Nikole Hannah Jones’s essay “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black People Made It One,”

In reading Nikole Hannah Jones’s essay “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black People Made It One,” from The 1619 Project, New York Times, Aug. 14, 2019, my attention was captured by the way in which the author exposes the important aspects that were left out of American history through the analyzation of historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. For example, the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1] The Declaration of Independence expresses the desire of forming an independent American nation from the British monarch due to arising conflicts; excessive taxation being one of the many. Colonists were providing cheap raw materials to the British mainland at the expense of their hard labor just to be met with harsh taxes in return. In light of these inequalities and unfairness, colonists proceeded to revolt, obtain their independence, and to gain the rights they believe they deserved. It is interesting to see how when the colonists are forced to lift a pinky, an entire war is commenced to address and resolve the issue. However, when it came to the institution of slavery, were the circumstances not like those of the colonists? Were the inequalities and unfair treatment that enslaved Africans faced not enough to start some commotion? It is baffling to see how enslaved Africans were in support of the revolution and even gave their lives for a cause that would not have an effect on their lives. Jones proceeds to explain how the “we” and the “men” used in this declaration is merely referring to white colonist men and not to the enslaved African Americans as they were regarded as a “separate race” according to the 1857 Dred Scott decision (Jones 5). The rightful equality and the granting of unalienable rights would not apply to enslaved African Americans as a result. The only way in which African Americans were regarded was in an indirect and obtuse manner. For instance, instead of being regarded as the individuals that they were, they were mostly regarded as property. In the U.S. Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Clause, Article IV, Section 2 states, “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due”.[2] Slaves were only regarded in the Constitution as property to be returned if “lost” or to express their lack of status. In reviewing Jones’s essay, it is concerning to see how the American school system is teaching history to students in that it is a story told without considering all the narratives. The narrative painted in our textbooks has gaps and fails to consider the actual role of African Americans on the development of the United States as a country. In conclusion, Jones is successful at opening the eyes of readers and portraying how the glorified historical documents that have founded our country are implicitly pro-slavery.

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.constitutionfacts.com/content/declaration/files/Declaration_ReadTheDeclaration.pdf

[2] https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/article/article-iv#section-1

Many Thousands Gone – Berlin

In the book Many Thousands Gone, the author Ira Berlin provides a closer look into the emergence of different societies in the Americas and the effects on these societies with the introduction of slaves. Within his book, Berlin presents two different societies: “a slave society” and a “society with slaves” and proceeds to distinguish the two. In his thorough investigation on what the foundations of a slave society consisted of, the justifications behind slave treatment on behalf of planters was what caught my attention the most.

Berlin presents “fatherhood” as a means of justification that planters used when it came to the enslavement of Africans during 17th century slave societies. Planters proceeded to paint a prettier picture as paternal figures as opposed to ruthless economic exploiters who fed their societal ego off of the sweat, blood, and tears of their slaves (Berlin 98). The role of a parent is generally to guide their children and to ensure security by providing food, shelter and knowledge. The role of a child is then to trust their parental guidance and to obey their parents.  The catch with this relationship was that plantation owners “consigned slaves to a permanent childhood” (Berlin 99). In other words, slaves would never be able to “leave the nest” and would dedicate their entire life to laboring on a plantation. In addition, plantation owners fulfilled their “paternal role” but in the most minimalistic and brutal manner while slaves were expected to fulfill their role to their greatest ability.  For example, it is known that slaves were given limited portions of food on a weekly basis, had extremely poor living conditions, and the “education” they received was from the planters. On the other hand, for planters it wasn’t enough just to have a large estate, private clubs, or a carriage and required more to prove their power and status.

Berlin also explains how the “relationship” between the planter and the slave was maintained using the same “father/child” principle. The same way a child is easily bribed with candy or a toy is the same way planters kept manipulating their slaves. Planters promised their slaves better conditions and eventual freedom in order to keep them working. When this wasn’t enough, coercion was utilized to implement fear and to maintain order within plantation society (Berlin 98). I find the idea of planter paternalism to consist of hypocrisy considering a relationship between a supposed father and child is based on love and respect. However, it is evident that there is no actual care for the slave from the planter once violence is used and how brutally the slaves are exerted. Berlin also indicates how planters developed this ideologies and supported them on pre-existing laws, indicating the Bible and Christianity. It is interesting to see how planters were identifying themselves as Christians and comparing themselves as “saviors” and as “fathers” yet only to do the contrary of the basic Christian morals. In my opinion, it seemed like the planters needed more saving than what they claimed that African slaves needed.