Thinking About Biden's SCOTUS Nominee-- Time To Re-Read "Up From Slavery?"
Manipulative right-wing politicians-- racists-- may want to ban the teaching of the history of blacks and other minorities in America... but mostly blacks, but yesterday they would have had to ban the New York Times too. Jamelle Bouie's column, We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What It Was, will no doubt offend racists who want to pretend that black history never existed and that Heaven Forbid their children learn anything about it or, worse, feel anything about it. Republican Party cancel culture.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade-- capturing Africans and violently transporting them to the Western Hemisphere--lasted for 4 centuries, considerably longer than the U.S. has been a nation. An estimated 12.5 million people, noted Bouie were dragged onto the ships off the west coast of Africa and around 10.7 million survived the journey into a different kind of hell in "New World... A little over 3.5 percent of the total, about 389,000 people, arrived on the shores of British North America and the Gulf Coast during those centuries when slave ships could find port." The rest were sent to the West Indies and South America.
It is thanks to decades of painstaking, difficult work that we know a great deal about the scale of human trafficking across the Atlantic Ocean and about the people aboard each ship. Much of that research is available to the public in the form of the SlaveVoyages database. A detailed repository of information on individual ships, individual voyages and even individual people, it is a groundbreaking tool for scholars of slavery, the slave trade and the Atlantic world. And it continues to grow. Last year, the team behind SlaveVoyages introduced a new data set with information on the domestic slave trade within the United States, titled “Oceans of Kinfolk.”
The systematic effort to quantify the slave trade goes back at least as far as the 19th century. For example, in the 1888 edition of the second volume of his History of the United States of America, From the Discovery of the American Continent, the historian George Bancroft estimates “the number of negroes” imported by “the English into the Spanish, French, and English West Indies, and the English continental colonies, to have been, collectively, nearly three million: to which are to be added more than a quarter of a million purchased in Africa, and thrown into the Atlantic on passage.” He adds later, “After every deduction, the trade retains its gigantic character of crime.”
In 1958, the economic historians Alfred Conrad and John Meyer transformed the study of slavery-- and of economic history more broadly-- with the publication of The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South. Their methods, which relied on statistical data and mathematical analysis, revolutionized the field.
The origins of SlaveVoyages lie in this period and, specifically, in the work of a group of scholars who, a decade later, began to collect data on slave-trading voyages and encode it for use with a mainframe computer.
...It is hard to exaggerate the significance of this work for historians of slavery and the slave trade. An arrival to and departure from port tells a story. To know when, where and how many times a ship disembarked is to know a little more about the nature of the specific exchange as well as the slave trade as a whole. Every bit of new information fills in the blanks of a time that has long since passed out of living memory.
After nearly 10 years as physical media, SlaveVoyages was introduced to the public as a website in 2008 and then relaunched in 2019 with a new interface and even more detail. As it stands today, the site, funded primarily by grants, contains data sets on various aspects of the slave trade: a database on the trans-Atlantic trade with more than 36,000 entries, a database containing entries on voyages that took place within the Americas and a database with the personal details of more than 95,000 enslaved Africans found on these ships.
The newest addition to SlaveVoyages is a data set that documents the “coastwise” traffic to New Orleans during the antebellum years of 1820 to 1860, when it was the largest slave-trading market in the country. The 1807 law that forbade the importation of enslaved Africans to the United States also required any captain of a coastwise vessel with enslaved people on board to file, at departure and on arrival, a manifest listing those individuals by name.
Countless enslaved Africans arrived at ports up and down the coast of the United States, but the largest share were sent to New Orleans. This new data set draws from roughly 4,000 “slave manifests” to document the traffic to that port. Those manifests list more than 63,000 captives, including names and physical descriptions, as well as information on an individual’s owner and information on the vessel and its captain.
Because of its specificity with regard to individual enslaved people, this new information is as pathbreaking for lay researchers and genealogists as it is for scholars and historians. It is also, for me, an opportunity to think about the difficult ethical questions that surround this work: How exactly do we relate to data that allows someone-- anyone-- to identify a specific enslaved person? How do we wield these powerful tools for quantitative analysis without abstracting the human reality away from the story? And what does it mean to study something as wicked and monstrous as the slave trade using some of the tools of the trade itself?
...From 1787 to 1788, Americans would write and ratify a new Constitution that, in a concession to Lower South planters who demanded access to the trans-Atlantic trade, forbade a ban on the foreign slave trade for at least the next 20 years. But Congress could-- and, in 1794, did-- prohibit American ships from participating. In 1807, right on schedule, Congress passed-- and President Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owning Virginian, signed-- a measure to abolish the importation of enslaved Africans to the United States, effective Jan. 1, 1808.
But the end to American involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade (or at least the official end, given an illegal trade that would not end until the start of the Civil War) did not mean the end of the slave trade altogether. Slavery remained a big and booming business, driven by demand for tobacco, rice, indigo and increasingly cotton, which was already on its path to dominance as the principal cash crop of the slaveholding South.
Within a decade of the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, annual cotton production had grown twentyfold to 35 million pounds in 1800. By 1810, production had risen to roughly 85 million pounds per year, accounting for more than 20 percent of the nation’s export revenue. By 1820, the United States was producing something in the area of 160 million pounds of cotton a year.
Fueling this growth was the rapid expansion of American territory, facilitated by events abroad. In August 1791, the Haitian Revolution began with an insurrection of enslaved people. In 1803, Haitian revolutionaries defeated a final French Army expedition sent to pacify the colony after years of bloody conflict. To pay for this expensive quagmire-- and to keep the territory out of the hands of the British-- the soon-to-be-emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sold what remained of French North America to the United States at a fire-sale price.
The new territory nearly doubled the size of the country, opening new land to settlement and commercial cultivation. And as the American nation expanded further into the southeast, so too did its slave system. Planters moved from east to west. Some brought slaves. Others needed to buy them. There had always been an internal market for enslaved labor, but the end of the international trade made it larger and more lucrative.
It is hard to quantify the total volume of sales on the domestic slave trade, but scholars estimate that in the 40-year period between the Missouri Compromise and the secession crisis, at least 875,000 people were sent south and southwest from the Upper South, most as a result of commercial transactions, the rest as a consequence of planter migration.
New, more granular data on voyages and migrations and sales will help scholars delve deeper than ever into the nature of slavery in the United States, into specifics of the trade and into the ways it shaped the political economy of the American republic.
But no data set, no matter how precise, is complete. There are things that quantification can obscure. And there are, again, ethical questions that must be asked and answered when dealing with the quantitative study of human atrocity, which is what we’re ultimately doing when we bring statistical and mathematical methods to the study of slavery.
To think about the slave trade in terms of vessels and voyages-- to look at it as columns in a spreadsheet or as points in an online animation-- is to engage in an act of abstraction. Historians have no choice but to rely, as Marcus Rediker writes, on “ledgers and almanacs, balance sheets, graphs and tables.” But it carries a heavy cost, dehumanizing a reality that, he writes, “must, for moral and political reasons, be understood concretely.”
Consider, as well, the extent to which the tools of abstraction are themselves tied up in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As the historian Jennifer Morgan notes in Reckoning With Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, the fathers of modern demography, the 17th-century English writers and mathematicians William Petty and John Graunt, were “thinking through problems of population and mobility at precisely the moment when England had solidified its commitment to the slave trade.”
Their questions were ones of statecraft: How could England increase its wealth? How could it handle its surplus population? And what would it do with “excessive populations that did not consume” in the formal market? Petty was concerned with Ireland-- Britain’s first colony, of sorts-- and the Irish. He thought that if they could be forcibly transferred to England, then they could, in Morgan’s words, become “something valuable because of their ability to augment the population and labor power of the English.”
This conceptual breakthrough, Morgan told me in an interview, cannot be disentangled from the slave trade. The English, she said, “are learning to think about people as ‘abstractable.’ By watching what the Spanish and what the Portuguese have been doing for 200 years, but also by doing it themselves, saying, ‘Oh, I can take Africans from here and move them to there, and then I can use them for my own purposes.’”
Embedded in this early project of quantification-- Morgan notes in her book that Graunt “mounted what historians and political scientists agree was the first systematic use of demographic evidence to understand a contemporary sociopolitical problem”-- is an objectification of human life.
...Writing of enslaved women on Barbados, the historian Marisa Fuentes notes in Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive that “they appear as historical subjects through the form and content of archival documents in the manner in which they lived: spectacularly violated, objectified, disposable, hypersexualized, and silenced. The violence is transferred from the enslaved bodies to the documents that count, condemn, assess, and evoke them, and we receive them in this condition.”
She continues: “Epistemic violence originates from the knowledge produced about enslaved women by white men and women in this society, and that knowledge is what survives in archival form.”
The traders, enslavers, officials and others who documented the slave trade did so in the context of legal and commercial relationships. For them, the enslaved were objects to be bought and sold for profit, wealth and status. If an individual’s “historical” life is shaped by the documents and images they leave behind, then, as Fuentes writes, most enslaved women, men and children live (and have lived) their historical lives as “numbers on an estate inventory or a ship’s ledger.” It is in that form that they are then shaped by “additional commodification”-- used but not necessarily understood as having been fully alive.
...[T]he very banality of this material can help us understand how this system survived, and thrived, for so long. “I am not a historian of slavery because I want to spend my time understanding massive moments of spectacular violence,” Jennifer Morgan told me. “I actually want to understand tiny moments of violence, because that’s what I see as adding up to a kind of numbness-- a numbness of empathy, a numbness to human interconnection.”
All of this is to say that with the history of slavery, the quantitative and the qualitative must inform each other. It is important to know the size and scale of the slave trade, of the way it was standardized and institutionalized, of the way it shaped the history of the entire Atlantic world.
But as every historian I spoke to for this story emphasized, it is also vital that we have an intimate understanding of the people who were part of this story and specifically of the people who were forced into it. It is for good reason that W.E.B. Du Bois once called the trans-Atlantic slave trade “the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history”; a tragedy that involved “the transportation of 10 million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the newfound Eldorado of the West” where they “descended into Hell”; and an “upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution.”
The future of SlaveVoyages will include even more information on the people involved in the slave trade, enslaved and enslavers alike. “We would like to add an intra-African slave trade database because there is a lot of movement of enslaved people on the eastern side of the Atlantic,” David Eltis said. He also told me that he can imagine a merger with scholars documenting the slave trade across the Indian Ocean, the roots of which go back to antiquity and whose more modern form was concurrent with the trans-Atlantic trade. “We’re really leaning into territory which was unimaginable back in 1969,” he said.
We may not have many statues of the enslaved-- we may not have anywhere near enough letters and portraits and personal records for the millions who lived and died in bondage-- but they were living, breathing individuals nonetheless, as real to the world as the men and women we put on pedestals.
As we learn from new data and new methods, it is paramount that we keep the truth of their essential humanity at the forefront of our efforts. We must have awareness, care and respect, lest we recapitulate the objectification of the slave trade itself. It is possible, after all, to disturb a grave without ever touching the soil."
Ashton Pittman, writing for the Mississippi Free Press yesterday, reported that Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the descendent-- spiritually if not actually-- of Lower South slave owners, denigrated the as yet unnamed first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. No doubt Wicker would like another Roger Taney, James McReynolds, Melville Fuller or, ironically, Clarence Thomas. Pittman: "The first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court in history will be a 'beneficiary' of affirmative action, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker told a radio show this afternoon. The senior Republican senator from Mississippi made clear that he has no plans to vote for Biden’s yet-to-be-announced pick... 'The irony is that the Supreme Court is at the very time hearing cases about this sort of affirmative racial discrimination while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota,' Wicker told host Paul Gallo on Super Talk Mississippi Radio... 'The majority of the court may be saying writ large that it’s unconstitutional. We’ll see how that irony works out.' Wicker notably did not raise an objection when [Señor Trumpanzee] vowed to appoint a woman to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she died weeks before the 2020 election. Instead, the GOP senator enthusiastically supported Trump’s choice, Amy Coney Barrett, despite having stated in 2016 that then-President Barack Obama should not be allowed to appoint a U.S. Supreme Court justice in an election year. Despite not knowing who Biden will nominate, Mississippi’s senior senator predicted that Biden’s pick will be less palatable to Republicans like himself than the white, male justice who currently holds the seat. He compared the unannounced nominee to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who became the high court’s first Latina justice when former President Barack Obama appointed her in 2009. 'We’re going to go from a nice, stately liberal to someone who’s probably more in the style of Sonia Sotomayor,' Wicker said. '… I hope it’s at least someone who will at least not misrepresent the facts. I think they will misinterpret the law.' Then, he lamented that more Republicans did not turn out to help re-elect former President Donald Trump in 2020... 'I guarantee you this, Paul, this new justice will probably not get a single Republican vote, but we will not treat her like the Democrats did Brett Kavanaugh. It was one of the most disgraceful, shameful things and completely untruthful things that the Democratic Judiciary majority has ever, ever done.'"
When Breyer's decision to retire was leaked and everyone was reminded of Biden's campaign promise to appoint a Black woman to the Court, I was momentarily hesitant to embrace the idea. I did like the notion that Biden-- whose entry into politics had been completely centered on a racist suburban obsession against busing-- would end his political career on the other end of the spectrum from where it began. But like many people, my first thought was, why narrow the search for the best possible justice to just one subset of the population? Why not just nominate the best person? My meditation on the question didn't take hours, just moments. and, yesterday, Bouie's essay in The Times reinforced my conclusion, a conclusion that 1)- few if any presidents have ever looked for, let alone found, the most qualified nominee for an opening on the Court and that; 2)- Black women have been systematically excluded from consideration since the Court was established in 1789 and Washington nominated and the Senate confirmed 6 wealthy white Christian men-- John Jay, John Rutledge, William Cushing, Robert Harrison, James Wilson and John Blair-- to the Court. It's way past time right that historic and tragic wrong.
Joe Biden: "While I’ve been studying candidates’ backgrounds and writings, I’ve made no decisions except one: The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience, and integrity, and that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It’s long overdue, in my view. I made that commitment during the campaign for president, and I will keep that commitment." I like it-- a lot.