Shackles have always bothered me. A sound I suppose I will always carry with me from past years is the clinking of cuffs and shackles on an eleven year old defendant in court. Some people earn their shackles and some do not – at all. My topic for the moment is not those people who earn it by attacking others or attempting escape from lawful and moral authority. My topic is those people who find themselves in bindings they cannot break due to the vice of others as much as – or more than – their own.
In Natchez, Mississippi, U.S.A., there is a very small piece of land, just a few feet square, with iron cuffs and shackles cemented into the ground as a memorial to the slaves that were once bought and sold on that spot – one of the major slave markets of the Southern United States. This spot always makes me pause. And initially when I pause, I’m not thinking of white privilege, or black lives mattering, or the heritage of the three perspectives on the Civil War (Yes, 3. North, South, and Black). I’m thinking of the evil of slavery and the continuing rationalization of it. Why dwell on – much less write about such a topic? Let it be in the past – history. Take the lessons from the slavery of old and move on, you say. I hear you, but I’m afraid that too is an oversimplification. It is not just history.
Slavery isn’t, and never has been, as simple as a race issue. Slavery pre-dates race, as far as I can tell. It’s about one man valuing profit over the basic freedom of his fellow man. And that mis-applied value, I’m afraid, is nowhere near extinction. Slavery has four steps, or characteristics, depending on how you examine it.
At first, there is the betrayal. In West Africa and in other civilizations of early history, one tribe would take another in battle and the losers would be the slaves of the victors. At some point, the powerful realized they could not only use their prisoners for work, but also capture and sell them as property, and the slave trade was born. Men actually kidnapped or conned their fellow man in order to chain him or her to their own will. The root of it is the value of profit over others’ freedom. In the case of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the New York of the early 1800s, he was conned into “playing fiddle” for a traveling show and voluntarily joined a group who then placed him into a slave pen in Washington D.C., literally in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. The exterior of the building looked like any other along the mall of that time. The Washington Monument was under construction, and he was penned up like any livestock, next door to the headquarters of the “Free World” in a “Christian Nation.”
After the initial betrayal comes the forced submission. This is accomplished through fear of some sort, everytime. In Mr. Northup’s case, he was beaten with a “cat-of-nine-tails” everytime he correctly claimed his own status as a free-man, until he finally stopped claiming the truth, out of fear for his life. He was sold and transported to Louisiana, where after a couple of other “owners” he ended up on a plantation in central Louisiana in a house that still stands on the campus of L.S.U. at Alexandria.
Once the betrayal and submission are established, in comes an aspect often overlooked but most insidious. Stolen credit.
Slave labor built both homes pictured above. To this day, a white builder gets credit for building the one on the left, where a wealthy family lived but construction was stopped midstream due to the northern architect/builder leaving due to the Civil War. West Africans lived in shacks as shown on the right, and contributed much of the culture we call our own today – hymns, blues, music, foods – but were never allowed “ownership” of the contributions, as they were the property themselves.
So has the initial betrayal stopped? Not so much. Men still betray and use one another for personal gain.
Has the forced submission ended? Not at all. People still bow to the will of masters due to the fear of maintaining autonomy or claiming truth.
Does the stolen credit remain in the hands of the thieves? I’m afraid so. It is still being stolen and it has been passed on through generations, with the wealth of the descendants of the thieves growing and the poverty of the labor force growing likewise, widening the gap. Why does the gap widen?
Because the fourth point of slavery is to keep the slave from standing, even when they’ve been given the legal right. In the classic case of racial slavery, this is accomplished by means from Jim Crow laws to racial profiling. This is what some are referring to when they speak of “white privilege.” Because I am white, neither I nor my family before me have ever been “kept from standing” when we tried, due to Jim Crow or profiling.
So didn’t slavery end with the Emancipation Proclamation? I guess that depends on how we define it. If we define it by the elements above, it is alive and well, as I will show in the coming installments. I had a good talk with Ms. WilShonda, in the picture above, when I visited Natchez and Vidalia, the Louisiana town across the Mississippi River. She works on Frogmore Plantation, where slaves picked cotton in the 1800s. I asked her how she feels about working there among old slave cabins and she explained, “My heart aches for every race that was ever in slavery.” But she is a psychology major and agreed with me that it is not over.
And it must be stopped.
Bemoaning the past is insufficient when people are still bearing the shackles.
artwork by Wilshonda. WilfulCreations.storenvy.com