RSS

Tag Archives: black history

(BHM) Slavery in the United States

Myth 150No one needs to tell you that slavery was kind of a big deal in the United States. It’s taught almost every year in American History classes, and at the very least students learn a lot about how it was ended when the Confederacy lost the American Civil War. Even still, while we know a lot about slavery it’s hard to really know it in a way that we understand just how poisonous it’s been for race relations in this country and how its legacy lives on in our politics, laws, culture, entertainment, even our language. Slavery is such a huge part of our history and yet its reality is incomprehensible. Most of us today can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a slave, or a slave owner, or someone fighting against the institution. But in order to understand black history in America, it’s vitally important to understand the foundation on which that history was built.

Hopefully, the best way to properly understand slavery in the United States is by defining its edges — when it started and ended; how far it spread and why; how it worked in practice; how it affected everyone it touched. We can gain a proper perspective of the institution and just how deeply it runs through American culture by these definitions. By knowing what slavery was in America and how it was codified into law through the colonies, we can form a basis through which all kinds of historical events can be tied right back to this practice.

The institution of slavery was one in which human beings from Africa were considered the property of others and forced to provide free labor on farms, in factories, businesses, and houses. While the slave trade in Africa had been going on for some time, slavery as a recognized institution lasted from 1565 all the way to 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment would be ratified in December of that year. During this time, 350,000 Africans were shipped to the United States and sold. This comprised around 3% of the 12,000,000 Africans forced to endure the Middle Passage, but it’s still a whopping number.

Think of it this way: the Middle Passage stole a population equal to the entire country of Belgium and forced it into slavery. Most of these people were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, but the number of people sent to the United States? That would be equivalent to the current population of New Orleans, LA — or Arlington, TX. From that 350,000 came 4 million slaves in the United States by the year 1850 — or roughly the population of Los Angeles.

Slavery was common practice in the North American colonies even before the formation of the United States and its subsequent rebellion. St. Augustine, Florida was the first permanent settlement in the New World to include African slaves — as early as 1565. While many colonists considered Africans who had converted to Christianity as ‘indentured servants’ and gave these Africans their own land and supplies when the period of servitude had ended, legal distinctions between Africans and Europeans were being made as early as 1640. That year, a Virginia court decided that John Punch, an African indentured servant, would be punished by slavery for attempting to flee his servitude. The two European servants who fled with him were only given an extra year of indenture and an additional three years’ service to the colony. Slavery was legal in every colony right up to 1776, though by that time it was beginning to fall out of favor in the North.

This was because the North’s economy was largely industrial, so skilled labor was the most important thing there. The South, with its largely agrarian economy first dependent on tobacco and staple crops — then cotton with the invention of the cotton gin — depended on physical labor to sow and reap the crops for its cash. Since the sheer manpower needed to tend the fields would make profitability impossible for honestly paid laborers, there was a huge incentive to keep slavery around as much as possible. The Southern economy would not have grown so much, so fast, without its ability to treat people as property; that influx of money brought a lot of political influence and financial capital, which ensured the institution could be calcified in state legislatures, local laws, and business practices. Most Presidents between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln owned slaves, and of the few that didn’t none were elected to a second term. The whole “three-fifths of a person” you hear about in the Constitution was negotiated by James Madison of Virginia, who wanted slaves included in a state’s population by that ratio. Black people in early America were only counted in the political process as a means to tip the balance of representative power towards the Southern states, and they could not exercise that power directly.

Slavery was extended through the South with the Westward Expansion. The original Colonial States wanted to maintain the balance of power they had as more territories became states, so they lobbied hard for Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other frontier territories to join their side. At the same time, a surplus of slaves in one part of the South necessitated a migration to the Deep South where more labor was needed. From 1815 – 1860, a “second Middle Passage” was devastating the population of slaves. Families were broken up, slaves were sold to horrendous owners, and abuses were commonplace. Even in states where the slave codes — laws governing the relationship between master and slave — forbade the mistreatment of enslaved Africans, the law was rarely enforced. At the same time, men and women alike were whipped one lash for each pound of cotton under quota they were on any given day.

Africans taken from their home and the descendents they bore were not allowed to read or write in most places. They were not allowed to practice their own religion or speak their own languages. They were not allowed to marry, and women were treated as sexual objects just as readily as workers. They were forced to adopt Christian beliefs, which were warped to justify their own enslavement. They were not allowed to own land or property. If they escaped, other states were bound by law to return them to their owners. An entire people were denied personhood for generations, legally according to the highest codes in the land.

Four million black Americans were considered nothing more than property in 1850. They had no legal rights. They couldn’t press charges for abuse. They couldn’t appeal their status. They weren’t allowed to read or write. They weren’t allowed to keep the culture of their ancestors. Their lives were entirely dependent on the whims of their masters. Rebellions were quashed quickly and retaliation claimed the lives of many innocents. Women were beaten, abused, raped. This happened, over the course of three hundred years, to a population equivalent to every man, woman and child currently living in Los Angeles. And it was done so that the people who owned the land worked by these slaves could make more money.

The legacy of slavery has a long shadow. There are six states in the United States with more than 25% of its population comprised of black Americans, and they’re all former slave states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, Alabama. Of these six states, four of them are in the top 10 for state imprisonment rates — and imprisoned felons are one of the few classes of people in the US where slave labor is essentially legal. These states also have fairly strict disenfranchisement and voter ID laws, preserving the historical barrier of black citizens from participating in the political process of the states they call home.

This is the foundation of racial relations in the United States. For three hundred years, most black Americans were considered not people, but property. Even the freemen among us were considered inequal in the eyes of the law and could not count on its protection. During that time, we were subjected to systemic cultural erasure, legally-codified abuse, backbreaking labor, disenfranchisement, dehumanization, rape, murder, the dissolution of families, the denial of education and opportunity. And while we’ve come a long way since then, the spectre of this period in our history still haunts us today, in just about every aspect of our lives.

There’s a reason many black Americans are angry and disillusioned with the idea of American exceptionalism. Our history is a direct refutation of the idea everyone has access to the American Dream, that anyone can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ to achieve anything they want. We have first-hand historical experience telling us this is not so. It’s no surprise to us when a police officer is acquitted for murdering black Americans in cold blood. It’s no surprise that income inequality and government policies disproportionately affect people of color. This is the way it’s always been, since before there was a United States. And even today, there are people who will deny these facts, deflect and dismiss them, instead of sitting with the reality of them.

The descendants of the people who have benefitted from slavery are still reaping the benefits of racist laws, bigoted practices, unfair institutions, generational wealth and access. While they’ve done nothing to build these injustices, their denial of them ensures they’re perpetuated down to this day. Until we can look at the reality of slavery and its long, long legacy, we’ll continue to ignore the pain it causes even now.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 4, 2019 in Politics

 

Tags: , , , ,

It’s Black History Month!

Myth 150I honestly don’t know if Black History Month is a big deal to anyone who doesn’t have to learn about it because it’s a whole section of their American History class. Being educated in a predominantly black city, I was taught about the usual black American luminaries year after year — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. But even then, comparing what I learned then to what I know now, it feels like a shallow version of the true history of my forebears. We talked about the Underground Railroad, but we didn’t talk about the conditions that made it necessary, or made Tubman so brave when she kept going back to the South to lead slaves to freedom. We learned about King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but we never learned about the event surrounding it — a march on Washington to protest the brutal Jim Crow laws that kept black Americans in the South oppressed one hundred years after slavery ended. Today, Black History Month feels more like a feel-good opportunity for companies to flout diversity than anything with meaning or weight.

It’s become increasingly important to me to reconnect with my culture and history, because it’s an indelible part of me. I am a reflection of that history in the eye of everyone who sees me, and if I’m going to be defined by that I should really know the truth of what I represent. I want to know more than the basic bullet points of what’s come before me, the flattened caricatures of the people who have made an impact. I want to dig into the long history of struggle, resilience, and cruelty that ties me to the place I and people like me have been assigned in our society.

So this month I’d like to take up a project of studying the bits of black American history that I’ve always wanted to know more about; the people who have contributed to our history but have been overlooked or mischaracterized; and the concepts that have persisted from our arrival in the United States some three hundred years ago to our fractured, angry time in the present. For me, it’s important not just to learn more about my history; I must also find a way to make sense of it, to connect it to my life today. History is only worth anything if it gives us perspective on our world and gives us the tools to plot a way forward.

The Writing Desk will be given over to this project all month. I’ll study up on the Atlantic slave trade that marked the arrival of our ancestors; the aftermath of the Civil War and how racial oppression was codified by laws and business practices in the South and North of the United States; the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Black Pride movement of the 70s, and all the things that haven’t changed since then. I’ll report back here with the things that I find most interesting, and hopefully provide a different perspective on black history that might make it more interesting for others, too. I’ll do my best to present facts without too much subjective interpretation, but ultimately this is a personal journey for me and I’ll include my personal thoughts as well.

So what’s the deal with Black History Month anyway? It’s a surprisingly recent event with surprisingly old roots. It was first proposed in 1969 by black educators and clubs at Kent State University, and celebrated for the first time one year later. In six years, it was a widespread practice within schools, cultural and community centers, and was recognized on a national level by President Gerald Ford during his speech for the nation’s bicentennial. From there, it was picked up by the United Kingdom in 1987, Canada in 1995, and Ireland in 2014.

It’s a trip that this is so new — only less than 50 years old. The precursor to Black History Month was “Negro History Week”, though, an initiative thought up by black American historian Carter G. Woodson — widely regarded as the “father of Black History”. Negro History Week was meant to be the second week of February, since that happens to fall on the birthdays of Abe Lincoln (the 12th) and escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the 14th). From the jump, Woodson wanted to make the week a coordinated teaching of black Americans’ contributions to American history among the nation’s public schools. It was picked up in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore and Washington DC before spreading out from there. Over the decades, it increased in popularity until the trailblazers at Kent State carried it further.

Now, Black History Month is an American institution in our schools and its influence has spread to the rest of the culture. The celebration has been controversial for a while, with people wondering why we don’t include the contribution of black Americans (and Canadians, and Britons) all year ’round. Others wonder why we should even have a month dedicated to the history of one minority culture. I won’t get into those arguments, but I will say that it’s useful, even necessary, for me to dive into my own history. If an artificially-created month is what I need to do so, then I’ll take it.

I’m very excited to learn as much as I can over the next month, and I’m looking forward to our discussion about this overlooked section of American history.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

Tags: ,

Kwanzaa, Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150

Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

So a number of studies have been released teasing out the role that race plays in upward mobility — in other words, how easy it is for black vs. white families to rise out of poverty. There’s this study from the Brookings Institution about the economic mobility of black and white families from 2007. There’s this article from the Washington Post, discussing the findings of Harvard economists on how children in majority Black cities are far more likely to have a lower income or chance of upward mobility than poor children in other parts of the country. There’s this longitudinal study from Johns Hopkins University, measuring the economic performance of nearly 800 low-income children in Baltimore as they grew up, from 1982 – 2007. There’s even this research (again from the Brookings Institution) discussing the wide gap in education between black and white students and how firmly that’s tied to the history of black education in this country.

Attempts to address the educational and economic disparity between black and white families have been fought at every turn. The Reagan administration worked to stop school desegregation programs, despite good evidence that they actually worked. This American Life released a two-part episode on what happened when desegregation efforts were rolled out near Ferguson, MO and Hartford, CT and how local governments and parents fought against it tooth and nail. Over the years, affirmative action — making sure that universities and workplaces have student or employee bodies that more closely match the diversity in broader society — has been rolled back steadily and surely. The Trump administration, just this past August, has announced plans for the Justice Department to investigate and restrict race-based admissions into universities. Applicants with black “sounding” names are less likely to be called in for an interview; another study found that racial discrimination against black workers has been largely unchanged since 1989.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new. Racial education and economic inequality in the US has its roots all the way back to the slave trade, and there have been a number of institutional influences aimed at maintaining the status quo. The segregation of schools after emancipation is well documented. The practice of redlining, or making sure minorities didn’t have access to certain housing markets, financial services, or businesses, has codified the make-up of cities for decades. There’s the “school-to-prison pipeline“, which disproportionately affects children of color and makes it much harder for victims to get decent jobs. Racial inequality in criminal justice affects black and Hispanic Americans in general and has for decades. Voter suppression aimed at reducing the political power of people of color in the United States happened in a multitude of ways post-slavery, during Jim Crow, and is becoming an increasing problem today. When black communities have been able to build economic success for themselves, such as Greenwood, OK in the 1920s, there is often a devastating backlash.

With so many external institutional pressures against the success of the black community, it’s vital that we focus on doing what we can to promote its success whenever we can. That’s the idea behind Ujamaa, the fourth principle of the Nguzo Saba. It means ‘cooperative economics’, working with one another to raise our collective standard of living.

This can be done in any number of ways, of course — the only limit is your will and imagination. We can make sure we buy from black-owned businesses and support our brothers and sisters in their financial endeavors. We can also push back against those external pressures by fighting the systems that promote educational, economic, and social inequality where we live. We can invest our time and resources into programs, services, and organizations that help those affected by those pressures. We can build new programs and initiatives designed to help our neighbors and local businesses not just survive, but thrive.

Of course this doesn’t just mean buying products with the FUBU mindset; it means investing locally wherever we happen to be. A healthy economy, we know, depends on the movement of capital from one place to another. This is more likely to happen with local small businesses no matter who happens to be running them. Large corporations owned by the ultra-wealthy act as capital sinks; money flows towards the top, where it is then hoarded away from anyone else. It doesn’t go anywhere, and this doesn’t help anyone. Putting money in the pocket of our neighbor through our business helps our community. That comes back to us eventually. It’s one tangible, important aspect of Ujima; by investing in the work of our neighbor, we share responsibility for its success.

We can also make sure our schools have the best chance possible to teach our children what they need to thrive in the future, not just push them into the early path of criminality. We can empower our brothers and sisters with political insight and knowledge; we can hold our elected representatives accountable for ensuring our well-being and continued success. We can save our people from financial ruin, when possible, by donating our time, our money, and our knowledge where it can serve the most good. Most importantly, we can stop the tendency to tear down our brothers and sisters for being successful and teach each other that success can come in many forms. There’s nothing wrong with owning the corner store, or being a good mechanic. It’s OK to be a scientist, a ballet dancer, or a security guard. There’s no one path to being black and successful.

In our lives, we learn to stand united for our community; we learn to take control of our identities; we learn to work hard and share responsibility for our success; and we learn to cooperate with our social, financial and political capital towards that end. Whatever you can do to help your neighbor and community flourish is appreciated. It helps all of us, and it builds closer connections to each other. Most importantly, it weakens the powerful forces that would seek to keep all of us poor, afraid, ignorant and divided.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 29, 2017 in Politics, Self-Reflection

 

Tags: , , , ,