Race Relations in the U.S.
I've discovered the real roots of America these past few days and decided that writing about it was better than killing an innocent victim to soothe the hostility I feel towards my heritage. I picked up a pen because it was safer than a gun. This was a valuable lesson I've learned from my forefathers, who did both. Others in my country react on instinct and choose not to deliberate the issue as I have. If they are black, they are imprisoned or dead. As The People vs. Simpson storms through its ninth month, the United States awaits the landmark decision that will determine justice. O.J. Simpson would not have had a chance in 1857. Racial segregation, discrimination, and degradation are no accidents in this nation's history. 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 as 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. --- Bibliography 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., 1995. 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.