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American slavery: the ties that bind: newest studies lay bare the painful facts of an ignoble history.

After I was halfway through the second of the many books I would review for this assignment on American slavery--as all the shameful, stomach churning details slowly unfolded before me--it suddenly became clear why this subject is rarely taught at our institutions of learning in this country. In addition, it was clear why we have never had a Ken Burns-PBS type of treatment on television, despite the fact that we have been a slaveholding country more years than we have been a true democracy.

If the full truth were fully told, it would cause too much pain. The religious would ask, as many Jews must have surely asked after the Holocaust, where was God? Whites, especially those with a British background, would hang their heads in shame. And blacks would be filled with a burning, bitter anger at what happened to their ancestors.

So it's best to let the subject go, and pretend that only "crybabies" like Randall Robinson care about this aspect of American history.

But this is a subject that won't go away, as the lingering affect of 244 years of slavery is still with us. In fact, in the past year, a flood of new books on almost every aspect of American slavery has been released.

The best overview available, which brings into play the beginning to the slave trade, is the magisterial and widely used college text From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A Moss Jr. (Knopf, 2000). A version of this book was first released in 1947. In this current eighth edition, we have a look at Africa before millions of the best people were stolen by first the Arab Muslims, and then the Europeans, and sent to every part of the Middle East, Europe and the New World.

Labor for the Taking

Professor Franklin and Professor Moss make several important points in their book: one, slavery was widespread in Africa before the Arabs and Europeans arrived; secondly, at the beginning of the slave trade, the Africans were used primarily as servants, and therefore, relatively few were captured. It was the discovery of the New World and the need for laborers to tame an enormous, wild landmass that made the demand for Africans increase incredibly.

American slavery differs from slavery in other parts of the New World in many respects. Peter Kolchin's American Slavery, 1619-1877 (Hill & Wang, 2003), first released ten years ago, and now in paperback, gives an excellent overview.

He makes an important observation: "Although precise figures must remain elusive," Professor Kolchin writes, "according to the best current estimates, a total of 10 million to 11 million living slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century.... The forced migration of slaves to the Americas significantly exceeded the voluntary immigration there of free people until the 1830s, and the cumulative total of African migrants exceeded that of Europeans until the 1880s.

"America absorbed relatively few of these Africans. The great bulk--more than 85 percent of the total--went to Brazil and the various Caribbean islands ... the United States, or more accurately for most of the slave-trade years, the colonies that would later become the United States, imported only 600,000 to 650,000 Africans, some 6 percent of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World."

In the colonies, the Africans, because of their physical differences, their confusion with their new environment, and their hardy nature, became a godsend for the English settlers.

As the years passed, slavery became increasingly concentrated in the southern colonies. By the time we arrive at the Revolutionary Era, 40 percent of blacks in the North were freemen, in contrast to 4 percent in the South.

"The Revolution posed the biggest challenge the slave regime would face until the outbreak of the Civil War some eighty-five years later," Kolchin writes.

The British obviously tried to exploit the situation by offering freedom for the slaves if they joined them in their fight against the rebellious colonies. After the Revolution, ideas such as those so eloquently and hypocritically articulated by Thomas Jefferson forced many Americans, even slaveholding southerners, to question the "peculiar Institution." Unforeseen events started to rapidly conspire against those thoughtful white people of conscience, and those blacks yearning to be free.

Demand Trumps Conscience

First, in 1793, the enterprising Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin. Second, the United States doubled in size in 1803 with Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, as Deep South states like Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi became a part of the young country.

Third, there was the nature of the climate. Here's how Governor Johnson of Georgia, in a speech in Philadelphia in the 1850s, bluntly put the problem the whites faced: "They cannot hire labor to cultivate rice swamps, ditch their low ground or drain their morasses. And why? Because the climate is deadly to the white man. He could not go there and live a week; and therefore the vast territory would be a barren waste unless Capital owned labor:'

All of this created a greater demand for slaves. This compounded by the fact that the African slave trade officially ended in 1810. So when we get to the antebellum period of American slavery, any high-minded talk of possible freedom for blacks slowly ended in the South.

As David Brion Davis notes in his thoughtful little book Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2003), "Southern slave-grown cotton was by far the nation's leading export. It powered textile manufacturing in both New England and England, and it paid for American imports of everything from steel to investment capital. Moreover, since the price of slaves continued to soar through the antebellum decades, American slaves represented more capital than any other asset in the nation with the exception of land. In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the value of the capital stock in manufacturing and railroads nationwide."

This also ushered in one of the most horrendous aspects of American slavery: the interstate slave trade. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade (Louisiana State University Press, 2004) by Robert H. Gudmestad gives us a grim look into one of the most shameful periods in human history.

The interstate slave trade states like Virginia and Maryland became giant breeding farms for the huge cotton plantations in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and other Deep South states.

Franklin and Moss, in From Slavery to Freedom, pointed out in their most chilling observation that "experiments in slave rearing were carried on ... in much the same way that efforts were made to discover new products that would grow on the exhausted soil."

Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South by Jonathan D. Martin (Harvard University Press, 2004) points out that the slave's life was one of little leisure as the practice of hiring out slaves during slow times on the plantation was widespread.

A Taste for Freedom

One unintended consequent of slave hiring was that this allowed many slaves to escape the rural farm land and seek work in the growing urban centers in the South, and develop skills unrelated to farming; and also gave them a taste of city living. In many ways, this hiring practice helped start the process by which blacks were slowly transformed by the mid-20th century from centuries of rural life, to America's most urban population.

During the entire time of American slavery, all the books note that the slaves fought the system in a variety of ways. The most frightening for the white South, obviously, was armed insurrection. For example, in 1831, their worse nightmare came true, as the legendary Nat Turner and his small band of rebels murdered 55 whites, and a smaller number of blacks in the Virginia countryside.

Scot French gives us a compelling account of the fall-out from this in The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory (Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

One of the things I personally came away with, after reading these books, is that I will never again scoff at the idea of reparations for blacks. Randall Robinson, and others like him, is absolutely correct. This nation owes blacks a huge debt that all of the money in the U.S. Treasury could never repay.

Fred Beauford is the author of the best-selling novel The Year Jerry Garcia Died (Morton Books, June 2001).
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Title Annotation:Bibliomane: choice books from university presses and small publishers
Author:Beauford, Fred
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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