Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell recently issued a proclamation designating April as “Confederate Heritage Month.” This was done initially without even mentioning the Atlantic slave trade or the economic system that was built from the labor of African people brought to North America between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Virginia was the first British colony where Africans were enslaved in the region that later became known as the United States. Beginning in August 1619, when 20 Africans arrived on a slave ship at Jamestown, the process of exploitation and oppression involving millions of people would define the character of North America for another four centuries.
These Africans brought to Virginia initially were designated as indentured servants, as were many Europeans who came during the 17th century to the British colonies in North America. But by 1670 approximately 2,000 Africans had fallen victim to the system of chattel slavery in this region of the continent.
This historical episode in Virginia was not the beginning of slavery or the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery as a world economic system took firm root in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the early 16th century. In 1503 the Spanish directed their attention toward the African continent, seeking a vast reservoir of free untapped labor power.
Initially the Indigenous peoples of North America were transported to the Caribbean islands of Santo Domingo (later Haiti) and Cuba in astronomical numbers for the purpose of chattel slavery. Indigenous peoples suffered and died in great numbers as a result of the barbaric treatment meted out by the European slave traders and owners, often carried out under the rationale of spreading Christianity.
With the conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro and Brazil by Pedro Álvares Cabral in the early 16th century, the stage was set for the mass capture and importation of African slaves into South America, the Caribbean and later North America. As early as the mid-1500s, the Native peoples of the Caribbean had virtually become extinct as a result of the genocidal social and economic policies of the European colonialists.
The African population became the numerically dominant group in the so-called West Indies by the middle of the 16th century, serving as the principal engine of economic growth for the Spanish colonialists. Soon afterwards the British adventurers embarked upon the trade in African labor as well, which they proceeded to carry out under charters issued by Elizabeth I and James I.
Today’s ‘debate’ over slavery
After the action taken by Gov. McDonnell, a debate has ensued around the historical significance of slavery in the U.S. Some conservatives and neoconfederates claim that the upholding of the confederate heritage of the South was not intended to be an act of racist denial of the suffering of African people.
These same apologists for the secession of 11 states from the Union government in Washington would go as far as saying that the splitting of the country in 1860-61 had nothing to do with slavery as an economic system but was based on the notion of “states’ rights.” They say that Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and the others withdrew and provoked a civil war because they believed states should be allowed to decide what economic and political system would prevail.
Then there are the false ideas surrounding the character of slavery and its economic impact on U.S. development and on other Western countries as a whole. Southern historians and their supporters advanced notions that the system of exploitation was relatively benign and that Africans were content to work for white plantation owners and other ruling-class interests that were dominant in the Southern U.S.
However, starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a new current of historians arose who looked at the material benefits that the ruling classes in the United States and Western Europe gained as a result of slavery. Rather than viewing the system of slavery as benign, African-American and other progressive historians argued that the bondage Africans were subjected to created a labor system that not only led to the accumulation of tremendous wealth but also created the conditions for the rise of industrial capitalism.
W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his book “Black Reconstruction” that the system of slavery stripped all rights away from Africans and subjected them to the worst forms of exploitation and degradation. This system not only made enormous profits for the slave owners but destroyed any semblance of family life for the African people.
DuBois notes, “[Black people] could be sold — actually sold as we sell cattle with no reference to calves or bulls, or recognition of family. It was a nasty business. The white South was properly ashamed of it and continually belittled and almost denied it.”
The African-American historian continues, “But it was a stark and bitter fact. Southern papers of the Border States were filled with advertisements: ‘I wish to purchase fifty Negroes of both sexes from 6 to 30 years of age for which I will give the highest cash prices.’” (“Black Reconstruction,” p. 11)
Defenders of the confederacy nevertheless continue to make false claims that Africans were treated reasonably well under the slave system. They have also said that the neoconfederate movement is a mechanism for the descendants of slave owners and those who fought to preserve slavery to honor their heritage. According to many of the neoconfederates, they are not racist in their recognition and championing of this legacy.
A New York Times column by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham regarding the declaration of “Confederate Heritage Month” in Virginia challenges the notion of a nonracist recognition of confederate symbolism and heritage in the South.
“If neo-Confederates are interested in history, let’s talk history,” wrote Meacham. “Since Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Confederate symbols have tended to be more about white resistance to black advances than about commemoration. In the 1880s and 1890s, after fighting Reconstruction with terrorism and after the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, states began to legalize segregation.” (April 11)
Meacham continues: “For white supremacists, iconography of the ‘Lost Cause’ was central to their fight; Mississippi even grafted the Confederate battle emblem onto its state flag. But after the Supreme Court allowed segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Jim Crow was basically secure. There was less need to rally the troops, and Confederate imagery became associated with the most extreme of the extreme: the Ku Klux Klan.”
Legacy of Virginia slave rebellions
Despite claims to the contrary, Africans revolted against slavery and sought to build an independent existence outside the plantation system. Perhaps the most glaring conflict over the significance of slavery among some whites and African Americans is the effort underway in Richmond, Va., to gain proper recognition of a burial ground for enslaved Africans. The site, which is currently covered up by a parking lot owned by Virginia Commonwealth University, is reported to have contained a detention facility for rebellious Africans and a location for carrying out executions.
A brochure issued by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project states that “undoubtedly the area’s greatest significance is the fact that, for the three decades preceding the Civil War, it was, after New Orleans, the largest market for enslaved Africans in this country.” (“An Appeal to All People of Good Will: The Case of Reclaiming Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom”)
“This was where many of the 300,000 to 350,000 men, women and children of African descent who were sold from Virginia to plantations in the Deep South were auctioned off. At the same time, it is also a story of incredible courage. From Gabriel’s Rebellion to the mass escape on the hijacked slave ship Creole to thousands of individual acts of rebellion, this continuous resistance to injustice is a tribute to the deep resilience of the human spirit.”
Gabriel was captured and later executed at the site which is today a parking lot owned by VCU. The Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project and other organizations are demanding that this area be not only recognized with a historical marker as it is today, but also that a more extensive memorial be constructed that accounts for the significant legacy of slavery within the economic and political development of Virginia.
Solidarity and the National Question
There can be no real improvement in race relations or the resolution of the national question in the U.S. without the recognition of the horrors of slavery by the ruling class and the payment of reparations for the centuries of stolen, free labor.
In the 21st century, with the election of the first African-American president, the U.S. has witnessed the rise of a new crop of racist and neofascist organizations. This resurgence of racism comes at a time when the U.S. is facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The purpose of this rightward shift, which is supported and encouraged by the corporate media, is to further divide the working class along racial lines and to deflect attention away from the bank bailouts and other direct handouts to the capitalists. Corporate support for the so-called “Tea Party” is designed for the same purpose: to split off white workers from the struggles of the working class and to promote racism against African Americans, Latinos/as, Asians, Indigenous and other oppressed peoples.
Fighting this racism and other forms of bigotry can only be effectively carried out through international solidarity. White workers and the working class as a whole must unite to fight racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
It is through such forms of solidarity that the working class and nationally oppressed movements can overcome these continuing attempts to divide the people. Such solidarity will strengthen the struggle against racism and national oppression and weaken the hegemony of international finance capital.
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