The Main Event in American History

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

One of the many powerful insights to be gained from the gripping documentary, “Slavery and the Making of America,” airing this month on the Public Broadcasting Service lies in its unmistakable confirmation of a tragic fact of human existence.

That is that a great, evil lie—especially one motivated by racial hatred—can be stronger than the truth for years, or decades, or generations.

Last month’s commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, was a grim reminder of how a great, evil lie can destroy individuals’ and entire nations’ ethical moorings to disastrous effect.

But Americans need not look outside our own boundaries to understand this: Sadly, we have several “case studies” upon which to draw.
None is more worthy of examination than the great crime of Negro Slavery in America. That despicable “peculiar institution” was built over two and a half centuries upon the forging of bogus science and legality and theology into a great, evil lie that denied the human worth of people of African descent.

This was done before the American War of Independence even as white colonists, including those who derived their great wealth and social status from being slave-owners, were giving voice to the most advanced concepts of liberty the world had ever known.

The perversity of that contradictory posture inexorably led in 1860 to the leaders of the breakaway Confederacy basing their rebellion on the complaint that their “freedom” to enslave people of African descent was being eclipsed.

The truth about this great, evil lie and the social, political and economic structure it spawned in America from 1619 to the end of the Civil War in 1865 was itself stifled well into the twentieth century by the dominance of a school of bogus scholarship that, hewing to racial propaganda of the segregationist South, obscured all manner of facts about Slavery.

With a few (and important) exceptions, it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that a group of more honest historians began to find the primary documents and do the path-breaking research that has produced a far different picture of what Slavery was than the gauzy, mint-julep-on-the-veranda version of yore.

Their research has shown unmistakably, as Professor James Oliver Horton, of George Washington University, says at the beginning of the four-hour PBS documentary, “Slavery was no sideshow to American history. It was the main event.”

Many of the facts the documentary presents, though somewhat well-known now, still have the power to astonish.
For example, Presidents who were slave-owners occupied the White House for 50 of the 72 years between the election of George Washington and that of Abraham Lincoln.

Further, by the 1840s the value of cotton exports was greater than the combined value of all of the nation’s other exports—which made slaves the most valuable “asset” of the United States other than the land itself.

That combination produced tremendous fortunes for industrialists and financiers in the North (and in England) as well as plantation owners in the South and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.

Slavery was no sideshow. It was the main event.

African Americans, who built the foundation for America’s wealth and power, bore an enormous, tragic cost in opportunity so long denied, in so many lives lost, and in so many families unalterably disrupted. The poignant stories of what happened to those Americans dismissed by most of their countrymen and women as “chattel” are wrenching, and at times almost unbearable to watch.

And yet, “Slavery and the Making of America” also shows, intertwined with the tragedy, that Americans of African descent—both those who endured outright slavery and those who were not enslaved but burdened in reality with a kind of “half-freedom”—did not passively accept their predicament. They fought bondage in every way possible, from petitioning the legal system to outright violent revolt.

Equally important, they used the qualities all human beings have of intelligence, determination, stubbornness and courage to become, as Rutgers University historian Jennifer L. Morgan, said, “sophisticated interpreters” of one of the most dangerous social and political environments any people anywhere has ever encountered.

For me, the most powerful revelation of the “Slavery” documentary, and, generally, of the new scholarship on slavery in America of which it is a part, is the depth of the allegiance to the American Ideal African Americans quickly developed—and maintained across three centuries of relentless oppression.

I came away from it recalling the words of Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too.”

I, too, sing America.” It begins. “I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me “Eat in the kitchen”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.”

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