Histories of Violence: Slavery in America

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THIS IS THE 35th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Ana Lucia Araujo, a Brazilian-born writer and professor of history at Howard University. She has worked extensively on the history and memory of the global slave trade, and has authored and edited some dozen books on the subject. Her most recent book is Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade (Bloomsbury, 2017) and her next, Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.

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BRAD EVANS: Despite a significant body of important scholarship on the history of slavery (which you have contributed to extensively in your brilliant and compassionate work), there still seems to be considerable denial or misrepresentation of its brutalities and lasting effects. But before we go into this detail, I’d like to begin by asking you to return to your recently published book Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History and explain what exactly you understand slavery to mean. And, if possible, when would you date the birth of its system of enslavement?

ANA LUCIA ARAUJO: Slavery, as an institution and an economic system, existed in most societies around the world since antiquity. But the enslavement of Africans that emerged with the European colonization of the Americas carried distinct traits. First, it is important to acknowledge that upon their arrival in the American continent, Spanish and Portuguese enslaved Native American populations. But because war and disease led to the demographic decline of Native populations, and because the rise of the sugar industry in the Americas demanded a large workforce, European powers turned to Africa. An enslaved workforce from Africa was no news. Since the 15th century, Portuguese were trading in enslaved Africans to work sugarcane plantations on West African Atlantic islands of São Tomé, Madeira, Azores, Cape Verde, and Canaries. Drawing from these early developments in the 15th century, chattel slavery emerged in the Americas not in 1619 (when the first documented enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia), but indeed one century before during the 16th century, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to work in sugarcane plantations and in a variety of other activities in the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas.

Based on violence and coercion, slavery took different forms over time and space. But chattel slavery was an economic system and institution regulated by laws and customs that made possible the ownership of men, women, and children. Conceived as commodities, they could be bought, sold, beaten, raped, killed, and discarded. Moreover, slave owners were entitled to control enslaved bodies through use of physical punishment and psychological abuse. In chattel slavery, enslaved persons were enslaved for life, even though in some periods and places, slave owners could manumit their slaves, and in other situations enslaved individuals could purchase their freedom. In the Americas, slavery was a racialized institution. After the end of Native American slavery, only people of African descent were enslaved. In other words, men, women, and children who had the legal status of “slaves” were not at all in the same position of other groups who were victims of labor exploitation such as indentured servants, who performed unpaid labor for a limited period of time, in exchange for shelter, food, and clothing.

Despite this history, it still seems that we confront a certain slavery denial, especially in the official histories of former colonial powers who try to at least partially justify or domesticate the lived realities of enslavement. In response, might we be more explicit in our critique by addressing at every point of our discussion the violence of slavery?

We may have the impression that scholarly works in different disciplines have addressed much about the violence involved in the slave trade and slavery. Yet the historiography of slavery is still relatively young. Only in the last six decades, and especially in the last 30 years, we have witnessed a growing number of works exploring the history of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. Most of the early historiography has focused on slavery in the United States or on the economic and demographic dimensions of the slave trade. These works remained confined to the academic circles and rarely discussed the experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants, so the emphasis on the intrinsic violence of the slave trade and slavery systems was often absent from these studies.

Dissociated from the lived experiences, this historiography could not counteract the widespread myths promoting the idea that in many regions (for example, in Latin America) slavery was a benevolent institution that relations between slave owners and slaves were cordial, and therefore racism and racial hatred did not exist. In other words, by not reaching the public sphere, this historiography tended to contribute to establishing a barrier between the study of the slavery past and the present legacies of this past, by reinforcing the gradual erasure of the material traces of slavery in the public space as well.

In more recent years, several historians became more interested in the living dimensions of slavery, a dimension that focuses on experience, that we can call memory. These new works exploring the living and working experiences of enslaved individuals, illuminated their suffering and how violence inflicted on their bodies also shaped their minds. I think here about the works of Marcus Rediker, Marcus Wood, Edward Baptist, João José Reis, Vincent Brown, Saidiya Hartman, Sowande Mustakeem, and Daina Ramey Berry, who all addressed the issue of violence in explicit ways. Many of these works attempted to construct the missing bridges between the academy and wider audiences to better engage the violence of slavery as a central element.

I also think about other studies that relied on slave narratives and works that took inspiration from and also stimulated artistic creation (music, novels, films, visual arts). Think about Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987). Inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, she also borrowed from the work of historians and then also influenced the work of other historians such as Deborah Gray White. Likewise, the narrative Twelve Years a Slave (1853) by Solomon Northup inspired the production of the 2013 movie by Steve McQueen. In other words, scholarship alone will never be able to render the accurate dimension of the violence of slavery, but the combination with art and fiction can provide a more complex picture that better considers emotions and the suffering engendered by these human atrocities.

Why would you insist that art and fiction are important critical tools here in terms of thinking about the contested memory of slavery? Is there a need through art, for example, to reimagine the past as much as reengage with the legacy of slavery in the present?

Perhaps the greatest problem of writing the history of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade is that historians have a hard time accessing the stories of enslaved people, who very often did not leave any written records allowing scholars to listen to their voices. Then my answer is yes, art can fill these gaps, helping us to imagine a past that otherwise we could no longer reach. Art can also help us to imagine faces, voices, actions of peoples whose names and faces were annihilated by violence. Over the last decades, the works of several visual artists in Europe, Americas, and Africa have brought to light in a variety of ways enslaved people whose presences were erased from historical narratives. Kara Walker is one of these artists. Her work appropriates cut-paper silhouette (a Victorian medium that represents a variety of forms in solid shapes), to address how gender, race, and sexual violence shaped American history. Likewise, Titus Kaphar creates paintings portraying forgotten black historical characters, such as Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who gave birth to at least six children fathered by the US President Thomas Jefferson. Another African-American artist, Nona Faustine, poses nude at slavery heritage sites in New York, by shedding light on how slavery existed in the US North and how this region fully benefited from the profits of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.

When we think of some of the worst episodes of violence, for instance the Holocaust, attention rightly turns to the systematic attempts at bringing about forced displacement and eventually the annihilation of an entire peoples and culture. This ultimately brings us to the terrifying prospect of human disappearance and what it truly means to send life into oblivion. Might we not however look to date the history of disappearance back to the Atlantic slave trade, which would not only force us to look at the abduction of peoples in a different light, but also require a shift in our understanding of cultural annihilation?

The Atlantic slave trade and the Holocaust inform the history of disappearance in different ways. But establishing connections between slavery and the slave trade as human atrocities and the Holocaust as a genocide can help us start illuminating the history of violence, disappearance, and cultural annihilation. The Atlantic slave trade followed the genocide of indigenous populations in the Americas, by imposing on African and black bodies unprecedented forms of violence. Still, for the sake of the plantation economies these violated bodies should survive, even though during the Middle Passage, these enslaved bodies were also discarded and therefore disappeared.

In plantations of Brazil, Barbados, or South Carolina, enslaved men, women, and children were marked, beaten, and raped. These repeated actions ultimately led to different degrees of disappearance through family separation and premature death, very often with no right of a proper burial ground. The Atlantic slave trade also contributed to opening the path for European colonization of West Africa and West Central Africa, with the introduction of systems that also included forced labor and physical punishment. Hence, the first modern genocide was led against the Herero, Nama, and San peoples who fought German colonial rule in German South West Africa (present-day Namibia).

As during Atlantic slavery, an important component of the Holocaust included the concentrationary experience, embodied by the transportation in trains and its labor and extermination camps that are in dialogue with the confinement in slave ships and the living and working conditions in plantations. Yet, even in the most extreme cases — such as Auschwitz — resistance to physical and cultural annihilation has always been present.

Can you elaborate more on these forms of resistance to slavery? What might we learn from the history, and what does it further reveal about the history of enslavement?

In all places where slavery existed in the Americas, there was resistance against slavery. Resistance could be carried out through small actions, such as slowing down the rhythm of work, breaking tools, feigning sickness. Enslaved women individually resisted against slavery through violent actions, by killing their owners and their children, or by committing infanticide. Enslaved women had privileged access to kitchens, they could easily poison their owners and the members of their families. Either in the United States, the Caribbean, or in Brazil, enslaved men and women organized and participated in slave revolts and formed runaway slave communities. In other words, the history of resistance against slavery shows us that enslaved individuals never passively accepted the continuous violence committed against them. Many of these stories are well known. Many others are being gradually recovered. Here again, art has helped to fill the gaps where there is not enough available information or sources.

Turning specifically to the United States of America today, why does there remain significant opposition to open public debate on the memory of slavery and the way in which slavery has been integral to “the birth of the nation,” including its character and design?

Slavery was at the heart of the construction of the United States as the most powerful and richest nation in the world. Bringing this history to light exposes how much the country’s wealth derived from the labor provided by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Making slavery visible reveals how the construction of the nation was based on racial hierarchies, and how despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, white supremacy survived as a system that perpetuates racism and racial inequalities. Shedding light on the US slavery allows one to draw continuities between the past and the present, and the picture that emerges from these connections is an unpleasant one.

But despite this resistance, I would risk to state that like never before, there is growing willingness to debate the issue of slavery in the public sphere and to create initiatives in the public space that highlight the atrocities committed during the era of slavery. Yet, in a society (like many others such as Brazil, France, and even England) still oriented by white supremacy, debating slavery reveals old scars that hurt as they were still fresh. One example of how these scars remain open in a country like the United States is the wave of protests demanding the removal of Confederate monuments, most of which were constructed many years after the end of the Civil War to commemorate pro-slavery individuals, and how far-right groups have appropriated these monuments in the present to promote public views that support white supremacy and racism.

To conclude, there are numerous organizations in the world today trying to deal with the advent of what we might call “new slavery,” which is to say slavery that in many ways takes on a more sophisticated and yet hidden organizational design. What do you think is new about slavery in the world today, and what can we take from history in terms of critiquing its contemporary appearances?

The so-called “new slavery” is an extreme expression of labor exploitation that continues to grow in capitalist societies. However, I think it is important to highlight that the institution of slavery that emerged in the Americas with the development of the Atlantic slave trade was racialized, and that the “new slavery” does not follow the same patterns of racialization. In theory, any individual in any society can be victim of forced labor, even though we know that some groups are more vulnerable, such as individuals who have historically lived in extreme poverty. Although today and in the past the experience of enslavement can carry many similarities, today slavery is illegal. During the era of Atlantic slavery, it was legal (at least most part of the time). Yet, it is worth remembering that in countries like Brazil many individuals who are submitted to working conditions “analogous to slavery” are men and women of African descent working in plantations and farms. Here, the “new slavery” follows the paths of the Atlantic slavery.

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Artwork: Chantal Meza, Wounded Fibres (Mix Media on Carpet, 54 x 92)

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Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.