American Slavery: The Complete Story

AuthorGerald A. Foster

Page 401

You May Attempt to Enslave My Body but My Mind Will Forever Be Free

I Emerging from the Cave of Ignorance

In answering the question posed in his 1998 Harper's Weekly magazine article "Why Americans are not taught History?" Christopher Hitchens quotes noted historian David McCullough, "History shows us how to behave. History teaches us and reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, what we ought to be willing to stand up for."1

The challenge for all progressive thinking Americans of all colors, ethnicities and social classes is to begin the tedious task of revitalizing an interest in American history. History, after all, is one of the four core subjects included in standardized testing that starts with the third grade. We must believe that racism, discrimination and prejudice can be obliterated in the beginning decades of the twenty-first century. This process may start in our public schools but it cannot be limited to our public schools. Eric Foner writes in his most recent book about his deep appreciation to Wintrop Jordan for a comment made at a 1966 conference, "To understand peoples' attitudes about race, you have to understand their attitudes about everything."2

Ultimately the most valid measure of a quality education is its capacity to reveal the degree of one's ignorance and thus focus one's acquisition of new knowledge. Americans have become masters at ignoring what seems so obvious to the astute observer. For example, we ignore the poverty, illiteracy and destitution among our lower social classes yet we attack and criticize so called Third World nations for the same problems. Furthermore, we piously criticize other nations for human rights violations while in this country we continue to violate the human

Page 402rights of Native Americans, the poor, the uninsured, the incarcerated, and the handicapped. We ignore the woeful deficiencies of the average American student in basic math, language, science, and history, but we claim to possess a world class public education system wherein "no child is left behind." Finally, we turn a blind eye to the fact that the majority of teachers in urban school systems do not have a degree in their primary area of teaching and spend more time on discipline than on student learning.

Therefore, the ability to transform the teaching of American history in a more accurate and inclusive fashion becomes a political problem and challenge as much as an educational challenge. Yet we must, because at the core of our collective historical deficiency lies the issue of race and as we have shown, the path to race flows from slavery.

Revising any element of American history in a meaningful manner is a daunting task particularly when the subject is racially oriented. Yet, it is for this exact reason that such an undertaking must occur. Since the advent of public education in the latter part of the nineteenth century, curriculum content on slavery and race in America has been narrowly focused, factually inaccurate and intentionally misleading. James Loewen states, "In 1959 my high school textbook presented slavery as not such a bad thing. If bondage was a problem for African Americans, well, slaves were a burden on Ole Massa and Ole Miss, too. Besides slaves were reasonably happy and well fed."3 What should be clearly shown in the revamping of American history within the context of slavery is that the invented concept of race was and remains the conduit through which racism has been allowed to flourish and fester: slavery was an economic necessity that provided free labor for over two hundred years. To justify the inhuman and brutal treatment of this human labor pool, the concept of race was invented and it scientifically and religiously ranked whites as superior and blacks as inferior, thus, totally justifying the manner in which slaves were treated. Following the official end of slavery in 1865, the racial protocol of the nation, particularly in the South, had become firmly entrenched in daily patterns of behavior and socio-political interactions. Accordingly, the end result was institutionalized and individualized racism manifested in every major social, economic and political institution in the nation. Our schools, hospitals, employers and neighborhoods all were tainted by the poison of racismPage 403that had been spawned by slavery. Even in the beginning years of the twenty-first century, racism remains an ever-present cloud looming over the nation like an intractable albatross.

The monumental challenge for the educators and progressive minded citizens of America as well as for our elected and appointed representatives is to correct our history starting with our elementary schools and extending through higher education. For this to be done, the African presence in America does not begin in 1619 but hundreds of years earlier, perhaps as early as 1200 B.C. There is also a documented presence in 1250 A.D., roughly two and a half centuries before Columbus was born.

Gayanese anthropologist Ivan van Sertima has spent practically all of his professional life devoted to the theory, which is now a documented fact, that Africans did sail to the Americas and settled in Olmec, Mexico in 1250 B.C. Although as expected, his theories and research have come under relentless, and for the most part baseless, attacks by white anthropologists, Van Sertima's research findings remain sound and valid. Therefore, as we embark on this maiden voyage of revisionist discovery, all that has been advanced in the name of American History for four hundred years must be reexamined. Africans did not come to these shores in chains in 1619, but they came as bold explorers between 1200 B.C. and 1250 A.D. Henceforth, public school curricular must develop an African chronology that spans four distinct periods; exploration (1250 A.D. to 1500 A. D.), indentured servitude (1500 A.D. to 1670 A.D.), involuntary slavery (1670-1865), and post emancipation servitude (1865-1900), thus departing from the "happy slave" characterizations that have permeated our written and oral history for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, we must confront and correct "the lies our teachers told us." We must not allow another generation of elementary school children to be infected with the virus of historical inaccuracies, and therein lay the ultimate ethical and civil challenge. Speaking truth to power has never been easy but is always the right thing to do.

An example of the formidable socio-political reactionary cabal is seen in the international best selling work of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published in 1995, The Bell Curve4Building on all of the pseudo-scientific racist themes of the past hundred years, these authors advanced the notion that blacks are genetically inferior to whitesPage 404and therefore should be treated as social misfits and outcasts. Although there were immediate and very effective scientific refutations of this book, the mere fact that it enjoyed such widespread positive acceptance tells us that we are still a nation easily led to believe in the inherent inferiority of blacks as well as the inherent superiority of whites. If there is a positive side of this scenario, it is the diverse and pointed counterattack mounted by nineteen of the nation's foremost and renowned social scientists in the rejoinder to Murray and Herrnstein, entitled The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence and the Future of America5 The resounding unified theme in this work is that pseudo-scientific racism has no place in modern American education or social policy. Although we are now a decade beyond the Bell Curve Wars, there remains a gaping chasm between the rhetoric and the reality of racial progress in the nation.

Therefore, in the future, discussions of slavery in America must include: the presence of Africans in the Americas for centuries before the Columbus-arrival myth; the presence of a distinct society of activist free blacks during the two hundred years of institutionalized slavery in America; the strong coalition and common interests shared by Native Americans (particularly the Seminoles) and blacks; the contributions to society made by slave and free blacks; the persistent resistance to slavery mounted by blacks and their white counterparts; the critical roles played by science and religion in supporting, justifying and advancing slavery and racism; and lastly the incorporation of these historical revisions not only in our textbooks but also into the policies and institutions of our nation. After all, racism not only injures and debilitates the target population but the perpetrators as well.

II Slavery and Race

Abraham Lincoln is hailed as the "great emancipator" because he supposedly risked his political future as well as the fragile foundation of the relatively new republic, to end slavery. This is indeed a noble version of American history and one that has inflamed and incited partisans for nearly 140 years. However, the truth, which is always relative and not absolute, is that Lincoln's one and only priority was to preserve a fragile Union that was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and intense sectional antagonism, not to free the slaves. The politicalPage 405agenda was integrally intertwined with an economic agenda, both of which had far reaching international implications well beyond the purview of slavery. Unfortunately, the issue of slavery still remains the supreme bogey of American black-white race relations.

Two of the most unnecessarily divisive issues today have their genesis in slavery-reparations and the confederate flag. In an August 2, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, Abraham Lincoln made his position on slavery crystal clear, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT