The American Scar: Slavery


Not surprised at all about the riot zone
 And I moan
 This was predicted not self-inflicted
 By the rapp outta the hood
 Who gettin' voted mayor
 Lookin' at em wit' an evil eye (why lie)
 Politikin' who stickin' it better watch their backs
(Public Enemy. "Tie Goes To the Runner."Fear of a Black
Planet, Chaos recordings, 1990)
The loud tribal beat of pounding rap rhythm is no
coincidence. They stem logically from the legacy the
Founding Fathers bestowed upon contemporary America with
regard to the treatment of African-Americans, particularly
the black slave woman. This tragedy has left the country
with a weak moral foundation. 

The Founding Fathers, in their conception of a more perfect
union, drafted ideas that communicated the oppression they
felt as slaves of Mother England. Ironically, nowhere in
any of their documents did they address the issue of racial
slavery. The Declaration of Independence from England was
adopted as the country's most fundamental constitutional
document. It was the definitive statement for the American
policy of government, of the necessary conditions for the
exercise of political power, and of the sovereignty of the
people who establish the government. John Hancock,
president of the Continental Congress and slave trader,
described it as "the Ground & Foundation of a future
government." James Madison, Father of the Constitution and
slave owner, called it "the fundamental Act of Union of
these States." "All men are created equal," and endowed by
the Creator with the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness." They either meant that all
men were created equal, that every man was entitled to
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or they did not
mean it at all. 

The Declaration of Independence was a white man's document
that its author rarely applied to his own or any other
slave. Thomas Jefferson suspected blacks were inferior.
These suspicions, together with his prophecy that free
blacks could not harmoniously co-exist with white men for
centuries to come, are believed to be the primary reasons
for his contradictory actions toward the issue of slavery.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Jefferson fought the
infamous Alien & Sedition Acts, which limited civil
liberties. As president, he opposed the Federalist court,
conspiracies to divide the union, and the economic plans of
Alexander Hamilton. Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson,
hypocrite, slave holder, pondered the conflict between
American freedom and American slavery. He bought and sold
slaves; he advertised for fugitives; he ordered
disciplinary lashes with a horse whip. Jefferson understood
that he and his fellow slave holders benefited financially
and culturally from the sweat of their black laborers. One
could say he regarded slavery as a necessary evil. In 1787,
he wrote the Northwest Ordinance which banned slavery in
territory acquired from Great Britain following the
American Revolution. However, later as a retired politician
and ex-president, Jefferson refused to free his own slaves,
counseled young white Virginia slave holders against
voluntary emancipation of theirs, and even favored the
expansion of slavery into the western territories. To
Jefferson, Americans had to be free to worship as they
desired. They also deserved to be free from an overreaching
government. To Jefferson, Americans should also be free to
possess slaves. 

In neither of the Continental Congresses nor in the
Declaration of Independence did the Founding Fathers take
an unequivocal stand against black slavery. Obviously,
human bondage and human dignity were not as important to
them as their own political and economic independence. It
was not an admirable way to start a new nation. The
Constitution created white privilege while consolidating
black bondage. It didn't matter that more than 5,000 blacks
had joined in the fight for independence only to discover
real freedom didn't apply to them. Having achieved their
own independence, the patriots exhibited no great concern
to extend the blessings of liberty to those Americans with
black skin. Black people were thought of as inferior
beings, animals. "You can manage ordinary niggers by
lickin' em and by given' em a taste of hot iron once in a
while when they're extra ugly," one uncouth white owner was
heard to say at a slave auction shortly before the Civil
War. "But if a nigger ever sets himself up against me, I
can't never have any patience with him. I just get my
pistol and shoot him right down; and that's the best way."
Certainly the formal doctrines of the country didn't apply
to animals. 

If the "animals" were excluded from the rights of the
people, then naturally it followed that they didn't deserve
justice. Dred Scott vs. Sanford stands as one of the most
important cases in the history of the United States Supreme
Court. Most of the literature deals with the controversial
final decision, rendered on March 6, 1857, by Chief Justice
Roger Brooke Taney. "Once free always free" became maybe
once free but now back to work, nigger. This case was a
prime example of how even the American judicial system
failed when faced with volatile and substantive racial
issues. Dred Scott was declared to be still a slave for
several reasons. 1) Although blacks could be citizens of a
given state, they could not be and were not citizens of the
United States with the right to sue in the federal courts.
In other words, "animals" couldn't sue a fellow countryman.
2) Aside from not having the right to sue in the first
place, Scott was still a slave because he never had been
free to begin with. Owning slaves was protected by the
Constitution at the time, and Congress exceeded its
authority when it passed legislation forbidding or
abolishing slavery in the territories. The Missouri
Compromise was such an exercise of unconstitutional
authority and was accordingly declared invalid. So,
"animals" were the white man's property by authority of the
doctrines passed down by the Founding Fathers. 3) Whatever
status the slave may have had while he was in a free state
or territory, if he voluntarily returned to a slave state,
his status there depended upon the law of that slave state
as interpreted by its own courts. In Scott's case, since
the Missouri high court had declared him to be still a
slave, that was the status and law which the Supreme Court
of the United States would accept and recognize. In other
words, in the middle of the nineteenth century, "animals"
better just keep their mouth shut and work if they knew
what was good for them. 

What was good for them was making the master rich. The good
Reverend Jesse H. Turner of Virginia shifted from a
Richmond pulpit to a nearby plantation and explained his
prosperity by saying "I keep no breeding woman nor brood
mare. If I want a Negro I buy him already raised to my
hand, and if I want a horse or a mule I buy him also...I
think it cheaper to buy than to raise. At my house,
therefore, there are no noisy groups of mischievous young
Negroes to feed, nor are there any flocks of young horses
to maintain." (Farmers' Register X, 129. March, 1842)
Whether it were cheaper to "breed" or to buy slaves
depended upon the market price at the time. Slave children
were a by-product that could hardly be controlled and whose
cost had no relation to market price. Often a woman for
sale was described as a "good breeder". New-born
"pickaninnies" had a value purely because at some day their
labor would presumably yield more than the cost of their
keep. The sex of the child was generally irrelevant as most
slave women did the same labor as men. Slave women cut down
trees and hauled the logs in leather straps attached to
their shoulders. They plowed using mule and ox teams. They
dug ditches, spread manure, and piled coarse fodder with
their bare hands. They built and cleaned Southern roads,
helped construct Southern railroads, and, of course, they
picked cotton. In short, slave women were used as badly as
men, and were treated by Southern whites as if they were
anything but self-respecting women. From the black women
who were even partially literate, hundreds of letters exist
telling of the atrocities inflicted by "massa." Both
physical and sexual assaults on black women were common at
the turn of the century. 

Nothing I have read captures the true devastation to the
spirit of the black woman during the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries like Toni Morrison's "Beloved." Sethe,
the main character, is the iron-willed, iron-eyed survivor
of slavery at Sweet Home, where one white youth held her
down while another sucked out her breast milk and lashed
her with cowhide while her husband helplessly watched. Once
her owner discovers the location she and her children have
escaped to, she takes them to the back-yard barn to murder
them and forever keep them free from the unbearable life of
slavery. She is discovered after killing her infant
daughter and taken to jail. In a heart-wrenching passage,
we learn that her reason for committing the infanticide was
"that anybody white could take your whole self for anything
that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but
dirty you. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and
couldn't think it up...Whites might dirty her all right,
but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best
thing...She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but
not her daughter. And no one, nobody on this earth, would
list her daughter's characteristics on the animal side of
the paper. No. Oh no." (251) 

The whole question of how to love in an inhuman system
which breeds children like horses, results in inhumane
choices. This theme, Morrison carries throughout the novel.
For women like Ella whose "puberty was spent in a house
where she was shared by father and son, whom she called the
lowest yet.' It was the lowest yet' who gave her a disgust
for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities,"(256)
nature mercifully quenches the life from the "white hairy
thing," the freakish offspring from this monstrous
childhood assault. For Morrison's women, sexuality is the
reward and burden of their gender. The unlikelihood that
any female slave could survive sexual abuse, lashing,
thirst, hunger, and childbirth, yet continue to form milk
to suckle, is Morrison's comment on Sethe's determination,
and a tribute to the countless black women who were
victimized by the evil of the white man. 

That the white man committed evil, there is no question.
The letters of the past reveal countless lives that were
ruined or ended because of racial slavery. Our forefathers
had no virtues when it required compassion for
African-Americans. One cannot speak of morality in terms of
active or passive--there simply was no morality concerning
slavery. We, as a people today, must exist in a country
that was handed-down, literally, by hypocrites. For over
two hundred years, the leaders of our country eagerly
allowed the oppression for which they established the
country to escape. How can we as descendants of those
people view the past and honestly feel a sense of morality
for the country? 

To deal with our past realistically, it is necessary to
view the early leaders in their own terms: as frail,
fallible human beings. We could have admired them for many
things: their courage and bravery in the military struggle
against Britain; their creativity in forging a new
government; and their service to a cause that captured the
imagination of people around the world. However, it is
impossible to admire the hypocritical Founding Fathers of
this nation for betraying the very ideals to which they
gave lip service. It is impossible to admire our early
leaders for speaking eloquently at one moment for the
brotherhood of man and in the next moment denying it to the
black brothers and sisters who fought by their side and
bled for their profit. It is forever impossible to admire
the thousands of white settlers of America in light of the
degrading treatment of the human spirit, for considering
"the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a
child raised every two years is of more profit than the
crop of the best laboring man." (Jefferson, Thomas. "The
American Nation." p. 352) The concern here is not for the
harm that the Fathers did to the cause which they claimed
to serve, but rather for the harm that their moral legacy
has left for every generation of their progeny. Didn't they
realize the effect their actions would have on the growing
nation? Didn't they know the black slave would not behave
like a well trained dog forever? After reading the facts,
one can only speculate that, no, neither did they realize
nor did they care about the misfortune of the black race.
They were profiting from the degradation of a whole race of
people, and that was the driving force behind the cracking
whip. Having created a flawed revolutionary doctrine and a
Constitution that did not bestow the blessings of liberty
to its posterity, the stage was set for every succeeding
generation of Americans to apologize, compromise and
criticize the principles of liberty that were supposed to
be the foundation of our system of government and our way
of life. Abraham Lincoln, the celebrated president who
"honorably" put an end to black slavery in America, shared
his true motives in a letter addressed to Horace Greeley on
August 22, 1862: "I would save the Union. I would save it
the shortest way under the Constitution...If there be those
who would not save the Union unless they could at the same
time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them... What I do
about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe
it helps to save this Union." 

I now relate with the anger in the voices of many
contemporary rap artists. I now see why certain black men
look at white men with anger in their eyes. I now
understand why I was punched in the face by an unknown
black youth one day a few years ago as I walked out of a
Safeway supermarket. His one comment to me as he ran off
was, "Sorry, man. I just hate white people." So do I, my
brother. Now, so do I. 
Berlin, Ira. "Free At Last--A Documentary History of
Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War." New York, NY: The New
York Press, 1992. 

Catton, Bruce. "The Dread Scott Case." Quarrels That Have
Shaped The Constitution. Ed. Garraty, John A. New York, NY:
Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1964. 

Cooper, David. "Slavery Violates Human Rights"
Slavery--Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William. San
Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992. 

Franklin, John Hope. "Slavery Left America Divided."
Slavery--Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William. San
Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press Inc., 1992. 

Freehling, William W. "The Founding Fathers and Slavery."
American History Volume One, Pre- Colonial through
Reconstruction. Ed. Maddox, Robert James. Thirteenth
Edition. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc.,

Garraty, John A. "The American Nation--A History of the
United States To 1877.Volume One." Eighth Edition. New
York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995. 

Lincoln, Abraham. "Preserving the Union Should Be the
Primary War Aim." August 22, 1862 Slavery--Opposing
Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven
Press, Inc. 1992. 

Morrison, Toni. "Beloved." New York, NY: Penguin Books USA
Inc., 1987 

Phillips, Ulrich B. "Life & Labor In The Old South."
Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1963. 

Sewall, Samuel. "Slavery is Immoral." Slavery--Opposing
Viewpoints. Ed Dudley, William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven
Press, Inc. 1992. 

White, Deborah Gray. "The Lives of Slave Women." American
History Volume 1, Pre- Colonial through Reconstruction. Ed.
Maddox, Robert James. Thirteenth Edition. Guilford, CT: The
Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1995. 


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