kottke.org posts about slavery
On the intersection of Presidents' Day and Black History Month, Erica Armstrong Dunbar highlights an uncomfortable truth about George Washington: he was a proud and fervent slave owner.
During the president's two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region -- Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.
The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.
Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president's slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: "I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington."
Here's a map showing when slavery was abolished in North and South America:
Surprising, right? Along with Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico, the United States was among the last nations in the Americas to abolish slavery. Americans like to think of ourselves as freedom-loving, progressive, and more "evolved" than other countries, particularly those in the "third world" (what a loaded term that is), but this map shows differently.
It's tempting to dismiss American attitudes toward slavery as something that happened long ago. Except for, you know, the whole Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing racism against African Americans in the US. And there are also many respects in which the US is currently less free, less progressive, and less evolved than some less industrialized nations, e.g. on things like gun control, murder rate, use of the death penalty, prison population, healthcare, and anti-science views (evolution, vaccines). So maybe the lag in abolishing slavery shouldn't be so surprising, particularly because it was so lucrative and the only thing Americans have historically cared more about than freedom is money. (via civil war memory)
Using data from the 1860 US Census, the Department of the Interior made this map showing the percentages, by county, of the slave population of the southern states.
Though this map was simple, it showed the relationship between states' commitment to slavery and their enthusiasm about secession, making a visual argument about Confederate motivations.
Schulten writes that President Lincoln referred to this particular map often, using it to understand how the progress of emancipation might affect Union troops on the ground. The map even appears in the familiar Francis Bicknell Carpenter portrait First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, visible leaning against a wall in the lower right-hand corner of the room.
Here's a larger version. The numbers in some locations are staggering and sickening -- in many counties 75% of the population was enslaved and the rate is over 90% in a few places.
The NY Times traced Michelle Obama's family tree back to Melvinia, a slave girl who lived in rural Georgia.
"[Michelle] is representative of how we have evolved and who we are," said Edward Ball, a historian who discovered that he had black relatives -- the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors -- when he researched his memoir, "Slaves in the Family."
"We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America," Mr. Ball said. "We've all mingled, and we have done so for generations."
I wonder how much of this Obama was aware of before being contacted by the Times for comment (she declined):
The findings -- uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York Times -- substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about a white forbear.
A long and damning article about the dark side of Dubai. Many of the rich foreigners who live there love it:
Ann Wark tries to summarise it: "Here, you go out every night. You'd never do that back home. You see people all the time. It's great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don't have to do all that stuff. You party!" They have been in Dubai for 20 years, and they are happy to explain how the city works. "You've got a hierarchy, haven't you?" Ann says. "It's the Emiratis at the top, then I'd say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it's the Filipinos, because they've got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you've got the Indians and all them lot."
As for "all them lot"? Not so much.
Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell," he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal's village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa - a fee they'd pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat - where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees - for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
There are more slaves in the world today than at any time in human history. Buying a slave in Haiti takes just a few minutes and is only a short plane ride away.
But the deal isn't done. Benavil leans in close. "This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a 'partner'? You understand what I mean?"
You don't blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. "I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?"
"Oui!" Benavil responds enthusiastically.
If you're interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can "arrange" the proper papers to make it look as though you've adopted the child.
This article is adapted from E. Benjamin Skinner's A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery.
Update: I believe I've linked to Free the Slaves before but it's always worth another look.
Free the Slaves liberates slaves around the world, helps them rebuild their lives and researches real world solutions to eradicate slavery forever. We use world class research and compelling stories from the frontlines of slavery to convince the powerful and the powerless that we can end slavery.
The Wall family asserts that they were held in slavery in Mississippi until 1961.
He worked the fields and milked cows for white families while believing he had no rights as a man. Peonage is a system where one is bound to service for payment of a debt. It was an illegal system that flourished in the rural South after slavery was abolished. Mr. Cain was born into this system believing that he was bound to these people that held him and his relatives captive. Being unable to read and write also stifled any opportunity that may have presented itself to the Mr. Cain because he was unable to decipher anything.
There's a video of a recent Nightline appearance the family made on YouTube. Nightline says that it was not able to confirm the family's story independently but notes that the US Justice Department prosecuted people for keeping slaves well into the 20th century. (via cynical-c)
Over the weekend, my thoughts kept returning to Michael Lewis' story about Michael Oher, a former homeless kid who may soon be headed for a sizeable NFL paycheck. Checking around online for reaction reveals a wide range of responses to the story. Uplifting sports story was the most common reaction, while others found it disturbing (my initial reaction), with one or two folks even accusing Lewis and the Times of overt racism. While Lewis left the story intentionally open-ended (that is, he didn't attempt to present any explicit lessons in the text itself), I believe he meant for us to find the story disturbing (or at least thought-provoking).
Just look at the way Lewis tells Oher's story. Oher is never directly quoted; it's unclear if he was even interviewed for this piece (although it's possible he was for another part of the book). Instead he is spoken about and for by his coaches, teachers, and new family...and as much as the article focuses on him, we don't get a sense of who Oher really is or what he wants out of life. (An exception is the great "put him on the bus" story near the end.) He's playing football, was adopted by a rich, white family, graduated from high school, and is attending college, but all that was decided for him and we never learn what Oher wants. Religion is referred to as a driving factor in his adopted family's efforts to help him. Again, no choice there...not even his family or school had any say in the matter, God told them they *had* to save this kid.
Then there's the sports angle, the parallels between Oher's lack of control over his own life and how professional athletes, many from poor economic backgrounds, are treated by their respective teams, leagues, owners, and fans. At one point, Lewis compares Oher's lack of enthusiasm for football's aggression to that of Ferdinand the Bull, a veiled reference to the perception of the professional athlete as an animal whose worth is measured in how big, strong, and fast he is.
So what you've got is a story about rich white people from the American South using religion to justify taking a potentially valuable black man from his natural environment and deciding the course of his life for him. Sound familiar? Perhaps I'm being a little melodramatic, but this can't just be an accident on Lewis' part. As I see it, Oher is Lewis' "blank slate" in a parable of contemporary America, a one-dimensional character representing black America who is, depending on your perspective, either manipulated, exploited, or saved by white America. Not that it's bad that Oher has a home, an education, and a family who obviously cares about him, but does the outcome justify the means? And could Oher even have contributed significantly to his direction in life when all this was happening? Who are we to meddle in another person's life so completely? Conversely, who are we to stand idly by when there are people who need help and we have the means to help them?
I'm not saying Lewis' story has any of the answers to these questions, but I would suggest that in a country where racial differences still matter and the economic gap between the rich and poor is growing, this is more than just an uplifting sports story.