20 - Slavery

Some Thoughts on Slavery: America's Racist Foundation

Here in modern America we have made so much progress toward living in a more fair and equal society. Some people feel victorious about this. Others are still not yet so happy. Before we begin waving flags and clapping to marching bands, we need to keep our focus on continued improvement. Equality is a very new concept, actually. It wasn’t that long ago when things were a little bit different.

Slavery. That was totally a thing. A very real thing here in the United States. Slavery. Not your covert wage-skimming or bubble-pushing “mandatory overtime” scheme some retailers utilize because they know their paycheck-to-paycheck employees won’t complain because they are far too easily replaceable. That’s not the slavery I’m talking about. And I love it when NBA players, unable to renegotiate a current multi-million dollar contract, cry “slavery.”

No. Slavery was when you could walk over to the hardware store to pick up a hammer and some cable ties and notice the slave auction in the garden center. You figure it’ll just make life a little easier if you bought a couple of humans to help around the house. Purchase. To own and do with as you please. It is much harder to adopt a cat today than it was to purchase humans in 1800. When you adopt a cat you have to contractually agree to care for that cat. There might even be a home visit to determine if your home is suitable for that cat. But black human slaves were cash and carry (and this same story could be told about the Indians and the Chinese, among others).

Once you owned your slaves it was beneficial to have them work for you doing the stuff you didn’t want to do. Pick crops. Build roads. Dig holes. Clean things. Serve dinner. Really cheap labor. You just had to feed your slaves the scraps you didn’t want. It was ecologically friendly in that regard.

But some slaves didn’t really enjoy picking cotton all day and either just wouldn’t do it or–and even worse for your ROI column–they just ran away. How did you manage a poor performing slave? You didn’t send an email to the H.R. rep for a performance plan. You own these grown men and women and their children. What did you do with your terrible slave? You beat, humiliated, starved, raped and set horrific examples of consequences of disobedience for the others. Well, you didn’t necessarily do all that, you hired poor white men to do the dirty work. You paid white men to beat the men and women you owned. You got slaves to be brutal too.

As a slave you had to have reflected on your circumstances from time to time. There you were just chillin’ in your modest Senegalese home when you were suddenly attacked, captured, herded up with a whole bunch of other people—friends, strangers, and family. And you were sold by your own people* to scary ass white men with guns. You were then chained together and packed into ships to sail half way around the planet over the open ocean. Some of you never saw the ocean before.

If you just laid low and caused no trouble you might have been left alone. If you simply tried to question your situation, you were subjected to humiliation, beatings, rape, and murder. Some bad apples were simply tossed overboard alive to drown. On the ship people died all around you. Some become infected with ailments you’ve never witnessed before, some starved, some succumbed to injuries from all the beatings and humiliation and raping. This descent into hell lasted for what felt like forever but actually only lasted about eight weeks; two full months on a ship on the open ocean. There were tens of thousands of these sailings and of the10 to 15 million Africans forcibly transported across the Atlantic 10 to 15 percent died in transport.

Finally your ship stops. Like really stops where you can see land. The people around you who are still alive are rustled off the ship in chains and onto land. It’s bright, disorienting, you have no land legs to speak of, everything is completely unfamiliar. It’s a world of white men staring at you and saying things to you in an unfamiliar language. You are pushed, punched, spat upon, and called “nigger” over and over. All the other dark skins are either also in chains or are feebly and passively standing around doing nothing to defend your or their own dignity.

Has your situation improved yet? No. Now you are sold again. Singularly, in pairs, and in family and random groups. A white man who does not know you or speak your language treats you terribly, barely feeds you, makes you work hard every day, and has torturers managing your time and activities.

Now…you are a slave.

It wasn't so long ago, no time geologically, when this wan’t only not legal,slavery was promoted and supported as a totally appropriate way to live in America. Even if you weren’t a farmer or a construction contractor, it was kind of a cool status symbol to have a some slaves to do the shit you didn’t want to do. It was an aspirational economic and class position. It reflected that you had a little money. It was like buying a new car, taking an exotic vacation, or owning a beach house today. It was like having an Apple watch and HBO. Slaves? Why, of course.

According to the Atlanta Black Star:
Slavery transformed America into an economic power. The exploitation of black people for free labor made the South the richest and most politically powerful region in the country. British demand for American cotton made the southern stretch of the Mississippi River the Silicon Valley of its era, boasting the single largest concentration of the nation’s millionaires.

But slavery was a national enterprise. Many firms on Wall Street such as JPMorgan Chase, New York Life and now-defunct Lehman Brothers made fortunes from investing in the slave trade the most profitable economic activity in New York’s 350 year history. Slavery was so important to the city that New York was one of the most pro-slavery urban municipalities in the North.

According to Harper’s magazine (November 2000), the United States stole an estimated $100 trillion for 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, with a compounded interest of 6 percent.

At some magical tipping-point in U.S. history there were simply enough powerful Americans who basically insisted that owning humans to do your annoying or menial tasks (or build your empires) was just too darned gross. But about half of the Americans were still cool with slavery. So much so, an intramural war was fought and a president was murdered because, you know, slavery.

Even after everything was settled–war over, constitution amended, court matters settled–millions of dark skinned Americans were still kept as slaves. Nobody told them. And nobody immediately enforced the new rules.

From the New Yorker:

…the South was essential to the development of global capitalism, and the rest of the country (along with much of the world) was deeply implicated in Southern slavery. Slavery was what made the United States an economic power. It also served as a malign innovation lab for influential new techniques in finance, management, and technology.

Finally it was over. There was no more slavery in America. But, unfortunately, not everyone was suddenly equal. There was no apology or reimbursement for time and trouble. The very people who were attacked, kidnapped, tortured, starved, raped, and murdered were the newest target of universal scorn and hatred. Surviving slave descendants were not put at the back of the line, they were not even allowed to stand in the line.

In fact, slave-holding was such an inalienable right and privilege, many slave holders were actually reimbursed by the federal government for the property they had to forfeit. It was basically a slave rebate or recall.

Slavery was legal until around 1865. Jim Crow segregation was legal up until around 1965 when lynching was still sport. It took a full century for blacks to finally say enough is enough. And even then it took the Black Panthers, powerful white do-gooders and politicians, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. for the country to begin showing black people, as a group, some respect.

Now, one hundred and fifty years post-legal-slavery, equality is still a dream. There has been progress, for sure, but we have yet to overcome in full.

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. He was an interesting prospect. Darkish skinned son of a white midwestern American woman and black immigrant from Kenya. Both educated. Neither parent was a slave-descendant American. Before politics, Obama was a super highly intelligent and brand name educated constitutional law professor and lawyer. Half the country declared he was “too black.”

There was a point when Obama was also “too white” to be fully trusted by real slave-descendant American blacks. Slave-descendant blacks and African immigrants in America are very different things. Technically, Obama is a half-white, half-Kenyan American from Hawaii. This is why the term “African-American” as a P.C. catchall should never describe the “American black slave-descent.”

Obama is neither “nigger” nor “nigga.” He’s really not who anyone believes him to be. He is not what anyone wants him to be.

Birth is a lottery. When you were born, where you are born, to whom you are born, and to what social class you are born pretty much determines about 99% of your existence. There are definitive winners (10%) and clear losers (15%) in our world. And then there is the rest of the 75% of the majority left to compete against each other.

* Yes, sold by your own people because wealth has always been power but remember demand fuels supply