Once and for all, the current crop of slave scholarship should put to rest the unspoken folk understanding of slavery as an aberration, a bizarre and inexplicable bad habit that whites had which was merely a hermetically sealed sidelight to all the truly monumental things America was accomplishing from l6l9 to 1865. But slavery was not the tattered slip peeping from beneath the hem of America’s fine raiment; as Patricia Smith puts it in Africans in America, ”By the mid-nineteenth century, slavery was the way America breathed.”
Contrary to patriotic mythology, only a third of the colonists supported the Revolution and, afterwards, were as inclined to form 13 independent nations as to form our more perfect union. Slave owners, in particular, held up birthing our new nation until their unfettered right to fettered black flesh was embedded into America’s genetic code, the constitution. The right to recapture fugitives was guaranteed, and slaves were valued at three-fifths the value of a ”real” person in apportioning congressmen. Though the word ”slave” does not appear in the constitution, race-based exploitation and brutality were woven into our swaddling clothes.
By the 1830s, there were more than 2 million slaves in America; their blue-book value was greater than a billion dollars, by far the largest concentration of capital in our nation. (In contrast, government revenue totaled less than 28 million.) America’s rapid development and prosperity was unattainable without their unrequited labor. Slavery helped determine the conduct and outcome of the Revolution, and was the tension wire running through our volatile westward expansion–events every American schoolchild experiences through a nostalgic, deracinated haze of recited poems and heroic movies.
We prefer to teach, it would seem, that slavery and segregation just happened. They just were, like high humidity and mosquitoes. That way, no one’s responsible. But these new works assign blame, which isn’t all that new. What is new is, first, the assignment of thoroughly contextualized blame that never loses sight of the political, social, and economic signals under which the participants operated. It makes them all–slave and slaveholder, ambivalent bystander and hardened nigger-catcher –much more human and accessible, if no less praise- or blameworthy. Second, these new works focus with diligence on giving voice to the blacks themselves and describing their actual experiences of bondage and Jim Crow in antebellum America. Blacks are not the footnoted detritus of white men’s political maneuverings.
Remembering Slavery is something truly, truly new in the annals of slavery studies. These two audiotapes and companion book bring us face-to-face with former slaves in the twilight of their lives in the 1930s and 1940s. No conjecture. No reconstruction. Just gritty first-person declarations in the tangy, almost comically slave-inflected speech of a time long gone. While slave memoirs go back to the 18th century, these recent remembrances are perhaps more telling because these survivors never thought their lives worthy of memorialization. They had not the agenda of abolition, restitution, or career-building; they’re just old folk reminiscing on the creaky porches of the deep South and they are irresistible, though not in a way that makes you happy.
These transcripts and never-before-heard audiotapes collected by Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project workers will make you say a prayer for the dead. Many tapes were unsalvageable due to poor quality and 50 years of moldering in government vaults; in those cases, actors perform dramatic readings of the transcripts (it was James Earl Jones’s stony reading, rather than an original voice, that had me hitting the rewind button, tears streaming, as an old man relived being a nine-year-old sold away from his family). We hear tell of how men could only stare at the sky with feigned equanimity while their pregnant wives were beaten; how slave mothers were herded in from the fields in droves ”jus like cows” to nurse their babies on the run; how massa bullwhipped a slave he found leading impromptu services around a washtub church. The preacher wouldn’t stop praying; he just reworded his samizdat prayers to pleas for de Lawd to have mussy on ole
massa. Have mussy on ole massa, Lawd. Massa finally withdrew.
Where Remembering Slavery uses microstories of individual bondsmen to render the last days of slavery, Africans in America and Many Thousands Gone incorporate those while painting the macropicture of 200 years of American bondage. To their great credit, slaves never get lost in telling the story of slavery. What Eyes on the Prize did for the Civil Rights Movement, Africans in America, a PBS series and companion book by novelist Charles Johnson, poet and former Boston Globe columnist
Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Series Research Team, will do for slavery. Hopefully, people will not eschew the book for the four-part series because the language in it lives. Smith writes: ”The giddy ambition that had characterized the colonists’ arrival soon became a clawing at the soil, a wail in their bellies.” Asante traders in Africa bartered ”cloth dyed bright like a scream from the sun.”
Buttressed by solid research and analysis provided by its blue-ribbon panel of experts, Smith’s vibrant prose and Johnson’s interspersed short stories nudge the reader along. Africans in America is neither easy reading nor easy viewing, but you won’t be able to look away. It’s slavery as the Africans lived it, including the devastation wreaked on Africa by her children in their pursuit of Western lucre. Unflinchingly, Smith writes:
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.
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.