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Gearld A Foster

from Gearld A Foster, American Slavery: the Complete Story, 2 Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal 401- 420 (May, 2004) (420 Footnotes Omitted)

Abraham Lincoln is hailed as the "great emancipator" because he supposedly risked his political future as well as the fragile foundation of the relatively new republic, to end slavery. This is indeed a noble version of American history and one that has inflamed and incited partisans for nearly 140 years. However, the truth, which is always relative and not absolute, is that Lincoln's one and only priority was to preserve a fragile Union that was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and intense sectional antagonism, not to free the slaves. The political agenda was integrally intertwined with an economic agenda, both of which had far reaching international implications well beyond the purview of slavery. Unfortunately, the issue of slavery still remains the supreme bogey of American black-white race relations.

Two of the most unnecessarily divisive issues today have their genesis in slavery--reparations and the confederate flag. In an August 2, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, Abraham Lincoln made his position on slavery crystal clear, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leave others alone, I would also do it." He was true to his words when, in September 1862, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing only those slaves who were in states which were "in rebellion against the United States." Journalist Brent Staples states, "Historians working on business records are showing that the good, rich citizens of the Northeast were vigorously seeking business with Southern slavers and trafficking in slaves even after abolitionists had seized the day and Northeastern states had outlawed the slave trade." We now are beginning to see a much clearer picture of slavery and its most vital role in the emergence of 19th century America as a world economic colonial power. In the 139 years since slavery officially ended, it has continued to excite, incite and polarize America primarily because the term is inextricably attached to the issue of race. However, the ultimate irony is that in most if not all arenas of socio-political discourse, race is rapidly becoming a non-entity. In the 2000 United States Census there were sixty-eight different and distinct self-reported racial categories, showing that race has already become demographically extinct. Yet, we must hasten to add that racism is just as virulent and divisive as it has ever been. The institution of racism is the omnipresent progeny of the nineteenth and twentieth century manifestations of slavery and its bedfellow, race.

How did slavery and race become so patently intertwined as distinctly American phenomena? Slavery in America was different from any other corner of the world primarily because in America it was viewed early on as the primary foundation upon which an emerging republic could solidify its economic primacy in the global commerce of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two hundred and twenty-eight years of free labor will assure business success anywhere in the cosmos. However, the social and political dilemma for a new republic was how to justify public professions of equality, individual rights and democracy while at the same time holding fast to African captives who had been systematically and mentally dehumanized and designated as personal property. Therein lay the challenge for the founding fathers and the signers of the Declaration of Independence (1776) as well as the United States Constitution (1787). This marked the beginning of contentious race relations in America that persist to this day. False sciences and religious zealotry were the primary fervent justifications for how black slaves were treated and for the terror and brutality that flourished well into the twentieth century, decades after slavery was legally ended.

Social and political illusionists who purveyed racial inferiority, genetic deficiencies, primal instinct and infantile proclivities successfully convinced a nation that it was in fact acceptable to treat blacks as property because it was scientifically and religiously sanctioned and preordained. In reality, it was a perverted extension of manifest destiny.

On this issue, we as a nation have miles to go before we sleep

President Clinton upon leaving office in 1999 empanelled a blue ribbon committee on race; similarly in 1999, the New York Times undertook what was considered the most controversial and ambitious journalistic project in its history, How Race is Lived in America. One of the most widely anticipated Supreme Court decisions in 25 years was handed down in June 2003 concerning the propriety of race as a key consideration in college admissions policies and procedures.

If we are to progress in the global and diverse political economy of the twenty-first century, we must expand our discussions on slavery to heal our wounds of race and the malignancy of racism. In spite of its longstanding racial foibles, America is still a land of unlimited opportunity for those who are willing to be intellectually courageous enough to discount the rhetoric of the race mongers and purveyors of hate who persist in advancing agendas that alienate and polarize rather than heal and conciliate.

A more balanced discussion of slavery is a critical first step in this heretofore road not taken

.
III. What Was Slavery and Why Has It Been Such a Divisive Issue Since 1865?

The greatest threat to racism in the twenty-first century is accurate and comprehensive revisionist history. History, that should begin with a documented accuracy of past events, personalities, decisions and consequences for too long has been intentionally packaged and presented so that young people will be bored and old people relieved. Two of the most important books that address this issue are Lies my Teachers Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen and Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About History but Never Learned, by Kenneth C. Davis. Though written almost 10 years apart both begin with the same premise. Brief excerpts from each book provide the theme that surely should under-gird our revisionist History.

 

Davis writes:

[T]he overwhelming response of far too many Americans to history is a single word--'Boring!' For years, we have sent students to school and burdened them with the most tedious textbook imaginable--deadly dull books written by one set of professors to be read by another set of professors-- which completely sucks the life out of this most human of subjects.

In school books of an earlier era, the warts on our Founding Fathers' noses were neatly retouched. Slavery also got the glossy makeover--it was merely the misguided practice of the rebellious folks down south until the "progressives" of the north showed them the light.
Davis continues:

There has always been a tendency to hide the less savory moments from our past... . The history of this country is not necessarily a smooth continuum moving toward a perfectly realizable republic... . America remains shockingly divided along racial and economic lines.

Loewen writes:

High school students hate history. Students consider history the most irrelevant of twenty-one subjects commonly taught in high school. 

Textbooks stifle meaning by suppressing causation. Students exit history textbooks without having developed the ability to think coherently about social life. 

Our teachers and our textbooks still leave out most of what we need to know about the American past. Some of the factoids they present are flatly wrong or unverifiable. 

In sum, startling errors of omission and distortion mar American histories. 

Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life. Textbooks have trouble acknowledging that anything might be wrong with white Americans, or with the United States as a whole.

Slavery's twin relatives to the present are the social and economic inferiority it conferred upon blacks and the cultural racism it instilled in whites.

Racism in the western world stems primarily from two related historical processes: taking land from and destroying indigenous people and enslaving Africans to work the land.

Slavery in its simplest form is involuntary servitude. Yet most Americans do not fully understand the importance of slavery as the pivotal variable in early economic and political survival of the new republic following the American Revolution.

Elected officials and particularly presidents are the ultimate illusionists. For what other reason would they clamor to kiss babies, eat poorly cooked chicken with their fingers, take smiling pictures with total strangers, trot out the wife and kids conveniently to fake family values and attend black churches the Sunday before the November elections but to create an illusion of familiarity, compassion, trust, incredible slogans aimed at minorities? They strongly imply "just vote for me and I'll set you free." Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon all cajoled black Americans into believing that their votes would indeed make for a better America. Some achieved more than others and we do not demean Truman's executive order 9981 to desegregate the armed forces or Eisenhower sending in troops to quell racial tension surrounding school desegregation or Kennedy's affirmative action order or Johnson's support of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. However, we should not be nave enough to believe that, just as Lincoln carefully contemplated the correct political decision in 1862, so did Kennedy in 1960 when he placed the now much celebrated telephone call to the wife of Martin Luther King offering his assistance in getting him released from the Reidsville, Georgia jail. Kennedy knew all too well that he desperately needed the black southern vote. He also knew that King's father was one of the most influential black preachers in the south; ergo the call and Daddy King's endorsement from the pulpit and the presidential victory just weeks later by a slim margin.

Arthur Kenneth O'Reillly has written a definitive work on the racial attitudes of America's first forty-two presidents and in each instance he reveals that political expediency always superceded moral and ethical governance. He states,

To write of the forty-two chief executives and their deeds and dreams on matters of late yields few profiles in courage and a great many profiles of men who acquired and analyzed only in search of more perfect ways to protect slavery or Jim Crow . . . . The story of the presidency and the politics of race is thus largely a story of choices made to acquiesce in, preserve, and adapt the original intent of 1789 to modern times.

American slavery was an economic and political necessity without which the new republic would have certainly failed. Interestingly enough one of the most vociferous opponents of American slavery, David Walker, was one of the few abolitionists to articulate the economic necessity of free slave labor in seventeenth and eighteenth century America. Walker says, "The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is (as they think) of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good."
The modern theorist who perhaps captures best the complex essence of slavery is Maulana Karanga. He postulates that American slavery was predicated on three major factors: its profitability, its practicality and its justifiability; without slavery, America could not have evolved and sustained itself as a free independent player in the growing global capitalist system of trade and politics. The profitability of 220 years of free labor is self-evident. African enslavement was clearly more practical than that originally attempted with white indentured servants and indigenous natives. Thus, the massive importation of Africans became the next best option. The first two factors could only be achieved and sustained if in fact an ideology could be developed to justify slavery.

Finally the basis of the American system of enslavement was its justifiability in European racist thought. Although the enslavement of Africans was based on economic reasons, it also rested in racism as an ideology. Racism as an ideology became a justification and encouragement for enslavement. It expressed itself in religious' absurdities, biological absurdities and cultural absurdities. Thus, religiously it was argued God ordained whites to conquer, then civilize and Christianize the African "heathen." The biological absurdities included redefinition of Africans out of the human race, denying their history and humanity and giving them animal characteristics to suit their bestial treatment. Culturally we see this maddening scheme solidified in the cultural themes advanced by Darwin, Galton, Blumenabach, Freud, and many other white theorists of the era.

Historical timelines lend considerable credence to the importance of "scientific" theory and the institutionalization of slavery in America immediately before the America Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Stephen Jay Gould raised serious questions about what could be curiously labeled "historical coincidences." Noting that Johann Blumenbach established the most influential of all racial classification systems in 1775 in his doctoral dissertation, Gould argues:

As the minutemen of Lexington and Concord began the American Revolution . . . [Blumenbach] then republished the text for general distribution in 1776. The coincidence of three great documents in 1776-- Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (on the politics of liberty), Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (on the economics of individualism) and Blumenbach's treatise on racial classification (on the science of human diversity)--records the social ferment of these decades and sets the wider context that makes Blumenbach's taxonomy, and his subsequent decision to call the European race Caucasian, so important for our history and current concerns.

An important and most relevant feature of Blumenbach's theory is that he identified the Caucasian race as superior in beauty, subtly changing the racial ordering in the world to a hierarchy of worth. This is the primary reason that Blumenbach rather than his mentor Carolus Linnaeus, who created the first racial taxonomy in 1759, is important in the beginning phase of American race theory and racism.

Following Linnaeus and Blumenbach were Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, Sir Francis Galton's theory of eugenics (1883), both predicated on selective breeding and extermination of weaker races, and Sigmund Freud's theory of psycho-analysis, which laid the foundation for psychiatric studies. Thus, "When Africans were torn from their families and homes and sold into slavery in the United States, science stood ready to define any disobedience or insubordination as a 'mental illness."'
The article further states that in 1851 a noted Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright "discovered" two so-called mental diseases found exclusively among blacks that justified their enslavement. The first was "Drapetomania," which Cartwright professed to be a disease that caused black slaves to have an uncontrollable urge to run away from their masters. The prescribed treatment was prolonged whippings to exorcise the demons. The second disease, "Dysaesthesia Aethiopis," supposedly afflicted the mind and the body. The diagnostic symptoms included disobedience, answering disrespectfully to a master or overseer and refusing to work. The purported cure was to inflict extreme hard labor that would send vitalized blood to the brain to liberate the demented slave mind. The article concludes that "much scientific" and statistical rhetoric was used to justify slavery. One 1840 census "proved" that blacks living under "unnatural conditions of freedom" in the north were more prone to insanity. Dr. Edward Jarvis, a specialist in mental disorders, used this to conclude that slavery shielded blacks from some liabilities and dangers of active self-direction. Pseudo-sciences and skewed religious ideologies accomplished their purpose in convincing white America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that blacks could in fact be mistreated, brutalized and discarded as troublesome property because they were not human and, by virtue of this depersonalization, they were not entitled to humane treatment and civil or moral consideration.

Many slavery apologists took delight in expressing that the 1787 U.S. Constitution banned the importation of slaves 20 years hence, in 1808. However, "The federal law of 1808 was so weak and the enforcement of it so lax that a repeal was unnecessary to reopen the trade." According to John Hope Franklin, in 1790 there were fewer than 700,000 slaves in America. By 1830 the number rose to over two million and by 1850 the number of slaves was just under four million.

Although there are well document incidences of slave resistance and slave insurrections, the majority of slaves lived daily lives of what Cornel West calls nihilism. In describing the condition of African Americans in the ending years of the twentieth century he states,

Nihilism is not new in black America. The first African encounter with the New World was an encounter with a distinctive form of the absurd. The initial black struggle against degradation and devaluation in the enslaved circumstances of the New World was, in part, a struggle against nihilism. In fact, the major enemy of black survival in America has been and is neither oppression nor exploitation but rather the nihilistic threat--that is loss of hope and absence of meaning. For as long as hope remains and meaning is preserved, the possibility of overcoming oppression stays alive.

If meaninglessness, hopelessness and lovelessness are the foundations of nihilism and the plight of slaves two hundred years ago, it is also the daily plight of far too many blacks today even among those in the so-called black middle class. Without hope the homeless will remain defeated in their own minds, as will the illiterate, the medically unserved and underserved, the terminally ill, the wrongfully incarcerated, the unemployed and even the working poor. Without hope, a person's tomorrows will be no better than their todays. So what's the use in trying to improve?

For many black reparationists, this pervasive sense of nihilism is a twenty-first-century vestige of eighteenth-century slavery and therefore America, particularly its corporate entities, owe 35 million black Americans a debt. Randall Robinson, one of the prominent supporters of reparations writes, "There is no linear solution to our problems for our problems are not merely technical in nature. By now after nearly 380 years of unrelenting psychological abuse, the biggest problem is inside us."

Robinson continues, "What slavery had firmly established in the way of debilitating psychic pain and a lopsidedly unequal economic relationship of blacks to whites, formal organs of state and federal government would cement in law for the century that followed."

One of the more vexing questions inherent in the reparations movement is who among the 35 million blacks today would be the beneficiaries of the money and services associated with this trillion-dollar debt to black America? More basically, how would anyone determine who is black? Most blacks can only trace their genealogy back three and at best four generations, which places them at the door of the twentieth century and thirty-five years after the civil war ended slavery. Do we apply the infamous "one drop rule" or the one-eighth rule? Do we eliminate blacks with white ancestors? Would black billionaires Robert Johnson and Oprah Winfrey receive the same reparations as the black Mississippi sharecropper or the homeless families in urban centers throughout the nation?

Reparations may be one modern solution to slavery but as a nation we need to transcend symbolism and racial tomfoolery and confront the totality of slavery with courage, conviction and an honest need for absolution of a nation's collective conscience. We all know that for true healing to occur, the root causes, rather than the symptoms, need to be diagnosed and then treated. If we return to our historic illusionist theme we will see that political history is replete with intentional distortions of reality to advance and maintain a public perception that belies the truth. Some examples of this historical magic would be Jefferson's liaison of twenty-eight years with his slave Sally Hemming, and the resulting seven offspring, Franklin Roosevelt's polio affliction, John Kennedy's chronic back ailment and resultant dependence on narcotic pain killers, Reagan's trickle down economics, Johnson's Vietnam War, Nixon's Watergate cover-up, Washington's cherry tree, and George W. Bush's fabricated reasons for going to war with Iraq in 2003.

On the matter of American slavery and a legitimate historical presentation of African culture and civilization before the seventeenth century, there appears to have been a solid conspiracy of white chroniclers of history who were doggedly committed to inventing and "scientifically" supporting the most extreme and damning stereotypical characterizations of black Americans. It is important to note that there were black intellectuals of that period who meticulously refuted these lies but they had no legitimate standing in the mainstream social science community and therefore their views were non-existent. However, there were a few liberal minded white philanthropists and social scientists who seemingly felt morally compelled to legitimize the existence of a distinct African culture, which went a long way in debunking the typical demeaning stereotypes, that had prevailed for almost 200 years. Foremost among these persons was Columbia University anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits who in 1940 published "The Myth of the Negro Past." This book was the result of seventeen years of research on the Negro in Africa, South America, the West Indies and in the United States.
Herskovits was one of only ten scholars asked to participate in the most comprehensive scientific study ever conducted on the American Negro. The complete study, "The American Dilemma," that was directed by Swedish social scientist Karl Gunnar Myrdal, was released over a year after Herskovits' study. The scientific conclusion of Herskovits was that the American Negro, contrary to the prevailing ideology of the past three centuries, has a rich and highly developed African culture and history. He stated, "This book when first published, discussed and documented, a position that at the time was less than congenial to the considerable number of intellectuals who accommodated their thinking to the position of an important and established group of social scientists and students."

The prevailing ideology then concerning the American Negro was captured by Lewis C. Copeland who wrote, "The South's dependence on the Negro is further obscured by the belief in the complete dependence of the black race upon the white race for moral as well as for economic support. The Negro is thought of as a child race, the ward of the civilized white man. We are told, "The savage and uncivilized black man lacks the ability to organize his social life on the level of the white community. He is unrestrained and requires the constant control of white people to keep him in check."

In addition to refuting this venal propaganda, Herskovits also recognized and legitimized the scholarship of his black intellectual contemporaries who also had through rigorous scientific scholarship challenged the widespread racism expressed by these white prophets of hate. Foremost among the black scholars were W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson and Charles Johnson all of whom had written extensively on the rich and valuable cultural heritage of blacks in America. Yet, they were unanimously ignored and discredited by their white counterparts. Then, for the first time ever, Herskovits stated and reaffirmed what DuBois, Woodson and Johnson had been saying for over forty years:

DuBois held fast to his beliefs and fought valiantly for his race, saying, I do not for a moment doubt that my Negro descent and narrow group culture have in my cases predisposed me to interpret my facts too favorably for my race; but there is little danger of misleading here for the champions of white folk are legion. The Negro has long been the clown of history; the football of anthropology and the slave of industry. I am trying to show here why these attitudes can no longer be maintained. I realize that the truth of history lies not in the mouth of the partisans but in the calm science that sits between her cause I seek to save, and wherever I fail, I am at least paying truth the respect of earnest effort.

Discouraged and frustrated, DuBois renounced his American citizenship and moved to Ghana in 1961. Two years later on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, he died peacefully at the age of ninety-six. There is great significance in the travails of persons such as Herskovits and DuBois. First, their protracted life long struggles point out the virulent entrenched malignancy of institutionalized racism in America. In spite of the renowned work of the legions of truth seeking social scientists who labored on behalf of justice and equality for the African American, today we still see clear vestiges of this evil social millstone that had its genesis in seventeenth century slavery. Herskorvits died on February 25, 1963 a mere six months before his friend and colleague DuBois. He was only sixty-eight years old and never relented in his commitment to his life long struggle for enlightened Negro history.
In his most recent work "Who Owns History: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World," Eric Foner states:

A second set of debates centered on the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. In an essay on historical consciousness, Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of "creative forgetfulness"--how the memory of some aspects of the past is predicated on amnesia among others. Slavery is a case in point. Nowhere is the gap between scholarly inquiry and public perceptions of history more stark. It is probably safe to say that the finest body of American historical writing to appear during the past thirty years has been produced by scholars of slavery and emancipation. This literature has not only established beyond question the centrality of slavery to the history of the United States but has refashioned our understanding of subjects ranging from colonial settlement to the American Revolution and the origins and consequences of the Civil War.

Americans must not be blinded or deluded by the purported noblesse oblige of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, the 1948 Truman executive order, the Brown v. Board of Education decision nor the 2003 pro-affirmative action Supreme Court decision. Racial discrimination should have begun to moderate after the Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808. Yet it did not, primarily because the inhumane treatment of blacks had already become an integral part of our social, economic, and political order. A prime example is the three-fifths compromise that was also in the 1787 U. S. Constitution. In 1968, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton politely defined racism as "the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over it."

I submit a more pointed definition of racism. Racism is, "the everlasting legacy of American slavery that with ruthless intentionality oppresses, represses and commits cultural genocide against people of color but particularly black Americans. It is manifested in all of the primary social, economic, educational and political institutions in America. Oppression puts a people down, repression keeps them down and cultural genocide infests their lives with pervasive nihilism. It kills their spirit and strips them of hope." Evidence of racism is seen daily in substandard housing, haphazard healthcare, mis-education, discriminatory criminal sentencing and symbolic political patronizing. To create the illusion of progress, some blacks are selectively included in the mainstream of American life, most are marginalized and those at the bottom who make up the permanent underclass engage in daily suicidal rituals that mirror suicide among slaves, starting with throwing themselves overboard during the Middle Passage.

Is this critical American problem that Mrydal referred to in 1944 as the American Dilemma solvable?

CONTINUED

Slavery and Race
American Slavery: the Complete Story - CONCLUSION

 
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