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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Abeng Essay: The Beginnings and Development of Racism in The U.S.: Some Implications for Black Americans (Part 2) by Dr. Cicely A. Rodway

The Beginnings and Development of Racism in The U.S.: Some Implications for Black Americans (Part 2) by Dr. Cicely A. Rodway copyright 1987 C. A. Rodway

"To fully appreciate the long history of white racist views which have had such negative effects on all aspects of Black Americans' existence, it is necessary to begin at the very beginning when the first [Africans] were brought to America from the Motherland, Africa." ~ Dr. C. A. Rodway; from part 1 of this essay 

The first Africans were brought to America in 1619 by a Dutch captain and left in Jamestown, Virginia. At this point in history, Blacks were viewed as simply another aspect of the many-sided economic problems which the white colonists were called on to face. (Jordan, 1968) The colonists gave very little attention to the status of the slaves who were treated similarly to white indentured servants and enjoyed the same status. Therefore, up to 1651, at the end of their service, black indentured servants were "assigned lands in much the same way as was being done for white servants." (Jordan, 1968)

This situation soon changed as the colonists, faced with an unlimited supply of land, needed labor to utilize it. The colonists grew tired of replacing indentured servants whose period of service had expired. They were also faced with the failure of their attempts to use Indian slave labor. The colonists quickly saw a way by which they could solve all their problems at "one fell swoop."

The problem could be solved by placing the negro in "perpetual servitude," which would solve the problem of finding replacements, as there would be an "inexhaustible supply" of Negroes. (Jordan, 1968) This purely economic decision marked the advent of the slave trade in America. It began gradually, but begin it did for by 1640, when Negroes were brought into the country they were no longer given "indentures or contracts and could not look forward to freedom after a specified period of service." (Jordan, 1968) But, it was not until 1661 that there was a statutory recognition of slavery. However, despite the new slave laws, no attempt was made by the colonists to enslave or change the status of the indentured servants who had completed their period of service and were free to live as the chose in Virginia.

This chain of events in Virginia was more or less mirrored in the occurrences in the other Southern colonies, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. By the end of the 1660's, negro slavery was a "fait accompli" in the settled parts of America. There were degrees of harshness in the treatment of slaves and in the attitudes of the colonists toward slavery, as was evidenced by the actions of William Penn in Pennsylvania and the Quakers in New Jersey. Despite this, the final and incontestable fact was that negro slavery had been institutionalized and legalized and was an accepted status for negroes. This was to continue as an accepted part of the fabric of American life until 1865.

How Did Christians Rationalize and Justify Slavery?

It may seem ironic that this new "Christian" country whose stated
basis for establishment was individual freedom and whose enunciated doctrine was built on the "essential equality of all men," (Franklin, 1847) could be involved in the slave trade. The Bible had spoken unequivocally against the evils of slavery and had condemned slave owners. In Exodus 21:16 it was stated, "And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, shall surely be put to death." So, the colonists in an attempt to appease their consciences set about finding rationalizations for enslaving negroes.

The rationalization was simple: "the slave was not a man." Montesquieu commented on this rationalization rather ironically when he said: "It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that if they are men then we are not Christians." (Nugent, 1949)

Not only did the colonists find it necessary to prove that the negroes were not human, they also felt the need, as had Aristotle, to invent a theory to justify social discrimination. Like Aristotle before them they decided that some men were born to be master and some to be slaves. As early as 1700, the Puritan Judge John Saffin wrote,
"to prove that all men have equal right to liberty, and all outward comforts of this life ... (is) to invert the order that God hath set in the World who hath ordained different degrees and orders of men, some to be High and Honorable, some to be Low and Despicable; and some to be Monarchs, Kings, Princes and Governors, Masters and Commanders, others to be subjects and to be commanded; Servants of sondry sorts and degrees, bound to obey; yea, lives as hath been proved." (Saffin, 1701)

Philosophical and Cultural Justification for Slavery 

As late as 1858, pro slavery advocates like Thomas Cobb were still making every effort to rationalize and justify slavery on grounds similar to those offered by Safin and Aristotle. He argued that:
If the Negro were by nature equal to the white, enslavement of the Negro would be wrong, for the law of nature imposes upon man in relation to his fellow man the obligation s to shape his course as to attain the greatest happiness, and arrive at the greatest perfection of which his nature is susceptible. However, the nature of the Negro is such that his best interests and greatest happiness are secured by his enslavement to the white man.
 As if this were not enough justification, Cobb is at pains to offer further justification, for he continues:
"In mental and moral development, slavery, so far from retarding, has advanced the Negro race. Contact with the Caucasian is the only civiliser of the negro, and slavery the only condition on which that contact can be preserved."  (Cobb, 1858)
In their attempts to justify the enslavement of the Negro, the Colonists were well prepared psychologically and culturally. Jordan in his book White Over Black, traces the reactions of the first Englishmen to the complexion of the Negro, when white met black in Africa. He discusses the connotative meaning of the word "black" in the English language and all the negativism it invokes. He points out that the denotative and connotative meaning of the word "white" are diametrically opposed to black. He shows how quickly the Negro with the black complexion was invested with all the negative attributes that were associated with the word "black."

The complexion of the Negro was not the only reason why he could never be perceived as a 'noble" type. According to Jordan the English saw his behavior as "deviant" and "bestial". They seemed "fascinated by the Negroes savagery." Despite the fact that they knew that the Negro was a man they constantly referred to hi as "brutish" and "beastly". In their writings they made frequent references to "the hideous tortures, the cannibalism, the rapacious warfare and revolting diet." This view of the Negro no doubt was responsible for the slave traders handling of the Negroes in the same way as men handled beasts in England. Once in the United States, the slaves were castrated and branded like animals. Thus began the process of the "dehumanization of the Negro" which Kovel defines as,
...a two-fold process, involving first, the formation of an idea of another living person as less than a person,  as a living or even inanimate thing; and second, an action upon that person so as to sustain one's dehumanized conception of him. (p. 36)
The individual concept of Negroes' lack of humanity and inferiority was soon to become institutionalized as the legal system of the United States totally ignored the fact that the Negro was a human being. 

Read the third part of Dr. Cicely A. Rodway's paper The Beginnings and Development of Racism in the U. S..: Some Implications for Black America

Works Cited 

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.

Kovel, Joel. Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. New York: Harper, 1942.

Nugent, Thomas. trans. Charles L. Montesouieu - The Spirit of The Laws. Book XV.  Chap. V. New York: Hafner, 1949

Cicely A. Rodway, Ed. D, LCSW, CASAC, is a retired English Professor of the Percy E. Sutton SEEK Program at Queens College, CUNY (City University of New York). Currently she functions in two roles: Coordinator of the SEEK Program's Academic Learning Center and the Coordinator of Vocational and Higher Education at HANDS ON Health Associates, an outpatient clinic for people in recovery in East New York, Brooklyn. A daughter of the Caribbean, she was born in St. Lucia, West Indies, and grew up in Guyana. 

Read her poem Roots: For Women of The African Diaspora

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