Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Getting it wrong (seriously wrong) on the history of slavery

I am a little behind in discussing this, but on July 29th of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution (H.R. 194) whereby on behalf of the American people, the House apologized for the slavery that this country once practiced.

Gosh, and here I thought 350,000 dead Union soldiers (the majority of them white), and trillions of dollars spent on social welfare programs was atonement enough.

The author of this resolution is one Steve Cohen, a congress-critter from Tennessee who represents a district in Memphis. I have read the text of this travesty of a resolution, and the most maddening part is the second paragraph. Here it is:
Whereas slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history, as Africans were captured and sold at auction like inanimate objects or animals;
Come again? Slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in HISTORY? I must admit that I am a bit confused. Is Cohen saying that the United States is the only country in history to practice slavery, or is he saying that the form of slavery practiced in the United States was more cruel and brutal than that practiced by any other country or civilization in history? In either case, Cohen is dead wrong. I expect to hear ignorant crap like this from my middle school students, but not from a U.S. congressman.

Slavery is, unfortunately, one of the oldest institutions known to man, and is, unfortunately, still practiced and accepted in some areas of the world today - ironically, mostly in Africa. Slavery was practiced by almost every ancient civilization, including the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. The prospect of the slavery of ancient Egypt is particularly amusing since Congressman Cohen is Jewish. Has he ever studied the story of Moses and the Hebrews?

I would love for Congressman Cohen to explain exactly how the slavery practiced in the United States was somehow unique in comparison to all the other instances of the slavery practiced since time immemorial. Heck, if you were an African slave heading to the New World, you WANTED to end up in the United States! Where you didn't want to go was to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean or Brazil. Slaves in those places were treated much more harshly by their owners, and the conditions there were horrible, due to climate and tropical diseases. In fact, of all the millions of African slaves brought across the Atlantic Ocean, only about 5% of them were brought to the English colonies that would later become the United States. This is because American slaves were healthy enough to survive and procreate. Slaves in the Caribbean and South America died in such great numbers, that new slaves had to be continually shipped in to replace the horrendous losses.

And now, the usual disclaimer: my description of the relatively benign treatment of American slaves is by no means a defense of the use of slaves in this country or any other at any time. I point out this treatment of American slaves in order to rebut Congressman Cohen's asinine assertion that slaves in the United States were treated in especially horrible ways.

Like I always tell my students: There is nothing unique about the fact that the United States practiced slavery; that had been happening throughout the world and throughout history. What is unique about the United States is that we were one of the first countries to work to end slavery and eventually outlaw it. What more must our country do for the apologies and hand-wringing to finally end?

For a much more in-depth focus on this topic, I highly suggest you read Michael Medved's essay, Six Inconvenient Truths About the U.S. and Slavery. Read it and learn.

Good Day to You, Sir


M.A. said...

Interesting that they had time to focus on this bill (which accomplishes nothing) and couldn't find the time to focus on our oil crisis.

It's happening at the state level, too. Our congress here in CA found the time to pass a bill that will make it no longer required for teachers to state that they are not communists and a bill to name a specific day of the year after a gay rights activist from San Fran.

Now whether or not you agree with these two bills, you have to wonder why they took precedence over the freaking state budget.

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