One in Every Home: The African American Presence, a Measure of Success

The pervasiveness of Africans and their enslavement in the Americas is not yet realized. We can present statistics such as seventy-seven percent of the immigrants to the “New World” were African until the 1820’s when European immigration began to be strongly encouraged but that still remains an abstraction. The reality of America does not conform to the myth of a majority European-predominant presence. The United States of American was not a White nation, contrary to the history books. The workers who built this hemisphere were primarily African, Asian and indigenous people, and they outnumbered the European population. For more than 200 years most of the people arriving on the shores were African, and a system was created and institutionalized that insured their enslavement and oppression. We can state as well that although only five percent of the Africans who survived the Middle Passage arrived in North America they still comprised a majority of the populations in colonies such as Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas until well after the Revolutionary War. And then there was the Deep South where Africans and their descendants were the majority for years even into the twentieth century. What this means is that Black people were everywhere, and in many instances outnumbered Whites! This was not unique to the United States, but was the pattern throughout the Western Hemisphere.

As western territories were absorbed into the United States during the 19th century the prevailing concern was whether or not Black enslavement would be permitted. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back eventually leading to the “War Between the States.” In addition, as other nations in the Hemisphere gained independence and abolished slavery, creoles of European descent flocked, with their slaves (property) to the North American mainland where they knew their property rights would be protected. This was a recurring migration until the Civil War.

Very often we fall into the stereotype that this Black presence occurred only in the South and certain regions of the mid-Atlantic but that is not so. New England had its share; in most middle and upper class homes there were slaves, at least one or two. The myth that the northern migrations after the Civil War, World War I and industrialization of the mid-west account for the existence of African American populations above the Mason Dixon Line is just that, a myth. This misperception also results today in many people of European descent in the United States asking what the slavery issue has to do with them personally. Not only do we suffer from ignorance, but denial as well. The other night on the television show, Who Do You Think You Are? sponsored by ancestry.com, Reba McIntyre discovered that one of her great grandfathers was a slave trader and owner. Now, we understand that most families conveniently filter the shameful portions of their past if they are able. Why on earth today would anyone want to openly claim any involvement with slavery if they do not have to do so? The DeWolfe family in Bristol, Rhode Island and the Ball family of South Carolina actually are the exceptions. They were active and for generations benefited directly from the wealth produced through the transatlantic slave trade. As long as this is kept under the rug and Americans acknowledge history by choice rather than fact, we have a false sense of what and who created this country. Respected academic institutions such as Brown University, the College of William and Mary, and Princeton (just to name a few) are grappling with how to address their own histories with slavery. It is not comfortable, it should not be but it has to be done if they are fulfilling the mandate to promote knowledge.

Similarly as President Hoover advocated for a “chicken in every pot,” up to the Civil War one standard for wealth and achievement in the United States was a slave in every home. Among Americans of European descent those who did not accept this practice were usually poor or those who had moral objections to enslavement. So prevalent was this measure of status and the good life that the New Orleans Times Picayune Cookbook was created and published on behalf of White women who had “lost” their “help” as a result of African American emancipation. Detailed instruction on preparing meals, selecting meats and vegetables, setting a table, etc. had to be learned by these ‘belles” who had relied completely on the skills and knowledge of their domestic staff.

Our next question is if all US citizens were mandated to take a DNA test how many would genetically reflect an African presence in their blood line? This is a natural curiosity. If Africans reproduced well in North America, better in fact than anywhere else, how do we now comprise only 10 to 13 percent of the population when we were a majority previously? That really would answer two questions: Where Did They Go? and Who Are You? Your ancestors and mine may very well be related.

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