Slave Ships as Prisons

Several historians and researchers who specialize in the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade have described the slave ships as floating prisons. The previous blogs have described who the captive Africans were by possible ethnic group, region, age, gender, health and skill level. The impact of their removal upon the community was addressed in a limited manner.  Conditions and treatment on the ship has not  been adequately or fully described to date but suffice to say the experience overall was horrific.

This posting will address the continuing experience of imprisonment and draw a few parallels. Over four hundred years of the slave trade approximately ten to thirteen percent of the overall population of sub-Sahara Africa was removed. According to some historians that constitutes a manageable absence until you factor into the equation that the percentage is the young and strongest skilled males and females who were continuously taken. Societies do not recover from an on-going loss spanning twenty-six generations (350 years).

From initial captivity, through the Middle Passage, Africans became immersed in a prison culture: capture and removal from their home community; shackled treks to the coast; processing and branding in the pen or fort in preparation for purchase and shipping; and finally on board the “floating prison” the warden (ship captain), the guards (ship crew), the restrictions, dehumanization and required submission all were a part of conditioning for survival. It was at this point that these Africans transformed into what playwright Pearl Cleage terms “freedom seekers.” The mentality forged in prison, on slave ships, in slavery, in social and economic oppression demands human “push back.” The method to respond and frame this “push” is unique to each of us but we must recognize its presence, and in many ways adjust to the framework in which we as a people have functioned for centuries.

The astounding similarity in our current society, at least in the United States, is that 10 to 13 percent of our African American males between the ages of 18 and 34 years are in prison. Ironically, the same percentage of young males who were captured for the slave trade are today in prison. No one can easily say that this has no affect upon the whole – these are fathers, sons and brothers. They have the highest unemployment rate of US Americans once out of prison (50+ percent) and in the general population because of numerous social problems the highest unemployment rate in the general US population (close to 20 percent). As felons they are disenfranchised (in ten states for life after a felony conviction), and in forty-six states while serving sentence in this country assuring they have no political power over an extended period of time. In other words, thirteen percent of all Black males in the United States have lost their electoral rights in a country that espouses “one man one vote.” Black males experience the highest rates of death, homicide and HIV. What is disturbing is that the statistics of the imprisoned were identical for the 18 to 30 age group male and female as they were doing the slave trade. [See post Who Were They? ] There is the inference and result that a substantial portion of the population is considered expendable and/or unable to exercise political power.

The rationale for prison is removal from the general population, and loss of freedom is the punishment. Deserved or not, imprisonment for centuries has been modeled on slavery, and slavery is never deserved. Slavery with all its dehumanizing features has been an ingredient in our history. We have resisted this imprisoning from the start: Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Amzie Moore, Diane Nash, James Farmer just to name a few of our role models all experienced personally a form of imprisonment based on African descent, unfair and intolerable restrictions upon human freedom. What does that mean for all of us as a people?

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