By W. D. Smither
“The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. Freedom and slavery are mental states…” (Mahatma Gandhi)
Another “Black History Month” is beginning to fade from the spatial horizons of our minds, like it always seems to do when trying to recall the bygone chronicles of our fragmented past— the slivers which are ‘sacred’ to us, as well as the profoundly ‘profane.’
It’s a seemingly ho-um context for the celebratory trappings— and Afrocentric attitudes- that seem to be everywhere around this time of year, as the nation trots out its selective recall and lopsided political correctness, regarding the hushed contributions and missing footnotes, stemming from the African-American presence within the so-called “Peculiar Institution”—black slavery– in the New World.
New World? That’s the term European explorers coined for Western Hemispheric America, long after Ancient Africa’s glorious past, from the Nubian and Egyptian Kingdoms of the Kush to the powerful trading Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai, began its decline and fall– as most civilizations seem to do.
While archives reveal that Africans first came to the Americas with Spanish explorers, long before Colonial Jamestown, in 1619, the Eurocentric narrative usually starts with Old Point Comfort, near Jamestown, around August 20, 1619 (before the Pilgrim’s Mayflower) when a Dutch “Man O’ War” ship—the “Black Mayflower,” so to speak— arrived on Virginia’s shores with 20 Africans. They were captured in the at-sea raid of a Spanish galleon ship. Though evidentiary documentation reveals that Africans came to these shores long before then, this is the date that marks the so-called official beginning of institutionalized slavery in Colonial America, especially its “peculiar” Deep South version, before the Civil War.
Historians contend that these Africans arrived as part of the “cargo” stolen from a merchant slaver ship heading to the Spanish West Indies. Evidentiary findings suggest that this group probably came from Bantu-speaking people from Angola, with various Yoruba and Bantu tribal worship experiences which honored their ancestors. They were dispersed throughout the colony and even baptized, with some taking Christian names. Archives show that they were considered to be ‘slaves.’ However, they were classified as “indentured servants” because English common law had no specific classification for slavery. Thus, there was no legal precedent for it within the colonies, at that particular time. Some eventually obtained their freedom but, unlike the white “servants,” most of the Africans continued in a lifetime of servitude.
For perspective’s sake, the African slaves arrived after the death of the powerful Chief Powhatan of the Virginia Algonquians, in 1618. He was the father of Pocahontas, who married the famed English settler, John Rolfe, in 1614, in the first so-called “interracial” marriage in American history. By 1625, the local census listed 10 “slaves.” But, the rest of the 16th century saw an exponential growth in the labor supply of African slaves, stressing and stretching the social, cultural and political fabric of the 13 colonies. In 1723, the census revealed that 6,171 “Negroes” were living in the colonies.
During this time, the interrelationships between African-Americans and Native Americans grew, as escaped slaves formed rebel slave communities (Maroon Societies) within the Great Dismal Swamp area, joining and intermarrying with Native American tribes, as they fought together against racism throughout the entire Deep South, as well as South America and the Caribbean, in some of history’s greatest ‘missing pages’ and buried chapters of violent slave rebellion.
By then, the “Negro” population was beginning to grow in geometric proportions, stimulated by the perceived value of America’s new-found “Black Gold,” a term referring to black slaves and their corresponding commodity value of cheap labor. It was probably the first of several chapters in our history that saw a coordinated surge of new laws and legislation enacted to control the activities and behavior of African-Americans, as well as policies for punishment, arising out of the fear whites had of their growing numbers. These laws were also successful in reducing all “Negroes” to the status of “slave,” whether they were already free or not (“From Slavery to Freedom…,” John Hope Franklin).
By 1750, the estimated black Colonial population was 241,830, or 20% of the total 1,182,700, if you believe the demographics these figures were extracted from. Forty years later, census data estimated the total number of blacks in America at 781,646, of which 718,624 were “slaves” and 61,757 were “free.”
Going back to this complex phase of racial and cultural transition in the United States, one might begin to grasp some of the trauma and mistrust associated with race relations, today. The daily realities of being a “commodity” or a piece of property was quite different from being a trader or property owner. And, the perceptual realities of 1st class vs 2nd citizenship is still felt, today. Our collective frames of reference- since the arrival of the different “Mayflowers”— are significantly different, as well. Perhaps, revisiting the Middle Passage years offers some clue to our vexing misunderstandings and roots of distrust.
Seeds of Hate and Distrust
According to history’s archives, around 1756, in the Ancient African Kingdom of Dahomey, today’s West African country of Benin, between Ghana and Nigeria, not far from where the Niger River flows into the Gulf of Guinea, an 11-year-old boy (Olaudah Equiano), the son of an African tribal leader of the Igbo people, was kidnapped from his home.
He was just one of arguably 10 to 12 million African sold into slavery between the 15th and 19th Centuries along the heavily populated “Slave Coast.” But, according to some historians, he spent his life as a domestic slave on three continents, including Colonial Virginia, and, later in life, wrote his autobiography (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano). Some say this was, “the first autobiography in slave narrative literature.”
It recounted his shock of seeing white people purchase slaves in Africa, coupled with a then-prevailing fear that white folk actually ate or dined on Africans, as well as drank their blood. Overall, it was a first-hand witness accounting to the horrors of the “Middle Passage,” the journey in slave ships by Africans captured by Europeans and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold as slaves.
On smelly slave ships, Africans were stuffed between decks, like cattle, in spaces too low for standing and in often unbearable heat, gasping for air so hard to breathe that the lungs felt like they would explode. Women were sexually abused by white crews, often. Men were chained in pairs, shackled wrist to wrist or ankle to ankle. Like slabs of meat, stored in root cellars, they were crowded together, usually forced to lie on their backs with their heads between the legs of others. During the typical 6- or 7- month trip, they often had to lie in each other’s feces, urine, and vomit– and, in the case of dysentery, even blood. Diseases, like scurvy, smallpox and yellow fever, spread like wildfire.
According to eye-witness accounts, slaves with diseases were sometimes thrown overboard to prevent wholesale epidemics. In addition to the chains, various cruel measures such as iron muzzles and whippings were used to physically control the slaves, resulting in the living often remaining chained to the dead, until so-called ship surgeons had the corpses thrown overboard. Many went mad in these barbaric conditions; others chose to jump to their watery deaths rather than endure the horrific brutality, specifically designed to instill fear among the slaves. Some of the slaves plotted rebellions or ship-board mutiny. Some were successful. Many failed.
Interestingly, according to archival research, from the bowels of this Trans-Atlantic slave trade, a white slave-ship captain, John Newton, scribbled the words to a church hymn (“Faith’s Review and Expectation”) which the later became known as “Amazing Grace” and, symbolically, as a Negro Spiritual– religious songs mostly created by slaves in the United States and replicated many times during the Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements. Some say, the music was heavily influenced by the moans and groans of the slaves he heard, within the misery he saw, from his own sinful experiences and participations in the rape of many black women, on the slave ship Pegasus, before his conversion to Christianity.
After Equiano obtained his freedom, and before becoming a “born again” Christian, his life remained full of stress with occasional thoughts of suicide. Some historians say he vowed never to visit the Americas again because of the brutality, but archives reveal that he did return. Yet, the circumstances surrounding his marriage to an English woman, as well as the exact location of his burial site, remain a mystery, today.
On the other hand, archives reveal that John Newton died a blind man, unable to see, but probably with the same tormenting images of slavery’s inhumanely brutal, “Middle Passage” journeys inside is head.
It’s important to remember that regardless of the beginning of the African-American presence in the Americas- coupled with their struggle against all odds- African-Americans have participated in all wars fought by or inside the boundaries of the Continental United States, including the American Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War. It’s the kind of presence that has helped make the United States the leader it is, in spite of the contradictory values we see in its social, cultural and political landscape, still today.
The lopsided political correctness of a “Black History Month,” kin-cousin to Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s efforts in establishing the second week in February as “Negro History Week,” in 1926, never reaches back far enough, in my opinion. As I’ve often shared with our children, we come from a profoundly rich heritage, with ties to Ancient African Kingdoms– not some trumped up Eurocentric justification for slavery and 2nd class citizenship in the so-called New World. Our past did not begin on the docks of Olde Point Comfort. Instead, its beginnings can be traced from the Blue Nile River of Ethiopia to the Gambia River, in West Africa, where it dumps into the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Niger River where it flows into the Gulf of Guinea before it, too, dumped into the Atlantic for those horrific Middle Passage journeys.
It’s where the creative genius and rhythms of the African dance, and the music inside their heads, began to blend and survive its hellish journey into the New World. It’s where the cultures of the Ashanti, Wolof, and Mandinka, plus the Igbo, Ndongo, and Fulani, as well as the Oyo and Yoruba people began to meld. It’s where the languages of Bantu, Swahili, Niger-Congo, and Kwa began to blend within the dialects of the Georgia/ South Carolina Gullah, or Guyanese and Jamaican Creole that we hear, today. The long death marches and confinements to slave castle dungeons, before the slave-ship journeys, only solidified their fusions.
Slavery and the “Middle Passage” did not define us. Although many arrived at Jamestown in chains and shackles, most of the mental yokes and ropes of slavery did not survive the journey. Not entirely. Like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” saying: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds…,” and other songs of freedom, in my opinion, they were replaced by the liberating notion that when the mind is free, you can’t be a slave to anything here on earth.
Like slavery, freedom too is a mental state of mind—no matter what your conditions of repression or constraint may be. True ‘freedom fighters’ and so-called ‘rebel slaves’ understood this. And, the Deep South’s “peculiar” version of slavery simply served as a reminder.