What Every College Graduate Should Know About Slavery

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As a graduate student at Yale in the mid-1970s, a literature colleague called me a “dust ball empiricist.”  At that time and place, there was no greater insult.  After all, every right-thinking humanist agreed with Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.

There is much truth to the postmodern claims that there are no incontrovertible truths and that much factual knowledge is indeterminate.  Yet, even though I don’t wholly agree with Thomas Gradgrind, the officious school board superintendent in Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times, who described facts “as the one thing needful,” I do believe that foundational knowledge is essential.

Currently, Hard Times’ opening lines are sure to evoke scorn from serious pedagogues:

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

In recent years, learning has come to be increasingly equated with skills building.  Our goal, we often hear, is to instill critical thinking skills and conceptual knowledge.  Analytical skills, interpretive skills, problem solving skills all take priority over the acquisition of facts.

Yet as a classroom teacher, I find nothing more frustrating than the fact that many of my students lack basic factual knowledge or what others call cultural literacy.  I’d go further and say that a contributor to today’s political polarization is a paucity of agreed upon facts.

Here are 23 essential facts about slavery and its aftermath that I believe every college graduate should be familiar with.

1.   Even though slavery is as old as the oldest human records – and could be found in societies as diverse as ancient China and India, in the Pacific Northwest, and in early England (where ten percent of the population was identified as enslaved in the Domesday Book of 1086), modern slavery — the kind of slavery that emerged in the New World after European colonization was distinctive.  It represented the lowest status in society.  It severely limited access to freedom.  It was based on race.  And it was the combustion engine that fueled modern capitalist economies.

2.  Only in a small number of societies, including classical Greece and the Roman republic and empire, did slavery become the dominant labor force.  But, ironically, slavery was associated with many of the most advanced societies and it grew most rapidly in eras, like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, often associated with “progress.” 

3.  Although slavery gradually declined in northern and parts of eastern Europe, where it was replaced by serfdom, it persisted in the Black Sea region and along the Mediterranean (and later on islands off the coast of Africa), where it served as a model for New World slavery.

4.  Between 1492 and 1820, Blacks constituted the overwhelming majority, some 4/5s, of those who crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the New World.  In other words, the European settlement and development of the Americas depended heavily on slavery and Black labor.  Also, slavery provided the labor force that produced the commodities, including sugar and tobacco, that undergirded the first modern mass consumer industries.

5.  The slave trade was the largest mass movement of people in world history and contributed significantly to sub-Saharan Africa’s underdevelopment.  Altogether, between 12 and 16 million Africans were forcibly exported to the New World, with revolts taking place on at least 10 percent of the voyages that made up the Middle Passage.  The Atlantic slave trade had devastating consequences on many parts of Western and Central Africa, skewing gender ratios, resulting in the loss of many prime age men, and displacing many indigenous industries.  Although enslavement largely, but not exclusively, took place as a result of warfare or judicial proceedings or repayment of debt, it was the European demand for slaves that helped destabilize large parts of the continent and drove the slave trade. 

6.   The first Blacks arrived in the English colonies in 1619, but the first slaves came to what is now the United States nearly a century earlier, into present-day South Carolina and Florida and the Southwest along with Spanish colonizers.

7.  Slavery in the English colonies was not a static institution.  The law of slavery evolved gradually, and initially Black slavery co-existed in England’s southernmost colonies with white indentured servitude and Indian slavery.  It only became the key to the southern economy in the late 17th century.  Even then, however, colonial slavery differed from its antebellum counterpart.  Most of the enslaved in the colonial era were Africans, spoke African languages, were concentrated geographically along the Atlantic seaboard, and produced crops other than cotton, including rice, indigo, and tobacco.

8.  Before the American Revolution, slavery could be found everywhere in the New World from Quebec to the tip of Argentina.  Not until the 1760s did the first organized protests against slavery appear.  It was the democratic, egalitarian ideology of the American Revolution that helped transform slavery into a moral problem.  Yet there can be no doubt that calls by the Royal Governor of Virginia to grant freedom to those Blacks who escaped to British lines and fought on His Majesty’s behalf helped solidify support for the Patriots among southern slaveowners.

9.  Blacks fought in every major Revolutionary war battle, on both sides, with several thousand eventually moving to eastern Canada and later to Sierra Leone.  The Revolution also greatly expanded the new nation’s Free Black population.   Yet even though the Revolution severely disrupted slavery in the British colonies – resulting in the loss of a quarter of South Carolina’s slaves and a third of Georgia’s – Southern slaveowners succeeded in restoring the institution and making it stronger than ever – suggesting what might have occurred had the Civil War ended in a negotiated settlement.

10.  Slavery was debated from the Constitutional Convention’s first day until its last. Compromise resulted in a document that could be interpreted by Southern delegates as decidedly pro-slavery and by some Northern delegates as antislavery.  The U.S. Constitution counted 3/5s of the slave population in apportioning representation; preserved the Atlantic slave trade for at least 20 years; and authorized (though did not require) the federal government to return fugitive slaves and intervene in slave uprising.

11.  Southern slaveowners dominated the presidency, the leadership of the most important Congressional committees, the judiciary, and the diplomatic corps in the decades preceding the Civil War, and succeeded, after the Compromise of 1820, in forging an enduring political alliance between Southern and Northern Democrats committed to national expansion.

12.  The goal of increasing the number of slave states helped drive American expansion, including the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico. Slavery played an unheralded role in the War of 1812, which was prompted, in part, by Britain’s increasing attempts to suppress the transatlantic slave trade, and sparked American dreams of expansion along the Gulf Coast and into Florida and Texas.  Yet slavery’s expansion invariably provoked political controversies that would ultimately result in civil war.

13.  Although slavey only generated a relatively small share of the capital that paid for industrialization, it nonetheless helped create global trade and commercial networks, provided the labor force for many valuable commodities, contributed substantially to the earnings of banks, insurance companies, shippers, meat packers, and manufacturers of rough cloth, and made cotton by far the pre-Civil War United States’s most valuable export. 

14.  Slavery in the American South differed in crucial respects from slavery in the Caribbean and Brazil.  In contrast to the Caribbean, the white population was much larger, and in all but two states, whites constituted a majority.  As a result, there was closer interaction between enslaved African Americans and whites and revolts were more likely to be suicidal. Black death rates were somewhat lower in the Southern states than in the Caribbean, the gender balance was more equal, which contributed to a higher birth rate, and racism was also more virulent in the United States. 

15.  Slavery in the United States was highly profitable for many individuals, producing over half the nation’s millionaires by 1860.  But its long-term effects on the South were highly negative, discouraging urbanization, technological innovation, industrialization, immigration, and a diversified economy.

16.  The cruelty and horrors of slavery – including very high levels of infant and child mortality, malnutrition that resulted in very low growth rates, cramped and unhealthy living conditions, and widespread family breakups — cannot be overstated.  Yet it is also essential to stress the many ways that enslaved Blacks resisted slavery: through “day-to-day” resistance, including acts of sabotage, flight (into woods and swamp lands, Southern cities, into Mexican territory, and along the Underground Railroad); and outright revolts.  Equally important was cultural resistance.  Religion, folklore, and extended kinship ties, biological and fictive, helped sustain dignity within an institution that sought to deny the full humanity of the enslaved every hour of the day. 

17.  It is impossible to imagine American culture apart from the contributions of enslaved African Americans, who helped shape the nation’s diet, language, music, religious practices, and, above all, American ideals of freedom.

18.  In the United States, antislavery proved to be compatible with racism.  In all but four Northern states, Free Blacks were denied the right to vote, and many Western states prohibited Black immigration altogether. It seems likely that most Northern and Western white opponents of slavery were “free soilers” who opposed slavery’s expansion while viewing wage labor as morally superior to slavery.

19.  It was Black participation in the Union army that allowed President Lincoln to avoid a negotiated settlement that might have perpetuated slavery.

20.  Even though the United States was unique in many respects – in abolishing slavery by force of arms (matched only by Haiti), in extending the vote to previously enslaved Black men, and enacting statutes and Constitutional amendments intended to protect Black rights – following Reconstruction, race relations resembled those in other post-emancipation countries: in the emergence of a caste system of race relations and adoption of a system of unfree labor (resting on sharecropping and debt peonage).

21.  In the 19th century, antislavery helped to legitimate wage labor as truly just and, at times, served as a pretext for imperialism.

22.  Although legalized slavery ended in 1970 with its abolition in several Gulf states, sex trafficking, sex slavery, and coerced child labor persist even today.

23.  Lasting legacies of slavery include economic underdevelopment, entrenched inequalities, and racism.

I don’t know whether I share Blake’s belief that “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  But I do wholly agree with Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist and neuroscientist, that faculty knowledge greatly enhances memory and such cognitive processes as problem solving and reasoning and memory.

Let’s not sacrifice foundational knowledge at the altar of skills building.  The two should be intertwined and inseparable.

There are certain forms of knowledge that every educated person ought to acquire and in the United States, a grounding in the facts of slavery are essential if we are to understand the dynamics and inequities that continue to damage and stain American society.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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