I came across this meme on the Facebook page of Mike Wallace, a NASCAR Driver suspended for sharing inflammatory social media posts. I was curious about what he had done to get suspended. By the time the story broke, he had apparently removed some of the more offensive posts. This one was not removed at that time, but it has been subsequently. There was an extensive discussion of this post with many people defending it as historically accurate.
I was simultaneously shocked and not surprised at all. Most Americans have a poor understanding of U.S. and World History. Only someone with such a poor understanding could find themselves in agreement with the claims made in this meme.
The research below helps debunk, clarify, and contextualize the history of American slavery. Many whites seem to feel persecuted by the fact that slavery is a part of the history of this country. This is a fact that history cannot erase. Slavery’s consequences are still very much present in our contemporary society. Rather than choosing to ignore this history, our country will be best served by understanding it. Read on if you would rather be educated than radicalized.
The Irish were slaves too; slaves had it better than Northern factory workers; black people fought for the Confederacy; and other lies, half-truths, and irrelevancies.
A certain resistance to discussion about the toll of American slavery isn’t confined to the least savory corners of the Internet. Last year, in an unsigned (and now withdrawn) review of historian Ed Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told, the Economist took issue with Baptist’s “overstated” treatment of the topic, arguing that the increase in the country’s economic output in the 19th century shouldn’t be chalked up to black workers’ innovations in the cotton field but rather to masters treating their slaves well out of economic self-interest—a bit of seemingly rational counterargument that ignores the moral force of Baptist’s narrative, while making space for the fantasy of kindly slavery. In a June column on the legacy of Robert E. Lee that was otherwise largely critical of the Confederate general, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote that, though Lee owned slaves, he didn’t like owning slaves—a biographical detail whose inclusion seemed to imply that Lee’s ambivalence somehow made his slaveholding less objectionable. And in an August obituary of civil rights leader Julian Bond, the Times called his great-grandmother Jane Bond “the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer”—a term that accords far too much agency to Bond’s ancestor and too little blame to the “farmer” who enslaved her.
While working on our Slate Academy podcast, The History of American Slavery, we encountered many types of slavery denial—frequently disguised as historical correctives and advanced by those who want to change (or end) conversation about the deep impact of slavery on American history. We’d like to offer counterarguments—some historical, some ethical—to the most common misdirections that surface in conversations about slavery.
Is it true?: If we’re talking about slavery as it was practiced on Africans in the United States—that is, hereditary chattel slavery—then the answer is a clear no. As historian and public librarian Liam Hogan writes in a paper titled “The Myth of ‘Irish Slaves’ in the Colonies,” “Persons from Ireland have been held in various forms of human bondage throughout history, but they have never been chattel slaves in the West Indies.” Nor is there any evidence of Irish chattel slavery in the North American colonies. There were a large number of Irish indentured servants, and there were cases in which Irish men and women were sentenced to indentured servitude in the “new world” and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. But even involuntary laborers had more autonomy than enslaved Africans, and the large majority of Irish indentured servants came here voluntarily.
Which raises a question: Where did the myth of Irish slavery come from? A few places. The term “white slaves” emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, first as a derogatory term for Irish laborers—equating their social position to that of slaves—later as political rhetoric in Ireland itself, and later still as Southern pro-slavery propaganda against an industrialized North. More recently, Hogan notes, several sources have conflated indentured servitude with chattel slavery in order to argue for a particular Irish disadvantage in the Americas, when compared to other white immigrant groups. Hogan cites several writers—Sean O’Callaghan in To Hell or Barbados and Don Jordan and Michael Walsh in White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America—who exaggerate poor treatment of Irish indentured servants and intentionally conflate their status with African slaves. Neither of the authors “bother to inform the reader, in a coherent manner, what the differences are between chattel slavery and indentured servitude or forced labor,” writes Hogan.
This is an important point. Indentured servitude was difficult, deadly work, and many indentured servants died before their terms were over. But indentured servitude was temporary, with a beginning and an end. Those who survived their terms received their freedom. Servants could even petition for early release due to mistreatment, and colonial lawmakers established different, often lesser, punishments for disobedient servants compared to disobedient slaves. Above all, indentured servitude wasn’t hereditary. The children of servants were free; the children of slaves were property. To elide this is to diminish the realities of chattel slavery, which—perhaps—is one reason the most vocal purveyors of the myth are neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups.
Bottom line: Even if many Irish immigrants faced discrimination and hard lives on these shores, it doesn’t change the fact that American slavery—hereditary and race-based—was a massive institution that shaped and defined the political economy of colonial America, and later, the United States. Nor does it change the fact that this institution left a profound legacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans, who even after emancipation were subject to almost a century of violence, disenfranchisement, and pervasive oppression, with social, economic, and cultural effects that persist to the present.
In a piece published in Vice magazine in 2005 (and still available on the Vice website), comedian Jim Goad offers a series of “feel better about your history, white kids” arguments. One of his salvos: “Slavery was common throughout Africa, with entire tribes becoming enslaved after losing battles. Tribal chieftains often sold their defeated foes to white slave-traders.”
Is it true?: This is certainly true. But, as historian Marcus Rediker writes, the “ancient and widely accepted institution” of enslavement in Africa was exacerbated by the European presence. Yes, European slave traders entered “preexisting circuits of exchange” when they arrived in the 16th century. But European demand changed the shape of this market, strengthening enslavers and ensuring that more and more people would be carried away. “[European] slave-ship captains wanted to deal with ruling groups and strong leaders, people who could command labor resources and deliver the ‘goods,’ ” Rediker writes, and European money and technology further empowered those who were already dominant, encouraging them to enslave greater numbers. Both the social structures and infrastructure that enabled African systems of enslavement were strengthened by the transatlantic slave trade.
Bottom line: Why should this matter? This is a classic “two wrongs make a right” ethical proposition. Even if Africans (or Arabs, or Jews) colluded in the slave trade, should white Americans be entitled to do whatever they pleased with the people who were unlucky enough to fall victim?
“The first slave owner in America was black.”
Is it true?: It depends on how you parse the timeline. Anthony Johnson, the black ex–indentured servant whose bio opened the first episode of our podcast, did sue to hold John Casor for life in 1653, and the resulting civil court decision remanding Casor to Johnson’s ownership was (as historian R. Halliburton Jr. writes) “one of the first known legal sanctions of slavery” in the colonies. That phrase—“one of”—is crucial. The ship Desire brought a cargo of Africans from Barbados to Boston in 1634; these people were sold as slaves. In 1640 John Punch, a runaway servant of African descent, was sentenced to lifelong slavery in Virginia, while the two European-born companions who fled with him had their indentures extended. In 1641, the passage of the Body of Liberties provided legal sanction for the slave trade in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (N.B.: The image in the meme above isn’t of Anthony Johnson. There were no photographers in 17th-century Virginia.)
Whether or not Anthony Johnson was the first American slaveholder, he was certainly not the last black person to own slaves. “It is a very sad aspect of African-American history that slavery sometimes could be a colorblind affair,” writes Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the Root, in a fascinating piece about the history of black slaveholders in the United States. Some black slaveholders bought family members, though this humanitarian arrangement doesn’t account for all of the history of black slaveholding, as Gates points out.
Bottom line: Even if Anthony Johnson was the first person in the North American colonies to hold a slave—even if many black people across the years held slaves—that doesn’t erase the fact that it was the racially based system of hereditary slavery that harmed the vast majority of black people living within it. The fact that some members of an oppressed class participate in oppression doesn’t excuse that oppression.
“Slaves were better off than some poor people working in Northern or English factories. At least they were given food and a place to stay.”
Is it true?: It was undeniably hard to be a factory worker in the 19th century. White adults (and children) labored in dangerous environments and were often hungry. But slaves were hardly in a better position.
While it makes some intuitive sense that a person would be rationally motivated to take care of his or her “property,” as the Economist’s reviewer suggested, historians have found that American slaveholders were apt to provide minimum levels of food and shelter for enslaved people. They considered black people’s palates to be less refined than white people’s, and this justified serving a monotonous diet of pork and cornmeal. Enslaved workers were expected to supplement their diets when they could, by tending their own vegetable gardens and hunting or trapping—more work to be added to their already heavy loads. Evidence shows that many enslaved people suffered from diseases associated with malnutrition, including pellagra, rickets, scurvy, and anemia.
Even if an enslaved person in the United States landed in a relatively “good” position—owned by a slaveholder who was inclined to feed workers well and be lenient in punishment—he was always subject to sale, which could happen because of death, debt, arguments in the family, or whim. Since very few laws regulated slaveholders’ treatment of enslaved people, there would be no guarantee that the next place the enslaved person landed would be equally comfortable—and the enslaved had limited opportunity, short of running away or resisting, to control the situation.
Bottom line: This is another case of the “two wrongs” fallacy. We could compare levels of mistreatment of Northern factory workers and Southern enslaved laborers and find that each group lived with hunger and injury; both findings are dismaying. But this is a distraction from the real issue: Slavery, as a system, legalized and codified the slaveholder’s control over the enslaved person’s body.
“The vast majority of soldiers in the Confederate Army were simple men of meager income,” rather than wealthy slaveholders, writes the anonymous author of a widely-circulated Confederate History “fact sheet.”
Is it true?: According to the 1860 census, taken just before the Civil War, more than 32 percent of white families in the soon-to-be Confederate states owned slaves. Of course, this is an average, and different states had different levels of slaveholding. In Arkansas, just 20 percent of families owned slaves; in South Carolina, it was 46 percent; in Mississippi, it was 49 percent.
By most measures, this isn’t “small”—it’s roughly the same percentage of Americans who, today, hold a college degree. The large majority of slaveholding families were small farmers and not the major planters who dominate our image of “slavery.”
Typically, this fact is used to suggest that the Civil War was not about slavery. If so few Southerners owned slaves, goes the argument, then the war had to be about something else (namely, the sanctity of states’ rights). But, as historian Ira Berlin writes, the slave South was a slave society, not just a society with slaves. Slavery was at the foundation of economic and social relations, and slave-ownership was aspirational—a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Whites who couldn’t afford slaves wanted them in the same way that, today, most Americans want to own a home.
Bottom line: Slavery was the basis of white supremacy, which united all whites in a racist hierarchy. “[T]he existing relation between the two races in the South,” argued South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun in 1837, “forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions.” Many whites couldn’t imagine Southern society without slavery. And when it was threatened, those whites—whether they owned slaves or not—took up arms to defend their “way of life.”
“The North benefited from slavery, too.”
Is it true?: There’s no question that this is true. As historians Ed Baptist and Sven Beckert show in their respective books, American slavery was an economic engine for the global economy. The South’s production of cotton drove industrialization and fueled a massive commodities market that transformed the world. Naturally, this meant that slavery was vital to Northern financial and industrial interests. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that New York City was among the most pro-Southern cities in the North during the Civil War; slavery was key to its economic success. In any honest conversation about American slavery, we have to look at the tight economic links between North and South and the degree to which the entire country was complicit in the enterprise.
Bottom line: Often, this line comes from Southern defenders, who want to emphasize Northern complicity. But the two types of historical guilt aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s true that the North played a major role in sustaining the slave economy. It’s also true that slavery was based in the American South; that it formed the basis of Southern society; that white Southerners were its most fervent defenders; and that those Southerners would eventually fight a war to preserve and expand the institution.
“Historical fact shows there were Black Confederate soldiers. These brave men fought in the trenches beside their White brothers, all under the Confederate Battle Flag,” reads a statement from the South Carolina chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Is it true?: Here is a case where rhetorical precision is key. Did blacks serve in the Confederacy? Absolutely: As enslaved people, countless black Americans cooked, cleaned, and worked for Confederate regiments and their officers. But they didn’t fight; there’s no evidence that black Americans—enslaved or free—fought Union soldiers under Confederate banners.
Toward the end of the war, a desperate Confederate Congress allowed its army to enlist enslaved Africans who had been freed by their masters. A small number of black soldiers were trained, but there’s no evidence they saw action. And even this measure was divisive: Opponents attacked it as a betrayal of the Confederacy’s aim and purpose. “You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers,” declared Howell Cobb, president of the Provisional Confederate State Congress that drafted the Confederate States of America constitution. “The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
The myth is a product of the post-war period, when former Confederate leaders worked to retroactively redefine secession from a movement to preserve slavery to a fight for abstract “state’s rights” and a hazy “Southern way of life.”
Bottom line: Even if there were black soldiers in the Confederate army, it doesn’t change the truth of the Confederacy: Its goal was the protection and expansion of slavery. The institution was protected in the Confederate constitution. “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” said Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in his “Cornerstone Speech.” “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
A LEGACY OF LIES: “LOST CAUSE” MYTH DISTORTED CIVIL WAR HISTORY TO INFECT AMERICA’S SOUL WITH WHITE SUPREMACY
The U.S. military recently began rethinking its traditional connection to Confederate Army symbols, including the Army base names, mindful of their divisiveness at a time the nation is wrestling with questions of race after the death of George Floyd in police hands.
Ten major Army installations are named for Confederate Army officers, mostly senior generals, including Robert E. Lee. Among the 10 is Fort Benning, the namesake of Confederate Army Gen. Henry L. Benning, who was a leader of Georgia’s secessionist movement and an advocate of preserving slavery. Others are in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. The naming was done mostly after World War I and in the 1940s, in some cases as gestures of conciliation to the South.
The Navy and the Marine Corps are now banning public displays of the Confederate Army battle flag on their installations, casting their decision as necessary to preserve cohesion within the ranks. However, on June 10 President Donald Trump made it clear that his administration would not move the nation further away from institutionalized racism. He expressed instead that the nation should “cling to it and its heritage,” by keeping the names of racist traitors on the gates of American military bases.
The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention. Fort Bragg, the training base of elite forces for example, was named for Braxton Bragg, a native North Carolinian and Confederate general with a reputation for bravery and mediocre leadership. His forces were defeated at the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863.
On June 9, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent letters to leaders of the Armed Forces urging them to follow the example of the historic decision by the Marine Corps to ban any and all Confederate iconography from their bases and installations around the globe.
Since the end of the Civil War, the Confederate symbols currently occupying public spaces have served as a continual reminder of the pain and oppression they represent. Similar to the numerous monuments that endorse revisionist history, the naming of military assets in honor of the Confederacy occurred decades after the South surrendered and over 750,000 American lives were lost in the Civil War.
Considering this historical issue, and the lack of education around it that was intended to keep the public in the dark, the Milwaukee Independent made the editorial decision to present a previously published news report. Edward Bonekemper: Debunking the big lie about Civil War history was originally released on September 8, 2017, but it remains timeless in explaining how advocates of the Confederacy were able to re-write history to support their vision of White Supremacy that continues to infect the national soul.
While history books call the sIаughtеr that occurred from 1861 to 1865 the “American Civil War,” it is often referred to as the “War to Preserve the Union,” the “War of the Southern Rebellion,” the “War to Make Men Free,” the “War Between the States,” or the “War of Northern Aggression,” depending on the region of the country. What it is not called, but goes to the truth of the conflict, is the “Confederate War for the Preservation of Slavery.”
The greatest accomplishment of the Civil War for the Southern soldier was rewriting the account of their loss, a false remembrance known as the Myth of the Lost Cause. As historian Edward H. Bonekemper III describes it, “the narrative is the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.”
Bonekemper was the keynote speaker at the monthly meeting of the Civil War Round Table of Milwaukee on September 7. The event attracted a record crowd of over one hundred, close to double the usual attendance. Established in 1947, the organization is the second oldest in the world, sharing a common interest in the study, promotion, and recognition of the American Civil War.
“The reason I felt compelled to write the book, The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won, was because as I went around the country talking to members of the Civil War Roundtables, I found that a lot of people who should have known better were greatly affected by the false narrative,” said Bonekemper. “That is why I think it is important for all of us to consider what the myth is, and how much we want to buy into that myth.”
The heart of his analysis was whether slavery was the primary cause of secession and the Confederacy’s creation. He examined the Federal protection of slavery, slavery demographics, conventions and declarations of seceding states, their outreach to other slave states, statements by Confederate leaders, the Confederacy’s foreign policy, POW policy, and rejection of black soldiers.
After the war, Southerners had a lot to justify. Almost the entire war was fought in the South, and the region was an economic destroyed. Bonekemper examined the accuracy of the Myth and how it has affected the country’s perception of slavery, the rights of states, the nature of the Civil War, and the nature of slavery in 1860, including whether it was a benign and dying institution.
Drawing on decades of research, Bonekemper also discussed other controversial Myth issues, such as whether the South could have won the Civil War, whether Robert E. Lee was a great general, and whether Ulysses S. Grant was a mere “butcher” who won by brute force.
While there have been rebuttals to Bonekemper’s research, those criticisms either focus on the trivial academic details of historical minutia, or attack his conclusions directly as an example of the need to preserve the Myth itself.
The term “white privilege” that currently occupies the national discussion is often presented as a modern development. However, the condition is as old as slavery, and Bonekemper offered a 150-year old perspective to the current debate.
The Confederacy’s defeat ended slavery and kept America from being an international pariah. It also resulted in passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th constitutional amendments; these provided the legal basis for ending legal segregation and providing blacks with voting and other civil rights – after a hundred years of Jim Crow laws and nationwide segregation.
“Bonekemper confirmed what I’ve argued for years about the myth of the Civil War being about state’s rights,” said community leader and historian Reggie Jackson. “He provided clear, irrefutable evidence to argue that it was all about slavery. I really enjoyed the lecture and can’t wait to read his book.”
Edward H. Bonekemper III is a military historian, teacher, and celebrated author. He writes frequently about slavery, the American Civil War, and Union and Confederate generals. Bonekemper speaks to Civil War Roundtables across the nation and lectures at the Smithsonian Institution.
Find out the truth behind five common myths or misunderstandings about slavery in the United States.
As historian and public librarian Liam Hogan has written: “There is unanimous agreement, based on overwhelming evidence, that the Irish were never subjected to perpetual, hereditary slavery in the colonies, based on notions of ‘race’.” The enduring myth of Irish slavery, which most often surfaces today in service of Irish nationalist and white supremacist causes, has roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Irish laborers were derogatorily called “white slaves.” The phrase would later be employed as propaganda by the slave-owning South about the industrialized North, along with (false) claims that life was far harder for immigrant factory workers than for enslaved people.
What’s the truth? Large numbers of indentured servants did indeed emigrate from Ireland to the British colonies of North America, where they provided a cheap labor force for planters and merchants eager to exploit it. Though most crossed the Atlantic willingly, some Irish men and women—including criminals as well as simply the poor and vulnerable—were sentenced to indentured servitude in Ireland, and forcibly shipped to the colonies to carry out their sentences. But indentured servitude, by definition, came nowhere close to chattel slavery. For one thing, it was temporary; all but the most serious felons were freed at the end of their contracts. The colonial system also offered more lenient punishment for disobedient servants than enslaved people, and allowed servants to petition for early release if their masters mistreated them. Most importantly, servitude wasn’t hereditary. Children of indentured servants were born free; slaves’ children were the property of their owners.
This myth, that the Civil War wasn’t fundamentally a conflict over slavery, would have been a surprise to the original founders of the Confederacy. In the official declaration of the causes of their secession in December 1860, South Carolina’s delegates cited “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” According to them, the Northern interference with the return of fugitive slaves was violating their constitutional obligations; they also complained that some states in New England tolerated abolitionist societies and allowed Black men to vote.
As James W. Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” wrote in the Washington Post: “In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights—that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.” The idea that the war was somehow not about slavery but about the issue of states’ rights was perpetuated by later generations anxious to redefine their ancestors’ sacrifices as a noble protection of the Southern way of life. At the time, however, Southerners had no problem claiming the protection of slavery as the cause of their break with the Union.
Closely related to Myth #2, the idea that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers were men of modest means rather than large plantation owners is usually used to reinforce the contention that the South wouldn’t have gone to war to protect slavery. The 1860 census shows that in the states that would soon secede from the Union, an average of more than 32 percent of white families owned enslaved people. Some states had far more slave owners (46 percent of families in South Carolina, 49 percent in Mississippi) while some had far less (20 percent of families in Arkansas).
But as Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion point out in Slate, the percentages don’t fully express the extent to which the antebellum South was a slave society, built on a foundation of slavery. Many of those white families who couldn’t afford enslaved people aspired to, as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. In addition, the essential ideology of white supremacy that served as a rationale for slavery, made it extremely difficult—and terrifying—for white Southerners to imagine life alongside a Black majority population that was not in bondage. In this way, many Confederates who did not enslave people went to war to protect not only slavery, but to preserve the foundation of the only way of life they knew.
Myth #4: The Union went to war to end slavery.
On the Northern side, the rose-colored myth of the Civil War is that the blue-clad Union soldiers and their brave, doomed leader, Abraham Lincoln, were fighting to free enslaved people. They weren’t, at least not initially; they were fighting to hold the nation together. Lincoln was known to personally oppose slavery (which is why the South seceded after his election in 1860), but his chief goal was preserving the Union. In August 1862, he famously wrote to the New York Tribune: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
Enslaved people, themselves helped make the case for emancipation as a military aim, fleeing in droves beyond the lines of approaching Union armies. Early in the conflict, some of Lincoln’s generals helped the president understand that sending these men and women back to bondage could only help the Confederate cause. By the fall of 1862, Lincoln had become convinced that acting to end slavery was a necessary step. A month after his letter to the New York Tribune, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which would take effect in January 1863. More a practical wartime measure than a true liberation, it proclaimed free all enslaved people in the rebel states, but not those in the border states, which Lincoln needed to remain loyal to the Union.
This argument, a staple among those seeking to redefine the conflict as an abstract battle over states’ rights rather than a fight to preserve slavery, does not hold up. White officers in the Confederacy did indeed bring enslaved people to the front during the Civil War, where they cooked, cleaned and performed other labors for the officers and their regiments. But there’s no evidence to suggest that significant numbers of Black soldiers fought under the Confederate banner against Union soldiers.
In fact, until March 1865, Confederate Army policy specifically prohibited Black people from serving as soldiers. Some Confederate officers wanted to enlist enslaved people earlier: Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed enlisting African American soldiers early in 1864, but Jefferson Davis rejected the suggestion and ordered it never to be discussed again. Finally, in the last weeks of the conflict, the Confederate government gave in to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s desperate plea for more men, allowing enslaved people to enlist in exchange for some kind of post-war freedom. A small number signed up for training, but there’s no evidence they saw action before the war’s end.
Were U.S. slaves in any way responsible for their own misery? Were there any silver linings to forced bondage? These questions surface from time to time in the American cultural conversation, rekindling a longstanding debate over whether the nation’s “peculiar institution” may have been something less than a horrific crime against humanity.
When rapper and clothing designer Kanye West commented on TMZ.com that slavery was a “choice,” and later attempted to clarify by tweeting that African Americans remained subservient for centuries because they were “mentally enslaved,” he set off a social-media firestorm of anger and incredulity. And after a charter-school teacher in San Antonio, Texas asked her 8th-grade American history students to provide a “balanced view” of slavery by listing both its pros and cons, a wide public outcry ensued. The homework assignment was drawn from a nationally distributed textbook.
Such controversies underscore a profound lack of understanding of slavery, the institution that, more than any other in the formation of the American republic, undergirded its very economic, social and political fabric. They overlook that slavery, which affected millions of blacks in America, was enforced by a system of sustained brutality, including acts—and constant threats—of torture, rape and murder. They ignore countless historic examples of resistance, rebellion and escape. And they disregard the long-tail legacy of slavery, where oppressive laws, overincarceration and violent acts of terrorism were all designed to keep people of color “in their place.”
The history is clear on this point: In no way did the enslaved, brought to this country in chains, choose this lot. But several damaging myths persist:
In 1619, the Dutch introduced the first captured Africans to America, planting the seeds of a slavery system that evolved into a nightmare of abuse and cruelty that would ultimately divide the nation.
Couldn’t They Have Just Resisted?
The fact is, they did. Starting with the slave-ship journeys across the Atlantic, and once in the New World, enslaved Africans found countless ways to resist. Slavery scholars have documented many of the mutinies and rebellions—if not the countless escapes and suicides, starting with African captives who jumped into the sea rather than face loss of liberty—that made the buying and selling of humans such a risky, if lucrative, enterprise. Beyond famed slave revolts such as that of Nat Turner were less well-known ones such as that of Denmark Vesey. The literate freedman corralled thousands of enslaved people in and around Charleston, South Carolina into plans for an ambitious insurrection that would kill all whites, burn the city and free those in bondage. After an informant tipped off authorities, the plot was squelched at the last minute; scores were convicted, and more than 30 organizers executed.
The idea of “chosen” bondage also ignores those thousands of slaves who opted for a terrifyingly risky escape north via the sprawling, sophisticated network called the Underground Railroad. Those unlucky enough to be caught and returned knew what awaited them: Most runaways became horrific cautionary tales for their fellow slaves, with dramatic public shows of torture, dismemberment, burning and murder. Even when they didn’t run, wrote historian Howard Zinn, “they engaged in sabotage, slowdowns and subtle forms of resistance which asserted, if only to themselves and their brothers and sisters, their dignity as human beings.” That dignity, resilience and courage should never be belittled or misinterpreted as an exercise of free will.
Weren’t Some Slaves Happy to Be Taken Care Of?
Such misconceptions about slavery don’t come out of the blue. American culture has long been deeply threaded with images of black inferiority and even nostalgia for the social control that slavery provided. On the eve of the Civil War, white supremacists such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens stressed that slavery would be the cornerstone of their new government, which would be based “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” It was an attitude that would be continually reinforced—in textbooks that have glossed over the nation’s systemic violence and racism and in countless damaging cultural expressions of blacks in entertainment, advertising and more.
In the period immediately before and just following the Civil War, benign images in paintings and illustrations presented the old plantation as a kind of orderly agrarian paradise where happy, childlike slaves were cared for by their beneficent masters. Pop-culture stereotypes such as the mammy, the coon, the Sambo and the Tom emerged and persisted well into the 20th century, permeating everything from advertising—think Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben—to movies to home décor items like pitchers, salt-and-pepper shakers and lawn ornaments. They presented blacks as cheerful, subservient “darkies” with bug eyes and big lips and, often, with a watermelon never too far off. Popular paternalistic depictions such as that of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind showed slaves as faithfully devoted to their masters and helplessly dependent. The consistent message: Blacks were better off under white people’s oversight.
The Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras saw the emergence of an even more damaging stereotype: blacks as savage immoral brutes. As seen in the work of authors such as Thomas Dixon and films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, these fearmongering images of free black men presented them as predatory rapists who, once unshackled, threatened the purity and virtue of white women and needed nothing more than to be contained. Cue the Klan and lynch mobs.
Once Slavery Ended, Why Couldn’t They Just Pull Themselves Up?
Although the Thirteenth amendment technically abolished slavery, it provided an exception that allowed for the continuation of the practice of forced labor as punishment for a crime. In the decades after the Civil War, black incarceration rates grew 10 times faster than that of the general population as a result of programs such as convict leasing, which sought to replace slave labor with equally cheap and disposable convict labor. Although convict leasing was abolished, it helped to lay the foundations for wave after wave of laws and public policy that encouraged the jailing of African-Americans at astronomical rates. As Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Name of Colorblindness, “The criminal-justice system was strategically employed to force African-Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.”
The legacy of slavery and racial inequality can still be seen in countless other ways in American society, from well-documented acts of unfounded police brutality to voting restrictions to ongoing inequalities in employment and education. It’s no wonder that the call for reparations for slavery, racial subordination and racial terrorism continues to inspire debate. Beyond the original promise made by General William Tecumseh Sherman just after the Civil War to provide newly freed blacks with “40 acres and a mule”—a promise quickly recanted—nothing has been done to address the massive injustice perpetrated in the name of the “peculiar institution.” In 2016, a study by a United Nations-affiliated group reporting to the U.N.’s high commissioner on human rights made nonbinding recommendations that the history and continuing fallout of slavery justifies a U.S. commitment to reparations.
“Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights,” the committee said in a statement, “ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today.”
Slavery was not a choice, but opting to ignore its legacy is. It is a choice that will continue to inflame passions as long as we attempt reconciliation without confronting and redressing the awful truth.
Yohuru Williams is an American academic, author and activist. Williams is a professor of history and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) and a notable scholar of the civil rights movement.