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Est. April 5, 2002
May 02, 2019 - Issue 787

Reparations Part III
The Suffering of Us

"The legacy of enslavement for African Americans is
resistance rather than a sense of entitlement. Racial
supremacy. Economic dominance. For the enslaved black,
freedom meant NOT being somebody’s property.
Not placed in chains.
Not dehumanized.
But free to be."

This enormous influx of Africans laid the foundation

for the concomitant growth of capitalism.

Gerald Horne, historian,  The Counter-Revolution of 1776

Most species of animals as well as humans and to be free. That is, for most, it’s not pleasant to be caged in a pen or in a prison cell for life. As I write this article, I’m thinking back to some 16 years ago when I lived in Ethiopia and witnessed (because it’s a witnessing of sorts) a few herdsmen directing bulls down Haile Selassie Avenue, I think. A stretch of the avenue was cleared for the herdsmen and their “property.”

It took a moment for me to realize what I was seeing, that is, to realize that these bulls were not on display for Americans, other Visa workers or tourists to behold their magnificence. Sedate and docile, the bulls were on their way to be slaughtered. Killed. And as I tried to make eye contact, I wondered if these beautiful creatures were at all conscious of their destiny. Would they have rebelled? Did they once fight against their captivity?

I couldn’t look in the direction of where they were headed. I want to just look on at them, remember the shoulders, the horns, remember how I could have reached out and touched a few. But I kept attentive to the slow march toward death, a witness to the bulls, in their last hours a living beings.

“We have the dubious distinction,” writes historian Yuval Noah Harari, “of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology” (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). Humans, Sapiens, have eradicated so much of life in the First and Second Waves of Extinction, he argues. If only we human were aware of our destructiveness as we are now center stage in the middle of yet another (Third) extinction. “If we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive.”

But, we’ve never been “tree-huggers,” living in harmony (the key word here) with nature. Humans haven’t been too harmony loving to other living species. That’s not been the narrative Homo Sapiens have been committed to pursue. As Harari argues, humans have killed off our terrestrial counterparts and now, if things continue at pace, he writes, the large sea creatures, whales, sharks, tuna and dolphins, will go in the direction of the slaughter house too—in other words, another great extinction is inevitable.

But human learned, unfortunately, to think of their own existence—at the expense of the existence of other. Success made some of us think in terms of hierarchical structures, with those who are familiar to one self at the top. So to the top of the food chain marched humans. And from there, human began to categorize and devise methods, often brutal, cruel, to maintain top billing. No other living creatures are as significant as humans—it says so in the great stories we tell about our chosen destiny (decisively NOT the slaughter house!) and our rise to the top, thanks to divine intervention. Right there in the “good” book, it says, humans shall reign over all other living creatures. Over all of nature!

It’s interesting to read in Sapiens Harari’s explanation for how humans gradually began to “carefully” select from among the animal kingdom those living beings that would be easily susceptible to certain techniques (evolving, still, as I write this article) to make of them docile and obedient creatures. Animals showing aggression, that is, willing to put up a fight for their freedom, were killed immediately. Those showing the “greatest resistance to human control” or showing any inkling of “curious” were slaughtered first. Only the more “submissive and less curious” were considered, ironically the best.

In order for humans to turn bulls, horses, donkeys, and camels into obedient draught animals, their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement curtailed.” And no matter, adds Harari, if the shepherds and farmers took good care of their animals and even went to far as to express affection for them, the situation would be analogous to that of the slaveholder and his enslaved blacks, some years down the road. As Toni Morrison conveys in her novel, Beloved, who cares if the so-called “good” slaveholder, good by virtue of his not exercising his legal rights to brutalize enslaved blacks, if the humans enslaved were entrapped in a brutal system of enslavement and NOT free to follow their own minds and pursue their own desires and potential as human beings.

Returning to Sapiens, Harari asks that we consider the situation from the viewpoint of the bulls, like the ones I saw that day in Ethiopia. Life for those bulls had to be as terrible as it is for cattle and pigs today, engaged from birth to death in pens with no room for them to move about. Freedom is subjugated in the process, and, therefore, our “evolutionary ‘success” is meaningless. Only suffering is what evolves to become the norm in the world. “A dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand-in-hand with much individual suffering.”


Among the Charles L. Brockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University is a painting titled, “Portrait of Boukman: Invoking Freedom,” by Ulrick Jean-Pierre (1997). Boukman is in action, yielding his sword, ready for the revolution.

If you’ve not heard the story of Boukman Dutty, a Jamaican Vodoo priest and revolutionary, you haven’t really considered the concept of “freedom” in the Americas. Boukman did. In fact, his words inspired Haitians to rise up, to envision freedom, to envision a revolution in Haiti.

The maroon Francois Macandal tried but was re-captured and killed. However, many believed his spirit rose from the flames meant to burn his alive in 1758. When revolutionaries heard Boukman had been re-captured and he, too, burnt at the stake, many recognized a revolution in reach and Boukman at the side of each and every fighter.

The whole uprising came as a surprise to those who categorized and devised methods to maintain obedience and control over human enslavement. As the historian C.L.R. James explains in The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, “the slaves on the Gallifet plantation were so well treated that ‘happy as the Negroes of Gallifet’ was a slave proverb. Yet by a phenomenon noticed in all revolutions it was they who led the way.” As did Boukman.

Arriving in Georgia in 1803, at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia, to be exact, were 75 captured and kidnapped Igbo deporting from the ship that sailed with them aboard, as cargo, and whose owner snatched them from “freedom”--or whatever it was they were attending to, whatever children had to be raised by them or whatever girls had to be taught to cook for guests (friendly guest) arriving for a meal from the next village…

The group looked in front of them, at their future: enslaved blacks in chains. They envisioned the contradiction in the continuum: To be somebody’s property!

They envisioned a continuation of the scheme that landed them and the forlorn before them to this land NOT home. They saw the dehumanized, the suffering. Kidnapping, branding, shipping and whipping. Rape. Death.

To be captured and chained is to suffer and never be free.

Collectively, the Igbo faced the sea before taking one more look at the enslaved on shore. Slowly the group of 75 began walking in unison, toward the sea. Reaching the edge, the group kept on walking. The captors could only remain startled, powerless, as the water seemed to have solidified, assuring the Igbo an uninterrupted journey, after all. They walked and kept on, until they were no longer visible to the captors. But to the enslaved blacks, they remained forever in their hearts and minds.

Freedom rather than death. And it didn’t jeopardize anything—except profits for the merchants and slaveholders. Just a decision to be free, once and for all.

The legacy of enslavement for African Americans is resistance rather than a sense of entitlement. Racial supremacy. Economic dominance. For the enslaved black, freedom meant NOT being somebody’s property. Not placed in chains. Not dehumanized. Domesticated. But free to be.

Four million enslaved blacks were property, according to historian Eric Foner. And as property, we were worth 4 billion dollars. Enslaved blacks, he says, were worth more than the banks, railroads, and factories combined, which were worth 3.5 billion dollars. Slavery, Foner argues, was the “largest congregation of property in the US.”

And African Americans still suffer under capitalism’s hierarchical structuring of our worth (as do other species as a result of human indifference). Life itself is of no value, since the profiteers benefit from the suffering and death of living beings.

We can’t remain just witnesses any longer. We should want to be free from this ordering of destruction. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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