This will be another long post. Sigh.
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report last week called “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.” The Atlantic ran an article about the report and it is a sobering read to find out the sad state of what students are being taught about slavery today. For me, it was deeply disturbing, though not surprising.
It’s hard for many to believe, but so much of what we suffer in this country is *directly* related to slavery. I can see some people’s eyes rolling back and I hear the collective sighs–but that doesn’t make it less true.
We’ve got to grapple with that fact, as uncomfortable as it is to talk about and to think about. Consider this example:
All of the negatives stereotypes about African-Americans that are widely believed today by so many are rooted in slavery.
Rooted. In. Slavery:
Blacks are violent savages. They are naturally criminal.
Blacks are lazy. They don’t want to work and must be forced to do so.
Blacks are mentally inferior. Stupid.
Blacks are a different race. Biologically different.
Blacks need to be taken care of. They need moral guidance because their very nature is immoral.
These beliefs are rooted in the justifications that Southerners gave to support the institution of slavery and the country as a whole used after the war to support white supremacy.
These beliefs are old and dated, and bone-marrow deep in America.
Why is it that we can reach back hundreds of years and find the same beliefs? Let’s look at what some pro-slavery writers wrote:
Sociology for the South or the Failure of Free Society, by George Fitzhugh, 1854
From Chapter V, Negro Slavery:
(P. 83) “…[the negro] is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child… The master occupies towards him the place of parent or guardian…”
(P. 84) “In the last place, the negro race is inferior to the white race …this defect of character would alone justify enslaving him, if he is to remain here. In Africa or the West Indies, he would become idolatrous, savage and cannibal, or be devoured by savages and cannibals.”
(p.88) “Now, are the average of negroes equal in information, in native intelligence, in prudence or providence, to well-informed white children of fourteen? We who have lived with them for forty years, think not.”
“The African race is a race of barbarians, and civilization to that race would be an artificial state of existence… The vestiges of barbarism characterize the Negro, in his normal state.The latent principle of cannibalism, lurks, in dormant energy, within the very core of his being, and constitutes a prominent characteristic…”
“It has been supposed by some, that the enunciation of human equality in the American Declaration of Independence was intended for all the races of men in the world. Such a supposition is totally unfounded…In the first place, it is not true; and in the next place, the writer of that Declaration meant no such thing, for he held slaves, and knew their inferiority.
(The quotes in this next example would almost be funny if they weren’t so damn silly. And this was presented at a scientific conference!)
(P. 7) “It is too generally taught that the Negro only differs from the European in the color of his skin and the peculiarity of his hair; but such opinions are not supported by facts. The skin and hair are not the only things which distinguish the Negro from the European, even physically;and the difference is greater, mentally and morally, than the demonstrated physical difference.”
(P. 8) “The skull is very hard and unusually thick; enabling the Negroes to fight or carry heavy weights on their heads with pleasure…From these researches it appears that in the Negro the growth of the brain is sooner arrested than in the European.
This premature union of the bones of the skull may give a clue to much of the mental inferiority which is seen in the Negro race. There can be no doubt that in puberty a great change takes place in relation to physical development; but in the Negro there appears to be an arrested development of the brain, exactly harmonizing with the physical formation.”
(P. 8) “Young Negro children are nearly as intelligent as European children; but the older they grow the less intelligent they become. They exhibit, when young, an animal liveliness for play and tricks, far surpassing the European child. The infant ape’s skull resembles more the Negro’s head than the aged ape, and thus shows a striking analogy in their craniological development.”
(P. 25) “There is abundant evidence to show that the Negro will not work without a considerable amount of persuasion.”
I can’t even begin to address the argument used most by Southerners as justification; that is the Bible itself. One of the most popular was the idea that God cursed Ham’s descendants to be slaves, and Africans were Ham’s descendants.
The takeaway from this post is this:
The beliefs that supported slavery did not die when slavery died.
They continued unabated throughout Reconstruction, Redemption, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era, and right on up to the present day.
I can’t stress this enough.
I can’t say this enough.
The beliefs did not die when slavery died.
We have to have a reckoning with the truth about American Slavery and its continuing legacy. It is a painful and hard truth. This is tough stuff for us all, I know.
It all starts with what we teach our children and what we ourselves take the time to learn. The Internet makes original sources just a keyboard away, as my links have shown.
I urge anyone with an interest in this topic to download and read the report.