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On the shifting role of racism in American slavery

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2016

In a recent episode of his EconTalk podcast, host Russ Roberts talks with Michael Munger about a paper Munger co-authored about how white Southern attitudes toward slavery shifted from around 1815 to 1835. The episode is interesting throughout,1 but I want to highlight this attitude shift Munger writes about in the paper, something I was previously unaware of.

Sifting through documents from the era between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Munger and his co-author Jeffrey Grynaviski found that Southern whites believed, in the first decade or two of the 19th century, that owning slaves was evil but necessary. There was this system in place and it was bad but we’re gonna go with it because, whaddya gonna do? But in a period of about 20 years, due to a variety of factors, mostly economic, the justification for slavery shifted primarily to a racist one: that black people were inferior and needed to be cared for by whites. Southern whites came to believe, like really believe, that they were doing their slaves a favor by enslaving them and that the slaves were better off than they would be in Africa.

The way we defined it in this paper was that racism became a substitute justification for slavery. And the reason was, the original justification for slavery, which was the Roman one of wasn’t good enough. And so Southerners cast about and found basically an alternative, which was the Greek justification for slavery. And let me just say very briefly what those two are. The one justification for slavery, and it was pretty common in Rome, was that if you lost a battle and were captured, then you might either be killed or kept as a slave. And there is a mutually beneficial exchange, if you will, in the sense that you’ve already lost. So, me saying, ‘I tell you what: I won’t kill you if you will agree to act as my slave for the rest of your life. And I may free you; I may not; but that’s up to me.’ And you say, ‘Killed/be a slave: I’m going to go with the slave thing.’ But, it meant that some slaves were very excellent. And in Roman society some slaves occupied very high positions, positions of respect. It’s just that they made this promise. It was an economic institution. And that was the way that slavery had existed in Africa: if you lost a battle, then you would be captured by the other side. It was almost like indentured servitude: you could work it off.

Well, that didn’t work in the American South because they wanted to maintain slaves, to be able to identify slaves and to have a justification that would allow them to enslave the children — which the old Roman justification would never have allowed. You are not going to be a slave if you are born to a slave, because you didn’t lose in battle: you would have been free.

So, the Southerners needed a different way, so they were looking for the Aristotelian notion of slavery, which is that slaves are people who are either morally inferior or lack the judgment to make independent choices. They are like children or like horses. That means that you actually have a positive-good justification for enslaving them: if I have a thoroughbred horse or a fancy dog, it would be cruel of me to set it loose to let it run around, because it’s not capable of taking care of itself. I have obligations to take care of it. My ownership actually gives me obligations. And what’s interesting and what this paper is about is how Southerners worked that out between about 1815 and 1835, and started to understand the implications for how they had to change the economic institutions of slavery to match this new ideology that they were creating.

Yet another example of how powerful economic self-interest is in shifting moral beliefs.

  1. Although it was uncomfortable at times listening to two privileged pro-market white guys talking about slavery, particularly in the moments where they discuss matters from the slaves’ perspectives. But in fairness, they do a good job in admitting their privilege and the awareness that their economic beliefs may not square with things like human rights and justice forms the basis of a fascinating conversation.

We Work Remotely

What to the slave is the 4th of July?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2016

In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, NY which historian James West Davidson calls “the most remarkable Independence Day oration in American history”.

In Rochester, Douglass stalked his largely white audience with exquisite care, taking them by stealth. He began by providing what many listeners might not have expected from a notorious abolitionist: a fulsome paean to the Fourth and the founding generation. The day brought forth “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” he told them, for the signers of the Declaration were “brave men. They were great men too-great enough to give fame to a great age.” Jefferson’s very words echoed in Douglass’s salute: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country … “

Your fathers. That pronoun signaled the slightest shift in the breeze. But Douglass continued cordially. “Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do.” Then another step back: “That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker.”

The text of the speech itself is well worth reading…that “slightest shift in the breeze” slowly builds to a mighty hurricane.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Several years ago, James Earl Jones read a portion of Douglass’ speech:

Update: Baratunde Thurston recently presented Douglass’ speech live at the Brooklyn Public Library. (thx, rick)

New maps of the growth of American slavery in the South

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2016

American slavery, 1850

From Bill Rankin at Radical Cartography, a series of maps showing the rapid explosion of slavery in the United States from 1790-1860. Departing from previous efforts, Rankin used a uniform grid of dots to represent slave populations rather than counties.

First, I smash the visual tyranny of county boundaries by using a uniform grid of dots. The size of each dot shows the total population in each 250-sqmi cell, and the color shows the percent that were slaves. But just as important, I’ve also combined the usual county data with historical data for more than 150 cities and towns. Cities usually had fewer slaves, proportionally, than their surrounding counties, but this is invisible on standard maps.

A detail that struck me while cycling through the years was that the number of slaves as a percentage of the total population of the South stayed relatively steady at 33% from 1790 to 1860.

The Birth of a Nation

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2016

Written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation is a film about Nat Turner, the man who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The movie won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and will be out in theaters in October.

P.S. If the name of the movie sounds familiar, it was deliberately given the same name as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, which dramatized the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. In an interview, Parker said:

When I endeavored to make this film, I did so with the specific intent of exploring America through the context of identity. So much of the racial injustices we endure today in America are symptomatic of a greater sickness - one we have been systematically conditioned to ignore. From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

(via trailer town)

A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry in the United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2016

American Slave Coast

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry by Ned & Constance Sublette is a book which offers an alternate view of slavery in the United States. Instead of treating slavery as a source of unpaid labor, as it is typically understood, they focus on the ownership aspect: people as property, merchandise, collateral, and capital. From a review of the book at Pacific Standard:

In fact, most American slaves were not kidnapped on another continent. Though over 12.7 million Africans were forced onto ships to the Western hemisphere, estimates only have 400,000-500,000 landing in present-day America. How then to account for the four million black slaves who were tilling fields in 1860? “The South,” the Sublettes write, “did not only produce tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton as commodities for sale; it produced people.” Slavers called slave-breeding “natural increase,” but there was nothing natural about producing slaves; it took scientific management. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children was increasing Virginia’s capital stock by four percent annually.

Here is how the American slave-breeding industry worked, according to the Sublettes: Some states (most importantly Virginia) produced slaves as their main domestic crop. The price of slaves was anchored by industry in other states that consumed slaves in the production of rice and sugar, and constant territorial expansion. As long as the slave power continued to grow, breeders could literally bank on future demand and increasing prices. That made slaves not just a commodity, but the closest thing to money that white breeders had. It’s hard to quantify just how valuable people were as commodities, but the Sublettes try to convey it: By a conservative estimate, in 1860 the total value of American slaves was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, “most of it in the North,” the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the value of the South’s total farmland ($1.92 billion). Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined.

Just reading that turns my stomach. The Sublettes also recast the 1808 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade as trade protectionism.

Virginia slaveowners won a major victory when Thomas Jefferson’s 1808 prohibition of the African slave trade protected the domestic slave markets for slave-breeding.

I haven’t read the book, but I imagine they touched on the fact that by growing slave populations, southern states were literally manufacturing more political representation due to the Three-Fifths clause in the US Constitution. They bred more slaves to help politically safeguard the practice of slavery.

Update: Because slaves were property, Southern slave owners could mortgage them to banks and then the banks could package the mortgages into bonds and sell the bonds to anyone anywhere in the world, even where slavery was illegal.

In the 1830s, powerful Southern slaveowners wanted to import capital into their states so they could buy more slaves. They came up with a new, two-part idea: mortgaging slaves; and then turning the mortgages into bonds that could be marketed all over the world.

First, American planters organized new banks, usually in new states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Drawing up lists of slaves for collateral, the planters then mortgaged them to the banks they had created, enabling themselves to buy additional slaves to expand cotton production. To provide capital for those loans, the banks sold bonds to investors from around the globe — London, New York, Amsterdam, Paris. The bond buyers, many of whom lived in countries where slavery was illegal, didn’t own individual slaves — just bonds backed by their value. Planters’ mortgage payments paid the interest and the principle on these bond payments. Enslaved human beings had been, in modern financial lingo, “securitized.”

Slave-backed securities. My stomach is turning again. (via @daveg)

Update: Tyler Cowen read The American Slave Coast and listed a few things he learned from it.

2. President James Polk speculated in slaves, based on inside information he obtained from being President and shaping policy toward slaves and slave importation.

3. In the South there were slave “breeding farms,” where the number of women and children far outnumbered the number of men.

Update: In his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward Baptist details how slavery played a central role in the making of the US economy.

As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, slavery and its expansion were central to the evolution and modernization of our nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, catapulting the US into a modern, industrial and capitalist economy. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a sub-continental cotton empire. By 1861 it had five times as many slaves as it had during the Revolution, and was producing two billion pounds of cotton a year. It was through slavery and slavery alone that the United States achieved a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and was transformed into a global power rivaled only by England.

(via @alexismadrigal)

New language for slavery and the Civil War

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2015

Drawing upon the work of colleagues, historian Michael Todd Landis proposes new language for talking about slavery and the Civil War. In addition to favoring “labor camps” over the more romantic “plantations”, he suggests retiring the concept of the Union vs the Confederacy.

Specifically, let us drop the word “Union” when describing the United States side of the conflagration, as in “Union troops” versus “Confederate troops.” Instead of “Union,” we should say “United States.” By employing “Union” instead of “United States,” we are indirectly supporting the Confederate view of secession wherein the nation of the United States collapsed, having been built on a “sandy foundation” (according to rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens). In reality, however, the United States never ceased to exist. The Constitution continued to operate normally; elections were held; Congress, the presidency, and the courts functioned; diplomacy was conducted; taxes were collected; crimes were punished; etc. Yes, there was a massive, murderous rebellion in at least a dozen states, but that did not mean that the United States disappeared.

Why America Needs a Slavery Museum

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 02, 2015

The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana is the only US museum and memorial to slavery. The Atlantic has a video about the museum and its founder, John Cummings, who spent 16 years and $8 million of his own money on it.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2015

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is a new initiative to digitize and make available online the records collected by the The Freedmen’s Bureau near the end of the Civil War. The records detail the lives of about 4 million African Americans and will be available by the end of 2016.

FamilySearch is working in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum to make these records available and accessible by taking the raw records, extracting the information and indexing them to make them easily searchable online. Once indexed, finding an ancestor may be as easy as going to FamilySearch.org, entering a name and, with the touch of a button, discovering your family member.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was organized near the end of the American Civil War to assist newly freed slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia. From 1865 to 1872, the Bureau opened schools, managed hospitals, rationed food and clothing and even solemnized marriages. In the process it gathered priceless handwritten, personal information including marriage and family information, military service, banking, school, hospital and property records on potentially million African Americans.

What an amazing resource this will be…many families out there will learn about the ancestors for the first time. The documents are currently 9% indexed and you can sign up to help at discoverfreedmen.org.

Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.

(via open culture)

Happy Presidents’ Day

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2015

On the intersection of Presidents’ Day and Black History Month, Erica Armstrong Dunbar highlights an uncomfortable truth about George Washington: he was a proud and fervent slave owner.

During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.

The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.

Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”

(via mr)

A timeline of the abolition of slavery in the Americas

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2015

Here’s a map showing when slavery was abolished in North and South America:

Slavery Abolition Map

Surprising, right? Along with Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico, the United States was among the last nations in the Americas to abolish slavery. Americans like to think of ourselves as freedom-loving, progressive, and more “evolved” than other countries, particularly those in the “third world” (what a loaded term that is), but this map shows differently.

It’s tempting to dismiss American attitudes toward slavery as something that happened long ago. Except for, you know, the whole Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing racism against African Americans in the US. And there are also many respects in which the US is currently less free, less progressive, and less evolved than some less industrialized nations, e.g. on things like gun control, murder rate, use of the death penalty, prison population, healthcare, and anti-science views (evolution, vaccines). So maybe the lag in abolishing slavery shouldn’t be so surprising, particularly because it was so lucrative and the only thing Americans have historically cared more about than freedom is money. (via civil war memory)

1861 map of US slavery

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 11, 2013

Using data from the 1860 US Census, the Department of the Interior made this map showing the percentages, by county, of the slave population of the southern states.

1861 map of slavery

Though this map was simple, it showed the relationship between states’ commitment to slavery and their enthusiasm about secession, making a visual argument about Confederate motivations.

Schulten writes that President Lincoln referred to this particular map often, using it to understand how the progress of emancipation might affect Union troops on the ground. The map even appears in the familiar Francis Bicknell Carpenter portrait First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, visible leaning against a wall in the lower right-hand corner of the room.

Here’s a larger version. The numbers in some locations are staggering and sickening — in many counties 75% of the population was enslaved and the rate is over 90% in a few places.

Michelle Obama’s family tree

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 07, 2009

The NY Times traced Michelle Obama’s family tree back to Melvinia, a slave girl who lived in rural Georgia.

“[Michelle] is representative of how we have evolved and who we are,” said Edward Ball, a historian who discovered that he had black relatives — the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors — when he researched his memoir, “Slaves in the Family.”

“We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America,” Mr. Ball said. “We’ve all mingled, and we have done so for generations.”

I wonder how much of this Obama was aware of before being contacted by the Times for comment (she declined):

The findings — uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York Times — substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about a white forbear.

Nothing grows but oil and buildings

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2009

A long and damning article about the dark side of Dubai. Many of the rich foreigners who live there love it:

Ann Wark tries to summarise it: “Here, you go out every night. You’d never do that back home. You see people all the time. It’s great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don’t have to do all that stuff. You party!” They have been in Dubai for 20 years, and they are happy to explain how the city works. “You’ve got a hierarchy, haven’t you?” Ann says. “It’s the Emiratis at the top, then I’d say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it’s the Filipinos, because they’ve got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you’ve got the Indians and all them lot.”

As for “all them lot”? Not so much.

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. “To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell,” he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal’s village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa - a fee they’d pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat - where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees - for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don’t like it, the company told him, go home. “But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket,” he said. “Well, then you’d better get to work,” they replied.

Slavery, worse than ever

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2008

There are more slaves in the world today than at any time in human history. Buying a slave in Haiti takes just a few minutes and is only a short plane ride away.

But the deal isn’t done. Benavil leans in close. “This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a ‘partner’? You understand what I mean?”

You don’t blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. “I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?”

“Oui!” Benavil responds enthusiastically.

If you’re interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can “arrange” the proper papers to make it look as though you’ve adopted the child.

This article is adapted from E. Benjamin Skinner’s A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

Update: I believe I’ve linked to Free the Slaves before but it’s always worth another look.

Free the Slaves liberates slaves around the world, helps them rebuild their lives and researches real world solutions to eradicate slavery forever. We use world class research and compelling stories from the frontlines of slavery to convince the powerful and the powerless that we can end slavery.

(thx, jacob)

The Wall family asserts that they were

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2007

The Wall family asserts that they were held in slavery in Mississippi until 1961.

He worked the fields and milked cows for white families while believing he had no rights as a man. Peonage is a system where one is bound to service for payment of a debt. It was an illegal system that flourished in the rural South after slavery was abolished. Mr. Cain was born into this system believing that he was bound to these people that held him and his relatives captive. Being unable to read and write also stifled any opportunity that may have presented itself to the Mr. Cain because he was unable to decipher anything.

There’s a video of a recent Nightline appearance the family made on YouTube. Nightline says that it was not able to confirm the family’s story independently but notes that the US Justice Department prosecuted people for keeping slaves well into the 20th century. (via cynical-c)

More on Big Mike

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2006

Over the weekend, my thoughts kept returning to Michael Lewis’ story about Michael Oher, a former homeless kid who may soon be headed for a sizeable NFL paycheck. Checking around online for reaction reveals a wide range of responses to the story. Uplifting sports story was the most common reaction, while others found it disturbing (my initial reaction), with one or two folks even accusing Lewis and the Times of overt racism. While Lewis left the story intentionally open-ended (that is, he didn’t attempt to present any explicit lessons in the text itself), I believe he meant for us to find the story disturbing (or at least thought-provoking).

Just look at the way Lewis tells Oher’s story. Oher is never directly quoted; it’s unclear if he was even interviewed for this piece (although it’s possible he was for another part of the book). Instead he is spoken about and for by his coaches, teachers, and new family…and as much as the article focuses on him, we don’t get a sense of who Oher really is or what he wants out of life. (An exception is the great “put him on the bus” story near the end.) He’s playing football, was adopted by a rich, white family, graduated from high school, and is attending college, but all that was decided for him and we never learn what Oher wants. Religion is referred to as a driving factor in his adopted family’s efforts to help him. Again, no choice there…not even his family or school had any say in the matter, God told them they *had* to save this kid.

Then there’s the sports angle, the parallels between Oher’s lack of control over his own life and how professional athletes, many from poor economic backgrounds, are treated by their respective teams, leagues, owners, and fans. At one point, Lewis compares Oher’s lack of enthusiasm for football’s aggression to that of Ferdinand the Bull, a veiled reference to the perception of the professional athlete as an animal whose worth is measured in how big, strong, and fast he is.

So what you’ve got is a story about rich white people from the American South using religion to justify taking a potentially valuable black man from his natural environment and deciding the course of his life for him. Sound familiar? Perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic, but this can’t just be an accident on Lewis’ part. As I see it, Oher is Lewis’ “blank slate” in a parable of contemporary America, a one-dimensional character representing black America who is, depending on your perspective, either manipulated, exploited, or saved by white America. Not that it’s bad that Oher has a home, an education, and a family who obviously cares about him, but does the outcome justify the means? And could Oher even have contributed significantly to his direction in life when all this was happening? Who are we to meddle in another person’s life so completely? Conversely, who are we to stand idly by when there are people who need help and we have the means to help them?

I’m not saying Lewis’ story has any of the answers to these questions, but I would suggest that in a country where racial differences still matter and the economic gap between the rich and poor is growing, this is more than just an uplifting sports story.