Most of us do not intimately know the complexity of our historic American slavery.
Most of us do not realize that we Blacks were enslaved in the United States (246 years from 1619 – 1865), almost a century longer than we have been citizens of our country (154 years from 1865 – 2019).
Most of us think the problems of our past do not matter as much as do the potentials and possibilities of our present (shifting from chattel slavery to political freedom, as it were).
Most of us do not really know, nor do we care to know, not to mention undertake the task of extensively researching our history on these shores.
After all our departure from Africa was so long ago. The reality of the 21st century offers so many opportunities, why should we focus on the long ago and the forgotten? Why even acknowledge the ancient past, when we are now an integral part of the 21st century body politic?
Now that we can vote, and Jim Crow is dead, plus we have elected Obama, a Black president, isn’t it time to move on?
Yes, it is time to move on. But. Moving on should never mean forgetting from whence we came. Rather than be oblivious of, or worst yet, ashamed of our past, we should study and celebrate our history of struggle and survival. Indeed, as our ancestors taught us: if we know the beginning well, the end will not trouble us.
Moreover, I admit my own amnesia. I never fully understood my individual social self because I did not fully know my collective history. Oh sure, I knew the mythology and the general outline, but the minute specifics, quotidian details, like most of us, I just didn’t accurately know who I was in the time and place continuum.
For example my father served in World War II and the Korean conflict. I spent a year in South Korea, high atop a mountain nuclear missile base. I never talked to him about his experiences. And for that matter never spoke with him about my experiences even though both father and son shared a similar stint in a far eastern setting.
Sometimes soldiers choose not to bring home the realities of their military service even though that service was pivotal in their manhood development. In other words the social shaping of our consciousness is more important than the varying shades of our color. In the final analysis, color alone does not trump consciousness, or an awareness of both our individual and collective reality–who “I” am and who “we” are. Too often we not only do not recognize that we precedes me, but more importantly the me is not only an integral part of we but that there can be no “me” without a “we”.
Just because I was Black did not mean that ipso facto I understood the deeptitude of Blackness. Experience is important, even critical in some cases, but experience is not sufficient to fully grasp who we are or what the potentials of our future are. “Being” does not equate to “understanding”.
For example, I never knew that cotton grown in the south was different from the cotton grown in Asia, or that there was an international premium placed on crops that came from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Louisiana as opposed to cotton produced in India. Indeed, I had never even thought about the particulars of cotton fiber wherever it was grown. In this regard, reading the details researched and revealed in The American Slave Coast–A History Of The Slave Breeding Industry, by the husband and wife team of Ned and Constance Sublette, was critical to undoing my own self-ignorance.
The Sublettes devote a whole chapter (The Cotton Club) to a discussion of the reality of cotton as the single most important cash crop export of early American agriculture.
At well over 700 pages, The American Slave Coast is the gold standard of slavery tomes. Extensively and impressively researched, what is truly remarkable is how the authors weave together the diverse threads of facts, figures, and miscellaneous information. Particularly evocative is the way they expound on the subtitle denoting that American slavery indeed was a “slave-breeding industry”.
Most books on slavery avoid dealing with the cruel and deliberate feminization of how this industry worked in a young country that, until its expansion westward, was largely bereft of gold and other valuable minerals during its formative years. In addition to the physical conditions, the Sublette’s do not shy away from the infighting for dominance that went on between the planting and manufacturing classes, both of whom had a particular relationship to slavery. The peculiarities of the dialectic of slavery intertwining with material and social development in a new nation is a fascinating story generally untold in such subtlety and detail.
It is not enough to simply say we are a nation of immigrants. There were three contending groupings: 1. the native peoples, who had to face the onslaught of 2. a massive European invasion that callously employed 3. the inhuman introduction of Africans as slaves in the new nation. This is not an easy tale to truthfully tell, especially because the interaction of the three groupings is largely lied about and seldom taught in all its complexity and, yes, in all its savage betrayal of the founding principle of “all men are created equal”.
The harsh reality is that some people were exterminated and other people were enslaved, with both the Native peoples and the Africans being viewed as sub-human. While it is currently customary for us to talk about American values, we too often conveniently overlook that at the founding, those values were never meant to include the diversity of non-white peoples whose labor, and indeed, whose actual bodies were the foundation upon which America was erected.
Understand, we weren’t just labor, we were also capital, literally walking currency.
The native peoples had the 1838/39 Trail of Tears through the deep south. This was a force march instigated by Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy.
For the most part, our African ancestors also were forced marched from the interior to slave castles on the coast of West Africa, and then treated to one-way voyages across the Atlantic, followed by auction block, and then dispersal via slave coffles, i.e. long marches, to and through the interiors of dear ole Dixieland.
Our sojourn in the American wilderness was no accident nor coincidental byproduct of American exceptionalism. We were transported here for a specific purpose, a purpose that required not just our labor but also our dehumanization. We had to defy the strictures of our specific history in order to realize our humanity.
To be fully human and American means that while we celebrate the values, we also must embrace, and where necessary, change the realities. The Sublettes are clear. In the introduction of their book they clearly state the task at hand: “This is a history of the slave-breeding industry, which we define as the complex of businesses and individuals in the United States who profited from the enslavement of African American children at birth.”
The American Slave Coast unflinchingly and patiently tells us exactly what it meant to be American. In order to fully be our contemporary selves, we must confront the breadth and depth of our historic selves. We must intimately investigate and consciously carry our recovered past with us as we move into our future.
In The American Slave Coast On The Rock Newman Show, a 56 minute long video, the Sublettes describe both their intentions and their findings.
Too often the details get lost and the contradictions and complexities smoothed over, if not completely obliterated or ignored. For those not up to the task of reading our history, there is a short, factual overview of the history of the Atlantic slave trade available online: “Slavery’s explosive growth, in charts: How ’20 and odd’ became millions”.
USA Today illuminates in graphic fashion the growth of an enslaved population in the land of the free.
Take it in. The fullness of our being requires embracing the totality of our history.