Workers, Slaves, Enslaved Persons

by franz 1 Comment

I’m not a professional in matters of race in America. You might call me a inspired amateur; I do think about race, but not every day. (You know that means I’m white, as is my whole family.) Still, as I say, I do think about race and I can think about such things carefully (my graduate methodological training was in psychology, anthropology, and sociology). So, when something is forced to my attention, something so egregious that I can’t believe it’s real, I’m spurred to write about it.Coby's Text

Dr. Donald E. Grant, Jr., a man I’m honored to call a colleague and friend, today sent me his petition to demand McGraw-Hill withdraw their brand new history book for Texas. McGraw-Hill’s failure? In a section titled “Patterns of Immigration,” the book provided a nice, colorful graphic asserting that “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” See for yourself; on the right is the text a bright teenager sent his mother when he saw these bewildering words in his textbook. (Coby, you rock! Hmm, you’re a teen, that probably sounded totally lame to you, sorry. I just meant that I’m happy you can see failure and shame, even when McGraw-Hill can’t. Read the end of this news story for more cool Cobyness; you’ll feel a lot better about the future.)

Now consider whether McGraw-Hill is accurate in labeling those millions of Africans (including, of course, women and children) “workers”? The answer is no. When they lived in their home cultures in Africa, some were agriculturalists, farming their land. Some were hunter-gatherers, sharing their resources. Some were moms. Some were kids. Extremely few were “workers.” You might reply, “Who cares what they were called in Africa? They were SLAVES in America; that’s what matters!” I agree the second whitewashing is much worse, but the first one is already indefensible.

To call the millions of people we kidnap “workers” and then assert we brought them “to work on agricultural plantations” smells like a rank assertion that they were job-seekers in backward Africa for whom we found good jobs in the booming economy of America. (I can hear Randy Newman’s chilling “Sail Away” in the back of my mind. It’s the perfect theme song for Dr. Grant’s petition and this post) And, frankly, it is true that millions of Americans did indeed make fine money in the economy of enslaved labor; it just wasn’t the enslaved laborers themselves. This kind of burying of the oppression of people of color in this country under a rhetoric of employment reminds me of the narrative of the treatment of Native Americans in the California Missions. We love our economy here, that’s for sure. People of color, not so much, but profits, you betcha!

Of course, as any humane person knows, the wholesale destruction and kidnapping of entire villages—entire nations—was not, at its heart, a job creation project. It was the enslavement of millions of persons and the destruction of the whole varied civilizational complex of West Africa. And when those kidnapped persons arrived on our shores they were not “workers,” god help them!, they were “enslaved persons.” No person who’s been enslaved can be considered a worker. He or she is more properly (or I should say “improperly”) seen as a machine. Many of those human machines broke on the middle passage. Some were quickly destroyed in the slave markets. Some were repaired and provided long years of service to their owners. But please, please, do not call these desperate people “workers.” They were enslaved persons. End of story. The fact that we’re arguing about this in the 21st century makes me sick.

A word about the title of this post: you may have noticed I’m using the phrase “enslaved persons” for persons I grew up calling “slaves.” I realized (embarrassingly late, I confess) that the word “slave” carries—partially unconsciously—the sense that such a person is naturally a slave, that that quality is somehow inherent in their character. As if being a slave was like being blue-eyed or brunette.

That is not only crap, it’s a disgusting evasion of what’s really going on, who is really creating slavery.

We need to remind ourselves that every person owned by another, especially in the pitifully recent example of the United States, was put into slavery and kept in slavery by another person who owned her or him and who chose to keep on owning her or him. Slavery is not built on a division of persons into free and slave. It is built on a division of persons into those who intentionally and continually enslave others and those who are intentionally and continually enslaved. Slavery was not (and, hideously still is not) an immutable condition; it was and is an ongoing choice by those so twisted as to value it. Calling those who are enslaved “enslaved persons” should also remind us to call those responsible not “slave owners,” but “enslavers.”

Words have power. Let’s let them teach us the truth. Perhaps even McGraw-Hill can still grab a little bit.

Comment ( 1 )

  1. Erik Guttman
    Treatment of slavery in US text books is a fascinating subject. I especially like James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me on this subject (and a few other key historic gaps). He assesses not only how history gets misrepresented and defused, but also why and what are the effects. Another book that's quite interesting and relevant is Kevin Bales' Disposable People. This book shows that not only does slavery persist, it changes with the economic opportunities (and vulnerabilities) of the times. It becomes ever harder to identify slavery as such and for legal (and moral) structures to effectively act against it. One aspect of your concern with identifying enslaved people as slaves seems to me to be that it leads to a tacit legitimization of the social structures and roles in which slavery functions. This is precisely the same issue I think with migrant laborers without rights - whether household help or sex 'workers' - everywhere in the world where the asymmetry of wealth (between rich countries or minorities and the poorest countries) exceeds certain bounds.

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