Victor Nuovo: The consequences of slavery
The beginnings of contact between Africa and Europe occurred long ago, when the sea routes between the two continents were first opened. By the time Europeans began colonizing America, not only had commerce between all three continents been well established, but there were distinctive social and cultural evidences of their long association in the growth of mixed social groups, for the people not only traded, they cohabited, consensually or by force. Atlantic creoles were one of these mixed groups and their culture is a monument to this mixing; it is rich and vibrant; it took root in the Louisiana territory, and still flourishes there today, a venerable and artful part of American culture. This historical achievement is the starting point of a wise and informative history of the first two centuries of American slavery by Ira Berlin, entitled “Many Thousands Gone.”
But Berlin’s book is mainly about a sadder and ignoble heritage, American slavery.
The practice of slavery most likely began with civilization itself. As human societies enlarged and developed and cultivated the land and mined its depths, they produced commodities that required labor to produce them. As opportunities of enrichment increased through commerce, the need of laborers increased; and because the work was hard and toilsome and ill-suited to a gentile style of life, these laborers became themselves a disposable commodity that could be bought and sold. War, an inevitable consequence of commerce, provided a ready means of this commodity. Prisoners of war were believed to have forfeited their rights to life and liberty by having committed aggression against their captors. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a slave as an individual “who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights.”
The United States of America began as a collection of societies with slaves that evolved into slave societies. This is an important distinction; it is central to the theme of American slavery. As I have observed, slavery is probably as old as civilization. But in America, like everything else that has happened here, it became big business. According to Ira Berlin, in a society with slaves, slaves play a marginal role in the economy of a society. Slaves were used to carry out household tasks, the most unpleasant ones, like cleaning latrines. In a slave society slavery is indispensable to the economy and not just to the household, and as I’ve already said, it had become big business. In his book, Berlin describes the process by which this happened. It began with the discovery that certain commodities: gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, later cotton, for which there is a market worldwide, and that great fortunes are to be made by producing them. Hence, the necessity to increase production. And for this task, labor was needed. And because the work to secure these commodities is backbreaking, and not long endurable, a steady supply of labor must be found. Indians were on the scene, but their numbers quickly dwindled as a result of the genocidal practices of the colonists. Creoles were sometimes enslaved, but they were few. Importing slaves from Africa was preferred the solution. And, as, Berlin aptly sums it up, with all that, “slaveholders capitalized production and monopolized resources and consolidated their political power.” The number of slaves increased dramatically; they “became the majority of the laboring class, sometimes the majority of the population.” The great landowners enlarged their holdings, and as Berlin describes it, they “muscled other classes to the periphery,” forced out small farmers, who, impoverished, marginalized, and disenfranchised, pulled up roots and headed west. The great plantations were not family farms, they were commercial enterprises ruthlessly managed. Their way of life of the has been famously romanticized, and sentimentalized by Margaret Mitchell in “Gone with the Wind”:
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
But beneath this shallow romantic facade was the cruel face of slavery. And here also lie the roots of racism, which is a recurring ailment that has infected the heart of America.
That the institution of slavery was a cause of American racism has been well-demonstrated by historians, and explained by social-psychologists, for it took root in the American conscience. It became easier to commodify other human beings if they were regarded as inferior, deemed not capable of a cultivated life or the enjoyment of the refined pleasures of civilization. And if slaves had features that distinguished them from the citizen population all the easier to set them apart. “Savages” and black Africans served this purpose better than uncultivated whites.
Not all Europeans who settled America were large landowners. The trend of the rich getting richer and the poor poorer continued, and among its effects was deep resentment among the smaller landholders, so-called yeomen farmers, resentful of their prosperous neighbors, whose proud demeanor and contumely added insult to injury. To compensate, they transferred their resentment to the victims of this prosperity, slaves, blaming them for their discontents, and regarded them as the cause of their incapacity to compete and their failure to grow rich.
The same motives led to hatred against Indians. Many small farmers, unable to compete with large landholders migrated westward towards the frontiers of the colonies only to find that the new lands they wanted had been reserved by treaty for Indians, who were also forced to move westward. They were outraged that the colonial government had granted territorial rights to the Indian nations, which made them forbidden to white settlers. Resentment for what was they took as gross injustice grew into hatred and often violence and popular uprisings; the story of how the west was won was not as heroic as it has been made out to be in the movies. American populism, fraught with moral ambiguity, had its roots here also. It is fair to conclude that the American character is a byproduct of slavery and territorial expansion.
One final thought. I often wonder why “Gone with the Wind” was so popular, as a book, a movie, and as a continuing legend. The book was published in 1936, the tail end of the Great Depression, and became a bestseller, a popular classic. The movie appeared in 1939, amid war and rumors of war. It too has become a popular classic and remains so today. Its popularity is a key to all the contradictions described above. There is something rotten in American Culture.
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