I often begin my classes on slavery with a story, one meant to capture the intellectual attention and imagination of my students. One that leaves them with a powerful imprint and anchors the ongoing class themes. But I have learned over the years of teaching these courses that my well-meant introduction, and discussion of the other realities of slave life that my classes encompass, may traumatize some of my students, particularly those whose ancestors shared in this history. My first story can be told through a film or television clip—the bloody “renaming” ritual imposed on Kunta Kinte by his overseer[i]; lines from a poem, such as Langston Hughes’ “Negro Mother”[ii]; an evocative image, or series of images, like Kara Walker’s “The Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts”[iii]; or a material culture object such as miniature shackles used on enslaved children. My preferred narrative reference is an autobiographical or biographical snippet.
What has not changed in the last 25 years is that people demand equality and are willing to fight for it. African Americans have been part of this battle from the beginning — as heroic patriots during the American Revolution, abolitionists in the quest to end slavery or marchers in the civil rights movement. They have been undeniably crucial to the evolution of our society toward its founding ideals.
And race, perhaps more than any other variable, continues to divide us all. If that were not true, how could we tolerate the manifest differences in resources, well-being and protections that place black people in such an unenviable and vulnerable position in our society?
Today, as 25 years ago, black unemployment in Los Angeles is more than triple that of the national average. More than one-third of households in South Central Los Angeles are below the poverty line — two times the percentages in California and the nation. South Central, the focus of the unrest a quarter of a century ago, still has the county’s largest concentration of liquor stores, the smallest percentage of green space, the lowest proportion of medical facilities and healthcare professionals, and the largest share of deficient K-12 public schools. These structural deficits were foundational to the civil unrest in 1992, and they will be just as foundational the next time.
“No justice, no peace!” was the anthem of the day in late April 1992 in Los Angeles as local blacks, Latinos/as, and even a sprinkling of Asian Americans and whites joined in the five day “rebellion” that purportedly underscored the injustice of the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality trial. It ended with a devastating toll of losses—54 deaths, more than 2,300 injuries, 3,600 fires, 1,100 buildings destroyed, 4,500 businesses looted, more than 12,000 arrested, and $1 billion in damage. But for the many who joined in the events of those days, and for the thousands who stayed at home but understood all too well why others had gone, Rodney King was not the symbol of injustice that was being protested; a black girl, Latasha Harlins, was.
What is slavery, and what does it have to do with America today?
Most people in the U.S. understand that slavery was the condition black people were forced into before the end of the Civil War. That’s entirely understandable: The United States became the largest slave society in the Atlantic World in the mid-19th century, and those bonded men, women, and children were of African descent. Indeed, I first heard of slavery from my mother’s stories of the brutality her ancestors suffered on the land she grew up on—and we visited often when I was a child—in rural South Carolina. Colonial and antebellum slavery was a shameful episode in this nation’s history, one that most Americans rather not focus on, preferring instead to celebrate this year the 150th anniversary of the end of that institution via the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
The horror of nine black men and women recently killed while holding prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by a man who steeped himself in a racist ideology driven by a pro-slavery philosophy from the 18th and 19th centuries, however, has brought to a screeching halt our celebrations of the “end to slavery.” Instead, the nation is deeply entrenched in a debate regarding the public display and commemoration of one of slavery’s most potent symbols, and one of the accused Charleston murder’s chosen personal icons: the Confederate flag.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” – The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 1865
It is certainly fitting that during Black History Month 2015, we pause to remember that precisely one hundred and fifty years ago, the United States ended a bloody civil war and ratified the 13th amendment that, for all intents and purposes, was meant to end the chattel slavery of four million black people and transform the largest slave society in the Americas into a “free” nation. Certainly, those African descended women, men and children remembered for years to come, if not for the remainder of their lives, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt when they found out that they were free. They recalled the moment freedom came, even if, 150 years later, we are still trying to decide, as a nation, exactly what freedom is and how it affects African Americans and other marginalized members of our society. Freedom then, as now, was defined in federal and state laws in what might have seemed like bold black-and-white terms, but the experiences of those who became “free” made up thousands of shades of semi-free reality.
On 9 August 2014, Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis) Police Department, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old. Officer Wilson is white and Michael Brown was black, sparking allegations from wide swaths of the local and national black community that Wilson’s shooting of Brown, and the Ferguson Police Department’s reluctance to arrest the officer, are both racially motivated events that smack of an historic trend of black inequality within the US criminal justice system.
The fact that the Ferguson Police Department and city government are predominantly white, while the town is predominantly black, has underscored this distrust. So too have recent events in Los Angeles, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, St. Louis, and other places that suggest a disturbing pattern of white police personnel’s use of excessive force in the beatings or deaths of blacks across the nation. So disturbing, in fact, that this case and the others linked to it not only have inspired an organic, and diverse, crop of youth activists, but also have captured the close attention of President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, national civil rights organizations and the national black leadership. Indeed, not one or two, but three concurrent investigations of Officer Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown are ongoing—one by the St. Louis Police Department and the other two by the FBI and the Justice Department, who are concerned with possible civil rights violations. The case also has a significant international following. The parents of Michael Brown raised this profile recently when they testified in Geneva, Switzerland before the United Nations Committee against Torture. There, they joined a US delegation to plead for support to end police brutality aimed at profiled black youth.
The ordeal of Solomon Northup, a literate, skilled free man of colour from New York who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold as a slave in the deep south state of Louisiana, is the focus of the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and based on Northup’s 1853 published autobiographical account. The film, which actually is a remake of Gordon Park’s 1984 television movie, Solomon Northrop’s Odyssey, is a masterful depiction of antebellum southern slave life and, like Haile Gerima’s 1993 brilliant Sankofa, Stan Lathan’s 1982 A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion and his 1987 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, along with the indomitable classic TV miniseries Roots of 1977, and Jonathan Demme’s Beloved (1998), 12 Years a Slave represents a decided evolution of African American slave narration presented on celluloid.
Those who followed the Trayvon Martin case this summer did so not just because of the conflicting details of the shooting deaths of these two unarmed black youth, but because these cases, like too many others, have played out in our public consciousness as markers of American justice. Does “liberty and justice for all” actually exist; or are these words from our Pledge of Allegiance just part of the grand American narrative that is more myth than reality?
Justice was the first ideal put forth in the Preamble to our Constitution as one that would lead to a “more perfect nation” and was later codified in the 14th amendment. Thomas Jefferson was clear about the essential nature of “justice” in the new nation, writing in 1807 that “An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental,” and in 1816 that “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.” George Washington agreed that the administration of justice is the “firmest pillar of government.” Although the implementation of justice has had a worrisome history in this nation, the people’s belief that justice is a fundamental right of everyone on American soil is rock solid. Within the African American community as well as other communities of color and varied ethnicities, however, the reality of justice as applied by local, state, and even federal courts can prove elusive.
The ordeal of Solomon Northup, a free man of color from New York who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold as a slave in Louisiana, is the focus of the new film 12 Years a Slave, directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen and based on Northup’s 1853 published autobiographical account. The film has received much early critical acclaim, and rightfully so. It is, without a doubt, one of the best depictions of antebellum slave life put to film and, along with, Haile Gerima’s 1993 masterwork Sankofa, Stan Lathan’s 1987 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the indomitable classic Roots of 1977, and Gabriel Ranger’s 2010 I Am Slave, the story of the contemporary enslavement of Mende Nazer, 12 Years a Slave presents some of the most compelling, and soon to be iconic, images of slave women on celluloid.
Indeed, one of the aspects of Northup’s autobiography that convinced director McQueen to adapt it to film was the Northrup's depiction of slave women in his lengthy account. Published descriptions of the plight of enslaved women, of course, made for an important abolitionist device intended to gain sympathy for their cause. True stories of the inability of enslaved women to maintain the gendered conventions of the day -- domesticity, sexual purity, and maternal sacrifice -- because of their status as physical and sexual laborers who could not be legally married or have parental control over their children, abound in published accounts from the late antebellum era. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (which Northup dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose own character “Eliza” was the most famous iconic slave woman of the era) certainly made it possible for a Northern audience to accept the details of rampant sexual abuse and forced concubinage detailed, for example, in Louisa Picquet’s Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Slave Life and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, both published in 1861.
There were three compelling news stories recently about modern day slavery -- in the United States. Ariel Castro, who enslaved three young women, and a child whom he fathered with one of his captives, appeared in court in Cleveland to hear his sentence. Meshael Aayban, a Saudi Arabian princess, pled not guilty to human trafficking in an Orange County, CA courtroom, accused of enslaving one Kenyan woman and possibly four Filipinas. Further up the California coast, Ryan Balletto and Patrick Pearmain were transferred to a federal detention center to await an appearance in a Bay Area federal court on suspicion that they kidnapped, and enslaved, a fifteen-year old runaway girl. Seven weeks ago, investigators charged two women and two men with enslaving at least 15 women in a brothel in San Francisco. On the East Coast, in Virginia and New York, federal authorities accused 7-Eleven franchise owners of enslaving undocumented workers.
Slavery is alive and well in our country, almost one hundred fifty years after its legal end. In 1860, on the brink of the Civil War, the United States had the largest slave society in the Americas, with almost four million held in bondage. While there is no certain way to enumerate the number of slaves in the nation today, many experts believe there are hundreds of thousands, and that these numbers are growing. What can these new examples of enslavement teach us about bondage in the past? And what does our knowledge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slavery tell us about the institution and its victims today?
This past Saturday, the all-female jury in Florida v. Zimmerman found the defendant, George Zimmerman, not guilty on all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Much of the months-long debate regarding Martin’s death -- whether or not Zimmerman should be arrested and tried, and for what crimes; if he should be found guilty or not guilty -- has been cast as part of the running commentary we have in this country concerning race, and whether or not race affects the justice that one seeks and receives in our society. Certainly race is at issue here: Trayvon Martin was black; George Zimmerman is white and Hispanic. There is a well-documented, lengthy history of great antagonism between blacks and whites in our country, as well as a more recent history of dislike, distrust and violence between blacks and Hispanics/Latinos, particularly in the urban arena. I also realize, however, as I did while writing about another controversial case in The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots, that gender, intertwined with race and class, played a significant role in key aspects of Florida v. Zimmerman.