Slavery—A Black-and-White Issue

February 4, 2003

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This is the third in a series of five excerpts from Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library (National Geographic Books,2003).

In Thomas D. Morris's Southern Slavery and the Law 1619-1860 there is a description of a judicially ordered partition of slaves after the death of their "owner," Robert McCausland of Louisiana.

The image is straightforward and devastating. Morris writes, "The slaves were divided into two lots, and the heirs drew the lots from slips of paper marked Lot 1 and Lot 2." Morris then reproduces the names of the people who were placed in each respective group.

The list clearly shows that families were separated—husbands and wives, a mother from her infant—all to satisfy the property interests of the white slave owners who had the power to (and did) treat black slaves as something on the order of cattle.

Whenever I read this passage I am struck by how this episode reveals the rock-hard essence of American slavery: one group of people under the whim and control of another. Families were torn apart—or lived with the constant threat of separation—not because of the vagaries of nature, primitive health care, or dangerous occupations, but in the ordinary course of a social, economic, and legal system that promoted these types of atrocities.

Make no mistake; in a society that treated human beings as property, and that placed the right to private property at the apex of its values, enslaved people could have no sure expectation of maintaining even the deepest, most elemental of their human connections. To the dominant culture, absolutely nothing about black life was sacred.

And yet, I know many things were sacred to enslaved people. They were human beings, and the desire for personal integrity, the impulse to create and maintain a family life, to build and be a part of a community, and to express spirituality in some manner, were as present within the community of slaves as they have been in all human societies.

Although the humanity of slaves is universal—it speaks to all who choose to recognize it—it draws me in a very specific way.

Because I am black, the connection I feel to American slaves is particular in that it is racial. I simply cannot read about slave children, or see photographs or depictions of them, without at some point thinking of my own daughter and son.

This is not to suggest that white observers of that time could not make the same connection, think of their own children and feel empathy and outrage at the very idea of human beings in that condition.

The big difference, of course, is that my family would actually have been eligible for slavery. A doll or cradle that belonged to a slave child could have been my own daughter's toy or cradle had she been born a mere 140 years ago, not even the beginning of a blink of the eye of history.

If one adds the decades after the end of the Civil War, when blacks in the South continued to live lives nearly as blighted as those of slaves, all this was not so long ago.

Continued on Next Page >>


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