September 05, 2019
The year 1619 laid out rough boundaries of citizenship, freedom, and democracy that are still being policed‘What we politely refer to as the ‘legacy’ of slavery is a political and economic system built on racial exploitation and the theft of black labor.’ Photograph: Carlos Barría/ReutersThis year marks 400 years since enslaved Africans from Angola were forcibly brought to Jamestown, Virginia. This forced migration of black bodies on to what would become the United States of America represents the intertwined origin story of racial slavery and democracy. This year also marks what would have been the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King, the most well-known mobilizer of the civil rights movement’s heroic period between 1954 and 1965.While Americans are quick to recognize Jamestown as the first episode of a continuing democratic experiment, the nation remains less willing to confront the way in which racial slavery proved crucial to the flourishing of American capitalism, democratic freedoms, and racial identity. The year 1619 laid out rough boundaries of citizenship, freedom, and democracy that are still being policed in our own time.Although we hardly remember this today, King often discussed how the imposing shadow of slavery impacted the civil rights struggle, perhaps most notably on 28 August 1963, during the March on Washington.Addressing a quarter of a million people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King acknowledged racial slavery’s uncanny hold on the American imagination. A century earlier, Abraham Lincoln, whom King called “a great American”, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet 100 years later, black people remained marginalized from the American dream. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,” King said, African Americans had received a “bad check” – one that the nation would have to pay in full to overcome the tragic dimensions of a racial past that continued to constrain its future.King longed to reconcile the fundamental contradiction of American democratic traditions: the existence of racial slavery alongside individual freedom and liberty. What King interpreted as a contradiction, Malcolm X recognized as ironic symmetry. According to Malcolm, racial slavery in America helped to undergird a system of racial democracy that became the exclusive provision of whites.In his stinging denunciations of white supremacy and his bold support for revolutionary violence against anti-black racism, Malcolm often invoked African Americans’ experience of 400 years of racial oppression. 2019 is the exact anniversary of the date that Malcolm often extolled in speeches, televised debates, and jaw-rattling interviews.Both Malcolm and Martin understood the intimate connection between the struggle for black dignity and citizenship during the civil rights and Black Power era and the movement to end racial slavery in the nineteenth century.Perhaps no single figure more elegantly represents that century’s struggle over racial slavery, freedom, and citizenship than Frederick Douglass, whose reputation has swelled in the aftermath of the historian David Blight’s recent Pulitzer-winning biography.A former enslaved African American from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, Douglass narrated his escape from slavery to freedom as a journey emblematic of the nation’s entire democratic experiment. A brilliant writer and public speaker, Douglass became the 19th century’s most-photographed American, the nation’s leading abolitionist, and a proponent of the violent overthrow of slavery by any means necessary. Douglass, no less than Abraham Lincoln, came to represent the freedom dreams that animated not only the struggle for black citizenship but the destiny of democracy.Racial slavery – a ruthless system of bondage closely tied to the rise of global capitalism – collapsed in 1865 only after the deaths of over 700,000 Americans in the civil war. Black soldiers’ patriotism in the face of white supremacy was only begrudgingly, if ever, acknowledged by northern politicians. New constitutional amendments designed to settle the debate over black freedom by abolishing slavery and establishing birthright citizenship and the vote competed with the rise of political, economic, and racial terror against black Americans.Reconstruction between 1865 and 1896 found black women and men on the cutting edge of new interracial democratic experiments that helped to establish public education, historically black colleges, churches, businesses, civic groups, and mutual aid societies and elect black officials. Yet those triumphs were challenged by violence, political betrayal, and legal and legislative assaults on black citizenship. In 1896, the supreme court’s Plessy v Ferguson decision made segregation the law of the land and ushered in a dark period of history.Contemporary black-led social movements such as Black Lives Matter confront not only the racial ghosts of the Jim Crow south memorialized in popular culture. They face the larger specter of racial slavery that our society often still refuses to acknowledge. What we politely refer to as the “legacy” of slavery represents the evolution of a political and economic system built on racial exploitation, the theft of black labor, and the demonization and dehumanization of black bodies.What is all the more remarkable is the way in which black folk have embraced an expansive vision of democracy even when the nation refused to recognize it as legitimate. Ida B Wells, the 19th-century anti-lynching crusader, was a trailblazing social justice activist whose work anticipated the rise of mass incarceration in America. Ella Jo Baker, the founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), understood the sit-in movement to be less about gaining access to white lunch counters than about eradicating oppressive and anti-democratic systems that had flourished since the bullwhip days of antebellum slavery.Similarly, King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail extolled the heroism of black schoolchildren jailed for violating Jim Crow laws in Alabama. Those young people, King argued, would be one day recognized as heroes for having transported the entire nation back to those “great wells of democracy” that were dug deep by the founding fathers.The relationship between slavery and freedom and our contemporary understanding of this history remains at the core of the American democratic experiment, one that has global reverberations for a sprawling communities of indigenous and immigrant people around the world who, in the best of times, have looked to America as a beacon of liberty. Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise to the presidency in 2009 burnished the United States as a symbol of racially transcendent freedom even as Trump has tempered such celebrations as premature.Perhaps the most important lesson from Jamestown for the present is the indefatigable nature of the black freedom struggle. Courageous individual acts of resistance during slavery inspired collective rebellions that transformed American democracy. Yet this change, as we are painfully experiencing today, remains fraught with the weight of a history rooted in racial slavery. Contemporary debates over racial privilege, white supremacy, and identity politics flow from political, economic, and social relations that have become normalized by our history but are far from normal.Confronting slavery’s indelible impact on conceptions of freedom, citizenship, and democracy offers us essential tools for confronting our contemporary age – what might be considered a Third Reconstruction – where efforts to embrace racial justice and an expansive vision of democracy compete alongside movements for racial bigotry rooted in ancient hatreds dressed up in new clothes.
Americas democratic experiment is inextricably tied to the history of slavery
* Peniel E Joseph is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin
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