The study of slavery is one of the most controversial issues in contemporary America.
But often this story is abused by thinkers from all walks of life to score political points. To understand the complexity of such an institution, one must refrain from underestimating the role of minorities such as African Americans and Native Americans within it.
For much of history, slavery was the norm, and by minimizing the involvement of non-whites, we diminish their humanity. Pursuing self-interest to gain profit or power is in accordance with human nature.
Representing minorities as naturally virtuous relegates them to the status of infants. Instead, we should aim to highlight their autonomy as rational agents who seek to achieve specific goals in the context of a slave economy.
Blacks and Native Americans possessed the ability to be as calculating as the owners of white slaves, and it is condescending to suggest that they failed to act as self-interested actors.
One of the earliest reports on black slave owners was initiated by historian and activist Carter G. Woodson. Woodson advanced what is widely known as the “benevolent slave possession” theory. According to this view, black slave owners mainly bought relatives and friends from white masters to provide them with a better quality of life.
To curb the growth of the free black population, restrictive laws were instituted, making it difficult for black slave owners to handle slaves without state approval. In South Carolina, for example, after 1820, free blacks who bought relatives, spouses, or friends had to receive state permission before enslaving Americans.
Therefore, the purchase of black slaves from white owners was a strategy used by free blacks to ensure a greater degree of freedom for those close to them. Indeed, Woodson’s thesis remains popular among academics, as Philip J. Schwarz asserts: “Increasingly restrictive legislation, harsh economic conditions, the choice of many free blacks to own blacks other than temporarily, and perhaps the aversion of other African Americans to human slavery. guaranteed, that the free possession of human goods by blacks would be meaningful only as an anomaly and not as a typical experience. “
While Woodson’s theory is still influential, many have accused him of downplaying the materialistic tendencies of African American slave owners.
Larry Koger in his revolutionary text Black Slaveowners: Free Black Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860 disputes the dominant narrative propagated by Woodson’s followers:
When Carter G. Woodson asserted that free blacks were buying slave relatives and friends, he was absolutely right. However, free blacks who held loved ones bought other slaves to exploit them for profit. To classify these transactions as benevolent would be a mistake. Although these slave owners generally displayed benevolent behavior towards their slave relations and friends, a commercial and materialistic exchange existed between them and their slaves purchased as investments. In fact, free blacks who had a dual relationship with their slaves had no universal commitment to slavery. To them, slavery was an oppressive institution when it affected a beloved relative or trusted friend, but beyond that realm, slavery was seen as a for-profit institution to be exploited.
Other scholars implore us not to be shocked that black Americans have expressed an interest in owning slaves, as Calvin Wilson sums it up: “Blacks brought African ideas and customs with them from their homeland. Many of those brought from there to America had been slaves in their own lands. Others had owned slaves in Africa. In both cases, they were used to slavery. It therefore did not seem abnormal for a black American to keep his brothers in slavery when he had become free and able to buy his fellows.
Additionally, like their white peers, some black slave owners were known for their brutality. Ronald E. Hall in his flagship publication A historical analysis of skin color discrimination: victimization among populations of victim groups challenges the assumption that black owners have always been human using the example of William Ellison: “William Ellison is important both for his wealth and for his cruelty to his black slaves, for which he was known among blacks and the whites of the South. Historians, for whatever reason, have attempted to justify his version of discrimination between victims and victim groups, perhaps as a matter of political correctness.
Still, if you assume Hall’s comment on Ellison is an anomalous case, then maybe this Louisiana slave conviction of black slave owners featured in Frederick Law Olmstead’s Travels and explorations in the kingdom of cotton your point of view will change: “You might think, master, it would be good to dare your own nation; but dey is not. I’ll tell you the truth, massa; I know I have to answer; and it is a fact, dey is very bad masters, sar. I’d rather be any man’s servant in the world, and a parent man. If I was sold to a relative, I would drown myself. I would like to dat – I would drown! Dough I shouldn’t like to do this nudder; but I wouldn’t be sold to a color master for anything. Obviously, Woodson’s thesis is untenable.
With greater power than most writers, Hall discredits the position that black slave owners were primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns:
In most cases of black slave ownership, records suggest that blacks who owned black slaves did so for the same reasons as whites: profit … 65 or more slaves. Among them, C. Richards and PC Richards who owned 152 of their black brothers as slaves to operate their sugar cane plantation. Equally impressive, Antoine Dubuclet, a free negro from Louisiana, owned more than 100 dark-skinned black slaves. He also worked in the sugar industry and owned an estate estimated at $ 264,000 ($ 1,860). To put Dubuclet’s wealth into context, the average wealth calculation for southern white men at the time averaged $ 3,978.
Likewise, Native Americans were also actors in slavery, and it should be noted that the institution existed before the arrival of Europeans. According to researcher Joyce Ann Kievit: “Many North American Indian tribes practiced some form of slavery before Europeans arrived in North America. The status of slaves varied from tribe to tribe. Some slaves were exploited for labor, others were used for ritual sacrifices, a few served the needs of women whose husbands had been killed in war, and many were adopted into the tribes. However, with the introduction of slavery on plantations by European settlers, Native Americans became alert to the financial opportunities that could be derived from this business.
Barbara Krauthamer skillfully dispels the idea that Native Americans were less interested in exploiting black slaves for financial gain:
From the late 18th century until the end of the American Civil War, the Choctaw and Chickasaw men and women held people of African descent in slavery. Like their white southern counterparts, Indians bought, sold, owned and exploited black labor and reproduction for social and economic purposes. The Choctaws and Chickasaws bought slaves – men, women and children – to work on their farms and plantations in Mississippi and to serve in their homes… The Choctaws and Chickasaws understood that slavery allowed the accumulation of personal wealth.
Neither should we entertain the fable that Indian slave owners were universally generous. R. Halliburton in an intriguing book, Red on Black: Black Slavery Among the Cherokee Indians, argued that the treatment of black slaves ranged from kind to excessively atrocious, indicating that generalizations about slave masters are often inaccurate.
To imply that only whites have a vicious ability to calculatively pursue their interests at the expense of others is insulting to blacks and Native Americans. Inherent in humans is the passion to achieve distinct goals even when they are incompatible with the goals of the larger group. To romanticize the history of minorities to portray them as saints is quite dehumanizing. The racist subtext is that whites are uniquely human because they have the courage to outsmart the competition.
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