Bullwhipped in America

If the United States had never traded in African slaves, would we now have the troubles in Ferguson, Missouri?

Probably not.

The shooting by a police officer of a young man he believed was assaulting him and trying to steal his weapon would not have been judged on skin color.

Slavery has been practiced at different times throughout the world, but no country has paid a price like America. The tab continues to climb. Now we have Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.”

Baptist’s version of America’s slave history is the safe and popular one so he’s been making the media rounds. The publication of his book coincided with the months-long news coverage out of Ferguson, and it visits some of the same issues raised by Ta-Nehisi Coates in  “The Case for Reparations” several months ago in The Atlantic.

“Slavery continues to have an impact on America in the most basic economic sense,” says Baptist, history professor at Cornell University. “We don’t want to hear that at its root, the economic growth depends to a large extent on slavery.”

It isn’t that I don’t want to hear what Baptist and Coates have to say. I’ve spent some time reading them. It’s that I don’t believe America’s success can only be attributed to African slaves.

Before there were African slaves, there were thousands of white, indentured servants in colonial America whose working conditions and brutal treatment laid the groundwork for the African slaves who followed.

This is a part of history that doesn’t get much attention. In “White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America,” Don Jordan and Michael Walsh explain:

“It invites uproar to describe as slaves any of these hapless whites who were abused, beaten and sometimes killed by their masters or their masters’ overseers. To do so is thought to detract from the enormity of black suffering after racial slavery developed. However, black slavery emerged out of white servitude and was based upon it.”

Some of the slaveholders were black, like Anthony Johnson. A former servant, Johnson obtained his freedom and was allotted some land. Then, like other “men of substance” of the day, he began acquiring slaves – European and African. As Jordan and Walsh note, the color of a field laborer was a secondary consideration.

“The headrights claimed on these people helped Johnson accumulate 1,000 acres,” they write.

“White Cargo” was published in 2007, but I didn’t hear about it until a few years later while listening to an interview with black writer Toni Morrison. She, too, was surprised to learn of white slaves in America.

Who were these white indentured servants who came to America? Mostly, they were Europe’s poor, as well as convict labor.

“(L)ife in the mid sixteenth century was pitted and disfigured by poverty. Recurring harvest disasters … and economic depressions had left hordes of peasants and labourers dispossessed and on the margins of survival,” write Jordan and Walsh.

“White Cargo” describes plantation labor gangs of Africans and Europeans: “They were chained together, they lived together, slept together, worked together and were whipped together.”

Eventually white servitude lost its profitability. A white servant who survived his/her period of indentured servitude could be freed; an African could serve a lifetime.

Despite what Baptist wants to believe, American capitalism did not depend on slavery. In post-Civil War America, capitalism helped grow a middle class of free workers, including middle-class blacks. If slavery was the key to economic prosperity, why were countries that traded in many more African slaves than America not more economically successful? Why is Africa, which still practices slavery in some regions, not more economically successful?

Not only is slavery morally wrong, it’s also not good business. People work harder for themselves, not for a master.

Why, then, does Baptist have to resort to what a New York Times reviewer called “novelistic devices” to tell what he claims to be factual history?

Real history is filled with contradictions and villains and heroes of all colors.

Like this point of view from former African slave Tony Cox, who was brought to America: “If we hadn’t been brung over an’ made slaves, us an us chillun dat is being educated an’ civilized would be naked savages back in Africa, now.”

Cox’s comment is among the oral histories in “Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember,” edited by James Mellon, a result of the Federal Writers’ Project (part of the Works Progress Administration).

Between 1934 and 1941, the Federal Writers’ Project sent interviewers – men and women, blacks and whites – to record the oral histories of about 2,000 former slaves who were elderly and dying.

“Bullwhip Days” preserved their stories and memories in their own words, which is why Cox’s quote may be hard to take in America’s politically super-sensitive 21st Century. Chilluns? Dat? Naked savages? Remember, the interviews date back to 1934.

I bought this book about 25 years ago at the Revolutionary Book Store in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington D.C. As many times as I’ve read it, I always find something new in this book because it’s so rich with the variety of life. In today’s America, “Bullwhip Days” would probably be considered a plot to whitewash slavery. Not every memory is ugly, and not every white Southerner is despicable.

Baptist has discounted some of these interviews, saying the former slaves were intimidated by the government employees. That’s condescending. These slaves were old. Many knew they had nothing left to lose but much to share:

“You used to be worth a thousand dollars then, but you’re not worth two bits, now. You ain’t worth nothin’, when you’re free.” – Campbell Armstrong

“If a good nigger killed a white overseer, they wouldn’t do nothin’ to him. If he was a bad nigger, they’d sell him. They raised niggers to sell; they didn’t want to lose them. It was just like a mule killing a man.” – Henry Banner

“When a girl became a woman, she was required to go to a man and become a mother. … A slave girl was expected to have children as soon as she became a woman. Some of them had children at the age of twelve and thirteen years old. Negro men six feet tall went to some of these children.” – Hilliard Yellerday

“A nigger uprising? What is a nigger uprising? Why the niggers couldn’t do without the white folks, and the white folks couldn’t do without the niggers.” – Callie Gray

“I think I am ‘bout as much a slave now, as ever. ‘Bout half the folks, both black an’ white, is slaves an’ don’t know it.” – Jerry Hinton

Coates touches on every outrage related to slavery in his essay on “The Case for Reparations,” bringing it into the 21st Century with the Countrywide scandal that cost some black families their homes. The U.S., he concludes, needs “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

If Coates is counting on a “national reckoning” that will favor his call for reparations, he’s wrong. There has been too much hatred and violence between the races in America to be resolved with a transfer of funds. Nor will there be spiritual renewal.

The kind of reckoning that Coates and Baptist want is one-sided and will lead to more hatred. Look at Ferguson, Mo. Neither Officer Darren Wilson nor Michael Brown have been judged by the content of their character. It’s all about the color of their skin.

America in the 21st Century could not tolerate a full reckoning on the subject of race. You cannot have a full accounting if certain questions are not allowed to be asked. Even writers like Baptist and Coates do not want to explore all aspects of slavery.

How can you have a full reckoning of American slavery without considering the universal cruelty of men owning humans? What were the nationalites of the slave-traders who sold African slaves to the early American colonies? How did the lives of the half million slaves who were brought to the colonies compare to the lives of the 4 million taken to Brazil? Or the 6 million African slaves taken to the Caribbean and Latin America?

How do the lives of the descendents of American slaves compare to the descendants of African slaves taken to other countries? How do black slaveholders like Anthony Johnson figure into this reckoning? Do Johnson’s descendants deserve reparations? And should the descendants of white indentured servants be forced to pay?

The problem with Baptist’s book and Coates’ essay is that both only add to the segregation of American blacks by singling out their misery as if it were unique.

It wasn’t.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


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