How a desire for profit led to the invention of race

Eric Foner

  • Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America by Ira Berlin
    Harvard, 512 pp, £18.50, October 1998, ISBN 0 674 81092 9
  • The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 by Robin Blackburn
    Verso, 602 pp, £15.00, April 1998, ISBN 1 85984 890 7

It is more than 130 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but Americans have yet to arrive at a generally agreed understanding of either the history or the legacy of slavery. When a Congressman from Ohio recently proposed a national apology for the enslavement of African-Americans as a way of easing the country’s racial tensions, the result only demonstrated how polarised the historical memory of slavery has become. Most blacks felt that the step would be wholly inadequate, a device to avoid concrete measures to deal with such enduring consequences as the persistent racial gap in income, health and housing, for example. Most whites insisted that they had nothing to apologise for – after all, the last of the slaveowners had long since died. Moreover, it was endlessly reiterated, Africans sold other Africans into slavery, as if this somehow obviated white America’s responsibility for creating the most powerful slave system the world has known.

Probably the most popular film among white Americans remains Gone with the Wind (re-released last summer with great fanfare), in which slavery, for both races, seems little more than an occasion for a prolonged party. When Steven Spielberg tried recently to update the celluloid portrayal of slavery, he chose to do so via the Amistad case, which involved not American slaves but Africans who seized control of a Spanish slave ship. The rebels ended up in the United States, but their celebrated legal battle for freedom had nothing whatever to do with American slavery. In the movie, however, it provides the occasion for one of Hollywood’s happy endings, in which John Quincy Adams moves the Supreme Court to a recognition of human rights by eloquently invoking the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, this never happened. The justices did, indeed, send the Africans home, but their decision turned on maritime law and international treaty obligations, not on mankind’s inalienable right to liberty. Fifteen years later, the same court, in the Dred Scott case, declared that blacks had no rights that ‘a white man is bound to respect’ – a more characteristic expression of judicial opinion regarding slavery.

America’s historical memory of slavery tends more to amnesia, however, than romanticisation. Visitors to Washington will find a national museum that relates the story of the Holocaust, but none devoted to slavery. Other countries have not been so reticent about their own history. A few years ago, the palace of the Dukes of Brittany in Nantes hosted a compelling exhibition detailing the city’s long involvement in the slave trade. Liverpool, another great port much of whose wealth derived from the same source, is home to a permanent presentation. But don’t expect to see anytime soon a display on how New York City rose to commercial prominence by financing and transporting the products of slave labour.

This national desire to forget slavery stands in stark contrast to historians’ preoccupation with the subject – an example of the well-known disconnection between the academy and the general public. Since Kenneth Stampp launched the golden age of slavery studies with the publication in 1956 of The Peculiar Institution, no part of the American past has been the subject of so much historical scholarship. For many years, research tended to focus on the antebellum years, the age of the Cotton Kingdom and irrepressible conflict. More recently, a growing number of historians have turned their attention to slavery in colonial America, seeking to explain the system’s origins. The new books by Ira Berlin and Robin Blackburn are outstanding contributions to this literature.

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