Slavery is Irrelevant

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
June 1, 2007


hen trying to explain or to understand the history of U.S. “race” relations, most Americans seem to focus on slavery: ordinary Americans, politicians, even many professional historians focus on slavery. And yet slavery fails as an explanatory paradigm. The people who forged African-American ethnicity were not slaves. Slavery was ubiquitous but only the United States has a color line with all its implications. U.S. racialism is dichotomous today, but it was not dichotomous where slavery was common. Slavery is irrelevant; racialism itself is the explanatory paradigm.

Ordinary Americans focus on slavery.

Ask people to summarize African-American history before the 20th century and they will talk about Africa, the middle passage, slavery, and emancipation. Ask them to summarize African-American history before the 20th century, but without mentioning slavery, and they are speechless. The focus on slavery can become an obsession that wrecks factual accuracy. Two examples:

First example of factual inaccuracy caused by ordinary Americans focusing on slavery. On the PBS website Slavery and the Making of America, the opening words—in large letters—are, “1619 At Jamestown, Virginia, approximately 20 captive Africans are sold into slavery in the British North American colonies.” Notice the two facts presented: “1619” and “sold into slavery.” Now turn to the next page of the PBS website, where it says, “1641 Massachusetts is the first colony to legalize slavery.” Wait a minute. Slavery either existed somewhere in British North America before 1641 or it did not. If it did, then the second statement is false. If it did not, then the first statement is false. This is not rocket science, people.

As it turns out, the 20 African colonists who arrived in 1619 were indentured servants just like all of the other colonists except the colony’s owners. They were not slaves. Indeed, some of those Africans and their children became wealthy planters after their terms of indenture expired. If by “slavery” you mean “involuntary labor” then all colonists were slaves for seven years. That is what “indenture” meant. But to historians, “slavery” means “lifelong hereditary involuntary labor.” Slavery did not exist in British North America until 1641 in New England, or in 1662 in the Chesapeake. Indeed, as soon as slavery became legal in the Chesapeake, the descendants of those once-indentured Africans of 1619 were among the first slave-owners in British North America. (See The Invention of the Color Line: 1691 for details.)

Do not misunderstand. This does not imply that slavery was not evil, nor that Africans did not suffer from enslavement, nor that African-Americans should not remember their slave ancestors. It is simply that the assertion that 20 Africans were sold into slavery in 1619 is factually incorrect. The falsehood either comes from ignorance on the part of PBS or it is deliberate. Either way, it is a consequence of excessive focus on slavery. The ordinary Americans who produce PBS falsely claim that African-American history is nothing more than slavery.

Second example of factual inaccuracy caused by ordinary Americans focusing on slavery. Like most Wikipedia articles on controversial topics, the one on African-American History is a collection of inaccuracies written by ideologues. Nevertheless, it rewards inspection. It claims to be “the history of an ethnic group in the United States also known as Black Americans.” And yet, there is no mention of: Paul Cuffee, Prince Hall, Richard Allen, Hezekiah Grice, Martin Delaney, nor Frederick Douglass. There is no mention of the AME church, the invention of the term “African-American.” There is no mention of the tradition of church-centered communities, nor for that matter of any of the dozens of other traditions and ethnic traits that characterize the African-American community. Why is there no shred of African-American ethnic history on a page that claims to tell African-American ethnic history? Because the people, communities, and institutions that forged African-American ethnicity were not slaves. Of all the men named above, only one (Douglass) was ever a slave. Since they were not slaves, the African-American ethnicity that they created is disdained by a Wikipedia page obsessed with slavery. To anyone with even slight knowledge of African-American ethnic history, the Wikipedia page is a sad, ignorant little joke.

Again, this does not imply that slavery was not evil, nor that Africans did not suffer from enslavement, nor that African-Americans should not remember their slave ancestors. It is simply that leaving out the creation of African-American ethnnicity by the free African-American creators of that ethnicity from a page that supposedly is about the history of that ethnicity is factually wrong. Unlike the PBS example above, however, there is no doubt that the Wikipedia page is deliberate falsification, since scholars have tried for years to add some factual accuracy to the page. Their efforts are promptly ripped out by ideologues. The non-scholarly people who contribute to Wikipedia falsely claim that African-American ethnic history is nothing more than slavery.

Politicians focus on slavery.

Most Black and many liberal politicians demand reparations for slavery. Virtually all Black and most liberal politicians demand at least an apology for slavery. Many conservative White politicians blame slavery for the destruction of the Black family. Most conservative White politicians blame slavery for what they call the “Black social pathology” of crime, drugs, abandoned children, and the like. Again, to politicians White or Black, conservative or liberal, “racial” polity is driven by the perception that African-American history is nothing more than slavery.

Even many professional historians focus on slavery.

A century ago, Ulrich Phillips argued that slavery civilized the savages and so benefited them in the long run. He claimed that kindly masters sheltered slave families, protected pregnant and nursing mothers, and discouraged sales that split families. Reacting to Phillips, other scholars then developed two opposing histories of the U.S. color line.

The first interpretation is that, because the underpinnings of African culture were destroyed during slavery, American slaves lost family values and were infantilized. E. Franklin Frazier argued that slavery cut Blacks off from their cultural heritage. It deprived fathers of authority and responsibility, led to matrifocal single-parent families, and resulted in a people with chronic lack of individual impulse control. This resulted in Black inability to overcome poverty, even in regions where post-slavery institutionalized racism was weak. Kenneth Stampp detailed the horrors of human beings without rights being treated like livestock. He agreed with Frazier that slavery had led to matrifocal families and that frequent family separations led to social pathology. Stampp asserted that slavery’s destruction of the Black family led to parental indifference and sexual promiscuity. Daniel Moynihan and Stanley M. Elkins dramatized the impact of slavery on the Black family by comparing the experience to Nazi concentration camps, leading to victimization, infantilism, and destruction of culture.

The opposing interpretation says that slavery was opposed and contested by the slaves who, far from being passive victims, preserved a syncretic culture that enabled family values to survive and flourish. Herbert Gutman and Jacqueline Jones claimed that, far from being passive victims, Black families resisted heroically. They wrote that, throughout the south, most slaves lived in two-parent households. They affirmed that Black families remained vigorous and preserved traditional African values despite slavery which, according to Gutman, was an oppressive circumstance similar to the exploitation of immigrant wage laborers. Eugene Genovese agreed with Gutman and Jones that slave families created “a world of their own” built on “life-affirming” African religion. But he also acknowledged that, despite resistance, slave owners were firmly in command. He showed that slave tales of emasculated but brutal Black males, fatherless children, and wrecked families rested on irrefutable evidence.

In short, many of those who study the history of U.S. racialism see it solely as the history of slavery. Conflict over lifelong hereditary forced labor is the basic explanatory paradigm. Blacks resisted what Whites imposed, as Whites overcame Black resistance. Such historians perhaps inadvertently imply that African-American history is nothing more than slavery.

U.S. racialism is dichotomous today, but it was not dichotomous where slavery was common.

Most Americans today believe that U.S. slavery and U.S. racialism were intertwined in either of two ways. Either they think that slavery depended upon racialism, in the sense that slave-owners justified themselves by claiming that Africans were sub-human and so undeserving of civil rights. Or they think that racialism arose to mitigate the slave-owner cognitive dissonance of treating fellow humans as animals. In other words, some historians explain that the ancient European perception of Africans as inferior is what led to New World slavery, while others show that slavery was a profit-motivated business choice and that racialism merely validated it after the fact. The former position is evidenced by propaganda depicting African Americans as sub-humans, published by southern politicians in the tumultuous decade before the Civil War. While the record of African-American slaveowners and involuntary-labor Europeans in the 17th-century Chesapeake evidences the latter position.

The flaw in both views is that the U.S. Lower South, (South Carolina, Florida, the Gulf Coast), had proportionally more slaves than any other region. The Lower South is where slavery had its deepest roots in French, Spanish and Barbadian tradition and law. And yet the Lower South had nothing like the dichotomous color line of the 19th-century North and the Upper South, and which is the national standard today. The Gulf Coast had two color lines splitting three castes (White, Coloured, and Black) and about half of the urban families of the Coloured caste owned slaves. South Carolina had a color line defined by socioeconomic class—if you were rich and owned slaves you were White no matter what your grandparents looked like. And the former Spanish culture had no endogamous barrier at all—you were labeled by your looks, nothing more.

Slavery fails as an explanatory paradigm.

The plain fact is that slavery was ubiquitous throughout the hemisphere, but only the United States has an endogamous color line, with all that this implies. Iberians institutionalized slavery centuries before Columbus—long before the transatlantic slave trade. In 1265, Spanish King Alfonso X codified laws regarding slavery. His laws were then followed in North America when slavery was first adopted in the mid-17th century, until the new United States developed its own laws around 1804. (See How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s for details.) The New World descendants of Iberians enslaved Africans at a rate far beyond anything in British North America. Of the eleven million slaves shipped across the Atlantic from Africa, less than a half-million wound up in British North America. Finally, slavery did not end in Latin America until the late 19th century, well after the U.S. Civil War. And so, today’s Latin Americans descend from slaves since long before British North America. Latin American slavery was so voluminous that virtually every Latin American alive today has some African slave ancestry. And Latin American slavery ended long after British North American slavery. And yet, and this is the important point, even the darkest Latin Americans do not consider slavery to be the central paradigm of their history.

In short, dozens of nations in this hemisphere had slavery long before the United States; they had so many slaves that their whole populations today have slave ancestry; and they kept slavery long after the United States ended it. And yet, only the United States focuses on slavery to explain its peculiar dichotomous history. Clearly, something is wrong, irrationally wrong, with this picture. Everybody else had slavery that lasted longer, involved more people, and resulted in universal African genetic admixture. Slavery per se explains nothing about the United States.

The central fact of U.S. racialism is that the United States is the only nation on the planet that has somehow managed to maintain an endogamous enclave of distinctively part-African appearance for three centuries. The existence of this unique phenomenon, not slavery per se, is what explains U.S. racialism. What is harder to explain is the blindness by ordinary people, by politicians, and by many historians towards this strange phenomenon. Hardest of all is to explain their obsession with what, to every other nation in the hemisphere, is a mere distraction—slavery.

Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

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