Posts Tagged ‘Slavery’

David Brion Davis on the history of slavery

November 2, 2016

One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis.   He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.

I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).

davisslaveryemancipationbwoakes02161391905742Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives.  Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today.  I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.

Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war.  Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.

When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.

The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches.  Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.

Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.

Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.

They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers.  Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.

The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson.  If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified.  There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.

This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.

Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery.   Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.

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Thoughts about the Free State of Jones

September 6, 2016

In the “Free State of Jones” movie, Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer who rebelled against the Confederacy, takes refuge in an inaccessible swamp and is helped by fugitive slaves.

Victoria Bynum

Victoria Bynum

Such things happened in real life.   Many fugitive slaves fled, not to the North, which many of them couldn’t reach, but to places such as the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia where their pursuers couldn’t follow.

The Seminole Indians were never defeated because they retreated deep into the Everglades where the U.S. military couldn’t follow, where they were joined by fleeing slaves.

And, yes, some of them did shelter white fugitives (fugitives for good and bad reasons).

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Jones County wasn’t unique as an example of white Southern unionism.  Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones, on which the movie was based, has written another book (which I haven’t read), The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies about white uprisings against the Confederacy in North Carolina, Mississippi and Texas.

I did know about Winston County, Alabama, and there were others.  The whole state of West Virginia was created out of a pro-Union section of Virginia.

Movies such as Glory remind us of the contribution of black troops to Union victory.  Loyal white Southerners also were important to Union victory,  Many of the Union’s best generals, such as George Thomas, were Southerners.

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Harriet Tubman, an American hero

July 24, 2016

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The following is notes for a lay sermon at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on July 24, 2016.

Before the present announcement that Harriet Tubman’s face will appear on the $20 bill, all I knew about her was that she was connected with the Underground Railroad.

I’ve since learned something about her, and come to realize that she is truly a great American – but with a different kind of greatness than that of historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant or Benjamin Franklin.

It is not just that those others were white, and she was black.  It is not just that they were all men, and she was a woman.  She was poor and illiterate, and earned her living through most of her life by physical labor.  Unlike her, they were commanders and lawgivers at the pinnacle of power.  She showed the power and position are not necessary for greatness.

What did her greatness consist of?  Her greatness consisted of the willingness to risk everything for freedom – first her own freedom, and then the freedom of others.

As a young girl, born into slavery, she resisted efforts to force her to accept submission, and eventually escaped.  Then, at great personal risk, she returned to the place she had been held in bondage, and rescued others.

During the Civil War, she volunteered as a scout for the Union Army and led other enslaved people into freedom.  During the final phase of her life, she supported equal rights for both African Americans and women.

She lived according to the ethic of Jesus in a way that few people today, including Unitarian Universalists, can understand.  She had a deep faith in God, and was guided by her visions of God.  She shared everything she had with those more in want that she was, and trusted in God to provide.

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Newton Knight, an American hero

July 22, 2016

My friend Hal Bauer urged all his friends to see the movie, Free State of Jones.  I saw it, and it is as good as Hal said it is.

The movie tells the story of Newton Knight, a white farmer in southern Mississippi, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy itself.

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Knight was 6-foot-4 with black curly hair and a full beard—“big heavyset man, quick as a cat,” as one of his friends described him.  He was a nightmarish opponent in a backwoods wrestling match, and one of the great unsung guerrilla fighters in American history.  So many men tried so hard to kill him that perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to reach old age.

“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” said [local historian Wyatt] Moulds. 

“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat.  A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”

Source: Richard Grant | Smithsonian

Knight hated the 20-slave rule, which gave slave-owning families one exemption from military service for every 20 slaves they owned.  He also hated Confederate confiscations of livestock, crops and food from small farmers.

For a time, his Knight Company drove the Confederate Army out of Jones County and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi.  Contrary to the impression given by the movie title, he didn’t intend to set up Jones County as an independent nation.  He was loyal to the Union.

He didn’t only fight for independent white farmers.  He fought against slavery himself.  He defended the rights of newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.  After the triumph of the Ku Klux Klan, he retreated to his homestead where he lived with his inter-racial family.

I had no idea Newton Knight existed until I saw the movie.

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What’s so remarkable about Harriet Tubman?

June 5, 2016
This is not how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

This is NOT how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

I knew hardly anything Harriet Tubman before the current announcement that her face will appear on the $20 bill.  During the past couple of weeks, I’ve read books that help me appreciate her for what she was.

What’s remarkable about Harriet Tubman is how she risked her life, not once but many times, in order to achieve her own freedom and the freedom of others—as a gun-toting conductor for the Underground Railroad and then as a scout and spy for the Union Army.

She did all of this at her own initiative and much at her own expense.  She financed her first slave rescue expeditions with money she earned as a cook and cleaner, and her work for the Union Army by making and selling pies and root beer.  A poor illiterate black woman who suffered blackouts probably due to a childhood head injury, she earned the respect of intellectuals and generals.

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She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime from 1820 to 1825 under the name of Amarinta Ross.  At the age of five or six, she was hired out as a nursemaid to keep watch on a baby; whenever the baby woke up and cried, she was whipped.  Once she was whipped five times before breakfast.

Later jobs included muskrat trapping, field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs.

Once an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and hit her instead.  She said the blow “broke my skull.”  She suffered dizziness, pain and blackouts throughout the rest of her life.  A devout Christian, she also experienced strange visions, vivid dreams and premonitions that she thought were the voice of God.

Harriet_Tubman_Locations_MapIn 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia, and adopted the name of Harriet Tubman.  Many escaped slaves changed their names in order to make recapture difficult.   She was married to John Tubman, a free black man about 10 years older than her, but he refused to go with her.

Her position was as precarious as that of an illegal immigrant today.  Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as well as previous law, she could have been arrested and returned to slavery at any time.

Rather than playing it safe, she returned to Maryland to rescue members of her family, not just once, but at least 13 times.  Slowly, one group at a time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she brought an estimated 60 or 70 slaves to freedom, and helped possibly 60 or 70 more by showing them the route.

Among them were brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and her aged parents who by that time were free, but were under suspicion of aiding the others to flee.   She sought out her husband, but he had meanwhile found a new partner.

She may have been the only fugitive slave who regularly ventured back into slave territory to bring other enslaved people out.  This is especially remarkable because she went back to a place where she was known by sight to white people in the community.

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The passing scene – October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015

Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us by Cass R. Sunstein for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

The TPP has a provision that many will love to hate: ISDS.  What is it, and why does it matter? by Todd Tucker for the Washington Post.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

Hillary Clinton says she does not support Trans Pacific Partnership by the PBS Newshour.

Q: Is the Obama Administration Complicit With Slavery? A: Yes by Eric Loomis for Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Slavery in Malaysia is overlooked for the sake of the TPP.

Houston is a lot more tolerant of immigrants than Copenhagen is on Science Codex.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Science Saves: The Young Iraqis Promoting Evolutionary Theory and Rational Thought to Save Iraq by Marwan Jabbar for Niqash: briefings from inside and across Iraq.  (Hat tip to Informed Comment)

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals by Tim Flannery for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Is the chilli pepper friend or foe? by William Kremer for BBC World Service.  (Hat tip to Jack)

The passing scene – October 5, 2015

October 5, 2015

Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism, an interview of Michael Hudson, author of Kllling the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy, on Counterpunch Radio.  Highly recommended.

More Leisure, Less Capitalism, Thanks to Tech, an interview of Jacobin contributing editor Peter Frase for Truthout.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Bernie’s Epistle to the Falwellites by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

How Steve Jobs Fleeced Carly Fiorina by Steven Levy for BackChannel.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

The model minority is losing patience by The Economist.  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist)

The Second Amendment Is a Gun Control Amendment by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker.  (Hat tip to Bill Elwell)

Reviving Shinto: Prime Minister Abe tends a special place in Japan’s soul by Michael Holtz for The Christian Science Monitor.  (Hat tip to Jack)

AP Investigation: Are slaves catching the fish you buy? by Robin M. McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza.  (Hat tip to Jack)

What I was taught about the Civil War

May 25, 2015

civil-war

When I was growing up, I believed that the Civil War was the result of a tragic misunderstanding, brought on by the radical abolitionists of the North and the radical fire-eaters of the South.

I believed that the Southerners were better and more chivalrous fighters, and had better generals.  I believed that the North won only because of greater numbers and better supplies.  I believed that black people were bystanders in a war between white people.

I believed, too, that Reconstruction was tyranny, dis-enfranchising the white people of the South and putting them under the rule of ignorant black people and corrupt Northern carpetbaggers.

I learned that the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan was the liberation movement of the Southern white people, and not to be confused with the 20th century Ku Klux Klan, which warred on white Catholics and Jews as well as black people.

All this coincided with a strong belief, which I got from my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers, that all people have equal rights and that people should be judged as individuals and not on the basis of their color, religion or nationality.

Our history was written to make possible the reconciliation of the white people of the North and South, and to conceal the fact that the price of reconciliation was to sacrifice the freedom of the black people in the South.  In all my high school and college experience, I was never assigned a book by a black author.

This may have been the result of growing up in Maryland, a border state, where people had fought on both sides, although a friend of mine, who grew up in Brooklyn, recalls being taught the same version of American history.

The fact is that the Civil War was fought over slavery.  It was not a war for the abolition of slavery, but in defense of slavery.

President Lincoln said that slavery was a bad thing and should not be allowed to spread.  The white Southern leaders said that slavery was a good thing, and should not be restricted.   The white Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union, but the white Southern soldiers fought to preserve slavery.  There also were black regiments fighting for the Union, and their members had no doubt they were fighting against slavery.

Reconstruction was a noble but half-hearted attempt at nation building, and it was a tragedy that it was stopped by means of terrorism—terrorism that was still in place during the civil rights era of the 1960s.

That doesn’t mean that Southern white people were individually worse than Northern white people, as Abraham Lincoln was at pains to point out, or that the Confederates did not fight bravely against great odds.  It means they were part of a bad system whose effects linger today.

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A true history of the Civil War

July 10, 2014

BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson (1988) emphasizes a key fact about the Civil War which some historians try to ignore—that the war was started by the South and fought in defense of slavery.

This book is a history of the struggle over slavery, in its social and political as well as military aspects, from the start of the Mexican War to the end of the Civil War.

The Mexican War itself was fought partly to expand the territory open to slavery (and was opposed by many Northern abolitionists for that reason); during the next decade, Southern politicians tried to expand slave territory by purchasing Cuba and by sponsoring private military expeditions to Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries.

Battle_Cry_of_Freedom_(book)_coverThe cause of the Civil War was the growing Northern opposition to the spread of slavery and the refusal of the South to tolerate any restrictions on slavery.  Although the Southern leaders’ rationale for secession was state’s rights, this was a secondary consideration.  They did not recognize state’s rights in regard to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and they endorsed the Dred Scott decision, which denied the right of a state to forbid slavery.

Some were more frank than others.  Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, said the U.S. Declaration of Independence was in error in saying all men are created equal.

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery … is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said.  “This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

The war was not initiated by the North to abolish slavery.  Abraham Lincoln’s position was that slavery was a great evil and should not be permitted to expand, but that the federal government had no Constitutional right to interfere with it where it existed.

This was not good enough for the Southern leaders, who saw in Lincoln’s platform a future threat to slavery.  Ironically, if the Southern states had not seceded, slavery would have endured for many years to come.

Subjugation of black people was a matter of principle for the Confederates.  Robert E. Lee refused to permit exchanges of prisoners of war, which would have been to his benefit militarily, because Lincoln insisted on black prisoners being included in the exchanges.

The Confederacy announced that captured black Northern soldiers would be sold into slavery; this was suspended only after Lincoln threatened to put equal numbers of white Southern troops to hard labor.

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Slavery still exists in the world today

June 11, 2014

Slavery is not a thing of the past.  An estimated 30 million people are slaves today.   They include bonded debt slaves, trafficked migrants, forced prostitutes, child soldiers, child laborers, forced laborers and old-fashioned slaves who are bought and sold.

The Guardian newspaper is conducting a continuing investigation of modern-day slavery.  Recently it reported on slavery in the Thai fishing industry.  Last year it reported on enslaved Nepalese migrant workers in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar.

I have added a link to the Guardian’s modern-day slavery articles to my Issues menu on the right-hand column of this page, which I will maintain so long as The Guardian continues its investigation.    Slavery is as odious today as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The facts behind the movie “Belle”

June 11, 2014

The other evening I saw “Belle,” an enjoyable movie about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a West Indian slave, who was adopted into the family of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

It’s a sweet love story.  It is an interesting picture of the life of the 18th century British aristocracy, and the interplay of race and social rank.  And the real Belle must have been a remarkable person.  BUT:

It is less than just to Lord Mansfield, who is depicted as an old fogy who needed to be prodded by idealistic young people to do the right thing.

Lord Mansfield was an opponent of slavery who, as a judge, was faced with the fact that slavery was established in law.  Only a naive person would think that he was in a position to abolish slavery simply by decree.  But he established judicial precedents, within the existing law, that weakened slavery.

Mansfield in the movie is shown as reluctantly accepting the child Belle into his household because she is the illegitimate daughter of his nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsey.  In fact he was not reluctant at all, and Belle was not a blood relation.  She was the daughter of a pregnant mulatto woman liberated from a Spanish ship that Lindsey captured in war.

The movie focuses on the Zong case, in which Mansfield ruled against owners of a slave ship who claimed insurance compensation for chained slaves overboard on a voyage.

The Somersett case, in which Mansfield ruled that a runaway slave need not return to his master, was much more significant.    Mansfield’s decision was that, in the absence of a specific law establishing slavery, it could not be permitted because it was inherently “odious”.

This was roughly the same position that Abraham Lincoln took prior to being elected President.  He said he did not have the legal authority to abolish slavery where it existed, because it was established by the Constitution, but slavery was so obviously wrong that it could not be allowed to spread into new territories.   This was unacceptable to slaveowners, which is the reason for the Civil War.

At the end of the movie, it seems to me, the characters spoke and thought more like contemporary people than people of their own time.  As if the present generation represents a pinnacle of wisdom!  I think that is a common flaw of historical movies.  I think Amistad would have been a better movie if the John Quincy Adams characters had made the arguments that the real John Quincy Adams made, and not what Steven Spielberg thinks he should have made.   The movie Lincoln was better because it put Lincoln in the context of his times.

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Click on ‘The Black Must Be Discharged’: the Abolitionists’ Debt to Lord Mansfield for more background by Stephen Underwood for History Today.

Slavery and racism did not benefit most whites

May 29, 2014

American slavery and white supremacy were crimes against humanity.  At the same time I doubt that most white Americans, in the past or present, got any benefit from slavery and racism, aside from the psychological benefit of having someone we could hate and despite.

I know that I as a white person had been treated better in almost any situation than a black person would be.  But if black people were treated better, I don’t think this would caused people like me to be treated worse.

In contrast, I know that I as a white person benefit from the force and fraud used to take the North American land away from the American Indians.  It is because of that crime that I am able to live in the house I own.   I don’t see any such cause-and-effect relationship in the crime of slavery.

SlavesAmerican slavery at its peak was of enormous economic importance to the United States.  The monetary value of American slaves exceeded the value of all American factories and railroads put together.   Slaves cultivated and picked cotton, which in 1840 accounted for nearly 60 percent of U.S. exports.   The whole industrial revolution was based on the textile industry, which was based on cotton.

But I ask: Did anyone benefit from this except for a wealthy elite?  The average white person in the South were better off than the average black person, but not never as well off as the average white person in the North.  Foreign travelers reported going down the Ohio River, and noticing the clean, prosperous, well-maintained farms on the Ohio side and the dirty shacks on the Kentucky side.  The difference was that white farmers in free states didn’t have to compete with slave labor.

Suppose there had been no slavery.  Cotton would have been picked somehow by someone.  It might have cost more, and some other nation might have had a comparative advantage over the USA.  But the United States would have been spared the death and destruction of the Civil War.

The economic development of the United States might have been more rapid without plantation slavery.  Southern planters opposed the interests of Northern manufacturers.   Under the Lincoln administration, Congress passed the Homestead Act and the Land Grant College Act, and granted subsidies for transcontinental railroads.  Without Southern opposition, these things might have happened years earlier.

Little_Rock_integration_protestThe appeal to white racism was a technique to divide and rule.   Poor black slaves and white indentured servants rebelled in Virginia in 1676 and nearly overthrew the colonial government.  The powers-that-be responded with laws enforcing legal distinctions between white and black.  Poor black and white sharecroppers in the South joined forces again in the Populist movement of the 1880s.  This was broken up by an appeal to the racial pride and Confederate nostalgia of the whites, and was soon followed by the Jim Crow laws.

Industrialists in the North also encouraged ethnic and racial divisions among their work forces—not just between whites and blacks, but among different immigrant groups.  Blacks were relegated to low-wage jobs and excluded from majority-white labor unions, which enabled employers to use them as strikebreakers.  This continued until the rise in the 1930s of the CIO unions, which opposed racial discrimination.

In more recent times, political propagandists such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove have successfully split the working-class vote by subtle appeals to racial antagonism.   All these things work to the advantage of a small minority of rich people, most of them white but not representing the interests of most white people.

Yes, there are black people who are prejudiced against white people.   I don’t think they benefit from their prejudices either.

What does the USA owe its black citizens?

May 28, 2014

Almost all nations have things in their past that their peoples find hard to come to terms with.   We Americans have not yet come to terms with our nation’s history of slavery and white supremacy.

Racism in the United States is more than just the bad attitudes of certain white individuals toward black people.  It is the history of government action t0 enslave black people, to deny black the rights of citizenship after slavery was abolished in law, and to exclude them from full participation in society.

The New Deal was tailored so as to freeze out black people from most of its benefits.  Social Security was written so as to exclude domestic servants and agricultural laborers, which were the majority of black people in the 1930s.  The Federal Housing Administration for decades had a policy of refusing to lend money in any neighborhood in which a black family lived.  White suburbanites who said that the value of their house would be destroyed by having a black family in their neighborhood were speaking the literal truth.  This was official government policy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic goes into all this an interview with Bill Moyers, which is shown above, and in an article, The Case for Reparations, in the  Atlantic’s  June issue.

Coates reported on black families who escaped to Chicago from the Deep South, where they were outside the protection of the law, where their incomes were sobject to the whims of white people, and where their property could be taken from them at any time.  In Chicago, they were confined to ghettoes by action of the government, the banks and white mobs, who had the same impunity as white mobs in the South.  Their red-lined neighborhoods are the parts of Chicago where poverty and crime are highest today.

Nor is this all in the past.  The new voter ID laws and other voting restrictions are aimed at discouraging black voting.  Refusal to expand Medicaid disproportionately affects blacks.  Drug laws are enforced selectively against poor young black men, who as convicted felons are then excluded from the protection of anti-discrimination laws for the rest of their lives.

Coates doesn’t deny there has been progress.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a better start in life than Frederick Douglass, but he did not have an equal start with white peers.   Black people once were barred from many occupations.  Now it is just more difficult for them to be hired.

“Reparations” is a trigger word that is easily misunderstood.  Coates did not call for the government to write checks to the descendents of American slaves.  Rather he called on Americans to recognize that the nation (not just white people, but the nation as a whole) owes something to black people, and to discuss just what that is.

I have reservations about the word “reparations,” but I think that Coates is absolutely right to say that we Americans need to face up to our history—the bad along with the good.  I think every American should read his article.

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12 Years a Slave: reviews of the movie

December 7, 2013

In my previous post, I shared my thoughts on the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Here are some links to reviews and articles that give deeper background and different perspectives.

A Confederacy of Kidnappers by Matt Karp for Jacobin.  Hat tip to tashqueedag.

Henry Louis Gates on 12 Years a Slave and The African-Americans, an interview in Time magazine.

Jezebel and Solomon: Why Patsey Is the Hero of 12 Years a Slave by Amy Davidson for The New Yorker.

Silenced by Christopher Benfrey for the New York Review of Books.   This is an interesting review, but the things Benfrey criticizes as being corny and sentimental are based on facts as set down in Northrup’s book.

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12 Years a Slave: the movie and the book

December 6, 2013

I have long understood the evils of slavery on an intellectual level – that is to say, I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way understood them.  But seeing the movie, 12 Years a Slave, and reading the book has helped me to understand it in a deeper and more visceral way than I did before.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and who survived to tell the story of what happened to him.  The movie is true to the book.  Some details are left out, and some are changed in unimportant ways, but anybody who sees the movie will get the essence of the book.

The movie is a powerful evocation of the slave-holding South.  The movie helps me imagine, as much is possible for me to imagine, what it would be like to be ripped out of my everyday life, and suddenly thrown into a situation in which I had no rights and no identity, subject to people with the power to commit rape, torture and murder without any consequences.   The scenes of everyday slave life are as powerful as the scenes of whipping and abuse.

Northrup experienced the extremes of slavery.  His first owner was William Ford, a sincere Christian, who sought to treat slaves as humanely as possible without giving them freedom.  Under him, slavery was probably as endurable as it was anywhere in the South.  But Northrup spent 10 years of his servitude subject to the power of the half-insane sadist and sexual predator, Edwin Epps.

Epps’ chief victim was a young slave woman named Patsey, whom he used as a sex object, then allowed his jealous wife to abuse and have whipped.   It culminates in a scene that is almost too painful to watch.  Epps, to please his wife orders Northrup to whip Patsey half to death, and then takes the whip himself.

While the movie is true to the Northrup’s experience, Northrup’s book gives you insight into his mind.  He accurately describes not only what happened to him, but what he observed—the conditions of life, how the system worked, how sugar cane and cotton were grown.   He judged people, even white slave-owners, as individuals, and he never gave way to hatred of white people in general.  I don’t think I could have done that in his situation, even assuming I would have survived in the first place.

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Death and indentured servitude in Qatar

October 29, 2013

The natural gas fields controlled by tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar make it the richest nation in the world in income and production (GDP) per person.  Its rulers have ambitious plans to make it a business and tourism center for the Middle East and the world.  The prestige of Qatar is symbolized by the fact that it will be host to soccer’s World Cup in 2022..

Yet Qatar’s riches rest on the labor of non-citizens, most of them migrant laborers who have no rights, and work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions for poverty wages, which sometimes are withheld from them.

Only about 250,000 people, all of them native Qataris, are citizens.  Most of the rest of Qatar’s estimated 2 million residents are migrant laborers, who comprise 94 percent of the country’s work force.  The kingdom is busy constructing stadiums, hotels and other facilities for the 2022 World Cup, and another 1 million new migrant workers are expected in the coming decade.

Qatar’s labor system resembles the indentured servitude that existed in Britain’s American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The video above shows their working conditions.  Workers can come to Qatar only if they have a Qatari sponsor.  Once in Qatar, they cannot change jobs, get a driver’s license, rent an apartment, open a back account or leave the country without the sponsor’s permission.  This leaves them with no recourse if they’re not paid their wages.

A majority of Qatar’s migrants are from the Indian subcontinent, many of them from the Himalayan nation of Nepal, and many of the rest are from the Philippines and Indonesia.  When you have a tiny elite of rich people ruling over a large number of impoverished laborers, this is a bad situation.  When the elite are of a different nationality, culture or religion from the laborers, it is an unstable situation.

The United States military has a big stake in the region.  Qatar hosts the U.S. headquarters and principal air base for the Middle East region.  I would hate to see the U.S. government helping the Qatari government put down an uprising of its people.

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Globalization and the world slave work force

October 23, 2013

slavery-map2

About two-thirds of the world’s estimated 29.8 million slaves are forced laborers, working for private employers to supply materials and components for products sold in world markets.

Tim Fernholtz of the Atlantic gave some examples.

This summer, an Australian man imprisoned in China reported that prisoners were making headphones for global airlines like Qantas and British Airways. Some 300,000 sets of the disposable headphones were made by uncompensated prisoners who were forced to work without pay and regularly beaten. The index says that there are about 3 million slaves in China, in state-run forced labor camps, at private industrial firms making electronics and designer bags, and in the brick-making industry.

Companies like Apple, Boeing and Intel—among thousands of others—have been under pressure to document that the tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold they use aren’t being mined by slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a civil war has led armed groups seeking funding to force civilians to work. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule forcing American firms to trace the minerals they use to their origins, and while business lobbies have sued to overturn it, industry leaders have begun planning to file the first required reports in May 2014.

In the Asian seafood industry, migrant workers may become forced laborers who harvest and prepare mackerel, shrimp and squid bound for markets around the world.

Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading supplier of cocoa—some 40 percent of the global supply—and much of it is grown and harvested by some children engaged in forced labor. In 2010, Côte d’Ivoire said 30,000 children worked on cocoa farms, although Walk Free’s index estimates as many as 600,000 to 800,000. While this has been widely reported on since 2000, and the global response has been strong, compared to that of other allegations of forced labor, the problem has not really been solved. As of 2012, 97 percent of the country’s farmers have not participated in industry-sponsored campaigns against forced child labor. Mondelēz International, the world’s largest chocolate producer, which owns brands such as Milka, Toblerone and Cadbury, has struggled for years to take forced labor out of its supply chain. It committed $400 million to a program aimed at creating a sustainable cocoa economy last year, but its efforts have been ineffective so far.

The best way for us Americans and citizens of other wealthy countries to promote freedom and democracy is to stop our corporations and governments from supporting slavery and autocracy.   This seems do-able to me.

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Slavery in the world today

October 22, 2013

slavery-absolute-numbers

Slavery is outlawed under international law and in most parts of the world, but there are still nearly 30 million slaves in the world today, according to the anti-slavery organization WalkFree.  These are literal, not metaphorical, slaves—forced laborers, child soldiers, forced prostitutes and others held in bondage.

Some are debt slaves, sold into slavery to pay their own or their parents’ debts.  Some are unauthorized immigrants, lured by false promises of a job and then trapped in a country where they have no legal rights.   Some are simply victims of force.

The map above shows the estimated number of slaves in each country.  Nearly half of the world’s slaves—an estimated 14 million people—are in India.   But few countries are completely without slaves, and the USA is not one of them.

The map below shows the estimated proportion of the population of each country that is enslaved—about one out of every 25 people in the nation of MauritiusMauritania, one out of 48 in Haiti.  The percentage of slaves in the United States is small, but that is still 60,000 people.  India is near the top in the prevalence of slavery as well as absolute numbers.

slavery-per-capita-map-wo-arrows.OLCjpg

Click on Globalization and the world slave work force for a post on how global companies benefit from slave labor. [added 10/23/13]

Click on This map shows where the world’s 30 million slaves live | There are 60,000 in the U.S. for background by Max Fisher of the Washington Post.

Click on WalkFree.org – The Movement to End Modern Slavery for more information and suggestions for action.   Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

Slavery is not a thing of the past

June 20, 2013

We think of slavery as a thing of the past, but it isn’t.  The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 21 million people around the world in different kinds of forced labor.  And it isn’t just backward countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

The U.S. State Department issued its annual report on forced labor and human trafficking on Wednesday.  The Guardian reported

China is criticized for perpetuating human trafficking in 320 state-run institutions and the widespread domestic trafficking of girls and women into forced prostitution. In Russia, an estimated 1 million people are exposed to exploitative labor, including forced labor used in the construction of the Winter Olympic park in Sochi, according to the report.

The government of Uzbekistan continues to force older children and adults into slave labor in its cotton industry, the US state department says, and the country “remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through the implementation of state policy”.

via The Guardian.

Uzbekistan is noteworthy because coerced labor for production of cotton is government policy.  Uzbekistan has been dependent on its cotton industry since the days of the old Soviet Union.  Here is a report from a human rights organization.

Child cotton pickers in Uzbekistan

Photo by Thomas Grabka

In 2012, the Uzbek government mobilized the forced labor of over a million children and adults. Regional authorities enforced state cotton quotas on farmers, under threat of taking their land.  While there was not the nationwide shut-down of primary schools, authorities mobilized children ages 15 to 17 nationwide and younger children sporadically.

Children forced to pick cotton worked excessive hours, conducted arduous physical work in hazardous conditions and under threat of punishment, including expulsion from school.  Government employees – including teachers, doctors, nurses, and soldiers – and private business employees were forced to pick cotton under threat of dismissal from work, the loss of salary, pensions and welfare benefits.  Authorities extracted fines from those who failed to meet their cotton quotas.

This spring, the Uzbek government is again mobilizing children as young as age 10 and adults to plow and weed cotton fields.  On April 19, the deputy governor of Namangan region beat seven farmers for planting onions instead of cotton.  As is the case each year during the fall cotton harvest, the forced labor of government employees is once again disrupting the delivery of essential public services, including health care and education.

via Cotton Campaign.

Secretary of State John Kerry should be commended for allowing the report to go out, even though it embarrasses powerful countries such as Russia and China and U.S. allies such as Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.

Congressional law allows for targeted economic sanctions against countries that practice or tolerate slavery, forced labor and human trafficking.   I don’t think this is likely anytime soon, but to name them and shame them is more than nothing.

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The greatness of Lincoln on film

November 29, 2012

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie during Thanksgiving week, and liked it a lot.   It was well-written, well-acted and well-staged, and so far as I can tell, broadly true to history. The movie focused on a few months in early 1865 when Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, through Congress.  It showed the two sides of Lincoln, the cunning politician and the idealistic believer in freedom and democracy.  If Lincoln had been less of either, slavery would not have been abolished when and how it was.

An early scene showed two black Union soldiers talking to someone with his back turned; then the camera revealed the person to be Abraham Lincoln, whose expression of good-humored, kindly shrewdness showed Lincoln as I imagined him.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a splendid actor.  After watching him as Lincoln, it is hard to recall he played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. 

Tommy Lee Jones was great as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist Congressman, who is depicted as a man ahead of his time, as he was, instead of as a dangerous extremist, as he usually is shown.  Sally Field (no longer young and perky) gave a fine performance as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, as did David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

The movie provides much-needed push-back against revisionists who claim that Abraham Lincoln was a power-hungry opportunist who cared nothing about slavery.  There are two versions of this—a left-wing version that says Lincoln was a servant of capitalism and a right-wing version that says the Civil War was really about state’s rights.

The Southern leaders in fact only cared about state’s rights as a means of defending slavery.  They used the power of the federal government to override Northern states that harbored fugitive slaves.  It is true that Lincoln did not run for President as an abolitionist.  A Thaddeus Stevens could not have been elected.  Lincoln’s platform was to stop the spread of slavery into parts of the nation where it did not then exist.  This, he claimed, would lead to the gradual extinction of slavery.  The Southern leaders agreed.  They thought Lincoln such a threat that they led their states out of the Union.

Lincoln wrote a famous letter to Horace Greeley, saying his priority was to save the Union by any means necessary, whether that meant freeing the slaves, leaving them in bondage or freeing some and not freeing others.  This was a correct priority.   Emancipation of the slaves would have been meaningless if the Southern whites has established an independent slave nation.  But when he wrote this letter, the Emancipation Proclamation was in a desk drawer, awaiting a Union victory for Lincoln to issue it.

Critics of Lincoln said the Emancipation Proclamation, which referred only to slaves in areas then in rebellion, did not free a single slave.  This isn’t so.  Many slaves fled behind Union lines to freedom.  The Emancipation Proclamation was based on Lincoln’s claim of wartime authority to confiscate enemy property.  He did not have the authority under law to emancipate slaves generally on his own decision.  This required a Constitutional amendment, which, as the movie shows, he introduced in due course.

Emancipation of the slaves had political and strategic benefits.  It deprived the South of its work force and its moral claims.  Black troops added to the Union strength.  But it had its costs.  Northern whites were divided on this issue.  Southern whites were motivated to fight to the bitter end because emancipation meant an end to their way of life.  Without emancipation, the Confederates might have surrendered before Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the physical devastation of the South.  Or a compromise peace might have been negotiated, as the movie indicates, and the war ended sooner, but with slavery intact.

Click on Lincoln: A More Authentic Wonderment for an appreciation of the movie in the New York Review of Books.

Click on Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Accurate, His Advisers Aren’t for historical background in The Atlantic.

“To My Old Master”

March 4, 2012

In August of 1865, a Colonel P.H. Anderson of Tennessee wrote to his former slave, Jourdan Anderson, to request that he come back to work on his farm.  Anderson had been emancipated, and was supporting his family with paid work in Ohio.  Anderson replied in a letter which had been making the rounds of the Internet:

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can.  I have often felt uneasy about you.  I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house.  I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable.  Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.  It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee.  Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this.  I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me.  I am doing tolerably well here.  I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well.  The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher.  They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly.  We are kindly treated.  Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee.  The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson.  Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master.  Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville.  Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you.  This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.  I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years.  At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars.  Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.  Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.  If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future.  We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows.  Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls.  You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine.  I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

P.S.  Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Hat tips to Ta-nehisi Coates and Letters of Note,

Click on What happened to the former slave that wrote his old master? for the rest of the story.

Slavery was America’s original sin

July 5, 2011

Nations, like individual human beings, have things in their history which they hate to face.  For us Americans (or at least white Americans), it is slavery.  Not only was slavery part of our national fabric from the beginning, acceptance of slavery was the price that had to be paid for our nation to come into existence in the first place.

Our very founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, show this.

When Thomas Jefferson submitted his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, it contained this complaint against King George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere … determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold … he is now exciting those very people to rise to arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them … thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes he urges against the lives of another.

This was a double complaint – that the British government had sanctioned the African slave trade and introduced slavery into the American colonies; and then that the British encouraged those slaves to revolt against their masters.   So the British were to blame for the existence of slavery, but also condemned for recruiting slaves to fight against their masters.  Jefferson had things both ways.

But even this was too much for some of the delegates.  As Jefferson later noted, the South Carolina and Georgia delegations were strongly in favor of continuing the slave trade, and some Northern delegates were reluctant to condemn it, since New England Yankee ship captains were themselves active in the slave trade.

References to the slave trade were deleted, and the final version, signed on July 4, 1776, had only this to say on the subject of slavery:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us …

The document that proclaims that all men have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness also condemns instigation of slave revolts.  That’s not consistent.  But if South Carolina and Georgia hadn’t supported the Revolution, maybe American independence could not have been won.  The Continental Congress faced a real moral dilemma.

Fast forward to the Constitutional Convention in 1783.  Without the agreement of the slave states, the Constitution would not have been ratified, and the United States would not have become a nation in its present form.  Three provisions were necessary to win the slave states’ agreement.

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