As many college students as well as others have moved back home during the current pandemic people’s houses are feeling more cramped than ever. The conditions of small living spaces feel even more confining as communities are tasked with staying inside as much as possible with orders to shelter in place still intact in some locations. These conditions have left many feeling restless, bored, agitated and sad as they try to carve out private space and a sense of normalcy in such an uncertain time. The feelings of confinement ordinary people are facing contrasts starkly with the views of celebrity housing available through live streams, photos, and videos on social media. Gal Gadot and several other celebrities, for example, released a video of them singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The video was posted to Gadot’s Instagram with the caption “We are in this together, we will get through it together. Let’s imagine together. Sing with us. All love to you, from me and my dear friends.” Immediately, people on Instagram and Twitter noted the emptiness of these gestures coming from wealthy celebrities without the addition of material action.
The pandemic has drawn to a head the inequalities in housing and wealth defining the contemporary US. The nation’s majority have been left scrambling to make rent for their tiny apartments while watching the wealthy squirrel away in large open concept mansions with lush lawns and huge pools.
For Black communities, these contradictions are nothing new, as forced immobility and confinement have defined their historical and contemporary experiences with regard to the matters of space. As West Africans were rendered slaves, one of their primary spatial experiences was confinement, first in slave castles like El Mina in modern Ghana and then aboard the thousands of slave ships that traversed the Atlantic across five centuries. Africans crossed the ocean packed in and chained together with little room to move.
The carceral space aboard the slave ship put captives in a position of increased vulnerability to diseases and illness. Despite slave trader’s efforts to bring only “healthy” Africans across the sea many ships suffered numerous casualties due to yellow fever, smallpox, scurvy, malaria, flux, and several other diseases. Sowande’ Mustakeem has noted that the isolation caused by the sea voyage along with the cramped and unsanitary conditions captives were held in created unique and devastating encounters with disease. The spread of disease was further aggravated by the violent treatment of captives aboard these ships as well as poor nutrition. As people’s bodies attempted to heal from physical and psychological injuries as well as illness, they faced an environment that only further deteriorated their capacities to fight infection.
In the North American context, despite variation in housing circumstances across different regions and time, the enslaved were forced to live in confining spaces. Whether awaiting sale in a dingy and overcrowded slave pen in Richmond, living in overcrowded gender-segregated barracks in Charleston, or making lives in a drafty and inadequately sized cabin on a rural sugar plantation in New Orleans’ hinterland, slaves experienced the quotidian violence of tight living irrespective of other differences in their social conditions and labor. This contrasts sharply with white slave owners who demonstrated their power with sprawling homes on sprawling estates. Consider for example, Thomas Jefferson’s Albemarle County, Virginia mansion, Monticello in contrast to the small and poorly insulated log cabin structures in which the people he enslaved lived. The contrasts between Black and white space also had another dimension related to mobility. Especially in the wake of the Jacksonian era, white people moved freely, while enslaved people’s movements were legally regulated and violently circumscribed. Even free Black people, especially after Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 rebellion, were strictly delimited in their abilities to move freely. Confinement and immobility were twinned conditions for slaves. As Katherine McKittrick analyzes, Harriet Ann Jacobs, spent seven years in her grandmother’s garret or attic space, unable to fully stand upright in nine-foot-long, seven-foot-wide, three-foot-tall space. She hid in this space, carving it as a “loophole of retreat” in order to evade the violence of her master and eventually to escape. For Jacobs freedom required a subtle reworking of the confinement enforced on Black life and Black geographies.
This lack of mobility and confinement continued after slavery as part of its afterlives along with the related condition of predisposition to contagious disease and premature death. In Chicago between the World Wars, Black migrant communities were forced into the West and Southside by legally sanctioned segregation, policing, and vigilante violence. Black families rented small apartments called kitchenettes at exorbitant rates, and as St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton characterized in their influential study, lived in cramped poorly heated and congested conditions. As Rashad Shabazz argues, in the spaces of kitchenettes, Black Chicagoans experienced an expression of carceral power in their ordinary lives, manifest in the arrangement of their housing. He writes “by creating close associations between people the kitchenette made privacy of any kind impossible, shaming its residents by putting all actions under the forced gaze of others in the room.”1 This kind of housing arrangement is psychologically wearing, as Richard Wright’s Native Son disturbingly and dramatically fictionalizes. Many Black Chicagoans, across generations, experienced life-long emotional states like the frustration, restlessness, and captivity some people stuck in their homes due to the pandemic currently are experiencing for the first time.
This confining geography extending out from kitchenette also had deadly effects. In 1918 and 1919 the Spanish Flu pandemic caused mass death and tremendous social upheaval that anticipated and rehearsed what Black communities are currently experiencing with COVID-19. Prisoners today are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19—the highest number of cases tied to a location is a prison in Ohio where 80% of the prisoners have tested positive. This resonates with the history of the Spanish Flu in Chicago. As one Chicago Defender writer noted, “Chicago police stations are doing more to breed disease than any other agency supposed to be working for the good of Chicago.”2 The journalist went on to note the way Chicago jails “huddle prisoners together” without medical examinations and how this led to the spread of the deadly flu.3 The carcerality of the kitchenette also made its residents vulnerable. Shabazz notes that Black Chicagoans had higher rates of mental illness, disease, and death all of which were influenced by their crowded and run-down living conditions. These kinds of vulnerabilities tied to spatial confinement are ongoing in Chicago where 50% of the deaths from COVID are Black, and where segregation and carcerality continue to define the landscape.”4
Blackness’s tie to tight spatial control and confinement,extending between living spaces and formal carceral institutions, and from slavery to the present, puts Black people at greater risk for disease and infection exacerbated by the mental health effects of confinement. This greater vulnerability tied to spatial confinement, overcrowding, and other effects of our nation’s anti-Black geography buttresses the spatial advantages white communities enjoyed historically and which they continue to enjoy. White slave owners profited from the confinement and forced vulnerability of their slaves. White landowners in Chicago profited from overcharging their Black tenants for poor quality housing. The risk of death, disease, and mental illbeing that Black people live with exists to produce white safety and comfort, guaranteed in exclusive geographies away from lead paint, rusty water, over-policing, and gratuitous violence. In order to mitigate the unequal deadly effects of COVID-19 and to prevent the future of devastating conditions disproportionately affecting Black people, we must reimagine the American landscape outside this history defined by the twinned and reinforcing structures of Black immobility and confinement.
Rashad Shabaz, Spacializing Blacknes: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 50. ↩
“Spanish Plague Raging in Chicago: All Places of Public Assemblage Ordered Closed by Health Officials,” Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), Oct. 19, 1918. ↩
Praise came fast, and then the backlash, especially against the claim that the nation’s true founding should be dated not to the 1776 American Revolution but to 1619, when the first group of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans arrived in North America and were sold to Jamestown settlers. The editors and authors of 1619 are working in the cockpit of Trumpism, with racism and inequality renascent, so their dark take on US history is understandable. But here’s Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 writing near the top of the mountain. Liberalism was seemingly triumphant, on the cusp of passing historic civil rights legislation. If ever there was a moment to put forward an optimistic view of US history—of a country about to fulfill its “promissory note” of equality—this was it. Still, King feels compelled to point out the “broader dimensions of the evil” of US history, of its “myth” of equality:
Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.
Expectedly, much of the criticism of The 1619 Project comes from political conservatives. But a group of liberal historians reacted harshly as well, among them Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, who, along with four other esteemed scholars—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes—sent a letter to the Times demanding a retraction of the claim, made by Hannah-Jones, that “one of the primary” causes of the American Revolution was that colonists “wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Wood, Oakes, McPherson, and Bynum also gave extended, critical interviews about the project covering a wide range of topics: colonial history, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s views on race, Thomas Jefferson’s late-in-life turn toward pro-Southern extremism, the relationship of ideas to politics and economics, and the links between capitalism and slavery. Wood and Oakes, especially, objected to Hannah-Jones’s argument that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery, and Wilentz, in a comment to The Atlantic, took exception to her remark that African Americans fought for their rights “largely alone.”
Striking is what was not discussed, and that’s what King noted in 1963: indigenous subjugation. The historians mentioned above said not a word, either in their collective letter or in their extensive interviews, about the dispossession of native peoples, the destruction of their societies, and their deportation west.
The omission is odd. For whether their criticism was motivated by a desire to defend a Whiggish narrative of liberal progress (Wilentz’s position) or insist on a stronger focus on political economy (Oakes’s concern), indigenous subjugation is key to understanding the history here being debated. Imperial expansion west over stolen Indian land shaped the American Revolution’s relationship to slavery. Expansion west drove the dynamism of the United States economy. And expansion west ignited slavery’s vast and rapid postrevolutionary growth, and allowed for its endurance, long past its abolition in every other country in the Americas (save for Brazil and Cuba), accounting for its deep and lasting imprint on US political culture, economics, and institutions.
American revolutionaries might have argued over slavery, and what place unfree labor would have in a republic founded on the ideal of liberty. But there was one thing that nearly all agreed on: the right to move west. British Americans, before their break with London, chafed at what was called the “Proclamation Line.” Running along the crest of the Alleghenies, the demarcation was made by the British Crown after its 1763 victory in the Seven Years’ War against France, as an effort to sequester white settlers on the Atlantic Coast. With British subjects already moving through the mountain passes, the policy became a major source of resentment against colonial rule. Settlers—the “overflowing Scum of the Empire,” as a British governor described the drifters and squatters who rushed down the Mississippi Valley—wanted land, which brought them into deadly conflict with Native Americans. In 1763, for instance, the Scotch-Irish Paxton Boys rampaged through Pennsylvania, murdering over a dozen Conestoga, scalping their victims, mutilating their corpses, and breaking up their communities (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s great-great-great grandfather, Hans Eisenhauer, was a Pennsylvania Indian killer during this time).
Not just material interests drove settlers west. The United States was founded on the idea that the ability to move wasn’t just a natural right but a condition of all other natural rights, a guarantor of many different kinds of virtue. Franklin provided an early political economy: Unlike in Europe, “labour will never be cheap” as long as farmers can continue moving west. James Madison offered a political theory: “Extend the sphere,” he said, and you’ll dilute factionalism and mitigate economic conflict. And Jefferson, two years before his draft of the Declaration of Indepedence, presented a moral history: Our “Saxon ancestors,” Jefferson wrote, “left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe” and “possessed themselves of the Island of Britain.” As they did so, no German prince presumed to claim “superiority” over them. By what law, then, did the Crown presume to stop colonists from settling “the wilds of America”?
The American Revolution answered: none at all. The new nation came into the world doubling its size. The treaty recognizing the independence of the original 13 colonies ceded to them the territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. The United States then proceeded to move swiftly—as if weightless, as the Mexican diplomat and writer Octavio Paz put it—across the West.
What would have happened if the United States had stayed confined, either east of the Alleghenies or of the Mississippi? What if the new nation hadn’t used its full federal apparatus to cleanse its eastern lands of Native Americans? Counterfactuals are a mug’s game, which historians anyway like to play (even if many consider them an invalid form of historical reasoning). Economists, though, have no problem with asking “What if?” The Berkeley economist Bradford DeLong isolated some variables and built a model that suggested that a “little America…penned behind the Appalachians would probably have seen its living standards and productivity levels not growing at 1% per year from 1760 to 1860 but shrinking.” Wages, as a result, would have been lower than they actually were, which would have decreased European migration somewhat but not much, considering the direness of rural life in Europe.
The history of chattel slavery would have been different in “little America.” With large numbers of immigrants working for lower wages, in a more constricted economy, fights over the moral meaning of labor, free and slave, which the historians who criticize The 1619 Project make much of, might have come to a head earlier. Or maybe not. For without taken indigenous land to expand into (land that was used as collateral for loans to finance buying more slaves and building more plantation, which in turn contributed to the growth of the cotton, real estate, finance, and insurance industries), slavery probably wouldn’t have transformed into the even larger monstrosity that it did become. Many Northerners and Southerners, Gordon Wood says, sounding wistful, as if he wishes he were living in little America, “thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away.” And maybe the racism forged in a rump slavery would itself be a rump, and wouldn’t have had the lasting impact that it did.
But “big America” is what we got, thanks to a “national policy to wipe out its indigenous population,” as King noted in 1963. The United States flew over the continent like a whirligig, with not one “removal” but hundreds of removals, not one Trail of Tears, but many, with massacre after massacre, until Native Americans were reduced. This expansion—the acquisition of Florida, the Louisiana Purchase, Jackson’s Indian removal, the incorporation into the union of Texas, founded as a slaver’s utopia, and Oregon, founded as a white supremacist arcadia, and the taking of a third of Mexico—delayed a political reckoning with slavery, even as it provided the conditions for the robust progression of slavery. By the 1850s, chattel slavery had, in big America, insinuated itself into national life, into politics, law, philosophy, medicine, the new science of mental health, culture, city planning, and of course economics, in ways that, as The 1619 Project argues, last till today. It was during the Jacksonian period of imperial expansion, Indian removal, and the fast growth of slavery that a minimalist interpretation of the Constitution’s regulatory and fiscal power, and a maximalist interpretation of its war power, took shape—an interpretation that to a large degree remains regnant.
Indian removal opened the floodgates, allowing, as one legal theorist would describe the Age of Jackson, “an irresistible tide of Caucasian democracy” to wash over the land. King Cotton extended its dominion through the South, creating great wealth, along with greater forms of racial domination over both enslaved and free blacks. At the same time, Native Americans were driven west, and the white settlers and planters who got their land experienced something equally unprecedented: an extraordinary degree of power and popular sovereignty. Never before in history could so many white men consider themselves so free. Jacksonian settlers moved across the frontier, continuing to win a greater liberty by putting down people of color, and then continuing to define their liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.
The 1846 war on Mexico deepened the associations of white skin with supremacy, dark skin with subjugation, and expansion with freedom. The nation’s elites “placed their most restless and desperate citizens upon the throat of Mexico,” as the historian Paul Foos described the looting, civilian murder, and terror that US troops—comprised of state militia volunteers and Army regulars—inflicted on Mexicans. Mexico put up more of a fight than the US politicians who plumped for the war said it would. As fighting dragged on for nearly two years, US soldiers committed crimes on Mexicans so terrible that, as General Winfield Scott, commander of US forces, said, they made “heaven weep.” The war was fought in an extremely decentralized manner, with officers’ barely exercising control over their troops, who experienced the violence they committed on Mexicans and Native Americans—“the repetition of the most heinous offenses, murder, rapine, robbery, and rape,” as one US newspaper described them—as a form of liberty.
The United States won the war, and many veterans returned east, to New England’s manufacturing towns or to New York’s Bowery, their battle-hardened racism working its way into local politics and into organizations that were potentially egalitarian, such as labor associations, and the Free Soil movement. Others went west, into California and up into Oregon. Armed with federally supplied rifles, an ample stock of bullets, and the promise of bounty land, they understood Western settlement to be a sequel to the war they had just won, and the genocide that took place on the Pacific Coast its last, long battle. “A war of extermination,” the first US Anglo governor of California predicted in 1851, “will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinguished.”
Others spread out into the Midwest, into Kansas and Missouri, carrying their blood-soaked entitlement with them. War with Mexico simultaneously delayed and worsened the sectional crisis. In this sense, then, imperial expansionism served as both valve and throttle, with each conflict simultaneously venting the hatreds produced by the last while creating the conditions for the next.
The scholars who criticized The 1619 Project rightly argue that the moral debates, economic conflicts, and complicated politics of the Civil War shouldn’t be easily dismissed. There’s heroism, exercised by people of all colors, to be appreciated, which today might help us climb out of our current abyss. But it’s also important to recognize the way in which imperial expansion, including the ongoing dispossession of Native Americans, allowed the United States to continue its great evasion, its ability to take social conflicts that seemed irresolvable in the here and now and imagine their resolution in the there and then: there beyond the line of settlement, and then when the United States wins the West or opens the China market.
It wasn’t just the localized power of Southern elites that ended radical Reconstruction, the closest this nation came to having an honest reckoning with the consequences of slavery. In the struggle between North and South over the direction of a postbellum nation, access to Western lands played a decisive part. As the historians Boyd Cothran and Ari Kelman write, Northerners and Southerners in the years after the Civil War found “rare common ground” on the need to acquire more ground. They agreed on nearly nothing, only that the “Army should pacify Western tribes.” White Southerners bitterly opposed Reconstruction, and especially the hated Freedmen’s Bureau, but they came together with Northerners “on the subject of Manifest Destiny.”
The overseas frontier—wars and military occupations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Haiti—acted as a prism, blurring together the color line that existed at home and abroad. Southerners, in each military occupation and prolonged counterinsurgency they fought, could replay the dissonance of the Confederacy again and again. They could fight in the name of the loftiest ideals—liberty, valor, self-sacrifice, camaraderie—while putting down people of color. The body count in the Caribbean and Pacific was high. Hundreds of thousands died through the 1930s, either directly at the hands of US soldiers or from disease, famine, and exposure. Letters from soldiers, first in the 1898 campaign and then later in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, are notably similar, lightheartedly narrating to family and friends how they would shoot “niggers,” take “nigger scalps,” lynch “niggers,” release “niggers” into the swamp to die, water-torture “niggers,” and use “niggers for target practice.”
As Southerners steadily took the lead in the US military campaigns outward, all the dread, resentment, and hate generated by that campaign “poured back within the frame of the South itself,” as the Southern writer W. J. Cash wrote in his 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, and blended together. Over there, foreign enemies could be called niggers, and over here, domestic enemies—labor, farmer, and civil rights organizers, both people of color and their white allies—could be called subversives and anti-American: Many of the white vigilantes who led the terror campaign against black communities, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 (where veterans, with help from the US Army, slaughtered 237 sharecroppers for trying to organize a union); or the 1921 Tulsa massacre, were veterans.
Rather than atonement and reckoning, the United States offered war and conquest as a way to forge national unity. In fact, war became America’s ideal form of atonement, a way to deal with the past by fleeing forward into the future, by recycling the traumas caused by the last war into new wars.
We are going to need a bigger project, of the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. laid out in 1963. By focusing on the horrors inflicted on Native Americans, by arguing for the unprecedented nature of removal, King was doing more than adding yet another oppressed group to history’s pantheon of victims. Rather, he was reaching for a holistic understanding of how racism is historically reproduced down the generations.
“We elevated” the war against Native Americans “into a noble crusade,” King said, founding our national identity on Indian killing. Imperial expansion became a way of life, one that reinforced deep-seated pathologies and provided mythic justification for a volatile, racialized individualism. Imperial expansion led to alienation, social isolation, free-floating aggression, and fantasies that life was an endless game of cowboys and Indians, played out in all the nation’s endless wars. King, who by this time considered himself a socialist, hoped to build a movement that would achieve the “mass application of equality to jobs, housing, education, and social mobility.” He was acutely aware of the structural barriers to that goal. But he was also attuned to the psychic barriers that blocked full social equality.
Hannah-Jones writes that African Americans mostly “fought back alone.” King said much the same thing when he described nonviolent civil rights activists who faced jeering mobs with an “agonizing loneliness.” King here wasn’t talking about a lack of white allies, or individual isolation. He was talking about the loneliness that comes from fighting for social justice in a nation that is deeply, militantly, antisocial. “There is,” he said, “an individualism that destroys the individual,” that denies the interdependency of existence.
Starting around the early 1960s, King began to use the idea of the social frontier to put forward a counter value structure, an alternative to an ideal of freedom forged in centuries of subjugating people of color. African Americans, he said, confronted a reality “as harsh and demanding as that of the pioneer on the untamed frontier.” That harshness forged character and weeded out frivolity; it sharpened “knowledge and discipline…courage and self- sacrifice.” For King, then, nonviolent resistance was more than a tactic. The ability to fight on the “social frontier,” to forge a path through the “wilderness of segregation” without losing oneself to justifiable anger, without giving in to rage or the despair of loneliness, he said, contained the embryo of an alternative society, a way to free the nation from its past, to overcome its cultish adherence to frontier violence and create a beloved, social community.
Then came Vietnam, and King confronted his own agonizing loneliness. First for staying guiltily silent, not wanting to break his productive, for a time, alliance with the Democratic Party. And then, after he spoke out, when he was abandoned by people he thought were his allies and friends.
King started to publicly criticize the war in 1966. His cri de coeur came on April 4, 1967, when he gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in Riverside Church in Manhattan, to an overflow crowd of thousands. There, King didn’t just condemn the US war in Southeast Asia. He condemned all of it: the country’s long history of expansion, its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” and a political culture where “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”
King wasn’t just breaking with the Cold War liberal consensus, which conditioned support for civil rights at home on backing anti-communism abroad. Rather, his protest entailed the refutation of an older, more primal premise. The nation was founded on the idea that expansion was necessary to achieve and protect social progress. Over the centuries, that idea was realized, again and again, through war. Extending the vote to the white working class went in hand with Indian removal; the military defeat of the Confederacy by the Union Army didn’t just end slavery but also marked the beginning of the final pacification of the West, with the conquered frontier continuing as an important basis of Caucasian democracy. Millions of acres were distributed to veterans. By the time African Americans started entering the armed forces in significant numbers, with the war of 1898, there was no more frontier land to hand out. But military service remained one of the country’s most effective mechanisms of social mobility, for African Americans as well as for working-class people in general, with the G.I. Bill of Rights providing education, medical care, and homeownership to veterans. King’s dissent, therefore, signaled a schism in US politics worthy of his namesake.
To “go beyond Vietnam” didn’t just mean splitting from the New Deal coalition by demanding an exit from Southeast Asia. It meant breaking with the devil’s bargain that social progress could be achieved in exchange for support for imperial expansion. King well understood that while war made some progress possible, it also threatened progress, activating the backlashers, revanchists, and racists who run through US history. For all that war turns reform into a transactional arrangement (some suffragists, for instance, traded their support for Woodrow Wilson’s war in exchange for his support for their right to vote, as did some trade unionists for his support for labor rights), and for all that imperial expansion worked as a safety valve (helping to vent extremism outward), it also created the aggressive, security- and order-obsessed political culture that King gave his life fighting against.
King was punished for his dissent. Many of his allies, black and white, abandoned him. Others attacked him. The Washington Post essentially gave King notice that his services would no longer be needed. “He has diminished his usefulness,” its editors said. Meanwhile, the FBI stepped up its campaign of surveillance and harassment against King and his family. This campaign had been running since at least 1962, and not one of King’s white allies of considerable influence—not John Kennedy, not Robert Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson—ever ordered the bureau to stand down. That’s what it means to “fight alone.”
A prophet outcast, King continued, during the last year of his life, to speak out against the war. He put forth, in a series of sermons and press conferences, a damning analysis. Imperial expansion abroad, he argued, quickened domestic polarization. The “flame throwers in Vietnam fan the flames in our cities,” he said; “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” Racists killing brown people abroad became more racist. Opponents of war at home became more militant. Imperial expansion had long served to vent domestic extremism outward. But at some point, the vent would stop working. “There is such a thing as being too late,” King said in his Riverside Church speech, warning that the United States, even if it did try to reverse course, might not be able to steer away from self-destruction. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’” King was executed a year to the day after that speech.
“Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.
The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.
But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.
To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.
The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.
In recent years, a growing field of scholarship has outlined how America — through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution and enslavers’ desire for increased cotton production — created a complex system aimed at monetizing and maximizing the labor of the enslaved. In the cotton fields of the Deep South, this system rested on the continuous threat of violence and a meticulous use of record-keeping. The labor of each person was tracked daily, and those who did not meet their assigned picking goals were beaten. The best workers were beaten as well, the whip and other assaults coercing them into doing even more work in even less time.
As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.
“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
Baptist’s book came out in 2014, the same year that essays like the Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and protests like the Ferguson Uprising would call attention to injustices in wealth and policing that continue to affect black communities — injustices that Baptist and other academics see as being closely connected to the deprivations of slavery. As America observes 400 years since the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia, these deprivations are seeing increased attention — and so are the ways America’s economic empire, built on the backs of the enslaved, connects to the present.
I recently spoke with Baptist about how cotton slavery transformed the American economy, how torture, violence, and family separations were used to maximize profits, and how understanding the economic power of slavery impacts current discussions of reparations. A transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?
Edward E. Baptist
One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.
And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.
Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.
But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.
The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.
The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.
So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US. . . .”
When the new york times magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of TheNew York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
Overdue reparations is the key to closing the racial wealth gap
Dr. William Darity‘s congressional testimony lays a path to fix historic inequity that produces unequal outcomes for blacks
(The following is testimony by William Darity Jr., on the proposed Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act before the 116th Congress 2019–2020 on June 19, 2019)
By William Darity Jr.
The time has come for the United States, finally, to lay to rest the issue of what has been called, variously, the Slave Problem, the Colored Problem, the Negro Problem, the Black Problem, and the African-American Problem. The country can ill afford to remain stranded in the mire of injustice, perpetually refusing to resolve the fundamental, historic national dilemma facing all Americans. For too long, the nation has refused to take steps to solve an unethical predicament of its own making — the problem of the unequal status of black and white Americans.
A policy of reparations is a set of compensatory policies for grievous injustice. The three goals of a reparations plan should be 1. acknowledgement 2. redress and 3. closure.
1.Acknowledgement is the admission of responsibility for the atrocity (or atrocities) by the culpable party, incorporating an apology. The admission must also be accompanied by a guarantee to make restitution in as rapid a fashion as possible.
2.Redress is the provision of restitution, typically in the form of monetary compensation — as it has been in the cases of Germany’s reparations program on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and the United States’ reparations program on behalf of Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II.
3.Closure means the agreement by the victimized community and the culpable party that the debt has been paid. The victims would make no further group-specific claims on the culpable party, unless new atrocities took place.
A plan for black reparations in the U.S. must fulfill specific principles, and those principles must inform, organically, the deliberations of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations for African-Americans. In addition to the three central aims of a reparations program described above — acknowledgement, redress and closure — there are six principles that must be met: 1. With respect to black reparations, the U.S. government is the culpable party that must meet the obligation of awarding restitution to those eligible for reparations. 2. The government is culpable for not providing compensation over the course of 150 years since the end of the Civil War for enslaved blacks, their heirs and their descendants. 3. The government also is culpable for maintaining the legal and authority framework that sanctioned slavery, legal segregation and continues to permit ongoing racist practices. 4. Eligibility for reparations for African-Americans must apply specifically to those black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. 5. Black reparations must be designed, at minimum, to eliminate the racial wealth gap. 6. Black reparations also must include a systematic plan to maintain historical memory of the conditions that motivated the inauguration of the program of restitution.
With respect to the claim for black reparations, the U.S. stands as the culpable party. The current text of HR40 makes note of “[t]he role which the federal and state governments of the U.S. supported the institution of slavery in constitutional and statutory provisions,” “the federal and state laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present,” and “other forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed African slaves and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present, including redlining, educational funding discrepancies, and predatory financial practices.” Indeed, to the extent that federal laws and their enforcement take precedence over both state government and private- sector actions, the failure of the federal government to prohibit discriminatory actions by non-federal entities reinforces the national responsibility for making restitution.
Moreover, the federal government abandoned the opportunity to provide immediate compensation to those persons formerly enslaved upon emancipation. The freedmen had been promised allotments of at least 40 acres of land. There is some ambiguity whether this was intended to be 40 acres per family of four or per individual, but even if we take the more conservative condition — 40 acres per family — the allocation would have amounted to 40 million acres for the four million persons who were newly emancipated. This allocation never took place, and in the subsequent 150 years there has been no act of restitution for the formerly enslaved or their descendants. This is not because the descendants of slavery have been silent on this score. It is because their efforts to this point, actively, have been opposed and blocked. The commission to be established under HR40 represents an opportunity, finally, to develop a reparations program that will address the nation’s unmet obligations.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself. Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era). Third are the legacy effects of slavery and Jim Crow, compounded by ongoing racism manifest in persistent health disparities, labor market discrimination, mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks (de facto lynchings), black voter suppression, and the general deprivation of equal well-being with all Americans. Therefore, it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment — both slavery and post-slavery, both Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow — on black descendants of American slavery. It is precisely that unique community that should be the recipients of reparations: black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S.
Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era).
In a 2003 article written with Dania Frank Francis, and, more recently, in work written with Kirsten Mullen, we have proposed two criteria for eligibility for black reparations. First, an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S. Second, an individual must demonstrate that for at least 10 years prior to the onset of the reparations program or the formation of the study commission, whichever comes first, they self-identified as black, Negro or African-American. The first criterion will require genealogical documentation — but absolutely no phenotype, ideology or DNA tests. The second criterion will require presentation of a suitable state or federal legal document that the person declared themselves to be black.
These criteria rule out blacks who are post-slavery immigrants to the U.S., whose own ancestors are likely to have been subjected to enslavement and colonialism elsewhere. Indeed, they may have substantial claims for reparations themselves, but not from the U.S. government. For example, Nigerians (and Nigerian-Americans) have, in my estimation, a claim for reparations against the United Kingdom; similarly, Haitians (and Haitian-Americans) have a comparable claim for reparations against France. However, legitimate claimants for black reparations from the U.S. government must be those Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here after having been forced immigrants, rather than voluntary immigrants. This is a unique segment of the nation’s black population; it is the segment that will be eligible for black reparations in America.
In our forthcoming book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for black Americans in the 20th Century, Kirsten Mullen and I have identified the immense racial wealth gap as the prime indicator of the cumulative effects of the full trajectory of harms thrust upon black Americans. Wealth, the difference between the value of what one owns and what one owes, must not be confused with income. Wealth is more important than income, at least, insofar as higher levels of wealth are protective against unanticipated losses in income due to unemployment or financial emergencies. Wealth is insurance against economic anxiety and economic disruption for individuals and families. Wealth expands opportunity and possibility for those with larger amounts.
Today, black Americans constitute approximately 13 to 14 percent of the nation’s population, yet possess less than 3 percent of the nation’s wealth. A core objective of the reparations program must be to move the black American share to at least 13 to 14 percent. Reparations designated specifically for black American descendants of slavery must be enacted and implemented to achieve that aim, moving black wealth, roughly, from less than $3 trillion to $13 to $14 trillion.
While closure is one of the imperatives of any reparations program, arriving at closure does not mean forgetting the record of atrocities. Thus, a key dimension of a black reparations program must be the development and application of a rigorous curriculum, fully integrated into public school instruction at all grade levels, telling the story of America’s racial history, in all of its complexity, accurately.
The foregoing six principles should be guidelines that structure the charge of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans. In addition, there are several revisions to HR40 that I view as essential to yield the strongest legislation to launch the commission. The window that is relevant to the American black claim for reparations is 1776 to the present, not 1619 to the present, as the bill currently reads. Since the eventual claim for legislative redress must be made on the U.S. government, the beginning date must be associated with the founding of the republic, not the landing of enslaved persons at Jamestown. Furthermore, the array of atrocities that occurred between 1776 and the present are of sufficient magnitude that the case is not weakened by discounting the colonial period.
In its current form, the longevity of the commission is not specified in HR40. I recommend the commission completes its report, inclusive of a detailed prescription for legislation to enact a reparations program for black Americans, within 18 months of its impaneling. … President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known colloquially as the Kerner Commission) issued its report with recommendations a mere seven months after impaneling.
… it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment
I also recommend, like the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the commission on reparations proposals commission should be appointed exclusively by the Congress. The commission appointees should be experts in American history, Constitutional law, economics (including stratification economics), political science and sociology. These appointees must have expert knowledge on the history of slavery and Jim Crow, employment discrimination, wealth inequality, health disparities, unequal educational opportunities, criminal justice and mass incarceration, media, political participation and exclusion, and housing inequities. The commission also should include appointees with detailed knowledge about the design and administration of prior reparations programs as guidelines for structuring a comprehensive reparations program for native black Americans.
In addition, the commissioners should not receive payment to minimize the prospect that personal aggrandizement will influence the proceedings. However, there should be a paid professional staff, and the commissioner appointees’ reasonable expenses should be met. In essence, they (nor any organization to which they belong) should not receive a salary, honorarium, or the equivalent for performing this critical national service.
There are also some sections of HR40 that merit revision for accuracy. For example, Section 2 (a) of the legislation notes that many more than four million persons were enslaved in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865, since not all persons enslaved over that interval still were living at the end of the Civil War. It is valid to say there were about four million persons emancipated when the Civil War ended, but they were not the total number of persons subjected to American slavery.
And Section 3.b. (2) indicts the U.S. government for blocking repatriation of formerly enslaved blacks to the African continent. Arguably, the exact opposite is true, particularly given the United States’ role in the creation of Liberia. Even Abraham Lincoln advocated black repatriation until the later years of the Civil War. Alleged obstacles to repatriation are not a justification for black reparations. The core of the claim for reparations is a declaration for the establishment of full citizenship rights and compensation for the sustained denial of liberty for black descendants of American slavery. Of course, it will be their prerogative if some black recipients of reparations choose to use their funds to migrate to their preferred country in Africa, or elsewhere.
Finally, in addition, the commission’s report must detail the long and cumulative trajectory of atrocities visited upon black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. and their ancestors, and it must provide a well-designed comprehensive program for reparations that will address the following specifics: criteria for eligibility for reparations and assistance for potential claimants to establish their eligibility, criteria for establishing the size of the reparations fund, details on how the reparations fund will be disbursed (and toward what ends), details on how the reparations program will be administered and monitored, and benchmarks for gauging the long-term success of the program and administrative modification, if needed.
William Darity Jr. is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.
Where do we go from here?
What would it take to bridge the black-white wealth gap?
A Q & A with Duke University economist William ‘Sandy’ Darity, who has some radical—yet doable—ideas
Reparations well-intentioned, but insufficient for the debt owed
City of Memphis gives $50,000 each to the 14 living black sanitation workers from the 1968 strike
The Loebs : Exploited black labor and inherited white wealth
Penny-pinching Loeb ancestors kept wages flat for 25 years as black laundresses did “miserable” work
The Democratic Party’s establishment is in denial about the ways in which concentrated riches are warping society and contributing to the disunity it seeks to heal.
” . . . Just as the 2008 recession ushered in the election of the first black president, a subsequent white backlash, and a rebirth of left-wing populism led by figures such as Warren and Sanders, the economic hardships of the late 1870s inspired both worker activism and racist retrenchment. In times of economic hardship, it was not a difficult matter to discredit Reconstruction as an attempt to raise ignorant black laborers above white men who were entrepreneurial, responsible, and refined. Nor was it difficult to justify government intervention on behalf of Big Business while condemning such intervention on behalf of workers. The rich, after all, had earned it, or they wouldn’t be rich.
Foner documents how former antislavery figures such as Horace White of the Chicago Tribune “condemned agrarian and labor organizations for initiating ‘a communistic war upon vested rights and property,’ and insisted that universal suffrage had ‘cheapened the ballot’ by throwing political power into the hands of those influenced by the ‘harangues of demagogues.’” Antislavery publications such as The Nation “linked the Northern poor and Southern freedmen as members of a dangerous new ‘proletariat’ as different ‘from the population by which the Republic was founded, as if they belonged to a foreign nation.’” With Reconstruction ended, capital took advantage of the stability of its aftermath to expand convict leasing, a new regime of forced labor that white southerners would impose to replace slavery and keep the region’s black labor force captive and subordinate. Big industries—lumber, railroads, mining, and others—would take eager advantage of this system of neo-slavery to boost their profit margins.
The end of Reconstruction coincided with the Republican retreat from civil rights. But that retreat was precipitated by deep-seated fears over workers in the North and South seeking labor reform, income redistribution, and regulation of industry. “The South sensed the willingness of Big Business, threatened by liberal revolt, labor upheaval and state interference, to make new alliance with organized Southern capital if assured that the tariff, banks and national debt, and above all, the new freedom of corporations, would not be subjected to mass attack,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America. “Such a double bargain was more than agreeable to Southern leaders.” Racism not only threatens democracy and prosperity; it accrues tremendous benefits for those already leading lives of plenty.
America’s political parties are now as polarized as they were at the end of Reconstruction. And just as at the end of Reconstruction, a multiracial party whose ranks include both frustrated workers and wealthy capitalists finds itself at a crossroads, with no certain options for healing the nation’s divides or its own. As ever, America’s gilded class regards the possibility of higher taxes and redistribution as a greater threat than a resurgent racist authoritarianism that imperils America’s still-young experiment in multiracial democracy. The latter, after all, does not jeopardize its profits.
Into this divide steps Patrick, a man who went from poverty on Chicago’s South Side to the heights of both business and politics, practically an avatar of the old free-labor ideal that animated the 19th-century Republican Party, an ideal whose blindness to how concentrations of wealth warp politics and society leaves it ill-equipped to deal with the threats to democracy and prosperity America currently faces. The paradox for Democrats is that the candidates who understand this appear less likely to prevail in the general election, and those who have yet to grasp it may be better positioned to unseat the president.
In Polarized America, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal argue that economic inequality and polarization reinforce each other. Economic suffering and ideology foment anger toward minorities, who are blamed for that economic suffering. The very wealthy exploit those divisions to sustain their streams of income, which in turn makes it less likely that redistributive legislation addressing that economic suffering can be passed . . .”
The cliché is that Americans have a short memory, but since Saturday, a number of us have been arguing over medieval religious wars and whether they have any lessons for today’s violence in the Middle East.
For those still unaware, this debate comes after President Obama’s comments at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where—after condemning Islamic radical group ISIS as a “death cult”—he offered a moderating thought. “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”
It’s a straightforward point—“no faith has a particular monopoly on religious arrogance”—that’s become a partisan flashpoint, as conservatives harangue the president for “equating” crusading Christians to Islamic radicals, accuse him of anti-Christian beliefs, and wonder why he would mention a centuries-old conflict, even if it has some analogies to the present day.
What we have missed in the argument over the Crusades, however, is Obama’s mention of slavery and Jim Crow. At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts his focus on religious justifications for American bondage, and it’s worth doing the same for its post-bellum successor. And since we’re thinking in terms of religious violence, our eyes should turn toward the most brutal spectacle of Jim Crow’s reign, the lynching.
For most of the century between the two Reconstructions, the bulk of the white South condoned and sanctioned terrorist violence against black Americans. In a new report, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative documents nearly 4,000 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—between 1877 and 1950, which the group notes is “at least 700 more lynchings in these states than previously reported.”
For his victims, “Judge Lynch”—journalist Ida B. Wells’ name for the lynch mob—was capricious, merciless, and barbaric. C.J. Miller, falsely accused of killing two teenaged white sisters in western Kentucky, was “dragged through the streets to a crude platform of old barrel staves and other kindling,” writes historian Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. His assailants hanged him from a telephone pole, and while “the first fall broke his neck … the body was repeatedly raised and lowered while the crowd peppered it with small-arms fire.” For two hours his corpse hung above the street, during which he was photographed and mutilated by onlookers. Finally, he was cut down and burned.
More savage was the lynching of Mary Turner and her unborn child, killed for protesting her husband’s murder. “[B]efore a crowd that included women and children,” writes Dray, “Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground, gave a cry, and was stomped to death.”
These lynchings weren’t just vigilante punishments or, as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.” They were rituals. And specifically, they were rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy. “Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort,” writes historian Amy Louise Wood in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940. “It would be inconceivable that they could inflict pain and torment on the bodies of black men without imagining that violence as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance.”
The God of the white South demanded purity—embodied by the white woman. White southerners would build the barrier with segregation. But when it was breached, lynching was the way they would mend the fence and affirm their freedom from the moral contamination, represented by blacks and black men in particular. (Although, not limited to them. Leo Frank, lynched in 1915, was Jewish.) The perceived breach was frequently sexual, defined by the myth of the black rapist, a “demon” and “beast” who set out to defile the Christian purity of white womanhood. In his narrative of the lynching of Henry Smith—killed for the alleged rape and murder of 3-year-old Myrtle Vance—writer P.L. James recounted how the energy of an entire city and country was turned toward the apprehension of the demon who had devastated a home and polluted an innocent life.”
James wasn’t alone. Many other defenders of lynching understood their acts as a Christian duty, consecrated as God’s will against racial transgression. “After Smith’s lynching,” Wood notes, “another defender wrote, ‘It was nothing but the vengeance of an outraged God, meted out to him, through the instrumentality of the people that caused the cremation.’ ” As UNC–Chapel Hill Professor Emeritus Donald G. Mathews writes in the Journal of Southern Religion, “Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness.” The “sacred order” was white supremacy and the “holiness” was white virtue.
I should emphasize that blacks of the era understood lynching as rooted in the Christian practice of white southerners. “It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity,” wrote NAACP leader Walter White in 1929, “No person who is familiar with the Bible-beating, acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell-fire in the South, and who has seen the orgies of emotion created by them, can doubt for a moment that dangerous passions are released which contribute to emotional instability and play a part in lynching.” And while some church leaders condemned the practice as contrary to the Gospel of Christ—“Religion and lynching; Christianity and crushing, burning and blessing, savagery and national sanity cannot go together in this country,” declared one 1904 editorial—the overwhelming consent of the white South confirmed White’s view.
The only Southern Christianity united in its opposition to lynching was that of black Americans, who tried to recontextualize the onslaught as a kind of crucifixion and its victims as martyrs, flipping the script and making blacks the true inheritors of Christian salvation and redemption. It’s that last point which should highlight how none of this was intrinsic to Christianity: It was a question of power, and of the need of the powerful to sanctify their actions.
Still, we can’t deny that lynching—in all of its grotesque brutality—was an act of religious significance justified by the Christianity of the day. It was also political: an act of terror and social control, and the province of private citizens, public officials, and powerful lawmakers. Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina defended lynching on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and President Woodrow Wilson applauded a film that celebrated Judge Lynch and his disciples.
Which is all to say that President Obama was right. The vastly different environments of pre–civil rights America and the modern-day Middle East belies the substantive similarities between the fairly recent religious violence of our white supremacist forebears and that of our contemporary enemies. And the present divide between moderate Muslims and their fanatical opponents has an analogue in our past divide between northern Christianity and its southern counterpart.
This isn’t relativism as much as it’s a clear-eyed view of our common vulnerability, of the truth that the seeds of violence and autocracy can sprout anywhere, and of the fact that our present position on the moral high ground isn’t evidence of some intrinsic superiority.
In Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, historian Thomas Foster examines how the conditions of slavery gave rise to sexual violence against enslaved men in the Americas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing from historical studies of sexual violence against enslaved women, Foster uses a range of sources including early American newspapers, enslavers’ journals, court records, visual art, and abolitionist literature to illuminate how various forms of sexual violence, including physical assault and coerced reproduction, affected enslaved men and their communities. Rethinking Rufus also centers the experience of enslaved men by using testimonies, autobiographies, and interviews to shed light on how they responded to and navigated sexual violence in order to maintain autonomy and independence in their intimate lives. Rethinking Rufus analyzes the “history of the peculiar conditions that enslavement established, nurtured, and expanded that enabled those in power to dominate many enslaved men through sexual violence” (10). In this way, Foster’s study interrogates broader systems of power and domination that led to the sexual abuse of enslaved men.
Rethinking Rufus makes an important intervention into the historiography of slavery in the Americas. Foster uses feminist theories of sexual assault to examine how corporeal punishments functioned as displays of power that constituted sexual violence against enslaved men. Foster builds upon historians such as Daina Ramey Berry, Deborah Gray White, and Jennifer Morgan, who have used gender as an analytic to more fully understand how enslaved women experienced and challenged sexual abuse under enslavement. Foster’s combination of historical methods and feminist theories of sexual assault inform one of Rethinking Rufus’s main arguments, that enslaved men could not consent to sexual activity given their legal status as property and vulnerable position in the social order of slavery.
Through five chapters, Foster examines the multiple forms of sexual violence against enslaved men from a variety of perspectives. The book’s title, Rethinking Rufus, is in reference to the story of Rufus, an enslaved man who was forced to bear children with an enslaved woman named Rose in Texas during the mid-nineteenth century. Foster uses Rose’s interview published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), where she negatively recounts her sexual experiences with Rufus and describes him as a “bully,” as an example of how sexual violence affected both enslaved men and women. Foster notes that while Rose’s interview documents the trauma of coerced reproduction, a form of sexual violence in which enslavers forced enslaved men and women to bear children in order increase the population of enslaved people, sources that highlight the sufferings of coerced reproduction from the perspective of Rufus are nonexistent. Foster theorizes the absence of a counternarrative by Rufus and many other enslaved men as another type of sexual violation that stemmed from a broader cultural failure to consider men as victims of sexual violence. The repeated absence of narratives from enslaved men that document their experiences with sexual violence propels Foster’s deeper exploration into the conditions of slavery that gave rise to the sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men.
Foster begins Rethinking Rufus by examining how enslaved men’s bodies were depicted in Western art and sculptures that were widespread in the visual culture of slavery. Foster argues that enslaved men’s bodies were “symbols of enslaved manhood and sites of violation” that were objectified through a number of cultural forms including art and literature (12). The objectification of enslaved men depicted in paintings often resembled everyday acts of terror including the public inspection of Black men’s genitals, whippings and lashings, and bodily exposure due to lack of adequate clothing. Visual depictions of enslaved men that emphasized their genitalia and sexual prowess gave way to the prevailing myths of Black hypersexuality and the Black male rapist, an archetype that ensured the extralegal protection of white women from Black men who purportedly lacked control over their sexual urges. Foster also argues that while visual depictions of enslaved men’s bodies often highlighted their athleticism, strength, and muscularity, this same imagery eroticized enslaved men’s bodies in ways that fueled the physical abuses and sexual exploitation of enslaved men. Foster notes that these stereotypes found in eighteenth-century visual art contributed to the eventual punishment and national disenfranchisement of Black men.
Rethinking Rufus also sheds light on how enslaved men viewed marriage and family as potential avenues for maintaining independence and autonomy. Foster notes that while the possibility of establishing a household and assuming the role as guardian of the family was severely limited for enslaved men, love affairs and the ability to choose one’s own partner served as a key component for developing models of manhood. Using court records and eighteenth-century newspapers, Foster documents how enslaved men understood the importance of choosing their own partners despite the likely possibility of separation and loss. Because enslaved men and women were frequently sold to different plantations across various regions, enslaved men and women who married and attempted to establish families remained vulnerable to the interference of enslavers through sales and punishments. Foster notes that they often negotiated independence by adhering to the will of masters and mistresses in order to be granted partial autonomy in their intimate lives. Foster’s analysis provides a glimpse into how enslaved men navigated the power dynamics of enslavement in hopes of maintaining autonomy while minimizing the possibility of sexual violence as a punishment.
The latter part of Rethinking Rufus examines the role of reproduction in slavery’s sexual economy, and how sexual violations of enslaved men affected interpersonal relationships between enslaved men and women. To this end, Foster argues that coerced reproduction was a type of sexual assault against Black men in addition to Black women. Using interviews and testimonies from formerly enslaved men, Foster highlights how those who were valued for their reproductive capabilities were often singled out from their communities, relocated to different regions, and forced to couple with multiple women. Men who were forced to procreate were also excused from preforming certain types of labor that enslavers feared could negatively affect their reproductive capabilities. Foster also considers how forms of sexual violence against enslaved men were enacted by both white women and men. Foster’s use of WPA interviews and slave narratives that center the perspectives of Black men illuminates how the separation of enslaved men from their communities for the purpose of reproduction often severed intracommunal relationships that resulted in psychological pain and generational trauma.
In sum, Rethinking Rufus illuminates new dimensions of how sexual violence operated during slavery by incorporating the perspectives of Black men. Rethinking Rufus sheds light on how sexual assault, exploitation, objectification, and coerced reproduction affected enslaved men and their communities. Foster’s gendered analysis of sexual violence opens up new avenues for further research on the interrelatedness between masculinity, reproduction, and slave labor. Rethinking Rufus is a great contribution to the fields of Early American History, Gender Studies, and African American Studies. Rethinking Rufus should be of interest to a wide range of scholars of African American history, the history of American slavery, and the history of sexuality.
The parallels between present-day business management practices and slavery have been persistently neglected in mainstream discussions about the history of U.S. enterprise.
The most striking parallel between slavery and scientific management can be found in the “task idea,” which Taylor described as “the most prominent single element in modern scientific management.” The task system is closely identified with Henry Laurence Gantt, who is well known today for the Gantt chart, a scheduling tool, which still bears his name. During the heyday of scientific management, Gantt developed a “task and bonus system,” which paired a flat task and a time wage with bonuses for overwork. Workers would be paid a base wage plus an additional piece rate for production above a certain minimum. By combining an achievable (rather than a maximal) task with bonuses, workers would enjoy the security of a minimum payment but also be encouraged to strive beyond it.
Economic growth can accompany choice, but it can also build on violence and injustice.
Yet while they introduced some novel details, neither Gantt nor Taylor created the task system. It has a much longer history and was one of the principal methods of organizing labor under slavery. Under the task system, an enslaved person would be assigned a set “task” or quota that he or she was expected to complete by the end of the day; this was in contrast to the gang system, where enslaved people labored under constant supervision for a set period of time. In some cases, slavers who used the task system even gave monetary bonuses for achievement above set targets. They “dangled the carrot” in a way that resembles not just Gantt’s methods but those of the gig economy today. Indeed, except for the base payment and the critically important ability for workers to quit, Gantt’s new system was in nearly every respect the same as the system used by some slaveholders, a fact that Gantt made no attempt to hide. Rather, he acknowledged that the word “task” was “disliked by many men” because of its connection to slavery, and he regarded this negative connotation as its “principal disadvantage.”
This is less surprising considering Gantt’s roots in the South. Born on the eve of the Civil War to a slaveholder in Maryland, Gantt’s father, Virgil Gantt, owned more than sixty men, women, and children. As Gantt wrote, “The term ‘task master’ is an old one in our language; it symbolizes the time, now happily passing away, when men were compelled to work, not for their own interests, but for those of some one else.” Gantt’s goal was not to abolish this old system but to adapt it to modern needs. As he explained, “The general policy of the past has been to drive, but the era of force must give way to that of knowledge, and the policy of the future will be to teach and to lead, to the advantage of all concerned.”
In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself. Gantt’s rhetoric was not necessarily of distance but of progress; he purportedly liked to say that “scientific management marked a great step forward from slave labor.” James Mapes Dodge, a Philadelphia manufacturer and early supporter of Taylor, explained in 1913 that “we cannot tell who first liberated the germ idea of Scientific Management, as it was born to the world in the first cry of anguish that escaped the lips of the lashed slave.” Dodge’s reference was metaphorical, to a vague and distant past where slavery prevailed, not to the slave South. But he understood that “the present generation” had inherited “from the past the relationship of master and slave” and saw it as the job of scientific management to move beyond it.
As a child, though I could never quite name the offenses of white people, I could sense the wounds they had left all over the Black people who surrounded me. The wounds were in the lilt of Black women’s voices, in the stiffened swagger of our men; it was there in the sometimes ragged ways my boy cousins would be disciplined. And I knew this work of forgiving had somehow left bruises on my aunts so deep it made their skin shine. In church, we prayed and forgave white people like our prayers were the only thing between them, heaven, and damnation.It’s left me wondering: Does forgiveness take advantage of my people?***
Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy. So what happens when the performance of Black forgiveness gets repeated through several generations until it becomes ritualized and transformed into tradition?How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?
If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’
Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it.I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding.
How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.***In 1990, I was standing in Aunt Sarah’s basement, her linoleum floor corners peeling beneath the damp, dim light, her basement a ghostly type of cold. Being in Aunt Sarah’s basement often felt like being in a bunker. It always smelled wet like old snow resisting thaw, the ceiling low enough to give a tall man a backache. Thin layers of dust glimmered beneath the Morse code of flickering fluorescent lights, gripping the wood lacquer of the entertainment console.Aunt Sarah’s basement was filled with board games and decks of cards that neighborhood children would often come by to play with. Monopoly? Too vast in its pieces. The tiny colored discs of Connect Four? Too loud in their dropping clinks. Being 6, I trusted myself enough to accurately consider risk, weigh all options. It was simple, though. These games were not for me. Aunt Sarah and I both knew it. The contract between Aunt Sarah and me consisted of only two agreements: I would remain silent and invisible in her house.I knew the danger of the wrong game.I don’t know how cruelty finds us, but cruelty I incited in my Aunt. It seemed that every little thing I did set her off. I the flint, she the firecracker. If I spoke, her eyes would beat me like a switch pulled from a backyard tree. If Aunt Sarah wanted to teach me anything in this world, it would be my place.Easter breaks, when we were released from our Catholic school uniforms into the ether of our lives for two weeks, my parents would load my sister and me in the car and drive to Dayton to drop us off at my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Rodge’s.
On those trips, I’d sit in the back, the synthetic velvet curtains of our Dodge Caravan windows splayed open as I considered escape routes, what it would take to disappear, anxiously rubbing my fingers against the curtain’s grain.Throughout our childhood, these drives from Akron to Dayton were a regular occurrence. My father’s mother and both his sisters lived there. Strife and the years my grandmother spent trying to get her children out of Alabama had banded the four of them together like cement. During my father’s and aunts’ youths, the extended family and community around them had been filled with men who found relief in the bruises they left on women, who . . .