A corner of history.
(This article is written at the last possible minute. Due to the historical significance of the subject as we are approaching what is considered “Black History Month,” I couldn’t resist the urge to do so after reading these two superb essays by Jamelle Bouie.)
Hardly a month passes by without history buffs discovering some new facets of the most inhuman activity of the past millennium: the systematic enslaving of a group of people solely on the basis of their ethnic group and skin hue from womb to tomb, an inherited condition. Not only was the individual a slave for all of his/her life, but the children become and remained slaves for their lives also. Freedom from bondage was so rare as to be synonymous with the eternal search for the Holy Grail. Such obvious truism needs to be repeated lest we forget as we live centuries removed from such blatant coercive practice. However, I always caution that history is never meant to be delved into solely to stoke fire for that would lead into brinkmanship. The real purpose is to simultaneously avoid repetitions of errors from the past and to uphold the reaffirmation of commitment to the principles of Equality, Liberty and Fraternity.
In the January 28th edition of the NY Times, in my opinion the premier opinion writer of its staff of preeminent scribes, Jamelle Bouie, sends a salvo with a seminal piece titled, “We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What It Was,” and if this were not enough, the following day, he goes one step further with another gem, “Slavery Was About Profit.” We must be grateful to witness such about-face by this prestigious journal that had been at the wrong side of the assessment of our inhuman treatment by a society blinded by racial hatred. We provided proof of it in a previous essay on the June 1st massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a century ago. We will let bygones be bygones and hold no grudges as it is not useful and indeed that leads to brinkmanship.
Suffice it to say to history lovers, that there is the sharing of the existence of a database chronicling the slave trade called SaveVoyages at the eponymous website slavevoyages.org. The website welcomes one with the following caption, “The SlaveVoyages website is a collaborative digital initiative that compiles and makes publicly accessible records of the largest slave trades in history….” Publication of such marvel by the paper becomes part of another effort to redeem its shameful past that saw a historical leap when in August 2019 it audaciously buffeted academia by embarking on the 1619 Project for the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of the slave trade in present-day USA. The 1619 Project ought to be part of everyone’s library considering its historical heft and the still vehement and negative reverberations it’s still causing to the mindset that denies that Jefferson had a lifelong relationship with a slave and sired numerous children out of this affair. Furthermore the 1619 Project is available in PDF format, free of charge at the website of the Pulitzer Center, pulitzercenter.org.
A historical tidbit from this article is the revelation that New Orleans in the nineteenth century soon after the Louisiana purchase by the US became the main hub for the slave trade in the US. Unstated but quite obvious is the fact that Napoleon’s crushing defeat at the hands of ragamuffins that banded together and repelled his army had put him in an economic bind and made him make a strategic move he would not have taken. Stated another way, it is fair to conclude that the US gained far more from our liberation than it cares to avow and despite that indirect help, it held us captive and joined the other slave trading nations to strangle us as the nascent nation that dared say no to slavery at the hands of settlers. The fact we continued it in the form of restavèks puts us as bedfellows with slavers and casts us in a very shameful position.
And this brings us to a more in-depth evaluation of the paradigm. Slavery, for all the racist overtones it carries was never an activity practiced solely by Europeans. Arabs and Africans did also for economic reasons, primarily; history retains that it was customary that defeated populations after a war were also enslaved. Bouie in his second essay goes over the economic incentive oiling the engine called bondage that explains the long life that practice had. Naturally nothing in the Old World comes close to the scale of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but one must ask, why is it that we tolerate the practice of enslaving children in our society when we always speak proudly of having broken the shackles of slavery at enormous sacrifices? It makes obvious the rent in the argument of our commitment for the tryptic of Equality, Fraternity and Freedom. It calls into question the authenticity of our stated agency on the subject of freedom for blacks. If racist America could abolish slavery no matter how economically fruitful that practice was, why can’t we forbid its practice on our territory?
Reynald Altéma, MD.