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:
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 with confronting and redressing the awful truth.