"Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part." - Sven Beckert
Part 1 of this AfricaFocus Bulletin series, available at http://www.africafocus.org/docs19/usa1902a.php, featured excerpts from several thought-provoking commentaries on the film Black Panther. This second part features brief descriptions of links to longer non-fiction articles and books exploring the historical questions raised in greater depth.
What you will find below is a select list, with brief descriptions, of key readings on the US-African relationship in world historical context, centering race and the impact of the last 500 years of world history on the present. The list includes four new paradigm-shifting histories, as well as four classic works that have centered the same themes. It also includes several recent readings on slavery, the genocidal conquest of the Americas, the slave trade, and the issues of reparations or redress for historical crimes.
Although reparations has long been a demand of activists (see https://www.ncobraonline.org/reparations/ for background), it is now beginning to enter a much wider public debate. These readings will help put this growing debate in context.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the USA and Africa, visit http://www.africafocus.org/country/usa-africa.php
Recent articles on reparations in public debate include:
Washington Post, "Three 2020 Democrats say 'yes' to race-based reparations — but remain vague on details," Feb. 22, 2019 http://tinyurl.com/y3axvl2u
William J. Barber II, "How Ralph Northam and others can repent of America's original sin," Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2019 http://tinyurl.com/y245x3kv
Text of the most recent version of H.R. 40 (Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act), introduced on January 3, 2019, by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and 23 co-sponsors. http://tinyurl.com/y2mev8e6
------ Editor's Note
Four New Histories
If you want well-written path-breaking overviews of US history placing it in the context of race and the last 500 years of world history, these four recent books should be at the top of your reading list.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, 2015. https://amzn.to/2GoV7dU
"This may well be the most important US history book you will read in your lifetime. If you are expecting yet another 'new' and improved historical narrative or synthesis of Indians in North America, think again. Instead Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz radically reframes U.S. history, destroying all foundation myths to reveal a brutal settler colonial structure and ideology designed to cover its bloody tracks. Here, rendered in honest, often poetic words, is the story of those tracks and the people who survived—bloodied but unbowed. Spoiler alert: the colonial era is still here, and so are the Indians." —Robin D. G. Kelley
Paul Ortiz, An African American and Latinx History of the United States, 2018. https://amzn.to/2urEo84
[From review by Catherine Lizette Gonzalez in Colorlines, Feb. 2, 2018 http://tinyurl.com/y4hw6bcf]
Dominant narratives about United States' history will usually wax nostalgic for the patriots who fought for liberty and egalitarianism during the American Revolution. But, arguably, those liberal ideals were never really meant to serve anyone but White settlers. Even today, ideas of American exceptionalism—like President Donald Trump's "America First" agenda—are largely weaponized against communities of color.
In his new book, "An African American and Latinx History of the United States," historian Paul Ortiz challenges these dominant narratives by placing African Americans and Latinx people at the center of U.S. history.
Ortiz illuminates how Black and Brown people built multiracial movements through the 1700s to the 21st Century to achieve civil and democratic rights. In the book, the author and professor of history at the University of Florida, argues that African American and Latinx activists were inspired by what he's coined as "emancipatory internationalism" or the longstanding rejection of Eurocentric philosophies of liberty in exchange for the freedom struggles of the Global South.
Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America´s Long War, 2017. https://amzn.to/2Edz9fi
Nikhil Pal Singh argues that the United States' pursuit of war since the September 11 terrorist attacks has reanimated a longer history of imperial statecraft that segregated and eliminated enemies both within and overseas. America's territorial expansion and Indian removals, settler in-migration and nativist restriction, and African slavery and its afterlives were formative social and political processes that drove the rise of the United States as a capitalist world power long before the onset of globalization.
Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr, 2019. https://amzn.to/2Ef4XR3
The author explains briefly in an Feb. 15 article in The Guardian ( http://tinyurl.com/y6nk7x63).
What this map shows is the country's full territorial extent: the "Greater United States", as some at the turn of the 20th century called it. In this view, the place normally referred to as the US - the logo map - forms only a part of the country. A large and privileged part, to be sure, yet still only a part. Residents of the territories often call it the "mainland".
On this to-scale map, Alaska isn't shrunken down to fit into a small inset, as it is on most maps. It is the right size - ie, huge. The Philippines, too, looms large, and the Hawaiian island chain - the whole chain, not just the eight main islands shown on most maps - if superimposed on the mainland would stretch almost from Florida to California.
Four Classic Works
These four books feature structural analysis and foreground resistance as well as oppression, providing clear alternative frameworks to understanding African, global, and U.S. History. All of these are still in print, and available in Kindle as well as paperback editions. If your public or school library does not have copies, encourage it to make sure they get these fundamental works.
C. L. R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, 1938/1969. https://amzn.to/2J5XEvh
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 1944. http://amzn.to/2GdyvgZ
W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa, 1946. http://amzn.to/2oZAjCX
Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972. http://amzn.to/2twm5yd
Slavery in the United States
The catchphrase of slavery as "America's original sin" is commonplace. The role of slavery in shaping the contours of American society and the global economy, now commonly recognized by scholars, is much less widely acknowledged. But the effects of slavery are definitely not only in the past, as noted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the report quoted below.
The remaining links here provide entry points to the work of Sven Beckert, Edward E. Baptist, and Daine Ramey Berry, three leading scholars whose recent publications are shaping the current understanding of how slavery led not only to the poverty of those who were enslaved but also built the wealth now disproportionately held by a small minority. As Beckert in particular stresses, the systemwas not only national but global.
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Teaching the Hard History of American Slavery, January 2018.
It is often said that slavery was our country's original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country's origin. It was responsible for the growth of the American colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was a driving power behind the new nation's territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a powerful force in the Americas and beyond.
Slavery was also our country's Achilles' heel, responsible for its near undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did so expressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were white Southerners on the institution that they took up arms against their own to keep African Americans in bondage. They simply could not allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority to control black labor—and to regulate black behavior.
The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. And yet, we the people do not like to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much less teach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us.
Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racial inequality today. The formal and informal barriers to equal rights erected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of the color line for more than a century, were built on a foundation constructed during slavery. Our narrow understanding of the institution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems.
Sven Beckert, "Slavery and Capitalism," Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12, 2014.
Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, 2014.
For too long, many historians saw no problem in the opposition between capitalism and slavery. They depicted the history of American capitalism without slavery, and slavery as quintessentially noncapitalist. Instead of analyzing it as the modern institution that it was, they described it as premodern: cruel, but marginal to the larger history of capitalist modernity, an unproductive system that retarded economic growth, an artifact of an earlier world. Slavery was a Southern pathology, invested in mastery for mastery's sake, supported by fanatics, and finally removed from the world stage by a costly and bloody war.
Some scholars have always disagree with such accounts. In the 1930s and 1940s, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams argued for the centrality of slavery to capitalism, though their findings were largely ignored. Nearly half a century later, two American economists, Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, observed in their controversial book Time on the Cross (Little, Brown, 1974) the modernity and profitability of slavery in the United States. Now a flurry of books and conferences are building on those often unacknowledged foundations. They emphasize the dynamic nature of New World slavery, its modernity, profitability, expansiveness, and centrality to capitalism in general and to the economic development of the United States in particular.
Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries. The United States was just one nexus in a much larger story that connected artisans in India, European manufacturers, and, in the Americas, African slaves and land-grabbing settlers. It was those connections, over often vast distances, that created an empire of cotton—and with it modern capitalism.
Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, 2014.
Baptist argues that our understanding — or misunderstanding — of slavery has policy implications for the present. (In that way, the book is complementary reading to Ta-Nehisi Coates' much talked about Case For Reparations). "If slavery was outside of US history, for instance — if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth — then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power and wealth," Baptist writes. "Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans." Anyone who believes that, his book aims to show, really hasn't heard the half of it. Braden Boyette, Huffington Post, Oct. 23, 2014, "A Short Guide To 'The Half Has Never Been Told'" - http://tinyurl.com/y4o569po
Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, 2017.
n life and in death, slaves were commodities, their monetary value assigned based on their age, gender, health, and the demands of the market. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is the first book to explore the economic value of enslaved people through every phase of their lives—including preconception, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, the senior years, and death—in the early American domestic slave trade. Covering the full "life cycle," historian Daina Ramey Berry shows the lengths to which enslavers would go to maximize profits and protect their investments. Illuminating "ghost values" or the prices placed on dead enslaved people, Berry explores the little-known domestic cadaver trade and traces the illicit sales of dead bodies to medical schools.
This book is the culmination of more than ten years of Berry's exhaustive research on enslaved values, drawing on data unearthed from sources such as slave-trading records, insurance policies, cemetery records, and life insurance policies. Writing with sensitivity and depth, she resurrects the voices of the enslaved and provides a rare window into enslaved peoples' experiences and thoughts, revealing how enslaved people recalled and responded to being appraised, bartered, and sold throughout the course of their lives. Reaching out from these pages, they compel the reader to bear witness to their stories, to see them as human beings, not merely commodities.
Conquest of the Americas
"European colonization of Americas killed so many it cooled Earth's climate," Guardian, Jan. 31, 2019 http://tinyurl.com/y7pg5x66
Settlers killed off huge numbers of people in conflicts and also by spreading disease, which reduced the indigenous population by 90% in the century following Christopher Columbus's initial journey to the Americas and Caribbean in 1492.
This "large-scale depopulation" resulted in vast tracts of agricultural land being left untended, researchers say, allowing the land to become overgrown with trees and other new vegetation.
The regrowth soaked up enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to actually cool the planet, with the average temperature dropping by 0.15C in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the study by scientists at University College London found.
"The great dying of the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth system in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution," wrote the UCL team of Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis.
The UCL researchers found that the European colonization of the Americas indirectly contributed to this colder period by causing the deaths of about 56 million people by 1600 [leaving only about 1 in 10 of the pre-colonization population]. The study attributes the deaths to factors including introduced disease, such as smallpox and measles, as well as warfare and societal collapse.
Full study available at http://tinyurl.com/yceyeqbj
The Atlantic Slave Trade
The transcontinental scope of slavery is most clearly visible in the Atlantic slave trade, which over centuries brought over 10 million enslaved Africans to the Americas. Strikingly, the vast majority were brought not to the United States but to Brazil and the Caribbean, as illustrated in the map below and related links.
The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes Animated map: 315 years. 20,528 voyages. Millions of lives. http://tinyurl.com/p3npfu5
Slave Voyages: Introductory Maps http://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/intro-maps
Among the host of books on the slave trade, The Atlantic Slave Trade (2010, http://amzn.to/2tCz0yM) by Herbert Klein provides an accessible summary of current scholarship. Joseph Miller's Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830 (1988, https://amzn.to/2J5T93R) is a dense read, but an unequalled account of how the intertwined economies reaching from Angola to Brazil, Portugal, and England extracted profits from the lives and deaths of those enslaved.
Reparations for slavery and the slave trade is often debated in simplistic terms, as if it were only a question of the feasibility of payments to individuals and as if it only applied to the United States. And while reparations is most frequently and legitimately used to refer specifically to slavery and the slave trade, given the magnitude of those centuries-long crimes, the concept is also a more general one in human rights discourse, applicable to more recent crimes perpetrated on specific living individuals and communities.
The following five readings are useful to expand the discussion. Two focus on the United States, while two expand the discussion beyond the borders of the United States. And a fifth, on redress for historical crimes against Native American communities, stresses that monetary compensation is much too limited a concept to cover the actions needed.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," The Atlantic, June 2014. http://tinyurl.com/h9lezog
And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
Won't reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.
What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling "patriotism" while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
Flint Taylor "How Activists Won Reparations for the Survivors of Chicago Police Department Torture," In These Times, June 26, 2015. http://tinyurl.com/y29xexv9
The 20-year reign of police torture that was orchestrated by Commander Jon Burge—and implicated former Mayor Richard M. Daley and a myriad of high ranking police and prosecutorial officials—has haunted Chicago for decades. … Finally, on May 6, 2015, in response to a movement that has spanned a generation, the Chicago City Council formally recognized this sordid history by passing historic legislation that provides reparations to the survivors of police torture in Chicago. …
Over the course of the struggle, the movement had once again looked internationally both for support and for examples—Chile, Argentina and South Africa, to name three. The examples here in the U.S. were precious few: Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, the descendants of the African-American victims of the deadly 1923 race riot in Rosewood, Florida and the victims of the mass sterilizations in North Carolina. The movement was also inspired by the continuing struggle for reparations for enslaved African Americans, the movement to fully document and memorialize lynchings in the South, by Black People Against Police Torture and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, and, most importantly, by the survivors of Chicago police torture and their families.
While full compensation for the pain suffered at the hands of the torturers was not (and could not be) obtained—a reality that was pointed out in a Sun-Times editorial that otherwise commended the historic accomplishment—the reparations package is both symbolically and in fact substantial and unique, particularly given that the survivors had no legal recourse.
Lord Anthony Gifford, "The Legal Basis of the Claim for Reparations," Paper presented to Pan African Congress on Reparations, Abuja, Nigeria, April 27-29, 1993. http://www.shaka.mistral.co.uk/legalbasis.htm
See also the Abuja Declaration from that Congress at http://tinyurl.com/yynw8sne
[summary of points]
The enslavement of Africans was a crime against humanity
International law recognises that those who commit crimes against humanity must make reparation
There is no legal, barrier to prevent those who still suffer the consequences of crimes against humanity from claiming reparations, even though the crimes were committed against their ancestors
The claim would be brought on behalf of all Africans, in Africa and in the Diaspora, who suffer the consequences of the crime, through the agency of an appropriate representative body
The claim would be brought against the governments of those counties which promoted and were enriched by the African slave trade and the institution of slavery
The amount of the claim would be assessed by experts in each aspect of life and in each region, affected by the institution of slavery
The claim, if not settled by agreement, would ultimately be determined by a special international tribunal recognised by all parties
Ana Lucia Araujo, Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History, 2017. http://amzn.to/2FE5pJV
Slavery and the Atlantic slave trade are among the most heinous crimes against humanity committed in the modern era. Yet, to this day no former slave society in the Americas has paid reparations to former slaves or their descendants. European countries have never compensated their former colonies in the Americas, whose wealth relied on slave labor, to a greater or lesser extent. Likewise, no African nation ever obtained any form of reparations for the Atlantic slave trade.
Ana Lucia Araujo argues that these calls for reparations are not only not dead, but have a long and persevering history. She persuasively demonstrates that since the 18th century, enslaved and freed individuals started conceptualizing the idea of reparations in petitions, correspondences, pamphlets, public speeches, slave narratives, and judicial claims, written in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. In different periods, despite the legality of slavery, slaves and freed people were conscious of having been victims of a great injustice.
This is the first book to offer a transnational narrative history of the financial, material, and symbolic reparations for slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. Drawing from the voices of various social actors who identified themselves as the victims of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery, Araujo illuminates the multiple dimensions of the demands of reparations, including the period of slavery, the emancipation era, the post-abolition period, and the present.
Bradford, William, "Beyond Reparations: An American Indian Theory of Justice" (2004). Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium International (APRCi). 217. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/aprci/217
A significant element in the slavery reparations claim is the lost value consequence of the unpaid labor extracted from slave ancestors, and thus it is logical that, with few exceptions, proponents of slavery reparations equate the remedy with financial compensation. Although money cannot undo history, it can ameliorate the socioeonomic conditions of the descendants of former slaves, and money is the lodestar of most reparationists.
However, justice is not a one-size-fits-all commodity ... Slavery is not the sole, nor the first, nor even, arguably, the most egregious historical injustice for which the U.S. bears responsibility. …
Although compensation may well be the proper form redress should assume in relation to the crime of African American slavery, reparations is ill-suited as a remedy around which to construct a theory of justice for Indians, not because of the social resistance it would be likely to engender, but because money simply cannot reach, let alone repair, land theft, genocide, ethnocide, and, above all, the denial of the fundamental right to self-determination. Only a committed and holistic program of legal reformation as the capstone in a broader structure of remedies, including the restoration of Indian lands and the reconciliation between Indian and non-Indian peoples, can satisfy the preconditions for justice for the original peoples of the U.S.
For a broader view of international developments on the rights of indigenous people, including the roles of redress and compensation, see The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: A Manual for National Human Rights Institutions. Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2013. http://tinyurl.com/y4cvv766
AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.