The history of slavery in the United States dates back to the beginning of the 17th century when the shores of Virginia first welcomed a ship full of captive Africans. While the patterns that slavery took in the United States may reminisce of those present in other countries, one distinctive feature unique to North America was its foundation on race. The slavery narrative of the US and Canada often revolved around skin color, therefore, drawing a line between human beings that deserved respect and those who did not. Nowadays, despite formal freedoms and liberties, the African-American community in North America is still struggling to live to its full potential. It is argued that one of the main reasons why society cannot become fully aware of racial disparities is its reliance on myths and misconceptions about slavery. This essay debunks the most common legends regarding slaves and slavery in North America and critically examines the notion of American diversity.
The Unspoken History of Slave Rebellions
One of the most persistent myths that are still very much present in popular culture is that slaves silently accepted their denigrated social standing. In the United States and Canada, slavery took centuries to be eradicated, and in the absence of substantial records about rebellions, it may seem that slaves were apprehensive of change. A prime example of this misconception is probably an influential modern rapper and producer Kanye West’s views on the past of the United States. Notorious for his sympathy for conservative political figures such as President Trump and Candace Owens, West infamously stated that “slavery was a choice (Staton, 2018).” It is readily imaginable how much controversy that statement generated, especially in the light of alarming political polarization in the US. Since then, the rapper apologized profusely for his choice of words. Yet, for all his apologies, such a worldview has yet to be overcome and is a symptom of a larger issue.
Covering the many slave rebellions occurring throughout America’s early history was not seen as reasonable by the superior social class. After all, truthful information on the subject could set a precedent, especially if a rebellion was at least semi-successful. Even today, very few history books or popular media outlets discuss rebellious slaves. Yet, history knows many examples – for instance, a rebellion at the Stono Plantation in 1739. Back then, a small group of enslaved Africans started off an insurgence by killing two guards. Others were moved by their example, and soon two dozen enslavers were massacred with the most violent overseers being the main target. 1831 Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831 was even more violent with the death count approaching 65 people (The American Civil War Museum, n.d.). It is worth mentioning that slave rebellions often took more peaceful forms: there are records of slaves secretly learning how to read and write and keeping these skills a secret. Raising awareness of slave rebellions would help to confront the dangerous myth of certain races being “apt” for service.
The Myth of Slave-Free Canada
Canada has long praised itself for its opposition to slavery. Admittedly, it is partly true: for decades, Canada offered asylum to US slaves due to the country’s earliest immigration policies. The most discussed phenomenon is probably the northbound Underground Railway that helped Africans escape to freedom. However, what Canadian historians unanimously decide to ignore is that their country has seen 200 years of slavery and had important ties to the Caribbean plantation economies. While the history and importance of the Underground Railways stand true, there are not enough discussions around slaves fleeing to the south to settle in slavery-free Vermont and other northern US states. Even more, captive Africans found their second home in the US, namely, Michigan and New England, after the war of 1812 (Parish, 2018). With that being said, the goal is not to figure out which North American country was more violent toward slaves but to raise awareness of how pandemic slavery was as a social and political phenomenon.
On par with the United States, Canada was resistant to changes that would mean pending slavery abolition. The first mentions of slavery date all the way back to 1628 – around that time, as many as 3,000 captive Africans were residing in Canada (Parish, 2018). Slavery became even more entrenched into the legal system of the country after Britain’s conquest of Quebec. Namely, on several occasions, the British Empire promised slave owners that their property rights would be respected. Apart from that, Canada helped the British stifle Caribbean slave rebellions that surged from 1791 through 1804 during the Haitian Revolution. Moreover, a number of well-known Canadian-born political figures fought relentlessly to re-establish slavery in the French colonies. Thus, it is safe to assume that Canada was rather actively contributing to African enslavement than undermining it.
The Myth of Abolition
At some point, both Canada and the United States rejected slavery-based economy and reached the point where abolition had become a viable solution. Yet, it would be naive to think that abolition ended slavery and racism in an instant. It is true conservative politicians and public figures often deny the legacy of the four centuries of slavery that still lingers and affects communities of color. What those who hold such views fail to comprehend is that abolition at the social and individual levels was a long and gradual process. Public opinions do not change overnight, and even after the Civil War, White Americans still had the same racist beliefs as before.
In the South, White Americans were overwhelmingly resistant to changing an enslaver’s mentality. While legally, they could no longer own slaves, they could reinforce regulations and exploit loopholes to control black labor (Parish, 2018). Their attempts to assert dominance resulted in such phenomenon as sharecropping – the kind of arrangement when Black Americans worked someone else’s land for a small share of crops. Slavery persisted in the form of convict leasing when prisons leased prisoners to railways, factories, mines, and plantations. Private parties exploited the incarcerated a big part of which was African Americans in return for scarce food and inhumane working conditions. Apart from that, Southern states were notorious for racial terror used to police the color line.
The North that is known to be anti-slavery was far from perfect. While slaves were emancipated on paper, many were left without means for survival because White Americans refused to make confiscated lands available to them (Parish, 2018). The general logic was that African Americans would not make good use of these lands and abandon them without White supervision. Soon constant conflicts gave way to segregation when public pools, phone booths, hospitals, asylums, jails, and residential homes for the elderly and handicapped had varying levels of access for White and Black Americans. De jure, segregation was upheld no earlier than 1964, meaning that many elderly African Americans living today witnessed its horrors.
Slavery and Public Education
Many facts covered in this essay are not common knowledge. Probably the main reason behind it is public education failing to teach school students about slavery. Curriculum standards do not offer any practical help: they are broad and vague and leave plenty of leeway to individual schools. Mentions of slavery are sporadic, taken out of context, or sanitized to leave out the most disturbing details. For instance, a recent survey showed that only 8% of school students could name slavery as the main motivator of the Civil War (Loewen, 2018). They do not quite understand how slavery underpinned every aspect of life in the South, or how the economy of the North largely depended on captive Africans. It is safe to assume that this ignorance is far from innocent. Without knowing the real history of their country, these students will be unable to understand today’s politics and the origins of racial disparities.
There are many persistent issues with how slavery is taught in schools that include but are not limited to:
- teaching American history as the history of human progress with no setbacks. This worldview does not allow for abolition not being the final step to end racism. It also dismisses the legacy of slavery that still plagues Black communities – this would contradict the “American dream”;
- presenting slavery as a minor aberration and a peculiar institution of the South. For many years, slavery was the norm backed up by the Constitution and supported by many great thinkers and progressivists;
- not explaining the obvious relationship between White supremacy and slavery given that the former used to justify the latter. This makes understanding the rise of the alt-right movements in today’s America a rather difficult task (Loewen, 2018).
Since it is obvious that the current curriculum does very little for the truthful representation of the issue, the Southern Poverty Law Center has provided it’s own take on how history classes should be organized. Basically, the institution issued a statement that prescribes to highlight the following:
- Slavery made part of all the colonial powers and was present in all of the European colonies in North America;
- Slavery was vital to the development and growth of the economy in North America;
- Enslaved Africans resisted in both revolutionary and everyday ways;
- Slavery was the central cause behind the Civil War;
- Slavery shaped US mentality and views on racial justice to a large degree;
- Its legacy continues to influence modern society and should be reckoned with.
Overall, the Southern Poverty Law Center acknowledges that teachers might be lacking the sense of direction given how unclear the current prescriptions are. The new recommendations are to guide them were they to choose to bring supplementary materials.
The Myth of Diversity
The aforementioned pessimistic points may be undermined by the seemingly successful efforts to transform American society and make it more accepting of racial minorities. After all, in recent years, Black culture has not only gone mainstream but also been overtly celebrated due to the plethora of Black artists, thinkers, and other public figures (Bobier, 2014). The question arises as to whether America is approaching cohabitation where different races would live and let live without imposing hierarchies. Shohat and Stam (2014) argue that for now, those believing in social justice should temper their optimism. Multiculturalism that is being widely propagated is nothing more than assimilationism: racial and ethnic minorities are forced to comply with the White norm to be accepted. In a way, the current situation may be reminiscent of that in the 20th century when slavery was long gone but Black behavior was still controlled by those in power.
Another reason why American diversity may be nothing more than a beautiful legend is how it validates Black people. In his article, Matthes (2016) explains that admiration for racial diversity often borders on cultural appropriation. It strips Black people of their humanity and treats them as a source of entertainment and creative ideas. In this way, White people may only be interested in the products of Black culture while detaching themselves from its realities. This attitude may also be traced back to the tradition of White superiority that reigned supreme in the United States for centuries on end.
Slavery is one of the most horrid forms of human exploitation encountered in many progressive cultures and societies. Slavery is pervasive in a way that it affects entire generations of people even after official abolition. In order to tackle its legacy, society needs to be more aware of the phenomenon itself, which is sadly not the case for the United States and Canada. The real history of slavery is almost completely eradicated from public education, leaving sporadic fragments that do not amount to a full picture. This leads to persistent myths such as slavery being a choice or abolition ending racism once and for all. Canadian historians also prefer not to focus on the two centuries of slavery whose realities were similar to those in the United States. While some progress regarding the issue of racism has been made, eliminating disparities is a work in progress. America might only be able to embrace diversity when it will acknowledge Black culture without exploitation and take its problems more seriously.
The American Civil War Museum. (n.d.). Myths and misunderstandings: Slavery in the United States. Web.
Bobier, K. (2014). Bound to appear: Art, slavery, and the site of blackness in multicultural America. Journal of Contemporary African Art, 2014(34), 116-118.
Loewen, J. W. (2018). Teaching what really happened: How to avoid the tyranny of textbooks and get students excited about doing history. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Matthes, E. H. (2016). Cultural appropriation without cultural essentialism?. Social Theory and Practice, 42(2), 343-366.
Parish, P. J. (2018). Slavery: History and historians. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Shohat, E., & Stam, R. (2014). Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the media. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Staton, T. (2018). From the editorial board: Free thought or the absence of thought? Critical media literacy in the age of social media. The High School Journal, 101(4), 213-216.