Primer on U.S. Slavery for Secondary Teachers

Slavery is often seen as a generally accepted traditional and necessary evil. Images of the happy-go-lucky slave, the enslaved child who was taught to read, or was remembered in the will of an owner survive today because they help many of us to deny the atrocities of human slavery. As I shared the information below with friends and colleagues, many of them asked me to stop. “I don’t want to hear this,” a friend said, putting his hands over his ears. What we need to ask is, how can we understand this unimaginable cruelty and racism without studying these facts? How can we understand the foundations of racism in the U. S. without this knowledge?

Some basic history

Enslavers legally captured, tortured, transported to the U.S. mainland, and sold approximately 500,000 people from African societies from 1526 to 1808. After 1808 slave owners were permitted to “breed” captives in the U.S. but not import them although there is ample evidence that U.S. enslavers ignored the federal law for decades. Eventually twelve million people were forced into the system of slavery. The last shipment of captured Africans arrived in Mobile, AL, in 1860. At the time of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, 4 million people were held in bondage in 15 southern and border states, and New Jersey. The demand for unpaid labor, the quest for wealth and unbridled greed in agriculture- the rice, indigo, sugar, cotton and tobacco – rum and textile industries, and Western Continental expansion were the prime motivations for this practice.

People were taken from particular areas of Africa to the Americas based on their skills. Many were familiar with husbandry, farming, metal work, textile production and carpentry. However, prisoners of war were also taken, some were from royal families, and others with education from the University of Timbuktu. They were captured, in many cases, by other African ethnic groups who were bribed and supplied with guns by U.S. and European enslavers. People tried to build forts, sometimes out of bramble bushes, in order to protect themselves from the invaders. Family members often tried to rescue abducted people at the time of capture or later as captors were followed, but lack of weapons greatly disadvantaged them. Captives could be held up to one year in caves and cells until they were purchased by slavers who would move them to slaving ships. The women’s dungeons in Elmina, Ghana, still reek to this day of feces, urine, sweat and menstrual blood that seeped into the rocks. At Cape Coast Slave Castle’s Men’s Dungeon, archeologists have found three feet of compacted human feces where men wallowed for months before being loaded onto ships.

People were loose packed or tight packed on ships. Slavers were conflicted about which method to use. They faced a quality vs. quantity decision. Diagrams were published in newspapers for slavers that illustrated how people could be packed to ensure that the largest number of people could fit into the smallest amount of space. Approximately 600- 700 people could be stored on a ship. Tight packing meant people had to be measured for height and then the shortest people would be put in the bowels of the ship at the bow and stern.   The taller people would be put closer to the center of the ship or amid ship. They had to lie on one side and then be shifted, at intervals, to their other sides. Tight packing often lead to more health problems and death, thus slavers would lose part of their investment. Loose packing would allow people to lie on their backs but fewer people could be stored in the holds or bilges and thus be potentially less lucrative. However, the loose packer slavers were likely to have healthier people, or perhaps more people to sell at port. It was a gamble, with most slavers favoring tight packing. Slave ships generally had 20 inches of head room in the lower floors of the ships.

Most captured people, including children, were male but females were also part of the slave operation with the added potential of reproductive purposes.

Diseases spread quickly below board and at the first sign of disease such as smallpox, people were thrown overboard. Sharks followed the ships for a steady source of food. People were kept in shackles and given little food or water. Dehydration was a continual problem. The heat generated from the captives in the holds was so extreme that steam could be seen coming through the grates in the upper floors of the ship. Crew members heard “howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish.” (Mannix, 1962)

Slavers commonly believed that their ships were cleaner and better managed than ships from other countries. For example, the Dutch, Portuguese, English and French all believed their slaving ships were superior. So frequent were the attempts at suicide that measures were put into place to prevent it. Ship doctors were vigilant in looking for “fixed melancholy” or depression. People were daily forced to dance and sing on the deck until exhausted in order to exercise. Ship surgeons sutured the wounds of people who tried to slit their throats. Slavers removed the heads of some suicide victims and placed them on poles on the ship, explaining to the remaining captives that their spirit could not return to their village without a head, in order to prevent future attempts.

A speculum oris or mouth pair was used to force feed people who refused to eat. Some that actively resisted enslavement on the ship were suspended from poles on the stern of the ship to frighten them when sharks were in the water. Many captives were “seasoned” or fattened up in West Indian camps to prepare them for the auction block. Olive oil would be used to cover their bodies to enhance the appearance of their muscles. Severe dysentery and diarrhea were dealt with while on the auction block by having oakum inserted into their rectums. Oakum is a combination of fibers and tar or creosote used for caulking. Once purchased, they would be branded on their thighs or buttocks. People too sickly to be sold were left on the wharfs, sometimes with signs that said $1. People who were kept in the Caribbean had a life expectancy of about seven years. On these islands they were subjected to being buried in sand with syrup covering their heads for ants to eat when it was determined that they were not working up to their potential.

After being purchased they were placed into forced labor on U.S. plantations, small farms, and in urban centers. Their labor created profits for their owners that translated into substantial economic and political power. They were considered more valuable than real estate. They were held against their will, beaten, humiliated and denied any human rights. They often were subjected to having the big toe on each foot removed to prevent them from running away from the cruelty and subjugation. This practice was legalized in Virginia in 1705. In 1723 the law was strengthened by stating that if the slave died as a result of this butchering, no charge of manslaughter could be brought.

Enslaved people were flogged and submerged in barrels of pickling brine. Different forms of brutality were used as punishment for the crime of speaking one’s native language, taking food not authorized by owners, or fighting back against the violence perpetrated against them. It was common for enslaved people to be forced to watch the torture and prolonged death, sometimes lasting two to three days, of another member of their community as a way to terrify them and squelch any plans to flee. The enslaved would be forced to wear collars with long spikes that would catch on tree branches if they attempted to escape in forested areas. Holes were dug in the ground large enough to fit a woman’s pregnant midsection so she could still be whipped on her back and not harm the future property of the owner. Store owners lobbied local officials to require that whipping posts be moved further from store windows because the blood spatters disturbed some customers or put a burden on the shopkeepers to constantly clean the glass. Enslaved people were forced to eat from troughs using wooden paddles, spoons or mussel shells. Some captives were promised manumission or freedom when they reached old age but this was commonly done to get optimal labor while she/he was young and thus provided more capital for the owner to purchase more slaves.

Women were routinely raped by slave owners and their male guests, and the children that resulted from these rapes were forced into slavery. ($800 for a male with good teeth and no scars on his back. $1200 for bi-racial women to be used as a sex slaves) The worst atrocity of all was that enslaved people were separated from their families and witnessed their children being sold, never to be seen again. Some of these children would be purchased at auction to be given as Christmas gifts to the children of plantation owners.

The U.S. Constitution legalized slavery. It stated that runaway slaves were criminals without any legal rights and that each enslaved person was considered 3/5 of a person for Congressional representation guaranteeing the South majority political control in national politics for the nations’ first 80 years.

Many founders owned enslaved people. That included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin (later became a president of a manumission society).   Martha and George Washington considered 318 people their property and often rented others from neighboring farms. Twelve presidents enslaved people: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

People did oppose slavery at the time such as members of Quaker groups and manumission societies, John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens (son of Henry Laurens, the largest slave owner in South Carolina), Marquis de Lafayette (personal advisor to George Washington and considered an adopted son), and northern advisors to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The South as well as the North profited from the system of slavery, from food crops to cloth, to rum and whiskey. Most significantly, people held in slavery resisted their captivity in bold, calculated ways. The systems of communication they developed across many African language barriers, their dedication to oral history, protection of their families, and myriad acts of courage led to their emancipation in the face of insurmountable political power locally and at the federal level.

Sudie Hofmann is a professor in the Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University, MN. She is an activist and writer on education and equity issues.

Sources

Ball, Edward. Slavery’s Trail of Tears: Retracing America’s Forgotten Migration-The Journey of a Million African-Americans from the Tobacco South to the Cotton South. Smithsonian, November 2015, Volume 46, Number 7 pp. 58-82.

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Glorious March to Liberty, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Washington D.C., May 20, 2016.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.

Lusane, Clarence. The Black History of the White House. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011.

Thrasher, Albert. On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt. New Orleans: Cypress Press, 1995.

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Directed, produced, and written by Katrina Browne. Ebb Productions LLC, 2008.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

“The Middle Passage,” from Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865 by Daniel P. Mannix in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1962.

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Quarterly Newsletter: April-June, 2017

The spring quarter was productive and encouraging. A marker was dedicated in Galveston, Texas; networking and promoting the Project were ongoing, especially along the Gulf Coast and at the CLAW Conference in Charleston; and production has begun of a documentary video highlighting the Project’s first five years. The Executive Board continues to identify funding sources to address travel and expenses related to organizing at the remaining 26 arrival sites where ancestral remembrance ceremonies and historic marker installations need to take place.

In May, at the 1st annual conference held by Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP), MPCPMP was recognized for “outstanding leadership” in efforts to commemorate African ancestors who perished during the Middle Passage.

To maximize resources, MPCPMP is strengthening its association with international and national organizations. This quarter we focused on the UNESCO Slave Trade Route Project and are in the process of developing a joint submission for site logo designation for Boston, New York (African Burial Ground), Point Comfort/Hampton/Fort Monroe, Charleston (Sullivan’s Island), Key West (African cemetery), and New Orleans. Five of these sites are supported and maintained by the National Park Service. By 2018, each will have a physical marker related to the Middle Passage.

There are several locations where MPCPMP will renew efforts to install markers: Connecticut (Middletown and New London), Florida (Amelia Island and Pensacola), and Maryland (Annapolis). If anyone can suggest people or groups please contact us.

Alabama: With the assistance of members of the Middle Passage Coalition, MPCPMP is contacting people who have a direct association with Africa Town and Mobile.

Louisiana: As New Orleans has removed monuments to the Confederacy, simultaneously plans for markers to address African and African American history have progressed. Marker texts and design related to both the transatlantic and domestic human trade have been completed and should be installed no later than 2018.

Maryland: The Maryland Middle Passage Committee (MDMPC) is reorganizing under the leadership of Co-chairs Regina Hartfield and Rosa Long. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh accepted an informational packet from the MDMPC, and the Committee will follow up with a request for a formal meeting with her or one of her staff. Local fundraiser Roslyn Steward was a guest speaker at the April meeting. She presented a variety of fundraising strategies and volunteered to assist the Committee with its efforts.

As part of activities during the Kunta Kinte Festival, September 23, 2017, MPCPMP is requesting that a Middle Passage marker be installed at the Annapolis waterfront to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Ligonier (1767), the ship made famous in Alex Haley’s Roots.

Massachusetts: The marker text has been drafted and an installation site selected. Additional funding must be identified.

New Jersey: We are waiting for notification of a date for the installation of markers in Camden.

North Carolina: There has been no activity in this area. The Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, has drafted a letter of support for the Project.

Rhode Island: The statewide committee continues to hold meetings and lectures and to coordinate planning for markers and ceremonies. Consideration for digitizing the state’s Middle Passage and human trade history is underway to complement this public history.

The city of Newport, RI, has selected Liberty Square as the location for its Middle Passage marker. www.newportri.com/newportdailynews/page_one/middle-passage-marker-finds-home-i-liberty-square/article_8db194db-1e43-5393-b972-72274fe764c3.html

Texas: On June 10, 2017, as part of a week-long celebration of Juneteenth, residents of Galveston dedicated a Middle Passage marker that will be installed at the Seaport Museum.

We appreciate all of you who support this work and look forward to completing our mission by 2020.

Contact us: middlepassagemarkers@gmail.com

Visit Facebook: The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project

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Reparations or Civil War

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, was once asked, “What is the most revolutionary way to change society: Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform?” He gave a careful answer: “Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step . . . If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

Reparations – Will it take another civil war, or can we tell an alternative story?

How an issue is framed and placed in context does make a difference. Peter Wood, Duke University Professor Emeritus and the author of Black Majority, recently put the brutal reality of plantation life in stark context. Speaking in June 2017 at the Carolina Low Country and Atlantic World (CLAW) Conference, Wood argued that enslaved Africans and their descendants — children, women and men — were imprisoned on plantations that should more accurately be described as forced labor camps, no different than the Nazi prison camps of the 20th century.

“Forced labor camps” seems an extreme definition. Yet, the benign term “plantation” whitewashes the brutality of what Africans and their descendants in America and throughout the diaspora experienced. Because of historical subjectivity, the Charleston conference witnessed a sharp split on how or even whether these estates should be preserved. Are they long-gone reminders of a tortured past? From one standpoint, some of the larger ones have become the sites of weddings and other social activities used to finance the preservation of these agricultural factories. Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello are places where the veneer of respectability and sacred mythology offer one apologetic and incomplete story. Other historians speaking at this same conference insisted that these places represent the brutal, ugly reality of enslaved Black life. Some suggested that they be destroyed as places of unrepentant evil. The Slave Dwelling Project advocates visits and sleepovers at these places in order to better under-stand what enslaved persons endured and survived, as well as to provide a setting for meaningful exchanges among people of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, ages, and social conditions.

The oppression of Africans in the “New World” did not take place only on plantations. The burgeoning colonial and American economy was developed beyond large tracts of land utilizing enslaved labor. Plantations with hundreds of Africans in bondage were the uncommon exception. Shipbuilding, heavy construction, forestry, mining—nearly all crafts, trades, husbandry, household skills and small farms—were heavily dependent upon enslaved workers. Significantly the social construction of race and the denial of human equality took shape within a variety of settings. As evidence of the shared fear and the necessity of solidarity for maintaining this oppression, people from many levels were recruited and participated, e.g. patty rollers, ministers, judges, businessmen, and ordinary citizens.

For more than 450 years, over consecutive generations, masses of innocent Black people have been systematically and literally incarcerated, punished, denied liberty and justice, oppressed and exploited. They had done nothing to “deserve” this inhumane treatment. The question now is: how can these aberrations be tackled? The continual oppression of Black Americans is described in the Ava Duvernay documentary, “13th.” This film refers to the Constitutional Amendment which codified full Black citizenship, subverted ever since by the realities of Jim Crow, public lynching, denial of civil and social justice, and efforts to refine and impose mass incarceration. With this back story, is reparation possible? Are current efforts to rectify such events sufficient? Is tearing down Confederate monuments and hiding them in museums a form of reparation? Is opening admissions to descendants of the enslaved at elite universities a reasonable solution? How should amends be made? Truly, “Where’re my 40 acres and my mule?”

The process of repairing and healing is certainly more complex than even today’s discussion about health care legislation. For many of the nation’s political and social leaders who can’t seem to even work their way out of a wet paper bag, reparations are insurmountable. That, however, is no excuse. Citizens and leaders are stymied. Monetary compensation, insufficient as it is, is the easy fail-safe, even as we are told that such payments would “break the bank,” “bankrupt the nation.” Yet, regarding the nation’s debt to Black people, the Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. stated very modestly: “We’ve come to cash the check.”

In the end, there are financial costs; no argument there. For more than 45 years, Michigan Congressman John Conyers has annually introduced a bill to address reparations for African Americans, and for each of those years his demand has been ignored and dismissed. There is a Congressional pattern here associated with slavery and the status of Black people. The gentleman’s rule during the country’s first century was that slavery would not be discussed in Congress because it was too disruptive to the legislative process. It took a civil war to address that issue. It seems that the rationale for avoiding a real attempt at reparations is following a tried and familiar pattern – avoid and deny.

But even before this society can figure out the how of reparations, we have to confront and acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history. If we want to change this society and the inequity we witness daily, with its roots reaching back to slavery, first the truth must be told in our homes, our schools, our media, our public spaces, and in our religious and government institutions.

Reparations have been made in this nation’s history.   Certain groups with more manageable numbers have been compensated – Japanese interred during World War II, a few Native American tribes, and individuals wrongly convicted of felonies. When and how African Americans demand reparation for centuries of exploitation and abuse should be seriously considered by individuals, institutions, and local and national governments. This is not something to be tabled endlessly. Its relevance is reflected in the legacy of enslavement that we are experiencing presently with racism, poor quality housing, inadequate education, unaffordable health care, cradle to prison injustice, violence, generational poverty, and environmental exploitation.  The reality is in our face, on our screens, and it is dividing us.  Whether defined as affirmative action, blood money, or reconciliation, at some point and soon this country will have to pay the piper.

The question is: How? At the table, can we talk, listen, really hear each other? Many Black people want to talk about it reparations all the time, and many White people never want to have the conversation. Nationally and locally we’re at an impasse, but somehow we must begin the discussion — first, on the most personal level. These are some questions to consider as we start the process of truth telling and healing:

When was the first time in your life you were aware of racism? What was your response?

When was the most recent time you were aware of racism? What was your response?

As a reasonable response to racism, how should reparations be made?

Consider these questions deeply and honestly. For, without an individual and subjective connection by each of us, this nation is most likely headed to another civil war.

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MPCPMP Quarterly Newsletter: January – March 2017

During this quarter, Project efforts focused primarily on networking, grant solicitation, and preparing for marker installations in Camden, NJ; Galveston, TX; and Boston, MA.

  • In January, MPCPMP made a presentation at the quarterly meeting of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission in St. Augustine, FL, and a formal submission for partnership with the Commission. One third of the documented US Middle Passage arrival sites are located within the Corridor.
  • The College of Charleston accepted a panel proposal, “The Public History of the Middle Passage,” for its conference, Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World scheduled for June 14-17. Panelists include Gene Tinnie (Dos Amigos/Fair Rosamond Slave Ship Project), Eurica Huggins-Axum (African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute), and Ann Chinn (Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project). The panel is scheduled for June 15, 2017, at 10:00 am.
  • Continued efforts are being made to include the 48 documented arrival sites in the UN Slave Trade Route Project. Discussion has begun with Professor Jane Landers, newly appointed US representative on the trade route committee. To date, no US or North American sites are included.
  • MPCPMP completed and published a primer, The Middle Passage: Remembering Ancestors, and a booklet of the Project’s chronological record (2012-2016) of ceremonies and These will be used as educational and promotional materials as we address the remaining unmarked sites.
  • On March 29th, MPCPMP presented at a graduate seminar on Public History at Northeastern University.

Connecticut: After extended discussions with state representatives, the Executive Board agreed that work in the state will reorganize and specifically address Middletown and New London as locales with documented Middle Passage history rather than include New Haven (which has not been documented). A new state committee must be formed.

Louisiana: The New Orleans committee is working on the text for two markers related to the human trade: international and domestic. Presently, they are researching a marker manufacturer. The installation and commemoration activities are planned as part of the city’s tricentennial observance in 2018-19.

Maryland: On March 2nd, state committee members introduced the Project to the MD Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus. Materials were provided to all members with a request for a formal letter of support to acknowledge the role the state of Maryland played in the enslavement of Africans and to facilitate the installation of the public history markers at the remaining unmarked arrival sites in the state: Annapolis, Baltimore, and Oxford. Regina Hartfield is a new co-Chair of the MD committee, replacing Stephanie Franklin. The website is under construction and the Facebook page is operational at: Maryland Middle Passage Committee.

Massachusetts: Members of the committee continue to work on the logistics related to marker text and design. In the effort to identify hosting for the Boston Middle Passage website, the committee has begun outreach to Northeastern University.

New Jersey: Camden completed the text for 3 markers scheduled for installation in mid-2017. The date has not been confirmed.

Perth Amboy will schedule a date for an MPCPMP presentation to the City Council that will include a request for a Middle Passage marker once Camden determines the date for its installation.

North Carolina: Weather and politics have so far prevented any further development in organizing to address the state’s five documented Middle Passage sites.

Rhode Island: Progress continues at the four Middle Passage arrival sites in the state. A major focus has been on lectures at several universities that discuss the history of slavery and the trade to Rhode Island.

Texas: As part of the annual Juneteenth celebration, the Middle Passage marker will be installed on June 10th (fittingly, the initial day of a week-long observance of emancipation history) at the seaport museum in Galveston.

As always, thank you for your support and interest in this effort to affirm the value and importance of ancestors and history – Black Lives Matter: Past, Present, and Future.

 

Website:  www.middlepassageproject.org

Facebook: The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project

Email:  middlepassagemarkers@gmail.com

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End of Year 2016

Four years ago, when this blog started, MPCPMP provided a quarterly reading list for those who were interested in delving deeper into the background of issues related to the posts. Unfortunately, that practice fell by the wayside as demands to implement the mission increased over the years. As an attempt, limited as it is, to revive that practice of suggested readings, the works that had significant impact on our sense of history and the value of memory over the past year include:

Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi

Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, Nicholas Guyatt

White Trash: The 400 -Year History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, Wendy Warren

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Gerald Home

It is refreshing to have available scholarship and analyses that expand beyond previously accepted approaches to the study of US history. These also are easy to read, so enjoy.

Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project wishes everyone a happy and fulfilling holiday season and new year.

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Historical Parallels: Déjà Vu

Post-election texts, emails, and conversations are filled with anger, angst, disbelief, and finger pointing. How did this happen? How did Donald J. Trump — crude and inexperienced, arrogant and uninformed — become the 45th President of the United States? For certain, the analysis of those who never saw this coming, including those we call “pundits,” will continue for decades.

“Make America Great Again” means different things to different people. Once again, even though there is no easy analysis of the rise of Donald Trump, history can teach some valuable lessons. This latest presidential campaign neatly parallels a much-overlooked phase of national history, namely the years following the Civil War — a brief period of Reconstruction — and the collapse of protections that followed. Within a period of 12 years (1865-1877) the enslaved had been emancipated, and all males had been granted citizenship. During Reconstruction, communities of freed people blossomed economically and socially across the land, with universal education as the underpinning. The federal government provided limited protections, too, in the form of Freedmen’s Bureau and the presence of US troops. However, with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, these measures were systematically dismantled. The era is aptly-named the “Redemption” by some describing those Post-Reconstruction years when White rule across the board was restored, frequently with the help of Ku Klux Klan terrorism and shortly after, the birth of Jim Crow.

Similar to the Reconstruction years, from 2008-16, in spite of an obstructionist Congress, President Obama reversed a severe economic recession, reduced unemployment to an all-time low, enabled the passing of a national health insurance program, brought the majority of internationally deployed troops home, brokered an accord with Iran on nuclear weapons, advanced the cause of environmental protection, and ended his term with one of the highest approval ratings ever for an incumbent President. These are stellar accomplishments. Yet for half of those who voted, as a Black man he was a threat to the established order of things and, therefore, an aberration of American ideals.

Looking back over time, African Americans have seen it all. We have been discouraged, been disenchanted, been disillusioned, and experienced injustices, all the while continuing to pledge allegiance to a nation where a significant number of its people perceive Black people as the “other,” as thugs, as unemployed, as criminals, as ignorant. When addressing African Americans he regards as dysfunctional, Candidate Donald Trump asked, “What have you got to lose?” by endorsing him. He obviously does not know US history – we most certainly have a lot to lose. Have we not come a long way, or have we forgotten? Do some of us not know our history, or maybe some of us are new immigrants, or perhaps some of us have been disenfranchised through the criminal justice system, or some of us have received inadequate education, or some of us think this is all a sham anyway – no matter what we do.

To some of us, this is a country designed to continuously protect the privileged and entitled. It often seems to be a nation operating under 18th century social codes, where a constitutional mechanism systematically protects a few and excludes many others. Is this nation of 300 million too unwieldly to continue under a two-party system? Can it even be called a representative democracy?

The question now becomes what we should tackle if “Black Lives Matter.” What are the priorities? In two years, Congressional seats will be up for election. If we begin now, we can stack the deck by placing representatives who answer our needs and wants. Democracy works best on the local level – school boards, city councils, state legislatures, governorships. Make this presidential election a rude wake-up call for real change. Get active. Whether it’s LGBTQ, enfranchising ex-offenders, quality education, street cleaning, and/or providing appropriate job skills education — become committed. That’s our responsibility as citizens.

We do need to redeem ourselves! Every day is an opportunity to get it right. We must organize and take action to make life better for each and every one of us. This is as much about class as race, about immigration as national security, about individual choice as religious freedom, about civil rights as law and order. The issues are clearly before us. Since Black people have always borne the heavier part of re-shaping this society, the question may not be what to do. It may be, “Will you pitch in and help?”

As encouragement, remember the rallying cry from decades past, “Come too far to turn back now.”

 

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From Independence Day to “We the People”

This is the traditional season to celebrate U.S. patriotism. Many people have been taught the nation’s history in the ringing phrases and the lofty ideals of colonial documents we memorized in parts as school children, for example, from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal . . .” Following the War of Independence, “We the People” established a Constitution to “. . . secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity.” That same Constitution established a way to account for the enslaved at the margins of society: three-fifths of a person for purposes of both taxation and representation.

This is also a season of looking at the reality of colonial life and history. Recently, a Princeton scholar expanded the account of early American life by including the lives of enslaved Africans. In New England Bound: Colonization and Slavery in Early America, Wendy Warren concludes that to understand race-based slavery in the British colonies, including all of North America and the Caribbean, one must also understand how slavery developed and functioned in New England; their interests and very survival were inextricably connected. That is, New England is where the mechanisms of oppression and exclusion of the “other” from government, the economy, culture, and laws were developed. From the beginning, whatever popular concepts grew from that base, including ideas of freedom, justice, religion, capitalism, and protection — all were established as a very narrow framework favoring a select few at the expense of others.

Warren’s work is not the only alternate interpretation of colonial history. Last August, at a commemoration of African ancestors at Faneuil Hall, State Representative Byron Rushing pointed out that New Englanders are fond of citing their history as abolitionists, but not so much as prime profiteers from the transatlantic trade. That assertion is taken up in Logbooks, an account by Ann Farrow of the selective memories of colonials in Connecticut and the construction of a historical amnesia. And many years ago, Lorenzo Greene documented in great detail the profitability of slavery in his germinal work, The Negro in Colonial New England.

But in this season, patriotic flag-waving can be balanced by the reality of several other voices. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a powerful denunciation of Independence Day from the perspective of one who had been enslaved. His address entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” is notable for the comparisons it draws between the freedom vaunted for those unlike himself and for those in bondage. Douglass poses his question and answers it. “. . . To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages . . .”

So today, when the presumptive Republican candidate, himself a second generation immigrant, talks about “making America great again,” those of us who are not of European descent, wealthy, or male are alarmed, even threatened. There is a sense that the definition of “we” will be restricted once again as it has been over centuries. This is especially important today as we grapple with the definition of citizenship. It is appropriate that as July 4th approaches we understand that “we the people” did not apply universally but only to a very select and limited group of persons in the United States. For the past 231 years, various groups of residents have been challenging and expanding that definition of who “we” are – women, Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, lesbians, gays, the transgendered, the poor, convicted felons, and so forth. The purpose of the Constitution was to accommodate change, and it has been necessary to amend the document as the nation evolved. There is nothing sacred about our laws. Their application and interpretation – some of them have been absolutely unjust – vary in the context of who the “we” is at any given point in time. Let inclusion of all truly make America as great as it has the potential to be.

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Trace

Periodically we respond or address issues that surface from our reading. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape is a recently published work by Mount Holyoke earth science professor Lauret Savoy that merits attention. Her writing is lyrical and thought-provoking. Geographical landscapes and language related to memory and history are her references as she places those living in the present in a broader historical context. Even the meaning of the word used in the title, trace, reinforces the theme: pattern, path, remnant. Employing Savoy’s approach, the reader discovers how miniscule we are in time, how ingrained is the past, and what our potential relevance and responsibilities are in creating the future. Her use of memory as applied to the nation’s history is intriguing, particularly for the MPCPMP’s need to present an alternate or little-known perspective of African American history. Savoy states that since the initiation of European territorial conquest in America there has been a concerted effort to dis-member non-European cultures and societies by war, by occupation, by name, and by appearance; yet, traces remain. She beautifully advocates for a re-membering of these forgotten or unfamiliar places and people. Her scholarship includes examples ranging from the Grand Canyon and mesas in the West to burial grounds and place names in the South.

Trace provides the reader with an opportunity to view this country with another assessment and scale – certainly a more textured ecological and environmental analysis of time and habitation — from the Ice Age, to the present, and into the future. In all the research related to the MPCPMP, we are drawn to that which states that we are directly influenced by the past and that we determine the blueprint of the future – as we breathe.  The values and principles we select do affect other people and our physical world in ways that are unknown to us but can be traced by future generations. That boils down to a responsibility to live consciously within a global community.

Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project encourages you to read this book. It may result in a determination to better define self and life goals – to walk a clearer path.

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Birth of a Nation: Another Creation Angle

From time to time those of us working with the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP) find ourselves re-emphasizing several points about U.S. history as the country addresses the day’s pertinent issues. These themes bear repeating:

  • The nation’s “Creation Story” normally taught in schools is incomplete and often inaccurate.
  • In order to understand what we are presently experiencing in our society, citizens must know the details of birthing this country.
  • No matter which European country claimed a territory or region in the Western Hemisphere, within the first 20 years of that colony or state’s creation, Africans and their descendants were integral to its development – economically, culturally, and socially.

Our research informs us that if history is only presented from a Euro-centric perspective, it is lopsided, unbalanced. There were many people from various parts of the world who influenced the products and the process of westward expansion. Metaphorically and literally for many, the birthing was a breach of justice, status, identity, and community.

The current example of a limited interpretation and perspective on the country’s history is the issue of the right to bear arms and the push back against control of them. President Obama’s recent modest proposals to regulate the sale of guns have revved up much hoopla around the 2nd Amendment once again. If a complete narrative is presented, it is worth noting that there have always been gun control and exceptions to the right to bear arms based upon need or perceived threat by those in power. Consistently, after the first thanksgiving and welcome was extended by Native people it was soon discovered that the European invaders were permanent. These new settlers’ guns would become the means of their expansion, oppression, and defense.

As American settlers’ objections to English economic control mounted, especially through taxation and on colonial production, the British instituted gun control to restrict armed protest in the American colonies. This was a direct trigger for the conflicts at Concord and Lexington. The right to bear arms, however, was also quickly denied in most of these same colonies to Native people and to enslaved Africans based upon their anticipated threat to colonial and national security. On the other hand, when White colonists defended themselves against Native attack in particular, African-descended people were temporarily allowed to use guns to protect households and settlements. Understandably, gun control was incorporated into the “Slave Codes” and Black Codes throughout this nation in order to thwart Black rebellion and resistance to the unequal status quo.

In the South, where enslaved Black people routinely outnumbered whites, fear of armed Black people went hand in hand in determining weapon use policy until the Civil War. Historically, European Americans have been the only group for whom access to arms has seldom been restricted or regulated. Not until after the Civil War was any limitation placed upon White Americans (Confederates), and for the first time Black people as newly-constituted citizens were permitted in some cases to own and use firearms for daily survival and protection against hate groups.

Access to firearms for non-Whites and the White push back against it has been illustrated time and again. Throughout our national history from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, there has been a reluctance to allow armed Black soldiers in any military undertaking within U.S. borders until desperation left no other choice. There was less resistance to Black armed men fighting for U.S. interests outside of the country. Teddy Roosevelt included Buffalo soldiers from Western Indian territories in the Spanish American War in Cuba; W. E. B. DuBois advocated for the inclusion of Black troops in World War I; and certainly during the 20th and 21st centuries Black soldiers have been major participants in military campaigns in Europe, Asia, Arabia, and the Middle East. The issue was always their return to a segregated and racist country as trained gunmen. In 1919, returning Black soldiers across the nation were met with fierce White resistance – lynchings and sometimes in the form of race riots. Washington, DC in the late 20th century (1975) became the first major city to experience a Congressional universal gun control measure. Many believed that the root impetus for such a drastic action was the city’s Black majority. The rise of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense pushed the button in Oakland, CA. Images of Black people with weapons in public was viewed as dangerous, while a White person in the same stance would be accepted as a citizen’s right to bear arms. There is frequently a racial aspect to this issue as well as an urban/rural dimension. Witness the current standoff in Oregon as armed White farmers and ranchers are holding the federal government at bay and preventing an order to call off their protest on grazing policy. We wonder if the government response would be the same if the farmers and ranchers were non-White.

Violence is as American as apple pie, and regulating the purchase and use of firearms is necessary in a nation where there are as many guns as people. Regulating who can sell, purchase, and own guns with stiff penalties imposed is critical as the nation comes to grips with this matter. The Second Amendment was implemented in the 18th Century when a single-shot long rifle, complete with powder and musket ball, was the weapon of choice in basically a rural environment. The feature film The Revenant illustrates how essential that weapon was in extending the reach of Europeans over indigenous people. The right to bear arms did not anticipate modern devices with magazines containing multiple rounds that could rip off dozens of shots in seconds. To some of us in the MPCPMP, resistance to gun control is rooted in the long-standard perception of unfettered access to weapons by a protected class of people. Even as gun killings fill the daily news, as the profits of arms manufacturers continue to increase exponentially since the inauguration of a Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President, as campaigns against gun regulation are disparaged as unconstitutional, we wonder where the cries of “foul” come from. After all, in reality limits on guns are nothing new in this nation.

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Chipping Away

We have reached the final month of another year. For the past four years, ours has been a small attempt to redefine and expand the narrative of US American history to include Africans and their descendants as principal and crucial agents in the country’s creation. At times, many in fact, this work has been difficult. MPCPMP repeatedly has found itself in the position of explaining and justifying our mission to people who do not have a clue, who do not see the point, who have their own agendas, who feel threatened, or who are in “head in the sand” denial.

Fortunately, however, we continue also to find those who share our interest in presenting a more complete history of the United States. Recently at ASALH’s Annual Conference in Atlanta, we learned of Anne Farrow’s research of Connecticut’s human trade history (The Logbooks: Connecticut Slave Ships and Human Memory)and in September of this year Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s African American Trail sponsors contacted us requesting inclusion in the MPCPMP. Upon reflection, this helps balance the resistance we have faced. Also rewarding is the fact that people with whom we have worked for a couple of years turn around and “get it” — that the mission of MPCPMP is not about slavery; it is about honoring the enslaved – African men, women, and children, and their descendants who arrived on these shores, helped build the physical and economic foundation of this nation, and contributed to US values and culture.

To say the work is frustrating when we’re in the fray is to understate our experiences. Just this year we were challenged: “Who documented this? “But it was only one ship to this port!” “We can only allow members of the Judeo-Christian faiths to participate.” “Slavery wasn’t the same as in the South on plantations.” “What did Africans do here?” “Why can’t this be an exclusively Black event?” There is frequently the attempt to question our focus, purpose, historical accuracy, and approach — adamant at first and gradually less resistant as we explain the reasons for why we are committed to this mission.

During 2015, as we presented the Project in different venues, we came with a Power Point, one that illustrates how routinely Africans and their descendants have been omitted, limited, and defined almost exclusively by slavery in US history. Two national icons, including their historical background and relation to African Americans, are in the presentation – the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome and the Statue of Liberty. Ironically, they both represent national ideals so often denied legally and socially to Black people. A portion of our mandate is to chip away at the current prevailing practice of assigning insignificant and minor roles to non-Europeans in building this nation. We are determined to not repeat the wrongs perpetuated against Africans and their descendants over centuries. Instead of denial and exclusion, we encourage the participation of all people and all faiths in the ancestral remembrance ceremonies in which we are involved. We are focused on humanity, not exclusively Black people. A lot of healing has to take place.

I am reminded of Vincent Harding’s statement in Atlanta during an evening meal. He said that we had no idea how huge an undertaking this Project would be. That was three years ago, and how right he was. It has been encouraging that the spirits of ancestors have helped “make a way.” Somehow, in some fashion, through the efforts of many in the diaspora, half of the 42 US arrival sites have held remembrance ceremonies and some have installed public markers to commemorate the lives of Africans. As we forge ahead in 2016, another four or five Middle Passage ports will do the same, chipping away and mending the broken circle. Thank you for all your contributions that have made this possible. Even on a shoestring budget a lot has been accomplished. We look forward to your support and to completion by 2020.

Posted in African American History, ancestors, captured Africans, descendants of slaves, Middle Passage, slave ports, transatlantic slave trade | Comments Off on Chipping Away