Fizzy Jill and I (and a bunch of others) are reading a chapter a week of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Each Monday, we’ll be posting our thoughts on that week’s chapter. Feel free to join us in whatever way you prefer—by reading along, commenting, or writing your own posts. To keep things organized, link up posts over at Jill’s blog as she is the quasi-official host who designed the button and reading schedule. This week, we read Chapter 2: Drawing The Color Line
What This Chapter Is About
This chapter examines the reasons why slavery arose in America and asks whether racism is something “natural” or a result of historical conditions. Zinn’s conclusion is that the “web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America” are historical, which means that “there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized.”
In tracing the rise of slavery in America, Zinn looks at the desperate state of the early settlers and their need for cheap labor, the “special helplessness” of Africans who were torn from their families and culture, the amount of money that could be made as a result of slave labor and slave trade, the difference in how white servants and black slaves were treated, the system of controls used to prevent escape and rebellion, and the steep penalties for black and white collaboration. All of these factors combined to create a nation in which slavery thrived and became critical to its success.
The descriptions of the treatments of slaves (in particular how they were transported across the ocean) were horrific and stomach-turning:
Then they were packed aboard the slave ships, in spaces not much bigger than coffins, chained together in the dark, wet slime of the ship’s bottom, choking in the stench of their own excrement.
Slaves often suffocated during the journey. Some, in desperation, chose to “jump overboard and drown rather than continue their suffering.” The statistics are heart-stopping. Here are a few of the numbers that Zinn shares in the chapter:
- one of every three blacks transported overseas died
- 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to America by 1800
- almost 50 million Africans were killed or enslaved.
Once again, as we saw in the last chapter, the African civilization (which was, in places, more advanced than the European nations at the time) was systematically overrun and destroyed. Some Europeans used the existence of slavery in Africa to justify the slave trade, but, in actuality, these African slaves were more like the serfs of Europe—living a difficult life but one that still granted them certain rights and recognition as human beings. Once again, I was struck how the supposedly more advanced culture ends up being more vicious and cruel than the “backwards” culture.
The bulk of the chapter describes how slavery was established in the United States and the safeguards that were put in place to keep the slaves from rebelling or running away. One of the most insidious things that kept blacks and whites from joining forces to stop the enslavement of blacks was to elevate white servants and provide them with just enough rights and incentives to keep them satisfied and feeling superior to the blacks. This development of “class consciousness” was one of the most effective tools devised for keeping slavery in place.
As I read this chapter, I felt a deep sense of shame for the way the United States was founded and established. In just two chapters, we’ve already seen the founders of the country systematically wiping out the people who were already living on the land and then removing other people from their homes to become slaves in one of the most vicious and cruel systems of slavery ever seen. To think that this was the “price” to be paid for the formation of the United States makes you think long and hard. Certainly, this isn’t the story that schoolchildren are usually taught in history classes. I shudder to think what the next chapter shall bring.