Were U.S. slaves in any way responsible for their own misery? Were there any silver linings to forced bondage? These questions surface from time to time in the American cultural conversation, rekindling a longstanding debate over whether the nation’s “peculiar institution” may have been something less than a horrific crime against humanity.
When rapper and clothing designer Kanye West commented on TMZ.com that slavery was a “choice,” and later attempted to clarify by tweeting that African Americans remained subservient for centuries because they were “mentally enslaved,” he set off a social-media firestorm of anger and incredulity. And after a charter-school teacher in San Antonio, Texas asked her 8th-grade American history students to provide a “balanced view” of slavery by listing both its pros and cons, a wide public outcry ensued. The homework assignment was drawn from a nationally distributed textbook.
Such controversies underscore a profound lack of understanding of slavery, the institution that, more than any other in the formation of the American republic, undergirded its very economic, social and political fabric. They overlook that slavery, which affected millions of blacks in America, was enforced by a system of sustained brutality, including acts—and constant threats—of torture, rape and murder. They ignore countless historic examples of resistance, rebellion and escape. And they disregard the long-tail legacy of slavery, where oppressive laws, overincarceration and violent acts of terrorism were all designed to keep people of color “in their place.”