4 Enduring Myths About American Slavery

An urgent history lesson on the 152nd anniversary of Juneteenth.

People
think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t. They think the majority of African slaves came to the American colonies, but they didn’t. They talk about 400 years of slavery, but it wasn’t. They claim all Southerners owned slaves, but they didn’t. Some argue it was all a long time ago, but it wasn’t.Slavery has been in the news a lot lately. From the discovery of the auction of 272 enslaved people that enabled Georgetown University to remain in operation to the McGraw-Hill textbook controversy over calling slaves “workers from Africa” and the slavery memorial being built at the University of Virginia, Americans are having conversations about this difficult period in American history. Some of these dialogues have been wrought with controversy and conflict, like the University of Tennessee student who challenged her professor’s understanding of enslaved families.As a scholar of slavery at the University of Texas at Austin, I welcome the public debates and connections the American people are making with history. However, there are still many misconceptions about slavery, as evidenced by the conflict at the University of Tennessee.I’ve spent my career dispelling myths about “the peculiar institution.” The goal in my courses is not to victimize one group and celebrate another. Instead, we trace the history of slavery in all its forms to make sense of the origins of wealth inequality and the roots of discrimination today. The history of slavery provides vital context to contemporary conversations and counters the distorted facts, internet hoaxes and poor scholarship I caution my students against.Four myths about slaveryMyth One: The majority of African captives came to what became the United States.Truth: Only a little more than 300,000 captives, or 4-6 percent, came to the United States. The majority of enslaved Africans went to Brazil, followed by the Caribbean. A significant number of enslaved Africans arrived in the American colonies by way of the Caribbean, where they were “seasoned” and mentored into slave life. They spent months or years recovering from the harsh realities of the Middle Passage. Once they were forcibly accustomed to slave labor, many were then brought to plantations on American soil.Myth Two: Slavery lasted for 400 years.Popular culture is rich with references to 400 years of oppression. There seems to be confusion between the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1440-1888) and the institution of slavery, confusion only reinforced by the Bible, Genesis 15:13:Then the Lord said to him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.’Listen to Lupe Fiasco – just one hip-hop artist to refer to the 400 years – in his 2011 imagining of America without slavery, “All Black Everything”:

[Hook]

You would never know

If you could ever be

If you never try

You would never see

Stayed in Africa

We ain’t never leave

So there were no slaves in our history

Were no slave ships, were no misery, call me crazy, or isn’t he

See I fell asleep and I had a dream, it was all black everything

[Verse 1]

Uh, and we ain’t get exploited

White man ain’t feared so he did not destroy it

We ain’t work for free, see they had to employ it

Built it up together so we equally appointed

First 400 years, see we actually enjoyed it

Auctioning slaves in South Carolina. Wikimedia Truth: Slavery was not unique to the United States; it is a part of almost every nation’s history, from Greek and Roman civilizations to contemporary forms of human trafficking. The American part of the story lasted fewer than 400 years.How, then, do we calculate the timeline of slavery in America? Most historians use 1619 as a starting point: 20 Africans referred to as “servants” arrived in Jamestown, Virginia on a Dutch ship. It’s important to note, however, that they were not the first Africans on American soil. Africans first arrived in America in the late 16th century not as slaves but as explorers together with Spanish and Portuguese explorers.One of the best-known of these African “conquistadors” was Estevancio, who traveled throughout the Southeast from present-day Florida to Texas. As far as the institution of chattel slavery – the treatment of slaves as property – in the United States, if we use 1619 as the beginning and the 1865 13th Amendment as its end, then it lasted 246 years, not 400.Myth Three: All Southerners owned slaves.Truth: Roughly 25 percent of all Southerners owned slaves. The fact that one-quarter of the southern population were slaveholders is still shocking to many. This truth brings historical insight to modern conversations about inequality and reparations.Take the case of Texas.When it established statehood, the Lone Star State had a shorter period of Anglo-American chattel slavery than other southern states – only 1845 to 1865 – because Spain and Mexico had occupied the region for almost one-half of the 19th century with policies that either abolished or limited slavery. Still, the number of people impacted by wealth and income inequality is staggering. By 1860, the Texas enslaved population was 182,566, but slaveholders represented 27 percent of the population, and controlled 68 percent of the government positions and 73 percent of the wealth. These are astonishing figures, but today’s income gap in Texas is arguably more stark, with 10 percent of tax filers taking home 50 percent of the income.Myth Four: Slavery was a long ...
16 Published By - AlterNet.org - 2017.06.19. 18:53
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