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“Slavery” And The “Holocaust”
Black Americans need to know and understand American history – not just their role in America’s history – and they must also have working knowledge of world history. Early in their academic careers, most black Americans learn about World War II and the Holocaust. The word “holocaust” is an Old Testament sacrificial term that is defined as “thorough destruction, especially by fire.” Almost all dictionaries also list “Holocaust” as a proper noun to define the persecution and genocidal slaughter of European Jews by Nazi Germany before and during World War II.
Over a period of twelve years, European Jews were systematically persecuted, tormented, and murdered. Their property was confiscated or destroyed. Jewish families were torn apart, frightened children were snatched from the arms of their grieving parents, and many Jewish women were the victims of rape. Some Jews were subjected to unethical medical experiments, other were used as slave laborers, and still others had to endure the horrors of concentration camps for days, weeks, or months. Ultimately, more than six million Jews died as a result of starvation, by firing squads and electrocution, and in gas chambers that at times operated twenty-four hours a day.
One can not help being dismayed and disheartened by this episode of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. However, one should not conclude that the wanton and abject cruelty heaped upon the Jewish people by Nazi Germany was humankind’s only or even most grievous case of man’s inhumanity to man. Unfortunately, there have been a number of holocausts in the history of humankind.
There are stories of the destruction of nations in the Old Testament of the Bible as well as historical evidence of a number of mass executions in ancient times. These holocaust type episodes continued with the persecution of early Christians at the hands of the Romans. And, as recently as the 1970’s, more than one million Cambodians were put to death by Pol Pot and his followers, the Khmer Rouge. With estimates of fifty million deaths, World War II itself certainly qualifies as a holocaust in the history of humankind. And, there was “Slavery.”
Chattel slavery in America during the 246-year period from 1619 to 1865 more than qualifies as a holocaust in the annals of human history. In fact, black America should insist that, in addition to its current definitions, “slavery” should also be defined as a proper noun as follows: “the institution of chattel slavery in North and South America involving African people and their descendants from the sixteenth century through the latter part of the nineteenth century.” After all, there is no more definitive instance of the institution of slavery in the history of humankind. And if it is appropriate for history to record what happened to the Jewish people as the “Holocaust,” it is certainly appropriate for history to record what happened to Africans and black Americans as “Slavery.”
The Voyages Of The Damned
During the Holocaust, most Jews were ordered or forced to report to depots where they were sent by train to concentration camps where most of them would be murdered. They were packed like cattle in locked railway cars with virtually no fresh air to breathe, very little room to move, and no toilet facilities. The little food they had was often the result of the generosity of those who had come to the stations to see their families and friends off. The many hours that Jews spent on their journey to death and destruction were degrading and filled with apprehension and fear.
During Slavery, the first hazard that millions of Africans had to face was the possibility of being killed or seriously injured while in the process of being captured. The next hazard was the perilous and often fatal trek of many miles from the interior of Africa to the coast. It is impossible to know how many Africans died, were maimed, or severely injured in Africa for every one slave that made it to America.
The next challenge that millions of Africans had to face was getting to America alive during the notorious Middle Passage. This was the voyage of European ships from Africa carrying slaves to be sold or traded for merchandise before the ships returned to Europe. After being chained in the dark, cramped, airless bowels of these slave ships, the Africans had to endure this nightmarish horror for the duration of their voyage to America. Although there are no official figures, estimates of the mortality rate of the Africans subjected to this inhumane, terror-filled two to three-month long journey are as high as twenty percent. As many as four million Africans died or were thrown overboard when they became ill, or when there simply were not enough provisions to complete the voyage to the Americas.
The Fates That Awaited Them
The fate of the millions of Africans who survived the horrific trip to America was not the same fate that awaited the Jews. Unlike most Jews, death did not come to these Africans in a matter of hours, days, or months. Death came only after a lifetime of psychological terror, cruel indignities, and unrelenting humiliation. Death came only after a lifetime of physical abuse, beatings and mutilations, and a lifetime of being raped. Death came to these Africans only after a lifetime of debasing servitude in order to make America the great nation it would become. And yet, this lifetime of servitude and unceremonious death was not the most disheartening aspect of Slavery. The most heartbreaking aspect was the knowledge that one’s children, born and unborn, would suffer the same fate.
The Duration Of The Tragedies
The Holocaust began and ended in a little more than a decade. Slavery endured and thrived for two and a half centuries, almost twenty-five times longer. Whereas one generation of Jews was destroyed, more than a dozen generations of black Americans were used and discarded.
Today, Jewish children are taught of the atrocities inflicted upon their grandparents in order to give meaning to their rallying cry of “never again.” On the other hand, the grandchildren of the first black slaves were already destined to the same life of debasing servitude that their parents and grandparents had lived. So too were their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren. And that would only be the halfway point in the history of Slavery in America. Another six generations of black Americans would have to suffer the horrors of Slavery before it would finally be abolished in America.
The End Of The Tragedies
The Jewish Holocaust came to an immediate end when World War II ended in 1945. Although, because of apathy and a lack of resolve, the world community had done little to prevent the Holocaust, there was no shortage of outrage when it was over. There was also an outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the Jews who survived. Many people and most nations were willing to assist them in recovering from their tragedy.
A number of Nazi leaders died in the war, committed suicide, or were ultimately put on trial and punished. In Nuremberg, Germany, dozens of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of the Nazi regime were tried and convicted of various crimes, including crimes against humanity, and a number of them were sentenced to death.
In contrast, although slavery was constitutionally abolished in America in 1865, it was abolished only as chattel slavery is classically defined. A form of de facto slavery continued for many black Americans for much of the next one hundred years. When Slavery ended in 1865, the overwhelming majority of black Americans had no assets, no skills, and no education. Making this disastrous situation even worse, these black Americans lived in a world dominated by racism, a world that would deny them almost every opportunity to improve their lives.
Many black Americans living in the South had little choice but to participate in schemes such as tenant farming, also known as sharecropping. Sharecroppers reaped little or no profits from their labor and, more often than not, were in perpetual debt to white landowners. And, as a result of this debt, sharecroppers were tied to the land where their lives could be controlled by white landowners. Poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and numerous other tactics were used to prevent black Americans from voting. At best, mostly in Northern cities, black Americans occasionally had equal access, equal rights, and equal protection under the law. It was only in the late 1960’s that the holocaust known as Slavery and the Jim Crow era that followed, finally ended for black Americans – three and a half centuries after it all began.
After World War II, the state of Israel was created as a Jewish homeland. It would be legitimized as a nation when the United States officially recognized it in 1948. As a result of its alliance with and support from the United States, Israel is, today, one of the most highly developed and most technologically advanced nations in the world. And, despite its small size, Israel is one of the most militarily powerful nations on Earth. There should be no doubt that Israel has the nuclear capability to easily destroy any or all its enemies within a matter of minutes.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world’s Jewish community united and in one voice declared they would “never again” be helpless victims of the anti-Semitism that had plagued their history. Then, with extraordinary determination and persistence, the Jewish people began doing the things required to back up their words. As part of this effort, they do not depend on others to teach their children the critical lessons their children must learn. They teach their children about their long and proud history but they also teach their children about the horrors of the Holocaust. And, of course, they teach their children what they must do to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens again.
In the aftermath of three and a half centuries of Slavery and oppression, history is still waiting on black America’s determined response to the holocaust that it suffered. And while it is true that black America has accomplished a great deal, it does not come close to what black America can and should accomplish. Although it should not be expected that black America, like Israel, will create its own nation complete with a nuclear arsenal, there is no doubt that black America can do better than to be known primarily for its superstar athletes and great entertainers.
Accepting The Realities Of Slavery
There are, of course, inherent problems in comparing historical events, and even more so when they occurred a number of years apart, in different parts of the world, for altogether different reasons. The Jewish Holocaust was clearly a case of attempted genocide. Commercial slavery was all about economic exploitation. In a world that was becoming more civilized, more humane, and more democratic, Slavery lasted about as long as it could have possibly lasted. If Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany had not been stopped, one can only guess how many more millions might have died. In any case, this discussion of Slavery and the Holocaust is in no way intended to minimize the heinous atrocities and the incredible horrors of either Slavery or the Holocaust. Nor is the point of this discussion about which people suffered more or which people suffered longer.
The reason for this side-by-side discussion of the Holocaust and Slavery is to make the point that black Americans were, and to some extent continue to be, the victims of one of the greatest holocausts in the history of humankind. And compounding this terrible reality is the fact that most black Americans do not realize or fully comprehend that this is the case.
Making matters worse, most black Americans do not understand or fully comprehend why it is critical for them to recognize and deal with their holocaust called Slavery. For some, Slavery represents the worst of black Americans and their solution is to ignore what they believe to be a shameful and embarrassing part of their history. But, clearly, if black Americans do not know and understand their history, they can not possibly know and understand who and what they are today and how they can become a better people in the future.
To begin to understand Slavery, black Americans must first understand that the horrors of Slavery do not justify an automatic indictment of white Americans as soulless, cold-blooded monsters who exploited their fellow human beings for the sake of economic gain. To do so would also condemn the many black Africans who were involved in the slave trade as well as hundreds of black Americans who owned slaves other than their own family members. It would also require ignoring most of the recorded history of humankind.
For thousands of years, slavery occurred almost universally among people of every level of material culture, including ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, Indians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. Slavery was so much a part of acceptable human behavior that there is nothing in the Bible or the Koran that condemns or specifically prohibits it. The Old Testament does stipulate a period of seven years as the limit for forced servitude, although this limit was rarely adhered to.
History records that slavery, indentured servitude, and other forms of human bondage once existed in virtually every country in the world and, to an extent, still exist in many parts of the world today. It has only been within the last century or two that a majority of the world’s population has lived in societies that were not based on class or caste, with both being determined solely by circumstances of birth.
For much of human history, land and the people who were allowed to live on it belonged to a pharaoh, an emperor, a czar, a king, a queen, his or her family members, or to those who were in favor with them. It was not a simple matter of working hard, saving money, and buying a small family farm. Land was passed down from generation to generation or reverted back to the head of state. America was instrumental in changing this world of class and privilege. In America, there was actually good land that could be owned by common men. This is indeed what made America the so-called land of opportunity.
It is important to recognize that our twenty-first century sensibilities and contemporary values color our present-day view of history. In many ways, our world is one hundred and eighty degrees different than it was five hundred, and in some cases, even one hundred years ago. Slavery existed in America at the same time that slavery existed in the rest of the world. Slavery ended in America about the same time that slavery ended in the rest of the world. Indeed, one could argue that slavery and the end of slavery were merely evolutionary steps in the continuing ascent of humankind. What, then, is the importance of black Americans knowing the truth about and understanding the realities of Slavery?
“We need history, not to tell us what happened or to explain the past, but to make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible. This is our educational crisis and opportunity.” (Allan Bloom, “The Closing Of The American Mind,” 1987)
The People In The Mirror
How does black America’s history “explain” black Americans of today? To begin with, one should be aware that the 246-year Slavery era represents sixty-four percent of black America’s total history to date and the 103-year Jim Crow era represents another twenty-six percent. Therefore, the Equal Opportunity era, the last four decades during which all black Americans have been guaranteed civil and legal rights, represents barely ten percent of black America’s history.
Based on these percentages, if black America’s history were personified as one individual twenty-one year-old black man, it would be analogous to him having been physically, mentally, and sexually abused every day of his life until the age of fourteen. For the next five years, until the age of nineteen, he would have been unloved, unwanted, and unsupported as he moved in and out of foster homes and halfway houses. In his twentieth and twenty-first year, he would be on his own. He would have very little education and few marketable skills. However, his greatest problem would be the tragic, trauma-filled life he had led. Without a great deal of understanding and meaningful counseling, his life would be difficult, if not impossible, to repair.
For ninety percent of their history in America, blacks have lived in slavery or, at best, lived as second-class citizens. This fact speaks for itself. While it can be ignored, it can not be denied. The reality is that slavery and oppression define black America. Black Americans must understand and acknowledge that, even in the twenty-first century, slavery and oppression “explain” black Americans as a people.
Of course, there will always be black Americans who will argue that a better approach is to simply let go of the past and move forward into the new Equal Opportunity era. Undoubtedly, a similar argument was made to survivors of the Jewish holocaust. Some responded by refusing to have the identification numbers that were forcibly tattooed on their arms removed. Admittedly, it may be easier to forget or less painful to ignore trauma suffered in the past. But can black Americans afford to take this approach? Is it possible for black Americans to get to where they need to be if they do not even know where they have been? Not in the view of noted black American historian, Dr. John Henrik Clarke:
“The events which transpired five thousand years ago; five years ago or five minutes ago, have determined what will happen five minutes from now; five years from now or five thousand years from now. All history is a current event.” (Dr. John Henrik Clarke, 1915-1998)
There will also be black Americans who will be uncomfortable,
if not offended, by the notion that black America needs to be “examined
and explained.” Their point of view might be justified if the only intent
were to look for negatives about black Americans or the only expectation was
to find things that are wrong with black America. There are, in fact, many more
positive aspects than negative aspects about black America and black Americans.
The most obvious and most dramatic is that black America has survived as a people
through such a long and precarious history. In any case, any self-assessment
is pointless if it is not thorough or brutally honest. And any self-assessment
of black America is certainly of little or no value if it is not expressly for
the purpose of making a better future for black Americans.
Obviously, any explanation of black America should be by black Americans, for black Americans. Black America has no reason and certainly no obligation to explain itself to white America. Indeed, given that racism and oppression defines and explains much of the history of white America, white Americans clearly have their own corresponding issues they should be busy examining. At this point in black America’s history, it is not important what white America thinks of black America. It is only important what black Americans think of themselves.
How do black Americans “make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible?” The first step is for black Americans to make an investment in the time and effort required to learn the history of black America. Next, based on their history, black Americans must take a look in the mirror and make a straightforward, honest assessment of who and what they are. Only then will black Americans begin to understand the critical issues to explore and the important questions to ask themselves.
* What are the psychological ramifications for black
Americans as a result of 349 years of Slavery and Jim Crow era oppression? Is
the psyche of the nineteenth and twentieth generation of black Americans still
being affected by the damage done to the first eighteen generations of black
* Are there physiological consequences for black Americans today as a result of centuries of “slave breeding,” “slave food,” backbreaking labor, and habitual physical and sexual abuse?
* How has three and a half centuries of Slavery and oppression affected the spirituality of black Americans? Are black Americans more religious because their only possible salvation has always been a heavenly reward? Has centuries of pain and suffering caused black Americans to lose fundamental faith in a loving, caring God?
* Did 349 years of black Americans being told that they are “helpless children” and the “white man’s burden” result in black Americans developing a “welfare mentality?”
* Do black Americans still have a “plantation mentality” that causes them to be suspicious of or to not trust other blacks? Does plantation mentality explain black Americans reluctance to support black businesses? Does it hamper black Americans’ ability to unite as a people?
* As a result of three and a half centuries of being valued and accepted only for their physical abilities, have black Americans come to believe that professional sports and the entertainment field are their only or their best paths to success in America?
* Has black America been “engineered” to regard the need and the desire for formal education as “being white” and antithetical to “being black?” Is this mindset the results of twelve generations of Slavery followed by five generations of the Jim Crow era during which educating black Americans was discouraged, forbidden by law, or made the lowest priority by white and black America. Do black Americans, even today, consider a thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of a quality education as “trying to be white?”
These are only a few of the questions that should
be asked in regards to the many issues that need to be explored. All of the
answers will be open to debate and consensus may be unlikely. Fortunately, consensus
is not the point of this exercise. Black Americans gaining a better perspective
of who they are by virtue of knowing where they come from is the most important
objective. And it will only be as a result of this process of honest assessment
and informed acceptance that black America will be able to move forward with
pride, dignity, and confidence.
Black Americans need only remember that the true measure of a people is not simply how far they have come. The true measure of a people is also how much farther they have the vision to go.
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