In 2015, the Texas Board of Education introduced a social studies curriculum that came under wide criticism for its whitewashing of the brutalities of slavery in the American South. One of the more damning revisions was the statement, “The treatment of enslaved Africans varied. Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly.”
Let’s be perfectly clear. That is racist bullshit.
An honest statement would read, “In a vast majority of instances slaves were brutalized, raped, tortured and forever separated from parents, spouses and children for the economic profit of their abusers.” Citing exceptions to this rule can have only one purpose – to diminish the horrors of slavery. Owning another human being was never an act of kindness. Considering another person as your property is evil. Indeed, the inclusion of the term “masters” in a modern textbook is deeply disturbing, reinforcing the racist inference that white people are inherently superior to black people. Those who owned slaves were not “masters.” They were monsters.
Unfortunately, the whitewashing of slavery is epidemic in America. In conversations about slavery, I often hear white people comment that there were black slave owners. As with the “kind master” trope, the rare exception is offered as proof that slavery was either less horrible or more justifiable. These types of statements are not designed to educate people, but to misrepresent the realities of slavery. Imagine for a moment if someone said, “The treatment of Jews in concentration camps varied. Some Jews reported that their guards treated them kindly.” Even if this were true in some rare circumstance, such statements are morally abhorrent. They misdirect and obscure, allowing the hearer or reader to avoid confronting the horrific.
In recent weeks, I’ve been reading “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist. It is a book too painful to read quickly. The title comes from an interview with a former slave, who when asked to recount his experiences as a slave, replied, “The half has never been told.” In response, Baptist does his best to communicate the untold half, carefully documenting the brutalities of slavery. Though I’ve been educating myself about slavery for several years, his portrayals have been horrifying, forcing me to abandon many misconceptions about slavery.
For example, according to Baptist’s research, if the Texas Board of Education wanted to improve their textbooks, they could add a statement saying, “The sexual abuse of female slaves varied. Some slaves reported that they were only occasionally raped.” The high incidence of bi-racial children should be evidence enough of the systemic rape of black slaves. However, both the accounts of slave owners and slaves made it clear that the sexual exploitation of female slaves was nearly universal. Thomas Jefferson may have expressed noble sentiments about equality, but his relationship with Sally Hemming is probably best described as rape. If the President of the United States casually justified such behavior, we can assume it represented a national ethos.
For nearly a hundred years, while southern Americans cultivated a society of chivalry, chastity and honor, these same champions of moral rectitude were systemically raping millions of black women and girls. When we hear claims that the Confederacy was protecting their way of life, we must understand that this way of life involved the most pervasive rape culture in the history of humanity. Don’t believe the propaganda about the South fighting for state’s rights. Thousands of white men fought in Civil War to defend their right to rape black women at will. They also fought to protect one of the most brutal economic systems in human history.
According to Baptist’s research, between 1800 and 1860, the production of cotton in the American South increased by 400% even though there were no technological advances introduced for the planting and harvesting of cotton. This is extraordinary because economists have historically concluded that, absent a technological advance, this kind of dramatic rise in productivity is impossible. Of course, nearly all of their models are predicated on the concept of hired labor.
Sadly, the explanation for this unheard of increase in productivity is fairly simple – torture. Baptist goes to great lengths to chronicle the introduction of “pushing” across the cotton plantations of the American South. This technique, documented in letters and pamphlets from that time, involved selecting three or four of the best workers on a plantation, pushing them to work at maximum capacity for 12 hours a day, and punishing all those who produced less than these workers. The system was simple. Set extremely high planting, weeding and harvesting goals and apply lashes to each and every slave who failed to meet these goals. In response, slaves had only one alternative – work faster and harder. Only the most productive escaped torture.
The vast economic expansion of the American cotton industry was driven by the torture of millions of black men, women and children, all of whom were required to work in slave camps across the South. These were not the plantations of American nostalgia, where slaves co-existed with their enslavers, mutually benefitting from their labors. These were brutal work camps designed and perfected by Americans long before the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp or the Russian Gulag. The average life span for a slave in these camps was about fifteen years before they were broken physically and mentally. Those who tried to escape this brutality were caught and tortured to death, often while their fellow slaves watched.
It is damning enough to realize the American economic miracle was built on the labor of slaves, that slaves produced the affluence that would make the United States the greatest economic power in human history. Far more horrifying is the reality that this economic engine was fueled by the blood of tortured slaves. Every major US bank invested in this system of torture. Every significant political and economic leader in our history was aware and complicit. Indeed, there are very few American institutions that aren’t in one way or another tainted by the blood of human torture.
If our history books were honest, they would tell the story of millions of tortured human beings. They would shame us, forcing us to see our nation and its history as it is and not as we would have it be. If Americans were lovers of truth, we would pass laws like those in Germany that make it a criminal offense to deny or diminish the realities of our Holocaust. We would replace the monuments to Confederate monsters with memorials to tortured black men, women and children. We would require every school child to fully understand the heinous acts of their ancestors.
Sadly, in classrooms from Texas to Massachusetts, this half of the American story continues to go untold. Not because we do not know the truth about slavery, but because we don’t want to acknowledge our national guilt. Until we confess and repent, whether we realize it or not, we are accepting, justifying and celebrating the horrific. The Egyptians who built the Pyramids with slave labor were slackers. The Nazis with their concentration camps were novices. The Soviet Gulag was the work of amateurs. When it comes to the application of systemic rape and torture, the United States is still unmatched.