The BBC just began a documentary series (a real one, not the crap foisted upon us by History or Discovery) entitled “Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.” Written and presented by historian David Olusoga, it details Britain’s abolition of slavery, and how much it cost the country.
A commission was empaneled to determine compensation. The compensation had a budget of £20 million. In today’s money, according to Measuring Worth, that amounts from almost £2 billion at the low end to almost £80 billion at the high end. (What’s a few billion among friends?)
Of course, here’s the thing: the outlay wasn’t to compensate the 800,000 slaves. It was to compensate the slave owners.
And oh, don’t think that slave owners were relegated to a 1% class. Yes, they were the chief owners. But what the documentary shows is that slave ownership permeated all strata of society, from the aristocracy to the middle classes, from dukes to doctors to parsons to widows. There were thousands of letters written to try to cajole more money out of the commission in recompense, along the lines of “I’m a poor man and depend on my annuity for my income.”
As stomach churning as that is, the real horror is when Prof. Olusoga delves into the way the slaves were treated. The British slave states in the Caribbean were nothing short of terror regimes. He answers the question “Well, if the slaves were so maltreated, why didn’t they use their numerical superiority, rebel and overthrow their masters?” Watch the last 10 minutes or so of part 1, where he tells the story of a failed English farmer who became a rich man in Jamaica. The reason his story is highlighted is because his diary survives. It is a text which casually details the most horrific sadism, detailed in the same matter-of-fact manner as it relates dinner parties among the planters. Slaves on all the British islands were subjected to nothing other than systematic torture and murder. Any inclination to rebel was bled out of them by sheer terror.
Why do I bring this up? Because this matters to us, here in the United States. The methods employed on Barbardos were the ones employed in South Carolina. There was no difference. And it is this sin which haunts us.
When a frustrated white person huffs “That was so long ago! Why can’t they just get over it?”, I want them to see this picture:
Or, maybe this one:
And then move to this:
It’s all of a piece. Prof. Olusoga makes the point that the British colonists didn’t develop racism to excuse their abuse of African slaves. The racism was already there, ready to carry out that abuse. And then the economic windfall further reinforced that racism.
Which came first, racism or class? I would argue that racism was always present, which gave sanction to the manipulation of class loyalties. Paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson, a poor white sharecropper will gladly join in the oppression of a black doctor merely because it makes him feel superior.
Why can’t they just get over it?
America has the annoying trait of having as one of its ideologies that history doesn’t matter. That all the petty strife of other countries shouldn’t be brought over here. The Old Country doesn’t matter—you’re American now! Henry Ford had schools which turned his immigrant labor force into model citizens.
But what about those who were brought here against their will? Whose descendants were born into bondage? Whose descendants, when freed from slavery, were kept in a state of semi-slavery? Whose descendants, when finally achieving some modicum of equality, are still looked on askance, and have that equality under law silently resented? They weren’t immigrants. They were chattel. And they have been here as long as their former masters. What about them? Should they just “get over it”, when it’s obvious that their oppression is still a through-theme of their country?
As that incisive analyst of the Southern mind said: “The past is not dead; it’s not even past.” “Get over it, move on,” isn’t said with concern for African Americans. It’s said with a desire to not be confronted with uncomfortable truths.
“My family never owned slaves!” No, but you’ve benefited from a culture which began as a slave state, and where many of its structures are still informed by it.
“We elected Obama!” And if President Obama had been white, and had accomplished all that he has, measurements would be being taken for Mt. Rushmore.
“I marched with Martin Luther King!” And thank you for that. But racial justice isn’t a one-off action. It is a constant way of life, because there’s much which still needs to be done. And if you rely on past actions to answer demands for the present situation, you’re just as bad as someone in a bed sheet. Perhaps worse, because you should know better.
It’s not easy. Facing that this society is built on inherent unfairness based on descent goes against the American myth. But it’s reality. British slave owners were compensated for the loss of their property. Southern planters fought tooth and nail to keep their property. The descendants of that property are merely asking to be treated like human beings.
This is why #BlackLivesMatter matters. Because black lives are the ones which are discounted, demeaned, diminished. If you can’t see that, that makes the movement even more urgent. And it won’t go away.