I’m just home from a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. with a good friend. We went to have the better part of two days at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and then part of a single day at the National Museum of the American Indian. My heart is full of sorrow and gratitude while my mind is full of new harrowing knowledge. So I’m planning several blogs over the next period of time. It feels important or “right” to begin with the single piece of information that has staggered me both for its content and for the fact that I did not know about that content until this very late-in-life moment.
It seems that in 1807 President Jefferson convinced the federal government to pass a bill that went into effect in 1808. This bill forbade the importation of any “new” African people to become slaves in this country. Had the world into which this bill landed been different, the institution of slavery would have gradually dwindled and eventually disappeared as the population of the enslaved shrank. But the world in this new country was seeing the cotton industry grow exponentially and quickly into an import trading business which would make “America” into a viable international commercial player. That means that we moved from engaging in the incredibly violent transatlantic slave trade to what has come to be known as the domestic slave trade. What I learned from trenchant videos, photographs, and other powerful displays is that slavery became focused on black Africans rather than the conglomerate of groups including indigenous peoples living here and individuals from various European countries who were enslaved in the Americas for stipulated periods of time to grow and harvest sugar cane and then tobacco. I remembered reading Toni Morrison’s A Mercy about this time in our history, set in the region known as the Chesapeake until it became Maryland. In discussing why she did the research and writing about this phenomenon, she said she wanted to understand the differences between this form of slavery and what came to be the systemic and inhumane treatment of specifically African people by the white majority.
The Museum told me that slavery changed at this time in our history from being a stipulated period of servitude to a permanent condition from which it was impossible ever to be freed unless one’s owner did so at his death. More painfully, I was told that the treatment of black enslaved women and men became markedly more violent and violating, i.e., the routine and continuous rape of African women in order to produce the next generations of enslaved workers in the cotton fields of the South, the brutal whippings and near starvation of African men (and women) for no reason other than to strike terror into their hearts so as to reduce the likelihood of escape efforts, and, significantly enough, the collusion by Northerners in capturing and returning to Southern slavers the brave and resilient Africans who naively thought the “North” would treat them differently.
So what I’m left with now that this new knowledge is seared into me is this: Slavery might well have died an inevitable death had the cotton industry not been moving into high gear. That is to say, inhumane and barbaric treatment of innocent captives could have been weakened and then perhaps discontinued entirely if commerce and money not been the driving forces behind the perceived need for that treatment. And it remains true that a capitalist framework has seen the aborted end of Reconstruction, the legal support for Jim Crow laws, and the prolonged and continuing mass incarceration of black people, especially black men. We don’t have slaves picking cotton until their hands became blistered and shredded, but we do have black prisoners working both inside and outside their cells in order to provide white commercial and agricultural ventures with essentially free labor. And a bill that may well have come from good intentions on the government’s part never got even to be put into play with any energy or hopes for a positive outcome.
My sadness stems from grasping this unnecessary prolongation of pain and abuse; my anger stems from having no one ever teach me anything about this travesty.