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What We're Up Against Part 2


Above, 2008 election night, Barak Obama and family


I had intended Part 2 to follow the demise of Reconstruction to the election of Barak Obama. But after the unsubscribes, the events in Kenosha, resurgent violent white nationalism and wildly divergent attitudes towards the Black Lives Matter movement, I decided to step back further in history. That decision was bolstered by a recent lecture by Joe Feagin, PhD of Texas A&M University entitled Systemic Racism: Contextualizing U.S. Health care.


Below is the first slide he presented:


His framing changed my plans. It took 250 years to go from the introduction of enslaved Africans to emancipation, years worth examining.

True, much of what we are dealing with now is unresolved conflicts of the fissure of the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction after the assassination of President Lincoln. But sadly, the rot (or original sin) goes deeper. Just as the South buried the original declarations of succession and war (which clearly stated preservation and expansion of slavery was the proximate cause) under the banner of states rights, the North, too, buried her motives in the events leading up to and through the war. Even Abraham Lincoln, hailed as the great Emancipator, had another agenda. In 1862, he invited Frederick Douglass and a blue ribbon commission of freed Black men to the White House in 1862 to propose deporting emancipated Blacks to another country. And about war, he said: "If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

So, a closer look, beginning at the beginning, is illuminating.

The first enslaved Africans arrived in 1619 to a nascent colony of Jamestown, probably numbering about 20, traded for goods by British privateers (pirates with government commissions to rob merchant vessels of rival countries) who had seized them from a Portuguese slave ship. Several days later, another British ship brought an additional group of Africans seized from a Spanish slave ship, also traded for commodities.

The intercepted ships were likely on their way to Brazil, Cuba or the Caribbean Islands where, indigenous peoples already obliterated, European Colonists had established large forced labor camps for sugar, coffee, tobacco, cocoa and a by-product of sugar, rum.

Trafficking of sub-Saharan Africans was started by the Portuguese in 1444, by Henry the Navigator, who brought enslaved Africans to Portugal. Initially exploring the breadth of the Moorish (North African) Kingdom and power, he returned with the first enslaved as a means of financing his voyages. That quickly devolved into a trade determined to cut out the Moors who had previously controlled the trade from the continent. His role was extolled by Zurara, in a book called The Chronicle and Conquest of Guinea, who introduced the concept of African inferiority into Europe. Zurara wrote "that the Africans that were captured and sold into the slave trade were heathens and were in need of religious and civil salvation", thus recasting self enrichment as charity.


In 1526, the Spanish carried the first enslaved to the Americas, and by 1600, a few hundred thousand had been transported.

From Encyclopedia Brittanica, scene on a transatlantic slave ship


For Africans, that "human trafficking" was a one-way voyage of no return, brutal and dehumanizing. Called the Middle Passage, the leg of the triangular Trans Atlantic slave trade that carried Africans to the New world was middle for Europeans only. Ships sailed from Europe with trade goods (manufactured items, including ) to Africa where they were exchanged for African captives, who were then transported to The New World and exchanged for raw materials which then sailed back to Europe. Profits from this trade were said to be as high as 300%. A capitalist’s dream.

African sellers didn’t associate their slave sales with race, since people of all ethnicities bought and sold each other on the African continent. But Europeans had no such experience; they arrived with notions of African sub humanity. Initially, most enslaved were losers in tribal wars. However as demand grew, so did economic incentives for warlords and tribes, promoting lawlessness and violence. Europeans as well, ventured inland on raids. Young girls of 8-10, women of childbearing age and young vital men were highly prized, therefore taken preferentially, leaving behind young children, the elderly and the infirm, decimating villages and by extension, Africa.

From The Middle Passage by Tom Feelings


Enslavers from Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal and France captured or purchased human “cargo”, which they packed wall to wall, naked and chained, below deck for a journey of 6-12 weeks. With no notion of humanity, they would brand, rape and beat the “cargo”; if water or food rations ran low, the "cargo" was tossed overboard. Losses averaging 15% (range 10-33%) were accepted, whether from disease, starvation, suicide or murder. Death was so common that sharks trailed the ships. Later, when Great Britain outlawed the Transatlantic slave trade, entire "cargo" loads were thrown overboard (in chains) if British Navy Patrols approached.


Image from Encyclopedia Brittanica



From The Middle Passage by Tom Feelings


From The Middle Passage by Tom Feelings





Africans delivered to the Americas entered a new system of race based bondage, their status visually demarcated. The road to the full blown, legally enforced chattel slavery in the US would take years. But denial of humanity would govern the treatment of African arrivals in the New World, conscripted into a system of labor forced through terror, torture, and murder - anything to maximize productivity. And that denial of humanity is key. From the beginning, Africans were regarded as “other”, conscripted to toil.


Beginning with The New England Confederation of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in 1643, all the original colonies legalized slavery! Initially, King Charles II and the Pope ordered that any African who adopted Christianity be freed after a period of servitude. But in fairly short order, starting with Virginia, the colonies declared enslaved converts will not be freed. Laws preventing Blacks (and Indians) from bearing arms, congregating, conducting trade, providing court testimony and walking at night sweep through the states. Fugitive slave laws, proscribing capture and return of any runaways, and marriage prohibitions follow, and in 1662, Virginia leading the slippery slope of disenfranchisement, was the first to enact hereditary slavery.

In the colonial period, there was not really a North and South, as all colonies regarded their relationship with Great Britain as paramount, all benefiting from the triangular trade. However their economies were different. In the North, trade, banking and manufacturing predominated. Enslaved people worked predominantly as house servants. In the Southern colonies, subsistence farming soon gave way to large scale operations, with the biggest cash crops indigo, rice and tobacco, a development possible only with the labor of the enslaved and indentured servants. Interestingly, much of the know how for raising these crops arrived with West Africans.

For a while, indentured servants worked alongside the enslaved. However, after Bacon’s 1676 Rebellion , an uprising that saw Bacon, a wealthy landowner, unite indentured servants and enslaved Africans to expel Native Americans in a land grab opposed by the Governor, and burn Jamestown, the capitol, to the ground, Virginia planters switched tactics to prevent the two groups from ever uniting again. Indentured servants were given more rights, and an allowance, land and a gun at the end of their term of service: the origin of white privilege. Papers and laws begin referring to all Europeans as white, and Africans as black. By 1705, Virginia enacted a Slave code defining the enslaved as real property, and acquitting any master who killed a slave during punishment.

So in less than 100 years, those of African Ancestry became chattel slaves, disposable property, life, limb and womb under complete domination. And poor "white" immigrants who arrived as indentured servants had a way out of servitude and up the ladder.

The Southern and Northern approaches to systematic enslavement diverged. Why? The economy and capitalism. The Southern economy was agricultural. Profits were greater exploiting forced labor. In turn, the productivity of enslaved labor fed incessant land grabs, at the expense of the Southeastern Native tribes, contributing to their genocide. In the North, most farming was subsistence only. But the North had the shipbuilding capacity (Massachusetts built the first slave ships), manufacturing capacity (including textile mills for cotton), the trade savvy, contracts and banking systems. Rhode Island profited from Rum, made from molasses imported from the slave colonies of the Caribbean. Much of the wealth of the North was derived from enabling slavery - trading and manufacturing the products of Southern slave labor, transporting the products of slave labor and financing sales and selling insurance on the enslaved.


The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 initially included, in his soaring rhetoric about inalienable rights, a clause condemning slavery, claiming it was an evil foisted upon the colonies by the British Crown. Fully one third of the signatories were enslavers. Needless to say, that clause never made the final draft. Critics noticed the hypocrisy and called it out; 400,000 were enslaved, 20% of the population. But importantly, the omission created a legacy of exclusion in our founding document, one from which we have yet to recover.


Of the omission, Jefferson later said, "The clause...reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under these censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”


Jefferson, who kept 600 enslaved persons, died deeply in debt (roughly $2 Million today), and failed to free a single slave at his death. Not even Sally Hemings, the enslaved mother of several of his children, whose value was listed in his will as $50. (It is said that he earlier freed several of their children, thought to be a promise he made to entice her to return from Paris, where she would have been free, to Monticello.)


Yet, in 1785, Thomas Jefferson noted, “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”


But I digress.


When the Founding Fathers convened to draft America’s constitution in 1787, Southern slaveholders were overrepresented, as they were among the wealthiest property owners in the new Nation. At that time, slavery was legal in all the colonies with the exception only of Rhode Island, which boycotted the Convention. The Convention was contentious, with compromises that still haunt us: the electoral college (granting excess power to smaller states), a fugitive slave act (which was used to kidnap and enslave free Blacks), and the 3/5 compromise (counting enslaved as 3/5 of a person to increase the power of the Southern states, where 40% of the population was enslaved). One result: 12 of the first 16 Presidential elections were won by Southern enslavers. The final compromise, over banning the TransAtlantic Slave trade, was settled by setting the date of 1808. However, from 1803-1808, South Carolina alone imported more than 40,000 more Africans to enslave.

Blacks fared differently in the various states. Rhode Island alone passed a law abolishing African slavery and limiting the period of indentured servitude to 10 years in 1652. In 1780, Pennsylvania, the future headquarters of the Underground Railroad, passed the Gradual Abolition Act, the first in the comprehensive abolition act in the western hemisphere. In 1783, in Massachusetts, Quock Walker sued his owner for his freedom and won in the MA Supreme Court, effectively abolishing slavery in that state. Not until 1827 did New York follow suit, this time by legislative decree. In 1804, New Jersey passed “gradual emancipation”, with enslaved held as late as 1865. But regardless of when the Northern states abolished slavery, slavery remained the backbone of the American economy. And though free Blacks lived in the North from the mid 17th century, Blacks were never considered equal, nor enfranchised.



But it was slavery in the South that hardened racial lines and attitudes. The invention of the cotton gin, in 1794, reduced the labor required to remove cotton seeds, which had been a rate limiting step in the cultivation of cotton. Suddenly, that bottleneck cleared, demand soared for more land and labor. Once the Transatlantic trade was ended, breeding became the means of increasing the number of enslaved. But from 1790 to 1860, there was a greater than four fold increase in cotton picking efficiency! There was no technologic improvement- the mechanical cotton picker wouldn't be invented until 1930, and new crop types do not explain the increase. The increased efficiency was due to one thing: how much more cotton the enslaved could pick in a given amount of time. And that was accomplished by a system of increased brutality, terror and torture (beatings, whippings and rape).





The Half Has never Been Told by Edward Baptist, an economics oriented social history of America, clearly documents the hand in glove of America's wealth: slavery and capitalism. His must read book exposes the lie of the "kind" slaveholder. The only "kind" slaveholder was one who had so successfully brutalized his workers that he no longer needed to.

"What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck...every cotton labor camp carved out of the southwestern woods used torture as its central technology. Every single day, calibrated pain, regular as a turning gear, challenged enslaved people to exceed the previous day’s gains in production."


As Baptist notes, there are economic systems where increasing the oppression of the worker increases output. Chattel slavery as practiced in the first half of the 19th century was one such. The oppression took many forms beyond torture: compelling unions for the purpose of breeding "stock", selling and separating families, rape, murder.


James Bradley, who purchased his own freedom, wrote in 1834:

How strange it is that anybody should believe any human being could be a slave, and yet be contented! I do not believe that there ever was a slave, who did not long for liberty. I know very well that slave-owners take a great deal of pains to make the people in the free states believe that the slaves are happy; but I know, likewise, that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free. There is one thing about this, that people in the free states do not understand. When they ask slaves whether they wish for liberty, they answer, "No"; and very likely they will go as far as to say they would not leave their masters for the world. But at the same time, they desire liberty more than anything else, and have perhaps all along been laying plans to get free. The truth is, if a slave shows any discontent, he is sure to be treated worse, and worked harder for it; and every slave knows this. This is why they are careful not to show any uneasiness when white men ask them about freedom. When they are alone by themselves, all their talk is about liberty – liberty! It is the great thought and feeling that fills the minds full all the time.


Of course, this is not the great Southern myth, which posits that chattel slavery was benign, elevating and humanizing for the African savages, who lacked christianity. Presaging the issue of systemic racism in medicine, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright hypothesized that mental illness, which he called Drapetomania, was the cause of enslaved Africans fleeing captivity. The word derives from Greek - drapetes "a run away" and mania "madness, frenzy". That description appeared in medical dictionaries as late as 1914, though it has long since been debunked. As a remedy for this "disease", he prescribed the removal of both big toes. In the case of slaves "sulky and dissatisfied without cause"–a warning sign of imminent flight–Cartwright prescribed "whipping the devil out of them" as a "preventative measure".





So much more can be said about slavery, its effects on the enslaved, the enslavers and our culture. Sadly, the early 20th century white Southern view of slavery as a civilizing institution and the Reconstruction as a period of misrule is one that made it into many textbooks, rather than a more truthful elaboration of the system of torture that maintained slavery and the resistance to change after the Civil War ended that continues to disenfranchise Black Americans.


One telling comment from 1870, after ratification of the 15th Amendment which granted the right to vote to Black men, from Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National Women's Suffrage Association (which excluded Black women) said, "You have put the ballot in the hands of your black man thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses." In 1873, when riots and violence tore cities apart, one politician said, "The struggle is over who can vote. And who will govern."


One hundred fifty years ago. And we're still fighting that same fight..


In 1980, Paul Weyrich, a conservative Republican activist who founded right-wing institutions including The Heritage Foundation, said in a speech: "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now … our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." Sadly, that playbook is still being followed.


Election day is Tuesday, November 3rd. Though it should be a National Holiday, and it should be much easier for everyone to vote, if you've registered, please, VOTE.


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