Pride and Prejudice

The white man did not introduce slavery to Africa. . . . It was a thunder that had no sound. Tribe stalked tribe, and eventually more than 20 million Africans would be kidnapped in their own homeland [by other Africans]. . . . Weaker tribes succumbed and the hierarchy shifted, shifted, shifted again--and it was understood, according to the ever-askew rules of war, that the vanquished would serve. It was the price to be paid for weakness.

Chain reaction: laborers returning from the cotton field
© Collection of the New York Historical Society, From Africans in America, Courtesy of Harcourt Brace
Chain reaction: laborers returning from the cotton field


Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery
By Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith
Harcourt Brace, 494 pp., $30
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Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation
Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller
The New Press, 355 pp., two audiotapes, $49.95
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Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
By Ira Berlin
Harvard University Press, 497 pp., $29.95
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It may just be that understanding, that enslavement was in some way failure, which lies at the base of African American resentment against whites to this day.

Many Thousands Gone, from the eminent slavery scholar Ira Berlin, will challenge just about everything you thought you knew about slavery, especially its dawning. ''At the beginning of the nineteenth century, . . . the vast majority of black people, slave and free, did not reside in the blackbelt, grow cotton, or subscribe to Christianity. That the character of slave life in North America was reversed a half century later is a striking commentary on a period that historians have represented as stable maturity.''

Berlin deals only with slavery through the American Revolution and divides it into ''the charter generations, defined as the first arrivals, their children, and in some cases their grandchildren; the plantation generations, who were forced to grow the great staples; and the revolutionary generations, who grasped the promise of freedom and faced a resurgent slave regime.'' The charter generation is the least known to us and the most fascinating. Kunta Kente they were not. Largely the Creole offspring of Europeans and Africans, they came to America not from Africa, most often, but from elsewhere in the Portuguese and Dutch trading empires. They were multilingual, multiracial, often Roman Catholic skilled traders and intermediaries well-versed in the ways of Europeans. Many are listed on ship's manifests as Spaniard and Portuguese. They bought their way out of slavery, married white often, acquired wealth, and bought land. Some bought slaves. It was progress, in the form of labor-intensive agricultural breakthroughs, that made slavery black and made blackness a license to exploit. No freed people could ever have been paid enough to produce the riches greedy white minds sought in their new land of opportunity: since no equal could morally be enslaved, inferiors had to be created.

Through these honest and responsible works, perhaps we can begin decoding our Pavlovian responses to the buried racial and experiential triggers we dare not analyze. We can remember what we have chosen to forget because the history of slavery in America is the history of changing relationships; what was true about it in 1619 was already forgotten by 1865. What is true in 1998--misunderstanding, shame, balkanization, bitterness--need not be for our children.

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