The Myth of Black Freedom in the U.S.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

417px-Frederick_Douglass_portraitTo some of us the transition from slave to citizenship by those Africans brought in chains to these shores for economic exploitation and horrific abuse ended with the “Emancipation Proclamation”. To others its’ end might have been marked by “Brown v. Board of Education”, or by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Those of somewhat more insightful bent may have said that the true emancipation occurred when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. In my view, as much of an impact as all those milestones (and more such as Jackie Robinson i.e.) made to American consciousness, Black people in the United States clearly still lack the benefits and rewards of citizenship. I would go further and say that in the United States, at this time; most Black people still suffer the degradation and challenges brought about by both institutional and emotional racism. This is not to say that in our country other groups, such as Latino’s and Native Americans are free of oppressive prejudice, but to assert that given their history in this country Black people are slotted into the bottom of the economic and social ladder and are still struggling to obtain even those most minimal of rights that most Americans see as their birthright.

This article is a very personal one for me, even though I am not a Black American. As someone born in 1944 I have lived through a great deal of significant Civil Rights history and even contributed to the struggle albeit in a minor way. As a Jewish kid from New York, born into a progressive family, my experience with Black people was minimal until the age of eighteen. There were no non-Whites in my High School, for instance. Yet as someone from a large family, where both set of grandparents immigrated to this country, we as Jews were quite aware of the Country’s innate prejudice towards ourselves and many of us translated that awareness into understanding the prejudicial plights of other ethnic groups. In America though, even among Jews, as each new wave of immigrants found success and acceptance many among them viewed Blacks with disdain believing something to the effect of “If I and mine “made” it, why can’t they. What’s wrong with them? The following will be my personal explanation for “what’s wrong with them” and to me the inevitable conclusion will be what’s wrong with us, the US being this country.

The first African slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619. As the centuries passed this was seen by those profiting from it as a fortuitous economic innovation. Pre-Revolutionary American also had another longstanding, economically exploitive and fortuitous use of lowering labor costs known as indentured servitude.  European immigrants sign a legal document committing them to a certain term of service as “servants”, during which time they received no pay, only food and lodging. They could be discipline through beatings and their contracts were fully enforceable by law. The practice began to die out with the proliferation of African slaves, since the Blacks had a lifetime obligation of service which ended at death, they were economically more feasible a solution. With history memory fades quickly, especially if a whole cottage industry of media propaganda has been produced to “smooth” its edges. “Birth of a Nation”, one of the most cinematically acclaimed films of all time, present Blacks as rabid sub-humans, who required a heroic Ku Klux Klan to keep them in line after the Emancipation. “Gone with the Wind” an even more financially successful film portrays the Blacks in it as sort of loyal simpletons who wouldn’t know how to exist without white people to give them guidance. Racist, denigrating portrayals of Blacks ran rife through the American Cinema and indeed the arts. Stereotypes become universal mythological archetypes and even many of those who believed in freedom for Blacks were skeptical of their capabilities for acting as average citizens.

Looking back at the history of Black slavery in America, I believe we need to re-emphasize an aspect of it that though well known, is usually given intellectually short shrift as to its long term effects. Genocide comes in many forms. Given Twentieth Century history genocide connotes outright murder such as those committed by the Turks against the Armenians, the NAZI’s against the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsy’s and mentally incapacitated. We can add Stalin’s “agricultural reform” via murder, Pol Pot’s political purification via the “killing fields” and the various tragic genocides taking place in Africa today. Yet in that past Century we have another example of a less murderous, but no less horrific genocide as exhibited by Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”. This was an effort less to murder people and more to provide them with a harshly imposed re-education and as such I see the “Genocide” of American slavery as a pre-cursor of Chairman Mao.

Except for instances of sadism, or extreme disciplinary example, it was not the intent of the American slaveholder to murder his/her slaves. They represented property and wealth. They could be put up as chattel for loans and they could be sold for profit. The “smart” slave investor wanted to keep his “property” healthful and in good shape for possible profit via sale. What that investor, entrepreneur may we say, didn’t want was any particular slave believing that they had the right to do anything but serve the will of their Master. Cultural genocide was what was imposed upon the captive Africans, to destroy any memories of their past history and to dent them the normal human comforts of wives and family. The truth, conveniently ignored by common history books to sugar coat the horror of imperialist exploitation of Africa, was that existing there was rather strong and sophisticated cultural heritages. These were not “savages” falling upon each other in constant strife and living unsophisticated lives as “jungle denizens”, but rather richly developed cultures that had a sophisticated cross-cultural interdependence. That some of the more powerful tribes sold their fellows into slavery was not a good thing, but actually slavery in the Western world’s history goes back to our “cultural forebears” the Athenians, the Trojans, the Carthaginians and of course the “glory” that was Rome. Human’s tendency to exploit other humans for personal gain seems endemic to our history as we see today in our “great banks”, or phony entrepreneurs like Mitt Romney.

Slaveholders in America needed to ensure docility by expunging the African memories and identities of “their” slaves by renaming them, destroying personal bonds such as marriage and parenthood, and most importantly teaching their unwilling slaves that all the stereotypes of their inferiority were true. They succeeded fairly well in many cases. I could put in here the actual truth that the slaves were highly resistant and developed their own intellectual and cultural movements, including many rebellions, but if you don’t know of the lives of Frederick Douglas  and Nat Turner it might profit you to do a little research. Nevertheless, the slave holder propagandists did have widespread success in their genocide of cultural destruction, abetted by the mass media and certain historians forgetfulness of the true history of American slavery.

The “Abolitionist Movement” in America gained strength to the point of electing an American President who shared somewhat similar sentiments. One of the bloodiest wars in history was fought on American soil and in the end the forces of Abolition seemed victorious. Lincoln was of course murdered only days after the Gettysburg surrender and replaced by a somewhat less committed and capable President Andrew Johnson. While the plans for “Reconstruction” had been drawn prior to the Civil Wars end, Johnson’s ability to fully implement it and truly give freed Blacks the chance at full citizenship and freedom was limited by the deal he had to make to keep from being impeached. Slavery was over but “Jim Crow” replaced it with a system no less harsh and certainly no less murderous. Historically and in the doctrines of our courts “Jim Crow” was the law of the land and Black people were for the most part not allowed the normal rights of American citizens, most importantly the right to vote.

What is forgotten in all of this is the psychological effect this condition of “Jim Crow” had upon Black Americans, particularly males. Imagine living a life where you are not only constantly under suspicion for mischief, but extremely likely to be incarcerated or lynched for innocent actions? Imagine having to step into the gutter when encountering a white person on the sidewalk? Imagine being afraid to look a white person in the eye for fear of being charged with the “crime” of being “uppity”. Imagine being educated in severely under funded school districts, with poverty the impetus to drop out early to work and with lack of books to help one in their study? Imagine having to take a “literacy” test to vote, or having to pay a “poll tax” in order to vote? Imagine seeing angry policeman staring at you as you approached a polling place and knowing that they could beat you senseless just for the fun of it? Imagine being called “Boy” by someone years younger and your life in danger if you don’t acquiesce?

Imagine as a father being unable to find, or hold a job as easy as your wife and the shameful baggage that goes with the knowledge you are unable to support your family? Imagine needing welfare assistance for your family to survive, yet having to either move out of your home, or pretend not to live there lest the Welfare authorities cut off your family’s entire assistance? Imagine living a life of having to suffer constant humiliation and degradation of your self-esteem? What I’ve just written only briefly touches upon the psychological genocide that was inflicted and still is being afflicted upon the Black portion of our people.

That so many Black people have thrived, despite all of these difficulties, is a tribute to the intelligence and talents of this portion of our population. That such a rich cultural heritage has been produced by Black Americans is a similar paean to the strength of their culture and to the many examples of true genius that exists amongst them. So yes in America we have a Black President, many distinguished Black legislators, educators, entertainers and sports stars. I would assert to you that while on an individual basis that is a cause for celebration, on an institutional basis things have not really progressed much beyond “Jim Crow” and we may actually be entering a time of retrenchment if we don’t see the ominous signs.

Last week my fellow guest blogger Lawrence Rafferty made this excellent contribution: “Probable Cause..Black, Latino and Young”.  In it he discussed the ongoing New York City “Stop and Frisk” policy instituted by Mayor Bloomberg and his Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. While the trial isn’t over the evidence is pretty conclusive that for the past decade people of color have been targeted by the NYPD simply based on their appearance:

“According to department data, the NYPD has made roughly 5 million street stops in the past decade, the vast majority of those stopped being young African American or Latino men.  Nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped by police have walked away without a summons or arrest.” 

Explain to me please the difference between these actions and those Blacks lived through during “Jim Crow”? Now due to his media savvy I have no doubt that Mr. Bloomberg, that champion of the elite, has publicized this to the point where we think it is simply a New York City phenomenon. In truth this is common practice all over this country and especially in places like Los Angeles, San Diego and Joe Arpaio’s famed Maricopa Country. Indeed in all of Arizona one can be stopped for driving as a suspected Mexican. Seriously, can you deny that in the “formerly Jim Crow” South this is still not a common practice?

A companion piece to this is something that I have previously written about: “The Incarceration of Black Men in America

 To quote from that piece:

“Black males continue to be incarcerated at an extraordinary rate. Black males make up 35.4 percent of the jail and prison population — even though they make up less than 10 percent of the overall U.S population. Four percent of U.S. black males were in jail or prison last year, compared to 1.7 percent of Hispanic males and .7 percent of white males. In other words, black males were locked up at almost six times the rate of their white counterparts.”

How can we honestly say given the above, if you accept it, that Black people share equality of citizenship with their fellow Americans? The “stop and frisk” actions lead to predominantly minor charges, that despite guilt are plea bargained away due to lack of viable legal representation. Arrests and jail records make finding gainful employment harder, which leads to a kind of “what the hell” despair that imbues the psyches of may Blacks, despite their intelligence, strength of character and the stability of their communal connections. We still live in a land of “Jim Crow” and those who pretend we do not are either politically and/or racially motivated, or suffering from denial in my opinion. To any who might dispute my conclusions, or think they are based upon lack of evidence beware, because the evidence of this fact is so overwhelming that this guest blog would run into the tens of thousands of words were I to produce them. Until all of our citizens, despite their backgrounds are treated on an equal basis than the idea of our Constitutional Republic is a mere sham. It must seem so for so many people of color.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

98 thoughts on “The Myth of Black Freedom in the U.S.

  1. @Mike Spindell – Sorry to hear about your medical condition. I hope you get well soon. Is it the same problem from before?

    Your posting was very good. I agree with it 100%.

    I want you to research this: Estéban Dorantes

    He was arguably the FIRST Black man of African descent (and a slave to a European white man) to set foot on continental North America (a/k/a USA). He had an alleged untimely demise at the hands of Native Americans (Zuni) in New Mexico for committing a faux pas which was misconstrued as a declaration of war on the Zuni. But recently a Professor of Spanish from Vermont has suggested that he and his new Zuni friends “faked” his demise to help him gain his Black freedom. He feels the Kachina doll “Chakwaina” proves this.

    Also the poster about Aetna in Hartford CT was correct. Slave owners had Aetna policies on their “chattel” which included the Black slaves. They were not considered human so it was not actually a LIFE INSURANCE policy. It was just commercial ‘property’ loss.

    Little known fact that Connecticut wants to keep quiet (i.e. latest Abraham Lincoln movie)… they were a very large slave owner state back as far as the 17th century. Even though they claim to be an Abolitionist state they really weren’t. They had the Underground Railroad run through Connecticut because bounty hunters (a/k/a paddy rollers) were allowed access to the state to take slaves back to the south without any resistance.

    They even had Black Governors in Hartford to represent the Black slaves but would not give them the same rights as white citizens. Hartford only recently discovered that the governors graves were unmarked in downtown Hartford unlike ALL the white governors. A blanket memorial statue was erected with their names inscribed. Harriet Beecher Stowe (i.e. Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Samuel Clemons (a/k/a Mark Twain) both lived here too.

    Also if you remember the Amistad incident… Connecticut played a negative key role in the trials of the African slaves that captured the ship. A retired US President was finally their lawyer that got their Black freedom (of sorts).

  2. I second bill mcwilliams’ recommendation of Witwack’s “Trouble In Mind..Black Southerners in the age of Jim Crow”

    The legacy of the Slave Economy touched and colored every single institution within our society. The hue remains as one can easily see in the links Elaine provided and the material Mike S. relied upon as the foundation for his article.

    I fully admit to being more of a Thaddeus Stevens than an Abraham Lincoln in that I have very little patience with the myths white Americans like to tell and believe where racism is concerned.

  3. Blouise,
    another good book related to the African American “experience” is the Warmth of Other Suns by Isabeel Wilkerson. It details the flight of blacks from the south to “freer” areas in the North and East and West.

  4. rafflaw, The Warmth of Other Suns made my favorite list for 2012. The irony is the 2nd and 3rd generations are now fleeing the depravity of the northern cities and moving back south.

  5. Excellent article in today’s NYTimes:

    King Cotton’s Long Shadow By Walter Johnson

    “It is not simply that the labor of enslaved people underwrote 19th-century capitalism. Enslaved people were the capital: four million people worth at least $3 billion in 1860, which was more than all the capital invested in railroads and factories in the United States combined. Seen in this light, the conventional distinction between slavery and capitalism fades into meaninglessness.

    We are accustomed to reckoning the legacy of slavery in the United States in terms of black disadvantage. The centrality of slavery to the nation’s economic development, however, suggests that any calculation of the nation’s unpaid debt for slavery must include a measure of the wealth it produced, of advantage as well as disadvantage. The United States, as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, was “built upon a groan.”

  6. More Blacks Calling South Home Again
    by Alex Kellogg
    May 24, 2011

    Experts say the Barrieres are part of another national trend: blacks moving to the suburbs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Atlanta is a great example of full integration. In fact, as the city’s suburbs get blacker, Atlanta itself is gentrifying — and that means key parts of town are getting whiter.

    Tyrone Forman, a professor of sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, notes that the Grant Park neighborhood is one of a few in the city that has been what he calls “stably integrated” over four decades. He says elsewhere, census data show that rarely do blacks and whites live side by side.

    “What happens sometimes is the numbers may show integration, but they’re sort of block to block, so one block is largely African-American, then you go four blocks over, a largely white neighborhood, et cetera,” Forman says.

    While the city of Atlanta is slowly losing black residents, the black population in its suburbs is exploding. As of the latest census, metropolitan Atlanta has a larger black population than even the greater Chicago area. In fact, metro Atlanta’s black population is now second only to New York City’s.

  7. Mr Mike S i thank you from the bottom of my heart for posting this article i am truly appreciative of it. and i wish you a speedy recovery… I hope i didnt offend anyone with my post.


    BLACK PEOPLE LIKE ME ARE FED UP WITH IDIOTS LIKE YOU.. so now that Mr Mike S. has brought it to the forefront let me finish what the white slave maker began with you.

    if you think your free you truly are delusional how you ask?
    YOU ASK THE CORPORATION FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE GOVERNMENT for permission to do every and anything.. are you ready or the truth? your not but here goes.. ask for permission to go to school. via little pieces of paper named diplomas or certificates.
    2. driving is a right not a privilege yet you had better not get behind that wheel without asking for permission via drivers license
    3. you ask for permission to get married via a marriage license
    4. you dont own anything ANYTHING. if you drive a car did you read the papers given to you when you paid for it. in my ancestors times they were given the manufacturers deed when a car was purchased.. today you only receive the title and if you didnt read the fine print. i’ll give you a shortened version..

    this title is hereby stated to give freeasadolt permission to drive the aft/aforementioned automobile until such time as is deemed necessary to revoke said PRIVILEGE.
    that house you live in!! is owned by the bank. even when your mortgage is paid off they still own it. think they dont? stop paying taxes on it and see how fast they foreclose on it.. not only that. a house that in unenslaved times was deemed your personal property to do with as you please.. try remodeling so much as a wall without asking for a permit. and if they dont like your remodeling plan they tell you NO!!!!

    go research eminent domain.. same with a business. hell you ask them for permission to work by faithfully paying them taxes that are illegal.. taxes were put into place for the rich to help the middle class and working poor obtain their vision of the american dream. they have no rights to that money and legally can not lock you up.. as taxes are only intended for international commerce. now as for black their story.. there all out truth is he original chosen people are israelites. whose skin color is a lot darker then those who claim the jewish religion. hence slavery. they needed to break us. one to keep future generations from knowing their story. the rape,muder,maiming, whipping, selling off of black children. and all the while they were rewriting their story for them.. THEY CALL US SAVAGES my response is we learned from the best! they call us animals again. descended from the best. i got my light skin from somewhere! and NO I DONT HATE ANYONE. all of us are pawns in a game being played by a bunch of lying, thieving, murdering egomaniacs who have been taught by their ancestors that they rule the world. and that includes the jews. but im not gonna teach you what you should know. your pathetic for even coming in here with your bs. so listen honey how about you head on back to the romper room 3 doors down to your left and let the adults finish conversating!!!!


  8. A sad article to be sure, but racism and bigotry start in the home. I myself heard the word “nigger” from my own family growing up and was suspicious of blacks until I matured. The grade school I went to only had 2 people of colour, and I rarely associated with one of them that was my age. When I reached high school, I played competitive sports, which exposed me to many more people of colour, this at first was scary, but I found that like most things, put your fears aside and poof, they are just individuals like you and I. I really don’t believe we can solve problems like this through the State however, racism is taught by people who either fear or dislike someone not like them, teaching people to treat everyone as an individual is the key, governments like collectivism, so it’s kind of an oxymoron to expect them to do it. So, like my fears of homosexuals, and people of colour as a child, the best medicine is exposure to as many people as possible, chances are when you meet people unlike you and have a chance to get to know them, the baseless fears one may have, usually disappear.

    • Dredd,

      Thank you for that link it sums up one of the points I was trying to make, but he did it much better than I did.

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