African slavery is arguably the thesis for almost every aspect of black life in the Western world. Beginning in the 16th century, slaves became a major commodity for international commerce, with large numbers of blacks forced to migrate throughout the world via the African slave trade. Kept in a system of involuntary servitude lasting into the mid-19th century, blacks found that slavery provided the foundation for institutional life in the United States up through the present. In fact, scholars continue to debate the historical significance, extent, scope, and political and economic implications of slavery.
Today the African diaspora extends to every continent, resulting in black representation within nearly every ethnic group in the world. That diversity includes Hispanic, Native American, European, Caribbean, and/or numerous African ethnicities. Race, though, tends to serve as a symbol for black social life and identity. Blacks have been associated with the dark, untamed, and mysterious continent: Africa. Like Africa and African history, culture, and life, blacks are less understood.
Originally determining the status of blacks in the United States were forced migration and enslavement, generating a legacy of racism still existent today. As also true for Native Americans, few similarities exist to allow comparison between the status of blacks and the status of Asian or white ethnic groups. Blacks were the only group forced to struggle from the status of existing as property to quasi-citizenship. The stigma of slavery contributed to the disenfranchisement, exclusion, and hostility experienced by blacks, often forcing them to develop economically and socially under life-threatening conditions.
The slave plantation was a unique institution and a labor-intensive agricultural enterprise, with black slaves as the primary source of labor. Plantation life involved an extreme regimentation under the constant supervision of whites. Institutionalized into the role of subservient worker, blacks had virtually no hope of the freedoms afforded their masters. W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Suppression of the African Slave Trade of 1897, criticized any attempt to minimize the inhumane nature of slavery. Similarly, many have not fully appreciated the economic impact of black slave labor on the U.S. economy. What would the economic position of the United States have been in a fledgling capitalist society without slave labor? It may well not have become the economic force it did.
Slavery is indicative of man’s inhumanity to man, joining the ranks of the Jewish Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the forced repatriation of Hispanic Americans. The abolition movement and later the civil rights movement relied heavily upon moral arguments in opposition to the institution of slavery. Legal arguments in opposition to slavery tended to dehumanize the issue, while moral arguments tended to appeal to the conscience of whites. These moral arguments provided a basis for the involvement of the white religious community in the abolition movement.
Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma of 1944, suggested that the treatment of blacks was “America’s greatest failure,” as well as its “incomparably great opportunity for the future.” In hindsight, slavery was a contradiction to the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and today remains a dark blot in the history of the United States. The remnants of slavery remain in the consciousness of Americans and the world. Despite all the civil rights legislation, there has been only limited resolution to put permanently to rest the consequences of slavery. Myrdal’s challenge with respect to the future is still unrealized.
Black Americans are in a perpetual identity crisis rooted in slavery. Who are black Americans? Blacks tend to wrestle with the conflict of being black on the one hand and American on the other. Scholars have also wrestled with this dilemma. W. E. B. Du Bois posed that blacks were “transplanted Africans.” For Du Bois, numerous aspects of African culture survived the institution of slavery, therefore providing a basis for black American identity. Du Bois assumed that Africa rather than America is the thesis of black life. In contrast, E. Franklin Frazier argued that blacks are a product of America. Slavery for Frazier stripped blacks of African culture. Today, native-born blacks have little in common with African language, culture, and life, as shown in the cultural divide between native-born and African-born blacks. The Afrocentric movement of the 1960s attempted to reconnect blacks with their African roots. However, much of black life links more closely with European culture than the continent of Africa.
As the thesis of black life in America, slavery has had a profound influence upon black institutional life. Characterizing the U.S. black experience has largely been racial segregation and stratification. Forced to live in two worlds—one black, the other white—blacks created their own parallel social institutions: black family structures, churches, schools, businesses, and community-based organizations. These institutions mirror the larger society in which they are embedded. Black life has been largely stratified due to its disadvantaged status in a capitalist economy.
Remedies to address the consequences of black slavery have been highly controversial and thus largely unsuccessful. The failure of these remedies has been due to the political concessions of white liberal and white conservative politics. Conservatives tend to oppose remedies that address atrocities against racial and ethnic minorities. On the other hand, white liberals tend to be openly supportive of remedies such as reparations. Proponents argue that reparations are a legal remedy for egregious acts inflicted upon citizens by government, but polls consistently show most Americans are against reparations. Until all blacks experience the same level of acceptance and life opportunities as all other groups, the shameful legacy of slavery remains a part of U.S. society.
- Engerman, Stanley L. and Eugene D. Genovese. 1992. Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Genovese, Eugene D. 1992. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
- Knottnerus, J. David, David L. Monk, and Edward Jones. 1999. Pp. 17-28 in Plantation Society and Race Relations: The Origins of Inequality, edited by T. J. Durant and J. D. Knottnerus. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Thompson, Vincent. 1987. The Making of the African Diaspora in the Americas, 1441-1900. Harlow, Essex, England: Longman.
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