Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Graduates From A Peculiar Institution

Have you ever reviewed or become aware of your family history and discovered some appalling fact? Slavery in American history is like that - appalling. Perhaps I was asleep during much of my history lessons, but I do not recall learning for any length of time about the cruelties of slavery and what Black Americans endured. In hindsight, I would have to say it was glossed over or whitewashed (pun intended). I did not intentionally start out to discover all I could about slavery, but the more I read the more I wanted to know, and it has been a devastating knowledge. Like Malcolm X, I can honestly say, I will not forget how shocked I was when I started reading about slavery's total horror.

I struggled with how men could be so cruel to their fellow man; what goes on in one's mind to remove all humanity from another soul; is this what happens when profit is placed over people; why the need to punish so severely with whippings and maiming; and why was all of this sanctioned by the laws of the land.

My curiosity was stoked by current events and by reading fiction and historical fiction around the Civil War. In the past months I have read:

  1. The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd
  2. Somebody Knows my Name - Lawrence Hill
  3. Candle In the Darkness - Lynn Austin
  4. Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
  5. 12 years a Slave - Solomon Northrup
  6. Thirty Years a Slave From Bondage to Freedom: The Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter: Autobiography of Louis Hughes - Louis Hughes
  7. When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection - Norman R. Yetman
  8. American Slavery As It Is, Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (Illustrated and Annotated) - by Theodore Dwight Weld
  9. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the escape of William and Ellen Craft from slavery - by Ellen and William Craft

For approximately 250 years black people were treated worse than animals in the name of capitalism. So much of this country was literally built on the backs of slaves. Slaves were used to doing labor that the white man would not do. In America, there were two distinctions of slavery - Northern and Southern and every slave knew that if you were sold down south it was worse than your worse day as a Northern Slave. If you were white you could own a black person and no one would question it; therefore the worst white person could own a black person and no questions would be asked. As a slave, you were subjected to the whims of your master - whatever they may be. As a slave, you were not entitled to any thoughts or rights. Being kidnapped into slavery was a very real fear - thousands were kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South.

The slave had no family - he could be married, bought or sold at someone else's whim. Women were forced to breed either with other slaves or with their masters. Many were the children who were separated from their mothers never to be seen again. As a slave, the sanctity of marriage was invisible.

A slave was not fed or clothed as a human - livestock received better treatment than a slave. The favorite form of punishment seemed to be whippings with a cowhide or bullwhip. If one was particularly stubborn you could also be maimed or have your teeth knocked out. You were also branded like common cattle. Even if a master was not cruel in the outward sense of the word, a slave was considered "property for life."

Slaves were whipped without mercy for minor infractions, worked from sun up to sun down, were given the worse food and only fed twice a day, could not take care of their babies and lived in constant fear while yearning for freedom. Though human, the slave had no rights. The slave was flogged, tortured and brutalized, yet was expected to continue working and produce. One of the greater cruelties of slavery was the child of a slave took the condition of the mother; therefore if the mother was a slave, the child was a slave even if the child was fathered by the master. How heartless a man must be to treat his flesh and blood as a slave; the slave had no rights except what his master desired.

Even if they were treated like brute beasts, not being allowed to learn, they knew what they were going through could never be right. Mothers murdered their children so that they wouldn't know the horrors of slavery. Many ran away; some succeeded and some did not. A slave knew that there was no worse fate for a slave than one who ran away but was caught. Dogs were set on him to catch him and if caught his punishment was more severe than anything he had endured to that point. For a slave was property and in running away you reduced the earning potential of the master.

The laws of this great country sanctioned slavery:
If more than seven slaves are found together in any road, without a white person— twenty lashes a piece. For visiting a plantation without a written pass— ten lashes . For letting loose a boat from where it is made fast— thirty nine lashes; and for the second offence, shall have his ear cut off. For having an article for sale without a ticket from his master— ten lashes. For being on horseback without the written permission of his master— twenty five lashes. For keeping or carrying a club - thirty-nine lashes. For having any article for sale without a ticket from his master - ten lashes. For traveling in any other than the most usual and accustomed road when going alone to any place - forty lashes. For traveling in the night without a pass - forty lashes. For being found in another person's negro quarters - forty lashes. For hunting with dogs in the woods - thirty lashes. For being on horseback without the written permission of his master - twenty-five lashes. For riding or going abroad in the night, or riding horses in the day time, without leave a slave may be whipped, cropped or branded on the cheek, or otherwise punish not extending to life, or as to render him unfit for labor.  (a subset of the laws in Southern slave code).
100 lashes were considered a severe whipping and depending on the offense, which could be anything. it could be up to 500 lashes. Overseers were the primary administrators of whippings, but sometimes it was the master himself or another slave, threatened with punishment, usually whipping if he didn't comply. "The slaveholders of America resort to every species of cruelty, but they can never reduce the slave to a willing obedience. The natural elasticity of the human soul repels the slightest attempt to enslave it." - Frederick Douglass

One of the more appalling cruelties that resulted from slavery was the rationalization by slaveholder that this was what God intended. It just goes to show how the mind of man can be so corrupted when he is blinded by his own sins. As Frederick Douglass so eloquently states: "It must also be stated that the American pulpit is on the side of slavery, and the Bible is blasphemously quoted in support of it." (Frederick Douglass) This is not the slavery of the Bible - for even when the Israelites were persecuted by the Egyptians, the Lord raised up someone so that they were removed from this slavery. The Bible does not condone White supremacy or any human supremacy for that matter. The institution of slavery as practiced in America was never sanctioned by the Bible.
Contrary to the claims of many skeptics, the New Testament proclaims that all people are equal in the eyes of God - even slaves:
  • There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) 
  • knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. (Ephesians 6:8) 
  • And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Ephesians 6:9) 
  • a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11) 
Over time,  slavery became a necessary evil. A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s, when economists taking a hardheaded look at slavery found that on the eve of the Civil War, enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset in the United States. David Brion Davis sums up their findings: “In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” The only asset more valuable than the black people was the land itself.

In his impassioned new memoir, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” This statement seems inflammatory, but history and current events show the truth in this statement.

Frederick Douglass along with many others was a graduate from the peculiar institution of slavery. "I was a graduate from the peculiar institution," Mr. Collins used to say when introducing me, "with my diploma written on my back!" (Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895. My Bondage and My Freedom.) Many of our ancestors had their diplomas written on their backs. Since I am here today, it is from whence I came. I truly thank God, that my diploma is not written on my back.

As a Christian, I am called to be in the world but not of the world. In the world around me, I see racism toward black people in many shapes and forms. They are the stories that make it to headlines which can make one more wary and weary, and they are many that don't. Because of the cloud that hangs over our interactions, in trying not to make everything about race you recognize that race pervades many of our interactions.

I am grateful for the elasticity of the human soul, and that as a people we have been able to repel attempts to enslave. Hopefully, we can all learn from our history so that this never happens again. I'm also hopeful that this knowledge will help in strengthening the divide between races; that it won't continue to be minimized but at the very least acknowledged.

PS - I started writing this ~3 months ago, and even now it is one of the more difficult posts I have had to write.


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