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Race Relations in the U.S.

I’ve discovered the real roots of America these past few days
and decided that writing about it was better than killing an innocent
victim to soothe the hostility I feel towards my heritage. I picked up
a pen because it was safer than a gun. This was a valuable lesson I’ve
learned from my forefathers, who did both. Others in my country react
on instinct and choose not to deliberate the issue as I have. If they
are black, they are imprisoned or dead. As The People vs. Simpson
storms through its ninth month, the United States awaits the landmark
decision that will determine justice. O.J. Simpson would not have had
a chance in 1857. Racial segregation, discrimination, and degradation
are no accidents in this nation’s history. The loud tribal beat
of pounding rap rhythm is no coincidence. They stem logically from the
legacy the Founding Fathers bestowed upon contemporary America with
regard to the treatment of African-Americans, particularly the black
slave woman. This tragedy has left the country with a weak moral
foundation.
The Founding Fathers, in their conception of a more perfect
union, drafted ideas that communicated the oppression they felt as
slaves of Mother England. Ironically, nowhere in any of their
documents did they address the issue of racial slavery. The
Declaration of Independence from England was adopted as the country’s
most fundamental constitutional document. It was the definitive
statement for the American policy of government, of the necessary
conditions for the exercise of political power, and of the sovereignty
of the people who establish the government. John Hancock, president of
the Continental Congress and slave trader, described it as “the Ground
& Foundation of a future government.” James Madison, Father of the
Constitution and slave owner, called it “the fundamental Act of Union
of these States.” “All men are created equal,” and endowed by the
Creator with the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness.” They either meant that all men were created
equal, that every man was entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness, or they did not mean it at all.
The Declaration of Independence was a white man’s document
that its author rarely applied to his own or any other slave. Thomas
Jefferson suspected blacks were inferior. These suspicions, together
with his prophecy that free blacks could not harmoniously co-exist
with white men for centuries to come, are believed to be the primary
reasons for his contradictory actions toward the issue of slavery. At
the end of the eighteenth century, Jefferson fought the infamous Alien
; Sedition Acts, which limited civil liberties. As president, he
opposed the Federalist court, conspiracies to divide the union, and
the economic plans of Alexander Hamilton. Throughout his life, Thomas
Jefferson, hypocrite, slave holder, pondered the conflict between
American freedom and American slavery. He bought and sold slaves; he
advertised for fugitives; he ordered disciplinary lashes with a horse
whip. Jefferson understood that he and his fellow slave holders
benefited financially and culturally from the sweat of their black
laborers. One could say he regarded slavery as a necessary evil. In
1787, he wrote the Northwest Ordinance which banned slavery in
territory acquired from Great Britain following the American
Revolution. However, later as a retired politician and ex-president,
Jefferson refused to free his own slaves, counseled young white
Virginia slave holders against voluntary emancipation of theirs, and
even favored the expansion of slavery into the western territories. To
Jefferson, Americans had to be free to worship as they desired. They
also deserved to be free from an overreaching government. To
Jefferson, Americans should also be free to possess slaves.
In neither of the Continental Congresses nor in the
Declaration of Independence did the Founding Fathers take an
unequivocal ezd against black slavery. Obviously, human bondage and
human dignity were not as important to them as their own political
and economic independence. It was not an admirable way to start a new
nation. The Constitution created white privilege while consolidating
black bondage. It didn’t matter that more than 5,000 blacks had joined
in the fight for independence only to discover real freedom didn’t
apply to them. Having achieved their own independence, the patriots
exhibited no great concern to extend the blessings of liberty to those
Americans with black skin. Black people were thought of as inferior
beings, animals. “You can manage ordinary niggers by lickin’ em and by
given’ em a taste of hot iron once in a while when they’re extra
ugly,” one uncouth white owner was heard to say at a slave auction
shortly before the Civil War. “But if a nigger ever sets himself up
against me, I can’t never have any patience with him. I just get my
pistol and shoot him right down; and that’s the best way.” Certainly
the formal doctrines of the country didn’t apply to animals.
If the “animals” were excluded from the rights of the people,
then naturally it followed that they didn’t deserve justice. Dred
Scott vs. Sanford ezds as one of the most important cases in the
history of the United States Supreme Court. Most of the literature
deals with the controversial final decision, rendered on March 6,
1857, by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. “Once free always free”
became maybe once free but now back to work, nigger. This case was a
prime example of how even the American judicial system failed when
faced with volatile and subeztive racial issues. Dred Scott was
declared to be still a slave for several reasons. 1) Although blacks
could be citizens of a given state, they could not be and were not
citizens of the United States with the right to sue in the federal
courts. In other words, “animals” couldn’t sue a fellow countryman. 2)
Aside from not having the right to sue in the first place, Scott was
still a slave because he never had been free to begin with. Owning
slaves was protected by the Constitution at the time, and Congress
exceeded its authority when it passed legislation forbidding or
abolishing slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise was
such an exercise of unconstitutional authority and was accordingly
declared invalid. So, “animals” were the white man’s property by
authority of the doctrines passed down by the Founding Fathers. 3)
Whatever status the slave may have had while he was in a free state or
territory, if he voluntarily returned to a slave state, his status
there depended upon the law of that slave state as interpreted by its
own courts. In Scott’s case, since the Missouri high court had
declared him to be still a slave, that was the status and law which
the Supreme Court of the United States would accept and recognize. In
other words, in the middle of the nineteenth century, “animals” better
just keep their mouth shut and work if they knew what was good for
them.
What was good for them was making the master rich. The good
Reverend Jesse H. Turner of Virginia shifted from a Richmond pulpit to
a nearby plantation and explained his prosperity by saying “I keep no
breeding woman nor brood mare. If I want a Negro I buy him already
raised to my hand, and if I want a horse or a mule I buy him also…I
think it cheaper to buy than to raise. At my house, therefore, there
are no noisy groups of mischievous young Negroes to feed, nor are
there any flocks of young horses to maintain.” (Farmers’ Register X,
129. March, 1842) Whether it were cheaper to “breed” or to buy slaves
depended upon the market price at the time. Slave children were a
by-product that could hardly be controlled and whose cost had no
relation to market price. Often a woman for sale was described as a
“good breeder”. New-born “pickaninnies” had a value purely because at
some day their labor would presumably yield more than the cost of
their keep. The sex of the child was generally irrelevant as most
slave women did the same labor as men. Slave women cut down trees and
hauled the logs in leather straps attached to their shoulders. They
plowed using mule and ox teams. They dug ditches, spread manure, and
piled coarse fodder with their bare hands. They built and cleaned
Southern roads, helped construct Southern railroads, and, of course,
they picked cotton. In short, slave women were used as badly as men,
and were treated by Southern whites as if they were anything but
self-respecting women. From the black women who were even partially
literate, hundreds of letters exist telling of the atrocities
inflicted by “massa.” Both physical and sexual assaults on black women
were common at the turn of the century.
Nothing I have read captures the true devastation to the
spirit of the black woman during the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Sethe, the main character,
is the iron-willed, iron-eyed survivor of slavery at Sweet Home, where
one white youth held her down while another sucked out her breast milk
and lashed her with cowhide while her husband helplessly watched. Once
her owner discovers the location she and her children have escaped to,
she takes them to the back-yard barn to murder them and forever keep
them free from the unbearable life of slavery. She is discovered after
killing her infant daughter and taken to jail. In a heart-wrenching
passage, we learn that her reason for committing the infanticide was
“that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came
to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so
bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up…Whites might
dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical
best thing…She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not
her daughter. And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her
daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh
no.” (251)
The whole question of how to love in an inhuman system which
breeds children like horses results in inhumane choices. This theme,
Morrison carries throughout the novel. For women like Ella whose
“puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son,
whom she called the lowest yet.’ It was the lowest yet’ who gave her a
disgust for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities,”(256)
nature mercifully quenches the life from the “white hairy thing,” the
freakish offspring from this monstrous childhood assault. For
Morrison’s women, sexuality is the reward and burden of their gender.
The unlikelihood that any female slave could survive sexual abuse,
lashing, thirst, hunger, and childbirth, yet continue to form milk to
suckle is Morrison’s comment on Sethe’s determination, and a tribute
to the countless black women who were victimized by the evil of the
white man.
That the white man committed evil there is no question. The
letters of the past reveal countless lives that were ruined or ended
because of racial slavery. Our forefathers had no virtues when it
required compassion for African-Americans. One cannot speak of
morality in terms of active or passive–there simply was no morality
concerning slavery. We as a people today must exist in a country that
was handed-down, literally, by hypocrites. For over two hundred years,
the leaders of our country eagerly allowed the oppression for which
they established the country to escape. How can we as descendants of
those people view the past and honestly feel a sense of morality for
the country?
To deal with our past realistically, it is necessary to view
the early leaders in their own terms: as frail, fallible human beings.
We could have admired them for many things: their courage and bravery
in the military struggle against Britain; their creativity in forging
a new government; and their service to a cause that captured the
imagination of people around the world. However, it is impossible to
admire the hypocritical Founding Fathers of this nation for betraying
the very ideals to which they gave lip service. It is impossible to
admire our early leaders for speaking eloquently at one moment for the
brotherhood of man and in the next moment denying it to the black
brothers and sisters who fought by their side and bled for their
profit. It is forever impossible to admire the thousands of white
settlers of America in light of the degrading treatment of the human
spirit, for considering “the labor of a breeding woman as no object,
and that a child raised every two years is of more profit than the
crop of the best laboring man.” (Jefferson, Thomas. “The American
Nation.” p. 352) The concern here is not for the harm that the Fathers
did to the cause which they claimed to serve as for the harm that
their moral legacy has left for every generation of their progeny.


Didn’t they realize the effect their actions would have on the growing
nation? Didn’t they know the black slave would not behave like a well
trained dog forever? After reading the facts, one can only speculate
that, no, neither did they realize nor did they care about the
misfortune of the black race. They were profiting from the degradation
of a whole race of people, and that was the driving force behind the
cracking whip. Having created a flawed revolutionary doctrine and a
Constitution that did not bestow the blessings of liberty to its
posterity, the stage was set for every succeeding generation of
Americans to apologize, compromise and criticize the principles of
liberty that were supposed to be the foundation of our system of
government and our way of life. Abraham Lincoln, the celebrated
president who “honorably” put an end to black slavery in America,
shared his true motives in a letter addressed to Horace Greeley on
August 22, 1862: “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest
way under the Constitution…If there be those who would not save the
Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not
agree with them… What I do about slavery and the colored race I do
because I believe it helps to save this Union.”
I now relate with the anger in the voices of many contemporary
rap artists. I now see why certain black men look at white men with
anger in their eyes. I now underezd why I was punched in the face by
an unknown black youth one day a few years ago as I walked out of a
Safeway supermarket. His one comment to me as he ran off was, “Sorry,
man. I just hate white people.” So do I, my brother. Now, so do I.

Bibliography
Berlin, Ira. “Free At Last–A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom,
and the Civil War.” New York, NY: The New York Press, 1992.
Catton, Bruce. “The Dread Scott Case.” Quarrels That Have Shaped The
Constitution. Ed. Garraty, John A. New York, NY: Harper & Row,
Publishers, Inc., 1964.
Cooper, David. “Slavery Violates Human Rights” Slavery–Opposing
Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc.
1992.
Franklin, John Hope. “Slavery Left America Divided.” Slavery–Opposing
Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press Inc.,
1992.
Freehling, William W. “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” American
History Volume One, Pre- Colonial through Reconstruction. Ed. Maddox,
Robert James. Thirteenth Edition. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing
Group, Inc., 1995.
Garraty, John A. “The American Nation–A History of the United States
To 1877.Volume One.” Eighth Edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins
College Publishers, 1995.
Lincoln, Abraham. “Preserving the Union Should Be the Primary War
Aim.” August 22, 1862 Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley,
William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992.
Morrison, Toni. “Beloved.” New York, NY: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1987
Phillips, Ulrich B. “Life & Labor In The Old South.” Boston, MA:
Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
Sewall, Samuel. “Slavery is Immoral.” Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints. Ed
Dudley, William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992.
White, Deborah Gray. “The Lives of Slave Women.” American History
Volume 1, Pre- Colonial through Reconstruction. Ed. Maddox, Robert
James. Thirteenth Edition. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group,
Inc., 1995.

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