and Sir this, and Lord that, reigned supreme, without fear; and what all the rest were left with was the grim, Dickens like streets in cites and towns all over England.
Not here in Virginia. Here, in God kissed Virginia was paradise on earth.
And so what if a bunch of dumb, dancing Africans had to suffer.
Of course, thoughtful whites, and many slaves were listening to Jefferson ‘s brave, revolutionary words, and some even had the nerve to asked, “Well what about the blacks?”
Clearly, ideas such as those so eloquently articulated by Jefferson, forced many Americans, even slave holding southerners, to question the “peculiar Institution.” But unforeseen events started to rapidly conspirer against these thoughtful white people of conscience, and those blacks yearning to be free.
First, in 1793 an enterprising young man by the name of Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin. The mechanization of spinning in England had created a greatly expanded market for U.S. cotton, but production was bottlenecked by the manual removal of the seeds from the raw fiber.
The Cotton Gin changed that, and is credited with making cotton virtually the only crop of the U.S. south. It became the oil of its day.
Second, the United States doubled in size in 1803 with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, as Deep South states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, became a part of the young country.
Third, there was the Mother Nature, or the nature of the climate. Here’s what I wrote in an essay in my book, The Rejected American, entitled “Why Black Businesses Don’t Grow” in 1989 after attending an Annual NAACP Convention, this time in Nashville, Tennessee in the middle of July: “As I stepped off of the plane on that late July day and the heavy, oppressive southern air hit me, I Immediately understood slavery once again, as I had a few years earlier on a late July day in New Orleans, or a few years before that in Baltimore, Dallas and Washington, D.C.
"Before machines, and fans, and air conditioning this rich land was useless to the Northern Europeans. How could they had made use of this land without the African?”
Here how Gov. Johnson of Georgia, in a speech in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1856 bluntly put the problem the whites faced, thinking as I had, years later: “They cannot hire labor to cultivate rice swamps, ditch their low ground, or drain their morasses. And why? Because the climate is deadly to the white man. He could not go there and live a week; and therefore the vast territory would be a barren waste unless Capital owned labor.”
All of this created a greater demand for slaves. This demand was compounded by the fact that the African slave trade official ended in 1810. So when we get to the antebellum period of American slavery, any high-minded talk of possible freedom for blacks slowly came to an end in the south.
As David Brion Davis notes in his well-written, thoughtful little book, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, Harvard University Press ,“Southern slave-grown cotton was by far the nation’s leading export. It powered textile manufacturing in both New England and England, and it paid for American imports of everything from steel to investment capital. Moreover, since the price of slaves continued to soar through the antebellum decades, American slaves represented more capital than any other asset in the nation with the exception of land. In 1860 the value of Southern slaves was about three times the value of the capital stock in manufacturing and railroads nationwide.”
In many ways, we can see faint echoes of this today in the value placed on the Mexican worker. As an article in Forbes once pointed out, these uncomplaining, low wageworkers are the difference between some business people being merely well-off, or being rich beyond their wildest dreams.
So far, no one seems to be that hurt by this new “brown gold,” but the old “black gold” ushered in one of the most horrendous aspects of American slavery: The Inter-state slave trade
A Troublesome Commerce: The transformation of the interstate slave trade, Louisiana State University Press, by Robert H. Gudmestad gives us a grim look into one of the most shameful periods in human history.
Because of inter-breeding between not only the different ethnic groups, but with also with Europeans and native peoples, by this time many Africans had evolved into what Kolchin calls “creoles Americans.” We also had forth and fifth generations of both slaves and slave masters
Over the decades, the settlers came to defend slavery from the increasing attacks from a growing abolitionist movement in the north with a variety of arguments. The English settlers didn’t invent the idea that blacks were intellectually inferior. David Brion Davis pointed out the Arab Muslims contribution to attitudes about blacks mental abilities: “It seems probable,” he writes, “that racial stereotypes were transmitted, along with black slavery itself, from Muslims to Christians…”
In addition to using the notion of black inferiority, they also used the bible and economic arguments. But the one original southern contribution to human parasitism was paternalism. Slaves were portrayed as beloved members of the family, were the kindly slave master taught them the wisdom of the bible, kept slave families intact, gave them the best food, time off when things slowed down on the farm, and looked after them in their old age.
According to Gudmestad, “They (slave holders) wanted to believe that there was a type of organic unity to the South, where slaves cheerfully respected and obeyed their owners because of the kind treatment they received. White southerners mused about a paternalist paradise that never existed.”
The interstate slave trade gave lie to this mythmaking, as slaveholders in the Upper South became the major supplier of slaves to the Lower south. States like Virginia and Maryland became giant breeding farms for the huge cotton plantations in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and other deep south states, as slaves families were torn apart, and slavery was reduced to its stark reality: that the slave was just another piece of property, to be brought and sold at will.
Any moral arguments the south had to justify slavery were ripped away by the greed brought on by the highly lucrative interstate slave trade.
Little has been written about what actually it was like during this period, but I know first hand how blacks became the “cash crop” of Virginia. The land currently owned by my mother’s family in Northern Virginia, which my white ancestors once owned, was a well known “breeding farm.”
My white great grandfather sold all of this fertile land to my grandfather when grandfather married his mixed raced daughter, perhaps as a wedding present, a welcome to the family, or perhaps, penance.
My grandmother’s favorite joke when I was living there as a small kid, was because I was slight of built and a smart-ass wise guy, even at four, “In the old days someone like you would have been taken into the woods and shot.
Even as young as I was, I knew that there was something vaguely sinister in that “joke,” even though all the big people were busy laughing away.
Franklin and Moss noted in From Slavery to Freedom that in “1832 Thomas R. Dew admitted that Virginia was a “Negro raising state” and that is was able to export 6,000 per year because of breeding. Moncure Conway of Fredericksburg, Virginia, boldly asserted that ‘the chief pecuniary resource in the border states is the breeding of slaves…Indeed, breeding was so profitable that many slave girls became mothers at thirteen and fourteen years of age... By the time they were twenty, some young women had given birth to as many as five children.”
They also pointed out in their most chilling observation that “experiments in slave rearing were carried on…in much the same way that efforts were made to discover new products that would grow on the exhausted soil.”
Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South, Harvard University Press, by Jonathan D. Martin, also points out that the slave’s life was one of little leisure as the practice of hiring out slaves during slow times on the plantation was wide spread. One unintended consequent of slave hiring was that this allowed many slaves to escape the rural farm and seek work in the growing urban centers in the South, and develop skills unrelated to farming; and also gave them a taste of city living. In many ways, this hiring practice helped start the process by which blacks were slowly transformed by the mid-20th century from centuries of rural life, to America's most urban population
During the entire time of American slavery, all the books note, that the slaves fought the system in a variety of ways. The most frightening for the white south, obviously, was armed insurrection. For example, in 1831 their worse nightmare came true, as the legendary Nat Turner, and his small band of rebels murder fifty-five whites, and a smaller number of blacks in the Virginia countryside.
Scot French gives us a compelling account of the fall-out from this in The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
One of the things I personally came away with, after reading these books, is that I will never again scoff at the idea of reparations for blacks. This nation owes blacks a huge debt that all of the money in the U.S. Treasury could never repay.
A smaller version of this essay was first published in Black Issues Book Review, 2005