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Slavery in the USA constitutes a big chapter in American history that many people choose to forget. Since the 16th century and up until the 19th century, people were forcibly taken from the continent of Africa and were exploited to work as servants and field slaves in the American colonies (History.com Editors, 2009). And even though, in the beginning, the slave market was something new and unexplored by the majority of whites, after some time it became a custom, which made the slave demand increase (‘Slavery And Discrimination’, 2018).
But how was the life of those who were stripped of their human rights?
A leading historian of slavery in North America, Ira Berlin, states that the Middle Passage from Africa to America ‘shaped African-American life’. The long weeks and sometimes months locked in the holds of slave ships are a testament to the loss of freedom, the degradation of enslavement, and the long years of servitude that followed (Berlin, n.d.). But the Middle Passage also represents the will to survive and the belief that freedom would eventually be theirs, which would allow them to take their rightful place in the world (Berlin, n.
Upon arrival in America, slaves would be sold through newspaper ads or they would be put up for auction. Once the slaves were purchased they were considered property of the slave owner (‘Life as a Slave’, n.
d.). Sometimes masters with skilled slaves would rent them out and keep the wages for themselves (‘Life as a Slave’, n.d.). As Simkin (1997) points out, field slaves and domestic servants were exposed to different levels of mistreatment and suffering. House slaves had better living conditions as they ate better food, slept in better shelters, and wore better clothes (Simkin, 1997). Able-bodied Africans were usually harnessed as field slaves as they could undertake exhausting work in the fields for long hours (‘The Life of a Slave’, 2020). Both men and women worked in cotton, tobacco, sugar, and rice plantations daily from sunrise to sunset (‘The Life of a Slave’, 2020).
Slaves were often punished by their masters, for no valid reason. James Ramsay, a doctor working for sugar plantations in St Kitts, recalls in his book; “The ordinary punishments of slaves, for the common crimes of…absence from work, eating the sugar cane,…are…, beating with a stick, sometimes to the breaking of bones,…an iron crook about the neck…and confinement in the dungeon. There have been instances of slitting of ears, breaking of limbs,…, beating out of eyes, and castration…” (Simkin, 1997).
A freed slave, Frederick Douglass in his autobiography says ‘’I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me…My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died;” (Simkin, 1997). Slaves were, also, branded like animals with burning metal on their bodies. This was to make sure that they could be recognized if they tried to run away. For instance, in 1845 one man branded a boy the words “slave for life” on his face (Simkin, 1997). The Law at that time did not protect slaves from the abuse of their masters (Simkin, 1997). Sometimes, they were tortured to death.
Many masters took sexual liberties with enslaved women as well(History.com Editors, 2009). Lynch (2020), mentions the practice of “slave breeding,” in which women slaves were persuaded to conceive around the age of 13 and to give birth as often as possible. Pregnant women were not excluded from working until they delivered. After giving birth, they would immediately resume working (History.com Editors, 2009). Many slaves did marry and raise families. Williams (n.d.), states that most slave owners did not oppose this practice, but would sometimes divide families by sale.
In all these years of enslavement, there was continual fear of an uprising, as the enslaved people in the South constituted about one-third of the southern population (History.com Editors, 2009). That was the main reason why slaves did not have a right to education. Black literacy was viewed as a threat because the slaves who were able to write and read would convince others to revolt (History.com Editors, 2009). Additionally, the different nature of their jobs, from privileged house workers down to lowly field hands, kept them divided and less likely to organize against their masters (History.com Editors, 2009). But no matter how hard the whites tried, slave rebellions did occur with few, however, being successful (History.com Editors, 2009).
Lynch (2020) emphasizes individual resistance by slaves, which included mothers killing their newborns to save them, the poisoning of slave owners, the destruction of machinery, deliberate burning of property, pretending illness, and escaping. Many runaway slaves were led to freedom in the North and in Canada by abolitionists who organized a network of secret routes and hiding places known as the Underground Railroad (Lynch, 2020).
From the 1830s to the 1860s, the abolitionist movement gained strength. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln made it official that “slaves within any State,…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The Emancipation Proclamation freed 3 million enslaved people in the rebel states but it didn’t officially end slavery in America (History.com Editors, 2009). The 13th Amendment, adopted on December 18, 1865, officially abolished slavery but difficult challenges awaited during the Reconstruction period (History.com Editors, 2009). Some experts have argued that Reconstruction laid the foundation for “the organization of new segregated institutions, white supremacist ideologies, extralegal violence and everyday racial terror” – expanding the racial divide among blacks and whites (Shah & Adolphe, 2019). Almost a century later, resistance to the lingering racism in America would prompt the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which would attain the biggest political and social gains for black people up until that point (History.com Editors, 2009).
Two centuries after the abolition of slavery, we can all agree that this practice was an inhumane action that violated basic human rights. However, no matter how progressive we like to think we are, modern practices violating human rights continue to exist. Everyday crimes against black people prove that people haven’t changed at all.
That is why we all need to stand united in the fight against institutional racism and structural injustice. We must educate ourselves and others around us, and use our voice to end all forms of discrimination and racism. We need to learn from the past in order to make a better future.
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