Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Thumbnail History of American Slavery

Preparing for my second Jazz History Online class, I found something I wrote for the 8thgraders many years ago. With a little bit of revision, it seems worthy to post here. No new startling insights or facts, but the fact that so many of them are new for white folks reading them is the first symptom of the depth and breadth of our national sickness. The more people finally get to know these things, allow themselves to care about them, begin to educate others and take action, the more hope is kindled in a world desperate for hope.


Feel free to pass on to others, as this conversation that we keep not having feels more important than ever to have. Especially before November.


It all began when Western Europe—particularly England, France, Portugal and Spain—developed the technology to travel by ship to lands as far away as West Africa. They carried with them four things that helped them dominate much of the world in the centuries that followed:


1)    1) The fabricated story of a God who favored them and disparaged others.

2)   2)  The desire to accumulate material wealth.

3)    3) The guns, germs and steel to help them conquer people who outnumbered them. 

4)   4)  A literate tradition that gave certain powers difficult to attain in oral cultures.


The first narrative was the engine that drove the others, justified, them, excused them, made them acceptable as the norm endorsed by the “Christian god of brotherly love.” Indeed, the highest Christian authority in that historical period, Pope Nicholas V, said this in 1452:


“We grant you, King of Portugal, by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other property and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery. “


And that is exactly what they did. When they first arrived on the west coast of Africa in the 15thcentury—what is now Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia, Angola and other countries— they encountered tribal cultures that already had a type of slavery in place from people captured in the local wars. This made trading goods for people a possibility and by 1472, the Portuguese negotiated their first slave-trading agreement with a king’s court. Thus began one of the most inhuman economic systems the world had ever known—the slave trade to the New World.


Backed by the worldviews mentioned above, the European explorers began a long and deliberate process of taking the land and resources of the native populations in what is now North and South America by any means necessary. This included intentional genocide and unintentional epidemics. But once they had the land, they quickly realized they had neither the skills nor labor to effectively survive. Thus started the notion of making others work for free, justified by the narrative that they were inferior beings who were lucky to be given the opportunity. The Native Americans were decimated by disease, the poor whites did not work well, but the African slaves had the strength and stamina to survive. 

Thus, the roots of racism were economic.Once the system started, the difference in look and temperament between Europeans and Africans allowed the white slave-masters to invent “scientific” theories of racial superiority/inferiority, Biblical decrees that God felt the same way and ignorant ideas about African cultures as “primitive” and “savage.” The scientists went along, the priests and ministers went along, the school teachers went along, the lawyers went along, the politicians went along and because these groups held the political power, they created a blatantly false dominant narrative that people to this day still believe when it’s convenient for them to do so—ie, when it gives them the feeling of a special privilege that they neither earned nor deserve or benefits them economically.


The world had always known slavery and as mentioned, it also existed in West Africa when the Europeans first arrived. But several things made this particular incarnation of slavery markedly different. Amongst them:


1)   1)  Losing every aspect of identity—name, language, clothing, family, religion, ethnic group, music, even their status as a full human being (the 3/5th’s rule).


2)  2)   Lifetime contract that automatically was passed on to children and grandchildren. 


3)  3) The sheer number of enslaved people stolen from Africa— over 4 million in the United States alone, 12 million including the Caribbean and South America.


4)   4)  The astounding length of time—from 1619 to 1865 in the U.S. and continuing today in different forms (see number 8 below).


5)   5)  Brutality and inhuman treatment—beatings, whippings, rape, murder (later lynchings and police murders of innocent black folks) with full support from the government and no accountability.


6)    6) Boasting of economic prosperity that came entirely from the labor of others.


7)   7)  Ongoing story of the honor of the Southern way of life and the genteel well-mannered plantation culture. 


8) Purposefully created and government-sanctioned ways to continue new forms of slavery that exist to this day—the Black Codes, Jim Crow, the school to prison pipeline, etc. 


How can we understand the forces that led to the centuries of subjugation of one group of people over another? What was wrong with a culture that valued conquest over community? That taught their children to hate those that appear different? That needed to feel superior by virtue of a skin color without the need to do something worthy or prove to be of high character? That was confused and conflicted when faced with the moral, artistic, intellectual and physical accomplishments of those purported to be inferior? That was not capable of the actual labor to produce wealth, but boasted of it as if they achieved it through their own efforts? That allowed them to imagine themselves upright citizens and dutiful Christians while beating, raping and killing other people? That to this day continues excusing the police killings of so many (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and hundreds more) without consequence for the murderers? That has citizens voting for a President who recently publicly threatened schools with defunding if they taught the real history of slavery?


At this writing, the world is suffering from some six months of quarantine, held captive by a virus and all are wondering, “How long can this go on?! Six whole months without going to a bar or getting a haircut or teaching my class away form a screen or seeing my grandchildren?! Unbearable!”


Now compare that to some 600 hundred years (!) of large populations of fellow human beings held captive by a narrative that gives others permission to denigrate them, limit their choices, imprison them, enslave them, rape them, murder them, all in a land that publicly professes “all men are created equal” and school children pledge “liberty and justice for all,” all under a religion whose founder proclaimed “love thy neighbor as thyself.” All of us held captive by an ideological virus that we created and each time we had the opportunity to vaccinate ourselves through education, love or just plain human decency, we created a new strain of the virus to keep the narrative going. And still today it goes on unchecked.


“Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” said the famous philosopher Anonymous and that is as true for social justice as it is for climate change and pandemics. If each of us took it upon ourselves to educate ourselves (a thousand resources out there, many available at a click on the keyboard!) to educate the children, to educate our stubborn brother-in-law, hope could become a verb with muscle. 

And after such education, then vote. 

And after such education, then vote. 


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