think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but
they don’t. They think the majority of African slaves came to
the American colonies, but they didn’t. They talk about 400
years of slavery, but it wasn’t. They claim all Southerners
owned slaves, but they didn’t. Some argue it was all a long
time ago, but it wasn’t.
has been in the news a lot lately. From the discovery of the auction
of 272 enslaved people that enabled Georgetown
to remain in operation to the McGraw-Hill
over calling slaves “workers from Africa” and the slavery
memorial being built at the University of Virginia,
Americans are having conversations about this difficult period in
American history. Some of these dialogues have been wrought with
controversy and conflict, like the University
of Tennessee student
who challenged her professor’s understanding of enslaved
a scholar of slavery at the University of Texas at Austin, I welcome
the public debates and connections the American people are making
with history. However, there are still many misconceptions about
slavery, as evidenced by the conflict at the University of Tennessee.
spent my career dispelling myths about “the peculiar
institution.” The goal in my courses is not to victimize one
group and celebrate another. Instead, we trace the history of slavery
in all its forms to make sense of the origins of wealth inequality
and the roots of discrimination today. The history of slavery
provides vital context to contemporary conversations and counters the
distorted facts, internet hoaxes and poor scholarship I caution my
myths about slavery
The majority of African captives came to what became the United
Only a little
more than 300,000
captives, or 4-6 percent, came to the United States. The majority of
enslaved Africans went to Brazil, followed by the Caribbean. A
significant number of enslaved Africans arrived in the American
colonies by way of the Caribbean, where they were “seasoned”
and mentored into slave life. They spent months or years recovering
from the harsh realities of the Middle Passage. Once they were
forcibly accustomed to slave labor, many were then brought to
plantations on American soil.
Slavery lasted for 400 years.
culture is rich with references to 400 years of oppression. There
seems to be confusion between the Transatlantic
(1440-1888) and the institution of slavery, confusion only reinforced
by the Bible, Genesis
Then the Lord said to
him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your
descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that
they will be enslaved and mistreated there.’
to Lupe Fiasco – just one hip-hop artist to refer to the 400
years – in his 2011 imagining of America without slavery, “All
You would never know
If you could ever be
If you never try
You would never see
Stayed in Africa
We ain’t never leave
So there were no slaves in our history
Were no slave ships, were no misery, call me crazy, or isn’t he
See I fell asleep and I had a dream, it was all black everything
Uh, and we ain’t get exploited
White man ain’t feared so he did not destroy it
We ain’t work for free, see they had to employ it
Built it up together so we equally appointed
First 400 years, see we actually enjoyed it
Slavery was not unique to the United States; it is a part of almost
every nation’s history, from Greek and Roman civilizations to
contemporary forms of human trafficking. The American part of the
story lasted fewer than 400 years.
then, do we calculate the timeline of slavery in America? Most
historians use 1619 as a starting point: 20 Africans referred to as
“servants” arrived in Jamestown, Virginia on a Dutch
ship. It’s important to note, however, that they were not the
first Africans on American soil. Africans first arrived in America in
the late 16th century not as slaves but as explorers together with
Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
of the best-known of these African “conquistadors” was
who traveled throughout the Southeast from present-day Florida to
Texas. As far as the institution of chattel slavery – the
treatment of slaves as property – in the United States, if we
use 1619 as the beginning and the 1865 13th Amendment as its end,
then it lasted 246 years, not 400.
All Southerners owned slaves.
of all Southerners owned slaves. The fact that one-quarter of the
southern population were slaveholders is still shocking to many. This
truth brings historical insight to modern conversations about
inequality and reparations.
the case of Texas.
it established statehood, the Lone Star State had a shorter period of
Anglo-American chattel slavery than other southern states –
only 1845 to 1865 – because Spain and Mexico had occupied the
region for almost one-half of the 19th century with policies that
either abolished or limited slavery. Still, the number of people
impacted by wealth and income inequality is staggering. By 1860, the
enslaved population was 182,566,
but slaveholders represented 27 percent of the population, and
controlled 68 percent of the government positions and 73 percent of
the wealth. These are astonishing figures, but today’s
in Texas is arguably more stark, with 10 percent of tax filers taking
home 50 percent of the income.
Slavery was a long time ago.
African-Americans have been free in this country for less time than
they were enslaved. Do the math: Blacks have been free for 152 years,
which means that most Americans are only two to three generations
away from slavery. This is not that long ago.
this same period, however, former
have built their legacies on the institution and generated wealth
that African-Americans have not had access to because enslaved labor
was forced. Segregation maintained wealth
and covert discrimination
limited African-American recovery efforts.
value of slaves
and historians have examined detailed aspects of the enslaved
experience for as long as slavery existed. My
enters this conversation by looking at the value of individual slaves
and the ways enslaved people responded to being treated as a
were bought and sold just like we sell cars and cattle today. They
were gifted, deeded and mortgaged the same way we sell houses today.
They were itemized and insured the same way we manage our assets and
protect our valuables.
people were valued at every stage of their lives, from before birth
until after death. Slaveholders examined women for their fertility
and projected the value of their “future increase.” As
the slaves grew up, enslavers assessed their value through a rating
system that quantified their work. An “A1 Prime hand”
represented one term used for a “first-rate” slave who
could do the most work in a given day. Their values decreased on a
quarter scale from three-fourths hands to one-fourth hands, to a rate
of zero, which was typically reserved for elderly or differently
abled bondpeople (another term for slaves).
example, Guy and Andrew, two prime males sold at the largest auction
in U.S. history in 1859, commanded different prices. Although similar
in “all marketable points in size, age, and skill,” Guy
was US$1,280 while Andrew sold for $1,040 because “he had lost
his right eye.” A reporter from the New
noted “that the market value of the right eye in the Southern
country is $240.” Enslaved bodies were reduced to monetary
values assessed from year to year and sometimes from month to month
for their entire lifespan and beyond. By today’s standards,
Andrew and Guy would be worth about $33,000-$40,000.
was an extremely diverse economic institution, one that extracted
unpaid labor out of people in a variety of settings – from
small single-crop farms and plantations to urban universities. This
diversity was also reflected in their prices. And enslaved people
understood they were treated as commodities.
was sold away from mammy at three years old,” recalled Harriett
Hill of Georgia. “I remembers it! It lack selling a calf from
the cow,” she shared in a 1930s
with the Works Progress Administration. “We are human beings,”
she told her interviewer. Those in bondage understood their status.
Even though Harriet Hill was too little to remember her price when
she was three, she recalled being sold for $1,400 at age nine or 10:
“I never could forget it.”
in popular culture
is part and parcel of American popular culture, but for 40 years the
television miniseries Roots
was the primary visual representation of the institution, except for
a handful of independent (and not widely known) films such as Haile
or the Brazilian “Quilombo.”
from grassroots initiatives such as the interactive Slave
where school-aged children spend the night in slave cabins, to comic
skits on Saturday
slavery is front and center. In 2016 A&E and History released the
miniseries “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,”
which reflected four decades of new scholarship. Steve McQueen’s
“12 Years a Slave” was a box office success
in 2013, actress Azia Mira Dungey made headlines with the popular web
series called “Ask
– a series about runaway slaves and abolitionists – was a
hit for its network WGN America. With less than one year of
operation, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African
American History, which devotes several galleries to the history of
slavery, has had more than one
elephant that sits at the center of our history is coming into focus.
American slavery happened – we are still living with its
consequences. I believe we are finally ready to face it, learn about
it and acknowledge its significance to American history.
commentary was originally published by The Conversation