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 0Ken 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 of 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 they 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