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Did black people own slaves?
June 26, 2014 5:27 PM   Subscribe

"One of the most vexing questions in African-American history is whether free African Americans themselves owned slaves. The short answer to this question, as you might suspect, is yes, of course … For me, the really fascinating questions about black slave-owning are how many black "masters" were involved, how many slaves did they own and why did they own slaves?" Henry Louis Gates Jr. on black slave owners.
posted by klangklangston (56 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sadly, Dr. Gates' essay is all too brief. The R. Halliburton Jr. essay he points to on 'free blacks' ownership of slaves is only a single page preview to the much longer essay (costing $10 U.S. to download). There's a lot of material out there covering this and hopefully it won't come as a surprise to anyone that when there's money to be made, everyone wants some.
posted by artof.mulata at 5:41 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


(Not saying the FPP isn't a worthy read as it is! Forgive me Drs. Klangston and Gates for any possible miscontruance.)
posted by artof.mulata at 5:43 PM on June 26


Wow, that pullquote on p.3 is amazing:

A free black in Trimble County, Kentucky, " … sold his own son and daughter South, one for $1,000, the other for $1,200." … A Maryland father sold his slave children in order to purchase his wife. A Columbus, Georgia, black woman -- Dilsey Pope -- owned her husband. "He offended her in some way and she sold him … " Fanny Canady of Louisville, Kentucky, owned her husband Jim -- a drunken cobbler -- whom she threatened to "sell down the river." At New Bern, North Carolina, a free black wife and son purchased their slave husband-father. When the newly bought father criticized his son, the son sold him to a slave trader. The son boasted afterward that "the old man had gone to the corn fields about New Orleans where they might learn him some manners."
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:54 PM on June 26 [10 favorites]


A Google search shows the white supremacists boards are having a field day with this...
posted by artof.mulata at 6:05 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


A Google search shows the white supremacists boards are having a field day with this...

That is not a search I'll be doing. Willful ugliness gets less interesting every year. They'll take and twist this, but they would twist anything.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:08 PM on June 26 [3 favorites]


A Google search shows the white supremacists boards are having a field day with this...

A Google search search across time and space shows that all people are more or less the same; it's circumstances that change them.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:21 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


So it turns out Southern white men aren't the only cruel motherfuckers in the world. Who knew.
posted by localroger at 6:26 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


The institution of slavery, particularly the American style of it, is one of the foulest endeavors humanity has ever allowed to exist. Its damage is still being felt today, so it's not very surprising that even people who directly suffered under it helped perpetuate that suffering. Abuse happens in cycles.
posted by kafziel at 6:38 PM on June 26 [6 favorites]


Outrage at black slave owners is the most racist thing imaginable: it was one thing for people like us, whites, to rob blacks of their lives and freedom, but how could blacks do it? Aren't they more like each other than we are? No. We add insult to injury when we demand that victims be ennobled by their oppression. Oppression degrades its victims, deliberately. It narrows their horizons, impels their needs, and advances the most brutal against their kin. The argument goes the other way: why was slavery tolerated by the wealthy, the learned, and the good; people who had so much leisure; people whose education was guided by the sublime gifts of the ages; people who were free from blind struggle and desperation. Let's save our outrage for people like Washington and Jefferson: they knew better; they didn't need to own people; but with callous indifference they did so anyway.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:47 PM on June 26 [28 favorites]


And now you can do a search and fin d out about native Americans ( Indians) owning slaves
posted by Postroad at 6:58 PM on June 26


Outrage at black slave owners is the most racist thing imaginable... Let's save our outrage for people like Washington and Jefferson: they knew better; they didn't need to own people

Wow. Just, wow.

Black slave owners can't be counted on to be responsible for their actions, only white people can be?! Really?
posted by codswallop at 7:03 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


Outrage at black slave owners is the most racist thing imaginable:

As opposed to actually actually owning, beating, raping or killing slaves, jim crow, separate but equal etc, outrage is the most racist thing imaginable?

That statement is utterly ridiculous.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:05 PM on June 26 [8 favorites]


Black slave owners can't be counted on to be responsible for their actions, only white people can be?! Really?

We're all responsible for our actions. None the less, Thomas Jefferson was the author of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, the designer of Monticello, and the man who collected the basic collection for what is now the Library of Congress. I submit that we can have higher expectations of him than of some random artisan, whose own precarious freedom was itself barely tolerated.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:18 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


This is just like the ending of Dogville.
posted by bleep at 7:27 PM on June 26


What's amazing is the big surprise all these folks have about someone taking advantage of others. There is currently a substantial amount of woman from Eastern European areas as well as oriental areas that are essentially some form of slavery. Now in your neighborhood. Three guesses what general ethnicity is the oppressor? (first two don't count).

Abusers abuse. Those with an unfair advantage, take it. Glitch in the law lets you be "free", take advantage.

All very just so very depressing, I think I'll go back to my sailboat forum.
posted by sammyo at 7:49 PM on June 26


"As Loren Schweninger points out in Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915, by the early 1820s, Stanly owned three plantations and 163 slaves, and even hired three white overseers to manage his property!"

This whole article has an uncomfortable tone to me. I dislike the idea that black slave-owners are more evil than other slave-owners, or deserve special vilification, just because of their skin color.
posted by ayedub at 7:56 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


It's not that we should hold some to higher standards, but that we hold all, no matter the station, to the same standard.
posted by edgeways at 8:42 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


Whatever we do we need to make sure no one involved with this reads this article. Their heads will explode.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:46 PM on June 26


Even though I'd known that many of my ancestors had varying degrees of both European and African heritage, I was still taken aback when I cracked open a book of estate records and learned that some of these 18th and 19th century 'mulattoes' had inherited people upon the death of their slave-owning father (plus, a house!).

Even accepting the premise that they regarded ownership of other people as a simple fact, I still can't wrap my mind around the day-to-day of their lives. How does a person fall in love, create a family, and think of the future, with a person who is considered property? How could some property be ok to fuck, while some is deemed marriageable? Under what rules are some of your kids set free or even born free, yet some you continue to own or even sell?

In my family alone, people of all degrees of African ancestry, some well-educated and some not, were ok with these situations. We don't need to "rank" them by who's more hypocritical. How moral judgments went so wrong, and became so contorted and self-contradictory could be asked of every one of them, regardless of their stations in life.
posted by lesli212 at 8:49 PM on June 26 [10 favorites]


I submit that we can have higher expectations of him than of some random artisan, whose own precarious freedom was itself barely tolerated.

Yeah, you have a valid point, but when you throw in absurd statements like calling outrage at slave ownership "the most racist thing imaginable," you can't expect people to ignore the absurdity and focus exclusively on your valid point.
posted by John Cohen at 9:04 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


A free black in Trimble County, Kentucky, " … sold his own son and daughter South, one for $1,000, the other for $1,200." … A Maryland father sold his slave children in order to purchase his wife. A Columbus, Georgia, black woman -- Dilsey Pope -- owned her husband. "He offended her in some way and she sold him … ", etc.

That's the trouble with slavery, isn't it? Maddeningly many people are still in love with the idea of the "kind" slave-owner who always did right by his property -- but how many of them would agree to be legally possessed by even their own father or wife? None, unless maybe it was some kind of sex thing. Everybody instinctively understands that there can be no "nice" when one person has that amount of power over another. You can't even trust your own papa, and you know it.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:40 PM on June 26 [8 favorites]


"This whole article has an uncomfortable tone to me. I dislike the idea that black slave-owners are more evil than other slave-owners, or deserve special vilification, just because of their skin color."

That's an odd thing to take from Gates' good news/bad news construction, which points out that many black slave owners were doing so to protect their families, but some of them were real assholes.

I'd also point out that this is Gates writing on his website, aimed at a black audience — reading this as "special" anything can be an assumption that this is written for a white audience, therefore the behavior of black people is of extraordinary note. These were just more people in the broader story of American slavery — this is like Tikkun discussing what the lives of Jewish collaborators with Nazis were like.
posted by klangklangston at 9:58 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I'm just not certain how useful it is to try to suss out psychological interpretations of 19th century personages in a complex society that bears little resemblance to our own with its 21st century acculturated constructs of race, family, and even childhood. Take out the word slave and look at many impoverished families, whether we're talking about 19th century New Orleans, 20th century Appalachai, or 21st century Southeast Asia, and you'll find many instances of children being "loved" as much as that means anything but effectively sold off to some sort of child labor supply chain, because a) the families can't bear the costs of feeding them and b) the money helps them feed other children/themselves.

The situation of being a freedman of some means in that era practically necessitated household servants. The situation of being black did not mean quite the same thing that it means today. The entire career of Frederick Douglass was based, arguably, on creating a common black consciousness that prior to the 19th century did not exist.

I really, really caution people to take a step back and try to see through others' eyes here. What seems horrific and impossible to us was very much a daily fact of life for others.
posted by dhartung at 10:05 PM on June 26 [6 favorites]


Totally agreed that it's not about moving the goalposts from "racist" to "less racist"; we're not just playing a different game nowadays, we're playing an entirely different sport. Saying that Thomas Jefferson -- or Robert E. Lee -- were "racist" according to our definition isn't remotely accurate.

I do think it's useful, however, to look back at historical mores as a way of helping to highlight how people in modern societies continue to use similar mental contortions to justify our own hypocrisies.

I doubt that people believed certain behaviors or rules weren't wrong on some fundamental level, just because they were normalized. Why else would there be so many exceptions and caveats? They were people just like us: we tend to make excuses for things we feel we can't change, or scenarios that might be bad but not the worst possible outcome. There are very, very few of us who are brave (or stupid) enough just to opt out of the system entirely.
posted by lesli212 at 10:31 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


"Saying that Thomas Jefferson -- or Robert E. Lee -- were "racist" according to our definition isn't remotely accurate."

What? They were crazy racist. Just like a ton of other people back then. That today we still have a racist society doesn't mean that we're not far less tolerant of a lot of brutal bigotry that was the norm then.
posted by klangklangston at 10:39 PM on June 26 [6 favorites]


"Whatever we do we need to make sure no one involved with this reads this article. Their heads will explode."

Ah... I think Professor Gates is well aware of African involvement in the slave trade.
posted by Selena777 at 10:48 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Saying that Thomas Jefferson -- or Robert E. Lee -- were "racist" according to our definition isn't remotely accurate.

Okay, here is the problem with saying that "that's just how things were then." There were many, many people who had serious, principled objections to slavery and racism while slavery was happening. They wrote about it and tried to bring about its end. To say that they were "playing a different sport" erases all of those people and their work and beliefs. For example, Thds. Kosciuszko tried to make Jefferson the executor of his estate, with instructions that all of his money be used to free slaves. When Kosciuszko died, the whole project got into a legal mess, but like. One of them tried to free slaves and the other didn't. Was Kosciusko playing some sport? Of course not. He and Jefferson were contemporaries. Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and he owned slaves anyway.

A free black in Trimble County, Kentucky, " … sold his own son and daughter South, one for $1,000, the other for $1,200." … A Maryland father sold his slave children in order to purchase his wife.

Not to make this into a villainy contest, but if white slave holders had not been willing to sell their enslaved children, the entire system would have fallen apart. It happened all the time and was not an accidentally evil consequence of the slave-holding economy. It was a fundamental spoke in the wheel.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:43 PM on June 26 [6 favorites]


Gates actually says, in the linked article:
But given the long history of class divisions in the black community, which Martin R. Delany as early as the 1850s described as "a nation within a nation," and given the role of African elites in the long history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps we should not be surprised that we can find examples throughout black history of just about every sort of human behavior, from the most noble to the most heinous, that we find in any other people's history.
John Cohen wrote: [...] absurd statements like calling outrage at slave ownership "the most racist thing imaginable,"

You misunderstand me. I think that differential outrage at the behavior of blacks over whites is racist - and by definition, it is. It is especially wrong in this instance because it implies that whites could not be expected to have such empathy for slaves, and that these blacks - themselves the victims of racism - were devoid of the sort of fellow-feeling that whites would have naturally experienced.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:58 PM on June 26


Also, since this isn't supposed to be a what about white people thread, I can see how this would be an obviously-fraught issue to look back on for the African-American community. But to me one of the things that stood out in the article were the complicated, nuanced compromises most black people were making just to exist and have a family life or run a business. People were navigating all of these issues of money, gender, race and power, all while knowing that putting a foot wrong can lead to slavery or death for then our their family. There's no margin for error. We see it from a distance in historical documents- a bill of sale for your own child, for instance- and it seems like a single huge thing that happened on a single day. But it was really happening every day, in big and little ways. It wears me down just to think of it. I can't imagine what it would be like to live it.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:00 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


Gah, it's so frustrating to see people judging people from the past for their way of life. We weren't there. We can't judge people from 1820 by our definition of racism. What we know as 'racist' wasn't the same then.

The judges at Salem really believed, to the bottom of their hearts, that the girls they hanged and burned really were witches brought forth by Satan. It was incontrovertible to them. As real as the trees around them. As real as the smoke from a fire. Witchcraft was a very real danger, as real as an earthquake, as real as tornadoes in Kansas.

In the same exact way, blacks were property. They were no more valuable than a horse was. We buy and sell horses today. Why do we do that? Because there's money in it, because they're not intelligent like we are, because they can't protest. No matter that horses ARE intelligent, form emotional bonds with humans, and DO protest when they're relocated to new stables.

But...it's okay to buy and sell horses. People do it all the time. So what should we do about the horses? Let's free them! They can run wild... To get hit by cars, to breed incessantly, to overrun the fields and eat all the crops...wait, we need to control that! We can't let them go free. They'll ruin everything.

But...we can subjugate horses, because they're not human, right? They're animals. Blacks were animals. They were livestock. Not people.

That was the perspective. That was the reality. We know, today, that they had it all wrong, but they didn't. These are our ancestors. These were people living in their time and in their own lived experience, it wasn't wrong. I can judge today's humanity by my knowledge of this past, but I can't judge the people that lived it as evil or horrible. I can look through the lens of history and say that what they DID was wrong, but I can't say that they were bad people for living those lives.

So I can look at what they did and say "by what I know today, they did racist things". But I can't say they were racist by the standards of the time.

I need a shower now

Minor edit: took out a line that just didn't apply.
posted by disclaimer at 12:05 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


And to put what I said into the context of the post - sure, black people owned each other. The concept of a fellow human as property you could own was as real as the concept of owning a TV is today. It was the way things were, and yeah, you sold your kids - they'd be sent off to another farm or into an apprenticeship or into domestic service. Sometimes you sold yourself as an indentured servant, to emigrate or to pay off a debt. That was a really foundational concept to those societies. It's heartless, but it was a fact.
posted by disclaimer at 12:20 AM on June 27


The concept of a fellow human as property you could own was as real as the concept of owning a TV is today.

Yep. They used to call them "human resources".
posted by flabdablet at 12:27 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


"Whatever we do we need to make sure no one involved with this reads this article. Their heads will explode."

Ah... I think Professor Gates is well aware of African involvement in the slave trade.


I would guess so, but from the article you would think he wasn't familiar with the extremely long and varied history of slavery in Africa. Implicit in the way he presents things is "Gosh, you wouldn't expect a freed slave to buy slaves of his own". And I'd say: "Why the hell wouldn't they?" Given that their family may have owned slaves for generations and that even if not they were living in a culture in which slavery was the norm, it would be extraordinary for them NOT to want slaves.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:28 AM on June 27


Though there was slavery in Africa (and elsewhere) before the wholesale removal of people from their homelands, in order to work them to the bone building a nation, with violent subjugation, for generations, whilst making a massive and lasting effort to convince everyone in the world that these people weren't even human ... there is an argument that slavery in Africa wasn't really comparable.

There isn't really much that has been comparable. Even the biblical persecution of the Israelites, evoked so often in black cultures, was not a patch on this.
posted by iotic at 1:39 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


"Implicit in the way he presents things is "Gosh, you wouldn't expect a freed slave to buy slaves of his own". And I'd say: "Why the hell wouldn't they?" Given that their family may have owned slaves for generations and that even if not they were living in a culture in which slavery was the norm, it would be extraordinary for them NOT to want slaves."

1) That's not implicit. This is a complicated bit of history that not a lot of people know about.

2) You would expect freed slaves to have a different perspective on the "peculiar institution" of American slavery, what with having gone through it and all.

3) This just seems like a poorly thought through line of argument, honestly. It's like you didn't get past the, "Yes, of course," in the article. It actually goes into quite a bit about why free blacks owned slaves.
posted by klangklangston at 2:05 AM on June 27


Gah, it's so frustrating to see people judging people from the past for their way of life.

I'm not all that judgmental and even I'm ok with harshly judging American slavery and the people who created and perpetuated it. There were critics, plenty of them, at the time -- it's not like humans had less moral or mental capacity then, or that criticizing slavery is a purely modern pursuit.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:34 AM on June 27 [7 favorites]


2) You would expect freed slaves to have a different perspective on the "peculiar institution" of American slavery, what with having gone through it and all.

A different perspective, sure. Willing to forgo a major signal of wealth and power in the society they lived in? Not so much.

It actually goes into quite a bit about why free blacks owned slaves.

More specifically it goes into why Henry Gates thinks free blacks owned slaves. Yeah he has a few sources but most of what he says is supposition based on 150 year old rumors.

And missing entirely is the concept that some people acquired slaves because that was a perfectly normal and reasonable thing to do from their perspective.

I'm not suggesting that's how it was for everyone, but I also think that societal inertia is too great a force to be overlooked here.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:37 AM on June 27


Wait wait, I thought it was clear that I wasn't being a moral relativist here, that I think Lee and Jefferson were wrong, but I think we need another word other than "racist" because their value systems were SO FAR off our values today.

Sorry I was unclear but you guys are completely misunderstanding my point -- doesn't the rest of my comment add context? I'm saying "racist" is too WEAK a word to describe how they ranked people. Is that clearer?
posted by lesli212 at 3:41 AM on June 27


I mean, when I say "my grandpa's a racist", I don't think anyone assumes I'm suggesting my grandpa thinks owning some of y'all is ok. It's just weird to use that same word for such vastly different ideas about what is wrong or right to do.
posted by lesli212 at 3:47 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


Ok, I just re-read, and I guess if you didn't link my first comment to my second, it's not clear. Hey, it was 1 am!
posted by lesli212 at 3:51 AM on June 27


That was the perspective. That was the reality. We know, today, that they had it all wrong, but they didn't. These are our ancestors. These were people living in their time and in their own lived experience, it wasn't wrong. I can judge today's humanity by my knowledge of this past, but I can't judge the people that lived it as evil or horrible. I can look through the lens of history and say that what they DID was wrong, but I can't say that they were bad people for living those lives.

No, just...no. First of all, a good portion of the country already saw slavery as an evil at the point it was founded. Some, like Pennsylvania, had leaned that way since their earliest colonial days. The only reason it was allowed to continue was that otherwise, there would have been no United States, and thus was seen as a necessary evil for a greater good. Slave trading had been made illegal by most of the major world powers and (by Thomas Jefferson himself) the US, both by law and treaties. Within a generation, slavery itself would be abolished entirely in many places. Every single one of these arguments posited that slaves were people. Robert E. Lee knew they were human--even though he fought to keep his FIL's slaves in contravention of his will up until the Emancipation Proclamation was announced--he just thought that abolitionists were meanies and that black people were lazy and incurious. They didn't deserve to vote, but they were still people in his eyes. And it's not as if there weren't abolitionists in the future Confederacy either.

Is "racism" perhaps the wrong word? Maybe, but to put forth the concept that they didn't have any basis for considering that what they were doing was wrong? Nope. Some slaveholders may actually have literally seen slaves as inhuman, but the fact of the matter is that slavery was indeed seen as evil and horrible by a great many people even in the early days of the US, a viewpoint that would not have been unknown to a good deal of slaveowners, especially those amongst the educated and cultured elite. They may have seen slaves as lesser people, but they saw them as people nonetheless.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:27 AM on June 27 [7 favorites]


I used to be down with the idea that we can't judge people from the past because things were just different then, but as snarl furillo pointed out, there were plenty of people at the time, who knew slavery was wrong, and acted on it.

(on preview, what zombieflander said)
posted by maggiemaggie at 4:29 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


What's fascinating is even the people who thought slavery was wrong (such as Abraham Lincoln (duh) and Robert E. Lee (yup, yup)) were often so crazily hateful about the inherent inferiority of those of African descent (yup) that it really doesn't do their value systems justice to call them merely racist. Sorry to keep harping on this, but I hate that I was so sleepy and yet still posting last night.

Throughout history, all these people were doing and saying wrong, terrible things. Just as that doesn't mean they have an excuse, that also doesn't mean we're unable to recognize some of them still moved society forward. Saying abolitionists were heroes is also an example of applying our value system inaccurately to historical behavior.
posted by lesli212 at 4:43 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


to bring this back to blacks owning slaves: it's natural to wonder what they were they thinking, it's just not correct to say how could they have known otherwise?
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:36 AM on June 27


A Google search shows the white supremacists boards are having a field day with this...

This has been a talking point among those sorts for years. "See! The blacks did it too!" I guess that makes the white slave owners not as bad or something I can't even begin...
posted by marxchivist at 5:43 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


They want to escape the collective guilt for slavery. It's based on a simplistic view of racism.

Their argument goes something like: Black people also owned slaves, so it was a product of society at the time, therefore I (white people) have no particular culpability regarding slavery because everyone was doing it. It's along the same lines as the "My parents immigrated here in 1920, so my family had nothing to do with slavery" or "My family is from Massachusetts and fought in the Civil War". It ignores structural racism and all the discriminatory behavior since then and focuses solely on the act of enslavement, which everyone agrees was wrong.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 6:06 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


This has been a talking point among those sorts for years.

Yes, exactly. Pretty much any incidence of inter-minority violence or conflict is touted as proof that they're not only just as bad as the outsider majority who harmed them but perhaps even worse.
posted by elizardbits at 7:50 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


"More specifically it goes into why Henry Gates thinks free blacks owned slaves. Yeah he has a few sources but most of what he says is supposition based on 150 year old rumors."

Actually, he links to a ton of historical sources that include things like interviews with (at that time) surviving slaves and their descendants. Not sure why you think one of the preeminent black historians is talking out of his ass, other than you didn't actually read very closely.

"And missing entirely is the concept that some people acquired slaves because that was a perfectly normal and reasonable thing to do from their perspective."

The "perfectly normal" thing at the time was for blacks to be owned as slaves, not to own slaves themselves. It was still a minority of freed blacks who owned slaves, and within that group there are still distinctions about why they owned slaves.

Which is, again, in the article itself.

You keep coming across like you did a cursory read and didn't bother to actually engage with the text because you have a pet theory about how normal slavery was — something supported by your facile gloss of pointing out the African slave trade as if Gates (or we) were unaware and you were straight dropping knowledge.
posted by klangklangston at 8:28 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


"This has been a talking point among those sorts for years.

Yes, exactly. Pretty much any incidence of inter-minority violence or conflict is touted as proof that they're not only just as bad as the outsider majority who harmed them but perhaps even worse.
"

Yeah, I stumbled on to this essay after seeing a recommendation of a novel about black slave owners that won a Pulitzer. I was suspicious about that being a white supremacist trope, so I wanted to see how actually prevalent it was. Through that, I found a bunch of stuff on both sides of the historically accurate line, and since I know that Civil War scholarship was incredibly dubious for a long time, when I saw that Gates had written an essay on it, I was curious. In it, he cited a bunch of the papers that I'd already read, so it seemed like the best way to present them all at once (though I looked around to see if the essay was anywhere else, since the design of the Root site is so atrocious, it's like one step above MySpace).
posted by klangklangston at 8:40 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I forgot this above: Gates on the African slave trade in the NYT in 2010. So, yeah, a bit presumptuous for a white guy to lecture about Gates' head exploding over it.
posted by klangklangston at 8:42 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


The story of Anthony Johnson is a pretty fascinating one. Captured in Angola by slave traders, sold into indentured servitude, later becoming a wealthy planter and the plaintiff in one of the first lawsuits in the American colonies that established the ability to keep people in servitude for life.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 9:05 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


There isn't really much that has been comparable. Even the biblical persecution of the Israelites, evoked so often in black cultures, was not a patch on this.

I think the Helots might want a word with you (look it up). And there is some evidence that the oral history of the Hebrews passed on to us in the old testament would be more accurate to describe their status as contractors trying to end their contract early (i have forgotten the name of the book I read this in, but i do remember it making a very good case and having citations that backed it up).

Slavery, and societies built on it has been the story of humanity going as far back as civilization does, in fact it can be argued that slavery is THE necessary condition for early civilization to take hold (or at least serfdom, which isn't that far off). And what ended it was industrialization and automation.

It is even a condition to be found in many, many native american societies and the common fate of prisoners of war before modern times. Some societies were harsher than others on the slaves in them, but I am pretty sure being someone else's property has never really been a desirable state to find oneself in.

Even in the relatively small historical time frame that the black African slave trade to the new world existing in (in comparison with the history of humanity) the US was never a major destination nor the place with the harshest treatment. The Caribbean and Brazil sugar colonies were far harsher and had a MUCH higher death rate. the book 1491 documents this very well.

All of this does not excuse or remove that the US slave trade was ugly, and rightly abolished, but to frame the US as some kind of exceptionally horrific example of it is just wrong.
posted by bartonlong at 1:55 PM on June 27 [2 favorites]


What is different with the case of slavery in the Americas is that the captive population were taken a very long way from home. And then all expression of their native cultures was suppressed. Can you give me another example in which that has been the case?
posted by iotic at 4:03 PM on June 27 [2 favorites]


In the same exact way, blacks were property.

Contrary to your assertion, the view that slavery was inherent, justified, and widespread is actually deeply ahistorical. Arguments against slavery a available from even ancient roman times, and they abounded once the enlightenment took off - especially after the French revolution where it was eventually outlawed.

It is untrue to claim that people did not know any better, could not think any better, did not do any better. Thousands, maybe millions, did at the time.

In the same way that you cannot excuse homophobia today - despite its general and especial prevalence in some parts of the world, in the face of widespread, logical and humanistic opposition to it - neither can you excuse ideas of slavery in.

This is not just about judging people from yesteryear by the standards of today, but believe in the development of compassion and humanity in... well, humanity.
posted by smoke at 2:55 AM on June 28 [4 favorites]


Slavery in Western Europe and some other places was either dead or mostly-dead by the time that plantation slavery came along: you still had indentured servants, sharecroppers, and convict labor, but you didn't have the idea of humans as a tradable commodity. I'm not sure when slavery ended in England, but even servitude (i.e., being a serf, which was awful but nothing like being a slave) was effectively ended by around the 1500s. Colonial plantations in the Caribbean and elsewhere changed that, and I don't know why. Perhaps slavery was tolerated (or encouraged) by the Great Powers because the colonies were legally and conceptually isolated from the mainland? If so, what about slavery in the USA? Why did its Founding Fathers defend slavery at a time when British judges could find no place for it in English law? I find it strange that the revolutionaries had a Eurocentric attitude towards liberty and the Rights of Man, but simultaneously had a colonial attitude towards slavery.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:32 PM on June 28


What is different with the case of slavery in the Americas is that the captive population were taken a very long way from home.

The Romans enslaved large numbers of Gauls, which obviously wasn't quite as far, but was probably equally inaccessible for an escapee wanting to return home.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 6:44 AM on June 30


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