How We Remember American Slavery

In his book, Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats shares his understanding of the universe with his son. He focuses on the shared experiences of black Americans dating back to slavery and the time immediately after the institution fell. What Coats returns to over and over in his book is the idea of the physical relationship between black people, white people, and our country. His views are not pretty, but they represent a reality that we have tried to forget and that many of us have done a good job ignoring.

“In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest.”

I recently read a piece on Vox.com that was written by an individual who used to lead tours at a historical plantation in the South, and the author was struck by the questions people asked and about the way in which people made an effort to skip past the violent reality of slavery. The host was often asked questions that showed that people did not truly understand the brutality of slavery. Questions like whether or not house slaves appreciated getting to be in a house and not in a field. Many people had a view of slavery that sounded more like a view of minimum wage workers than of people forced into labor, exploited, and physically punished if they did not comply with the requests and demands of an individual with fully subjective control over their lives.

Growing up in Reno, Nevada I felt that I had a pretty good education regarding the Civil War. I was taught that the war was about slavery and not about state’s rights, but never in my classes did we truly discuss what it meant to be enslaved and the violence that the enslaved faced. I understood that there were violent reactions and punishments for those who fled slavery, but we did not discuss what it meant to not have ownership of one’s physical body, and for that body to be physically destroyed by another human being. I think that Coats is justified in arguing that we should think of slavery as not just borrowed or uncompensated labor (the way we may think about college interns today) but we should rather think of slavery as the destruction of a human being, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The toll on the body of the human being that slavery, lynchings, and punishment have brought to black people were meant to take away the power of the black person and to demote them to a lower place in a fictitious hierarchy of human beings. We must not forget what it meant to own another human being. Slavery and owning another human being meant that American’s did more than exploit an individual’s labor for economic gain. It meant that American’s had the authority to use violence, to distort the black body, and to control the physical experience of another human being for purely exploitative means.
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