With a nod to Claude McKay’s poem “If we must die,” a question that is often asked is why Blacks in the United States, particularly when they held the numerical majority over whites in many southern states, did not fight back against Ku Klux Klan terrorists and their more “respectable” government sympathizers? The short answer is simply this: generational conditioning from Slavery.
Each year during Black History Month, the Black history Pharisees usually love to pose questions about the issue of African complicity in slave trading that led to many millions of Africans being imported across the Atlantic to toil on plantations of varying sizes. This issue is one that from a sentimental purpose, is difficult for many descendants of enslaved Africans to reconcile but one in which the evidence is clear that trade during the Middle Ages, even within powerful African empires in Ghana, Mali and Songhai, and with Arab neighbors, was focused upon the pecuniary or material gain of both buyer and seller.
Where the debate is most fierce with respect to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is whether African leaders were either duped into this practice or subject to what could be termed as a trade imbalance. 20th Century historian Walter Rodney argues that the European slave trade was based on a form of colonialism and that the exchange of guns, alcohol and cloth as provided by the Europeans paled in comparison to the value of human lives that were to be sent to the Americas. Rodney does note, however, that the King of Dahome, for instance, by the late 1700’s, was earning approximately 250,000 British Pounds per year for selling off Africans into slavery.
Other historians have rejected Rodney’s premise, arguing instead that during the pre-Industrial Revolution that African economies were not at any distinct disadvantage to their European neighbors.
It must be noted that the purpose of both European incursions into Africa, the subsequent colonization of Africa and yes, the extracting of slaves was derived from one base desire–profits. Karl Marx once wrote that “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
Indeed, by the 15th Century, the Americas, stumbled across under the initial premise of finding a new path to India that could by-pass the then Islamic controlled Mediterranean and Middle East, was soon seen as a land in which its vast material wealth could be exploited. While a number of European powers participated in the slave trade to the Americas, Portugal and Great Britain, in particular, made the shipping of black cargo into an art form. European advances in shipping technology made it so that huge ships could sail that would hold within their bellies thousands of Black men, women and children–all shackled together and forced to lie on their backs and stomachs with little food or water for weeks on end–in their journey west to the Americas.
In Great Britain, not only was the shipping industry bolstered by the need for bigger and better sea-faring ships, but by the late 1600’s, Lloyds of London, a still existing insurance concern, was founded for the express purpose of deriving exorbitant profits from insuring not only the ships–but the value of the human cargo as well. Similarly, Great Britain derived considerable wealth in time from the trade of cotton, molasses, sugar and rum–fresh from slave plantations in the new world.
Initially, many African slaves were held in the Americas as indentured servants and their status, particularly in British and French North America, was not much different from white indentured servants, Native Americans and white convicts who were seeking to pay their “debts to society.” But the concept of indentured servitude among whites soon died out due to the ease with which the same could escape and blend in among other European colonists. And as Native Americans soon proved incapable workers in the rigid agricultural fields, the need for fresh African laborers, those who could neither blend in with the populace nor had any physical limitations to harsh working conditions, soon led to an explosion in the numbers being transported across the Atlantic Ocean.
By 1778, Thomas Kitcher, a British writer, estimated that nearly 52,000 Africans were being imported to the Americas each year. While the total numbers of Africans exported to the Americas will never be fully known, the estimates range from 11 million to 25 million who completed their journeys into bondage. These numbers do not count for the untold numbers of other blacks who died along the journey, known as the Middle Passage.
Once in the Americas, new Africans were often washed after having spent weeks lying in their own urine, vomit and feces and placed on the auction block–typically completely naked, where would-be owners would inspect their bodies or ask them to perform physical tasks to determine their fitness for labor. In some instances, new slave women arrived in the New World carrying newborns of a lighter hue–born from rapes that may have occurred while in one of any number of slave holding pens, such as the infamous ones at Goree Island. Others arrived pregnant from being raped during the Middle Passage. Once sold, the newly arrived Africans were typically placed immediately into labor and under the yoke of brutish overseers, conditioned through beatings and torture to yield to their new fate.
This last point–conditioning–made for one of the more interesting developments in the slave trade and its eventual decline. In North America, where the slave trade died out first, there were almost equal numbers of men and women and by the 18th Century, the average enslaved woman was bearing 9.2 children during their life spans.
In the Caribbean and down through South America, the rigors of the sugar cane plantations often led to a disproportionate imbalance among plantation owners seeking men–not women–thus, the birth numbers were not only lower in some areas, but due to the harsh working conditions and low life expectancies, there was a considerable need for fresh Africans that lasted well into the 19th Century. This provides at least one reason that in Brazil and other South American and Caribbean nations that the cultural distinctions among some Blacks remained intact or stronger in that there was always a readily accessible supply of Africans from the continent to keep certain customs and traditions alive whereas in North America, within only a few generations, most of these same customs died out with one notable exception–those Blacks who lived in the Gullah Islands off the Coast of the Carolinas and Georgia.
But conditioning was also crucial in another respect, the inter-generational fear of white power; white whips, guns, nooses and the raping of Black women by white men instilled the belief that any form of violent resistance would be met with utter annihilation, as often was the case well into the 20th Century.