A review of 500 years in 4000 -odd words
I’ve started and stopped a post about the protests multiple times now. There’s just so much involved, and such a long history; so many references to make and parallels to draw. I’m having a difficult time finding where to begin, what to focus on, what point out of many to make.
And certainly, why should *I* try explaining it, when black writers like Ijeoma Oluo, K Tempest Bradford, Grace Lee Boggs (note: she passed in 2015), and Mikki Kendall have done such a good job? But it’s not fair to say that only black and brown voices get to speak on this topic; not because of me, a white writer, but because black writers already have to explain their history on a daily basis.
I am speaking as a white person, to other white people: too many of us just don’t understand the scope and context of what we’re seeing right now. We’re too comfortable with the dehydrated version we’re given in school.
Time to rehydrate with some uisge beatha.
Warning: this is a long post. It skims over 500 years of relevant history, so there really wasn’t any way to keep it brief. Plan on a good half hour plus to read this, especially if you follow most of the links. Also, content warning for rape, abuse, dehumanization, and some links show upsetting videos.
In the interests of not winding up with a book instead of a blog post, I chose to narrow the focus of this post to the history of the enslavement and abuse of black Africans. Yes, other marginalized populations have gone through similar issues. However, the overwhelming proportion of people affected by chattel slavery were black Africans. The abuses suffered by other targeted peoples are absolutely not comparable in a historical aggregate focusing on this specific topic.
Let’s talk about the history of race in America, since that ties in with my earlier post about the history of Richmond’s founder. Let’s narrow it further to protests involving racism and police brutality, since that’s what this latest upheaval revolves around. Let’s narrow that even further, to talk about how politicians and ordinary people, over the years, have reacted to these protests, and what I’m going to call the “everyone knows” history about these protests. (And how wrong that usually is.)
The 1960s come to mind, of course, when talking about protests involving racism. I’m going to look a little further back first, to the 1500s and 1600s, when over twelve million people were forced into chattel slavery and the terms “white”, “black”, and “race” came into common use. The “everyone knows” history likes to focus a bit later on, in the 1800s, discussing people like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, lauding their heroics while avoiding real discussion of why, exactly, they were heroes. They were strong! They were brave!
….they fought to be seen as human beings instead of property.
It didn’t start out that way. Initially (there are lots of arguments to be made here, but let’s go with super simple), the setup was more like indentured servitude, in which the slaves could (theoretically) work to buy out their contracts. In 1662, it started turning into the considerably more horrible chattel slavery. Virginia led the way with the declaration that children inherited their mother’s standing. So if a servant had a child, that child was born into servitude. England, at the time, generally gave children their father’s social standing.
Take a moment and think that through. If a female indentured servant or slave in Virginia was raped by her master, that child would then be born into legal servitude to his mother’s rapist. That’s pretty fucking horrible. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Chattel slavery was evil. Slaves were not seen as people. They were property. It didn’t matter if a slave owner beat, abused, robbed, killed, raped, or burned their property. Slaves were only valued, under the law, as a way to make their masters money (does that sound familiar when you put it next to modern capitalism, by chance? There’s a reason for that. But that’s a whole other post there). There’s a good article about chattel slavery here.
The big shift from indentured to out and out chattel slavery came in the early 1700s. It didn’t go over all that well among the slaves in question: there was a revolt in New York in 1712, in which nine white people were killed, six injured, and rather a lot more black people arrested and jailed. Twenty-one of those prisoners were executed for the crime of wanting to be free.
New York tightened up their laws after that, making it harder for black people to gather, let alone protest what was happening to them. In the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, a group of black slaves made a break for then-Spanish Florida; the Spanish were offering freedom and land to escaped slaves, which is a pretty damn enticing promise when your kids and grandkids and great grandkids are locked into being slaves for life, and your master can beat and rape you and yours with impunity.
Spain didn’t do that to be humanitarian. They made that offer because they were at war with Great Britain at the time and wanted to cause problems.
The slaves were caught and mostly executed, but they did a lot of damage along the way: they burned six plantations, killed over two dozen white colonists, and conscripted other slaves as they went. Again, there were many more black people than white killed in this fight. Again, local laws changed towards draconian; the 1740 Negro Act forbade slaves from growing their own food, earning money, learning to read, and more. It also removed consequences for abuse of slaves by white slave owners.
I want to be very clear on one point: when I say “laws were tightened up” – who do you think was doing that? Yes. Rich white people. People whose property interests were at risk if slaves were allowed to run away. This is about money. Don’t forget that. It’s about people being seen as revenue-generating property.
(By the way, abolitionists weren’t necessarily humanitarians. But again, that’s a whole other post and possibly best addressed by someone else.)
There are plenty of resources if you want to dig into fact-checking any of the above points. Protesting racism goes back to almost the very beginning of the slave trade years, and efforts by black people to be seen as human beings, rather than property, have historically wound up in a brutal retaliatory backlash – again, from white people. Don’t lose track of that. We’re not talking about some faceless “historical people” here. Our skinfolk did this, and we’re not done facing off with the ripples from that yet.
Oh yes, it most surely would be nice if we could shrug and say, but that wasn’t me, or my dad, or his dad, so what’s it to me? — but it’s just not that simple. Don’t stop reading here. Keep going. You’ll see.
Non Importation Acts began showing up in the 1760s, city by city, slowly chipping away at the slave trade. I doubt that the people who were profiting handsomely off the system shrugged and said, “okay Bob, I’ll quit making all this money and find another business just ‘cause you changed your local laws.” But legally, technically. the Non-Importation Agreements stopped the trade. Now, mark you, this wasn’t about freeing anyone. It wasn’t even about correcting injustice for the slaves. It was straight out a move by the colonies to defy and piss off the British. The slaves were just one of the “items” being sold. So don’t put any kindness onto that moment in time.
The American Revolution happened, and this and that happened, and by the early 1800s slaveholders were beginning to free their slaves. There were pro-freedom societies (the American Anti-Slavery Society), abolitionist newspapers (the original North Star), integrated schools (Prudence Crandall’s in Connecticut), black colleges (the African Institute, later renamed the Institute of Coloured Youth and currently named Cheyney University), court cases (Prigg vs. Pennsylvania), and the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.
Yes! You’re reading the dates right! This was before the Civil War. Before Jim Crow. Before the Ku Klux Klan was even founded.
There were rebellions (Gabriel Prosser, 1800; Denmark Vesey, 1822; Nat Turner, 1831) and more suppression of black people (the Black Codes), all at the same time as those advances. Prudence Crandall’s school was forced to close under the Connecticut Black Law of 1833.
The Republican Party was created around an anti-slavery platform in 1854.
In 1856, Lawrence, Kansas, was attacked by a group of pro-slavery terrorists, who burned down a hotel of note and the governor’s house. The attack set off the ongoing turmoil known as Bleeding Kansas, a vicious fight over the legality of slavery that basically only ended because the Civil War started in 1861.
Again: I’m going really super fast and skimming over a lot of complicated stuff here. The thing I want you to get out of this is that we’re looking at about five hundred years of black people in America fighting to be treated as human beings. Up to and including today.
The Ku Klux Klan was started in 1866. Election cycles in the late 1800s regularly devolved into a violent mess: the Mississippi election of 1875, the Haymarket Riot, Pullman Strike of 1894, Coxey’s Army in 1894. Paramilitary white supremacist groups formed: the White League, the Red Shirts. (The history of paramilitary groups in America is the stuff of fucking nightmares, by the way. Especially when you start tracing where the individual members went after their official group was dissolved.) The Mississippi Plan, in 1875, made it harder for black people to vote.
Not coincidentally, more black people gained positive notoriety and power during this time, such as P.B.S. Pinchback, Judy W Reed, Sarah E. Goode, Ida B Wells, and Norris Wright Cuney. (Oddly, Reed and Goode are both noted as being “the first African American woman to receive a United States patent” – one for an improved pasta machine, one for a folding cabinet bed, one in 1884, one in 1885. Just shows that writers need to double check our sources….)
Everyone knows who Ida B Wells is, right? Investigative journalist, teacher, leader of the civil right movement, born into slavery, freed during the Civil War, posthumously honored with a Nobel Prize. Of course, she’s a hero. Of course.
Did you know that she investigated claims that lynchings were only carried out on black criminals, and found it absolutely untrue–that in fact, lynching was a common tool of intimidation and oppression throughout the South? Did you know that her newspaper office was destroyed by enraged white people after that exposé? Or that she faced death threats for the rest of her life? How about that she was fired from her teaching job because of her outspokenness? Do you know about the incident at the People’s Grocery that prompted her to urge black people to leave Memphis and travel west, because “there is no justice here”?
That was in the late 1800s. About a hundred and thirty years ago. (I had to check that number twice.)
That’s not very long ago. Do you think intimidation and oppression of black Americans doesn’t happen today? Do you see the connection between this moment in history and the high proportion of black people currently in prison, often serving longer sentences for lesser offenses than white people? Don’t take my word for it, here’s a government study backing that up.
Back to the 1850s. Two black men were first accepted into Harvard, then expelled because of outrage amongst the white students. Black doctors and nurses were fighting with the AMA for inclusion in professional medical organizations.
Reparations, at this point, was a complete joke: the brilliant notion of “Forty Acres and a Mule” was literally yanked out from under black people in 1865, after a partial rollout, taking away the land already given and returning it to white southerners.
In 1898, white supremacists took over Wilmington, North Carolina. Democrats openly supported white supremacy at the time.
In the early 1900s, there were still documented cases of white supremacists trying to intimidate and interfere with black voters. There are still mob lynchings going on. Race riots begin. There’s the Red Summer of 1919, the Elaine Race Riot in 1919, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the Rosewood massacre in 1923. On an institutional level of abuse, there’s the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and J Marion Sims, Henrietta Lacks, and countless other incidents where the medical community used black people as test subjects without their knowledge or consent (and in more than one case, as with Lacks, made a shitload of money, which they have no intentions of paying reparations for, from their unethical actions).
Now we’re at under a hundred years ago. Which means that black people today have a very recent and solid history of not being able to trust the overwhelmingly white medical establishment, their white neighbors, or a mainly white government. Their generational stories and memories are filled with broken promises, crushed hopes, and political betrayal.
White residents in Illinois rioted in 1951 because a black family tried to move into the area. In 1955, Mississippi made it illegal for white students to attend school alongside black students. In 1956, Senator Harry F Byrd Sr pushed a campaign of “Massive Resistance” to block desegregation in public schools (most of the efforts were overturned quickly, but the effects of the campaign lingered for years). The famous lunch counter sit-ins happened in 1958.
Perspective: My mother was born in 1941. My oldest sibling was born in 1960. I was born in 1972. This is all really recent history. It’s not some moldering thing that happened a long, long time ago in a country far, far away. The folks who were abusing and dehumanizing black people five hundred years ago begat sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were playing out the exact same patterns as recently as fifty years ago.
What are the chances, do you think, that all of those time-hardened biases have magically disappeared or become insignificant over the last fifty years, after persisting for over four hundred? I wouldn’t gamble on those long odds, I’ll tell you that. Not in the face of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
So, now there’s the overview context of what’s been happening. Let’s talk about the massive misperception of recent protests, starting in the 1960s.
First of all, you really, really need to understand that while Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Ida B Wells, Malcolm X, John Lewis, and other leaders are the ones we think about, they absolutely could not have gotten anywhere without the ongoing support of a network of activists nationwide. For every charismatic leader who takes the stage and draws attention, there are thousands of people, usually black women, who have been working tirelessly to get that leader access to that stage, not to mention drawing a crowd to listen to what they have to say.
Activist work goes on whether there’s a breaking crisis or not. Activists acknowledge a triumph, put shoulders together during a fight, but they don’t stop working. This has never changed and never will. The leader du jour is just that: the man of the day. Leaders change, both in the sense of individual growth and in the sense of new leaders stepping in to take over in due time.
The so-often misquoted Martin Luther King Jr was not always a hero in his own time: certainly not after he spoke out against the Vietnam War. The New York Times, in a 1967 editorial, complained that King “compar[ed] American military methods to those of the Nazis” and charged that he was stepping outside his lane by talking about issues beyond the civil rights movement. He was failing his “weighty obligation to direct that movement’s efforts in the most constructive and relevant way.”
Up to that point, King and President Johnson had had a good working relationship – but please note what happened when King crossed Johnson’s bow, so to speak. Lyndon Johnson lashed out in fury: “We gave him the Civil Rights Act…the Voting Rights Act… the war on poverty. What more does he want?” (I chose not to quote the offensive part of that complaint, but you can probably guess what word he used. You can see the text here, if you wish.)
Even as King’s allies — the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even Jackie Robinson — pulled back and distanced themselves, King was pushing forward with plans to organize bigger, more disruptive protests. Not violence, no, but huge sit-ins and blocking access to buildings were on his list (which is exactly what protesters are criticized for today). Before he could get too far with that, he was assassinated.
Coretta Scott King, his widow, took up the charge and set up an encampment of protesters — Resurrection City — in DC. For six weeks, RC was a basically a small town, set up under actual permits, with a barber shop, day care — its own zip code, believe it or not. It was absolutely the forerunner of the Occupy protests forty years later. Their demands were not all that different from what today’s protesters are asking for: access to a stable income, access to a stable home, the right to be involved in designing government assistance programs.
The chaos of ideology was also similar: so many people from all over the country came to participate that some people felt lost and confused as to the point of it all. “So many issues and so many different groups,” said one white protestor, Laura Jones, at the time. The newspapers hyped up the misery and violence present in the encampment, painting activists as dangerous to anyone passing by; and just as with today’s protests, some of those concerns were, inevitably, valid.
After six weeks, Resurrection City was dismantled by police because the permits had expired. The majority of the activists had already left; those remaining, about five hundred people, were tear gassed and evicted by a thousand police officers. (Note the ratio here: two or more police officers for every protestor.) The tent city had run its course, just as the more recent Occupy movements and the Seattle Free Zone did in turn. Authorities were edgy, the remaining protesters were either defiant or just plain trapped in a strange city. Windows were smashed, protests coalesced and were broken up; bit by bit everyone retreated, and things settled down into business as usual.
Back to historical context for a moment. There were riots and protests going on all around the country, exclusive of what MLK said and did. The Battle of Hayes Pond. The Cicero race riot in 1951. Ax Handle Saturday in 1960. The Birmingham riot of 1963. The Harlem riot and Dixmoor race riots of 1964. The Watts riots in 1965. The Hough riots in 1966. In 1967, there were 159 race riots across the country. MLK’s assassination set off another wave of riots in 1968. Boston was fighting the desegregation of its schools (pdf). Cairo, Illinois, was in turmoil.
Again, this is a fast skim across a tiny slice of what was happening nationwide.
You get the point. The same basic cycles have been playing out for five hundred years, over and over. They haven’t magically changed, or gotten worse, or erupted out of nowhere. The conversation is not a new one. Activists have been working, generation by generation, for five hundred years to sort out the messes our ferociously racist nation keeps creating. Leaders come, leaders go, movement styles adapt to changing times; politicians flip flop, and whatever makes or saves us the most money is still the prize we’re taught to look at above all else. (There is a whole other blog post to write about how generational wealth ties into racism.)
The protests and riots and leaders of the past were no more solemn, dignified, respectable, or peaceful than they are today. They were messy, complicated, violent, internally divided, and hated by the mainstream for disrupting comfortable routines. The protests of today, the police reactions of today, the activist actions of today, all fall into a completely predictable pattern.
It’s always been like this. It will probably always be like this. Let’s not pretend we’ve “evolved” past this shit. We haven’t.
Black people are still fighting to be seen as human beings in 2020. Racism hasn’t magically de-materialized. White supremacists are still determined to prove that black people are inferior. Politicians are still more interested, overall, in what will get them re-elected rather than what’s morally right. The paramilitary groups are still around, under new names and with variable levels of brazen visibility. There is strong evidence that white supremacists have long been infiltrating our military and police forces. There is a fairly epic Twitter thread by lawyer Greg Doucette, tracking the most recent wave of protests and police responses, that’s well worth checking out if you have any remaining doubt about those statements.
None of this is new. None of this is a surprise. That sounds horribly depressing, but flip it around: activists haven’t stopped fighting, and the terrible things conservatives are saying and doing right now aren’t a sign of America suddenly turning bad.
It’s been like this all along.
We haven’t given up. We haven’t stopped fighting. Even the insane depth of what’s happening day to day — it’s happened before. It’s definitely more visible now, and faster-paced, and the coronavirus is a horrid new wrinkle, but overall, it’s not new.
If you keep that in mind, it might help you step back from the news and take a breath when you feel overwhelmed. It might help you step back from that obnoxious neighbor or co-worker. It might help you open a calm conversation with that ignorant family member or friend.
I’m not going to wave my hand cheerfully and chirp “we will survive” — in part, because it’s not my place to say that, and in part because I don’t know if we’ll survive this. I don’t even know what “surviving this” would look like.
What I do know, what I believe with all my heart, is that you can’t hope to survive any situation if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. The above post is my small, thin attempt at providing a glimpse at often overlooked history, to give you an idea of what we’re collectively dealing with in this day and age of unruly protests and swirling misinformation.
If I did well, please take a moment to look at the below list for trustworthy bail funds and tip jars for black activists, and pass along a few bucks by way of compensation for their work. There’s a screaming need for assistance in those areas right now, as people are being arrested and abused by police (that’s another post, I’ll get to that one soon) across the country. You don’t have to march into a cloud of pepper spray to be an activist. You can set up a small, recurring payment to the people who have been working, like generations before them, to right the wrongs of racism still so endemic to this country.
If you just ain’t got the money – that’s okay! You can, instead, read the books suggested below, follow your local activists on Twitter or Facebook, and most importantly of all, talk to your friends and family about what you’ve learned. Not once, not twice, but every chance you get; because as noted, racism and protests against racism are not new. They are not going away overnight. Honest commitment to learning, admitting our past mistakes, and working to do better in the future is the path to take here.
It’s not all about money, from this side of the fight.
You can be part of helping everyone, conservative, liberal, and independent alike, find out what surviving this will look like.
Please help out, today.
This post benefited greatly from the editorial advice of Malcolm Gin and L M Kate JohnsTon. They helped me clarify my points, corrected a few spots, and provided a deeper context dive than I’d managed on my own. All mistakes are my own.
Malcolm and Kate both have great Patreons that I urge you to support, and most definitely I encourage you to hire them as editors.
Suggested places to contribute:
*NOTE: Please do your own research on any fund you want to donate to, as a matter of common sense, even the ones listed here. Activist movements are by their very nature fluid and rapidly changing; a fund in good hands today may be co-opted by unethical folks looking for fast cash tomorrow.
Rent Party (Twitter Thread)
Reparations Saturday (Twitter thread of suggestions)
Juneteenth (1) (Twitter thread)
Juneteenth (2) (Twitter thread)
Black Trans Women (1) (Twitter thread)
Black Trans Women (2) (Twitter thread)
BH Legal Fund: Indigenous Protestors (1)
Lakota Law: Indigenous Protestors (2)
NDN Collective: Indigenous Protestors (3)
Settler Saturday (1) (Twitter thread)
Settler Saturday (2) (Twitter thread)
Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland, CA
Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, CA
People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, CA
Suggestions for further reading:
*NOTE: I have not personally read all of these; the list is partially drawn from editorial suggestions and people I follow on Twitter. Please feel free to add more suggestions in the comments! I know there are many, many more excellent titles out there.
“The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E. Baptist
“So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
“Hood Feminism” by Mikki Kendall
anything by K Tempest Bradford
“Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X Kendi
“Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected” by Kimberlé Crenshaw et al
“Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement” by Janet Dewart Bell