A Query

I was happy to see that in its May 7 issue, Time devoted significant attention to Jamestown and “America at 400.” I was even happier to see that, rather than whitewashing the issue of slavery, they included an article (albeit brief) by Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson, who some years ago authored a very enlightening book, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study.

While reading, a question posed by one of my college professors came back to me. The question sounds sort of pointed, but it’s really intended more as a jumping off point for critical thinking, and as a student, I found it an interesting way to start a discussion. I’ll probably use it when I begin teaching.

Were enslaved people enslaved because they were black? Or were they black because they were enslaved?

The first option is obviously widely accepted in today’s society, and there’s certainly some truth to it, but it’s the second part of the question that really made me think. Africans have been implicated in the slave trade, which complicates the issue, but what I find more interesting is the evolution of racialized thinking in the colonies.

Early on, there was little distinction made between African (black) slaves and English (white) indentured servants. Of course, the greatest difference would be that indentured servants held on to the hope of achieving their freedom after several years (provided they didn’t succumb to exhaustion, disease, or malnourishment), whereas slaves were bound in perpetuity.

But the Patterson article raises several issues that took me back to that question. He writes, “The colony’s elite remained committed to indentured white servitude as the backbone of the labor force until at least the middle of the 17th century because indentures were cheaper than African slaves.” This (aside from providing a comment on capitalism and the American way) would seem to indicate that race was not a primary factor.

Patterson continues by saying that “As the black population grew and increasingly became the labor force of elite whites, both attitudes and laws changed.” He cites the 1662 declaring children of slaves to be bound for life, the abolition of Christianity as an obstacle to enslavement, and the right of a master to kill a slave.

More importantly, Patterson argues that the views on race formed at Jamestown eventually shaped the nation, with “fateful consequences for black Americans.” Jamestown, he concludes, laid the cornerstone for the fundamental contradiction in American society, “that African Americans, even though they were among the earliest arrivals, did not belong to the body politic and were to be permanently excluded from all basic rights of citizenship.”

In his view, the civil rights movement “dismantled” the foundations laid at Jamestown. He points to Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama as evidence that “Whatever the persisting problems of black Americans—many of which, like a fragile family life and the lack of inheritance, also originated in slavery—it is now incontestable that they belong to America as America belongs to them.” His hopeful gloss on the present and future is unsatisfying, but his sentiment is probably correct.

The article is excellent and thought-provoking, and I encourage everyone to read it. I still don’t have a definitive answer to the question first posed to me in college, and I doubt seriously that I ever will. But it makes me think, and that is a start.


1 Response to “A Query”

  1. May 6, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    I keep forgetting to pick up that issue. Thanks for the reminder. If I remember correctly Edmund Morgan makes the argument surrounding the transition from indentured servants to a slave labor forced defined along the racial line. I sometimes give my high school students the second chapter of Zinn’s _People’s History_ as he begins with the question of whether racism is innate or learned. He spends some time analyzing the arguments and reasons for the transition from indentured servitude or slave labor.

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