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Lerone Bennett on "American History"

A nation is a choice. It chooses itself at fateful forks in the road by turning left or right, by giving up something or taking something-and in the giving up and the taking, in the deciding and not deciding, the nation becomes. And ever afterwards, the nation and the people who make up the nation are defined by the fork and by the decision that was made there, as well as by the decision that was not made there. For the decision, once made, engraves itself into the landscape, engraves itself into things, into institutions, nerves, muscles, tendons; and the first decision requires a second decision, and the second decision requires a third, and it goes on and on, spiralling in an inexorable process which distorts everything and alienates everybody.

America became America that way.

Fork by fork, step by step, option by option, America or, to be more precise, the men who spoke in the name of America decided that it was going to be a white place defined negatively by the bodies and the blood of the reds and the blacks. And that decision, which was made in the 1660s and elaborated over a two-hundred-year period, foreclosed certain possibilities in America-perhaps forever-and set off depth charges that are still echoing and re-echoing in the commonwealth. What makes this all the more mournful is that it didn't have to happen that way. There was another road-but that road wasn't taken In the beginning, as we have seen, there was no race problem in America. The race problem in America 'was a deliberate invention of men 'who systematically separated blacks and whites in order to make money. This was, as Kenneth Stampp so cogently observed, a deliberate choice among several alternatives. Slavery, he said, "cannot be attributed to some deadly atmospheric miasma or some irresistible force in the South's economic evolution. The use of slaves in southern agriculture was a deliberate choice (among several alternatives) made by men who sought greater returns than they could obtain from their own labor alone, and who found other types of labor more expensive...

It didn't have to happen that way. Back there, before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together. They had essentially the same interests, the same aspirations, and the same grievances. They conspired together and waged a common struggle against their common enemy-the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against' black and white bondsmen. No one says and no one believes that there was a Garden of Eden in Colonial America. But the available evidence, slight though it is, suggests that there were widening bonds of solidarity between the first generation of blacks and whites. And the same evidence indicates that it proved very difficult indeed to teach white people to worship their skin.

All this began to change drastically in the sixth decade of the seventeenth century. The decade of the 1660s: this was the first great fork in the making of Black America. For it was at this fork that certain men decided to ground the American economic system on human slavery. To perceive the importance of that fork, it is necessary first to travel the roads that led to it-roads that were not taken.

The first road-a road never seriously considered, although it Was open, at least for a while-was the road of fraternal cooperation with the Americans, i.e., the Indians, in a program of free and creative development of the immense resources of the American continent. This obviously would have required consummate diplomacy and an abandonment of the peculiar European idea that Europeans were divinely ordained to appropriate the resources and alter the institutions of non-Europeans. It would have involved, in other words, the transformation of both Americans and Europeans and the creation of a new synthesis made up of the best elements of both configurations. This road-the only road to justice-was rejected out of hand by the white founding fathers, who adopted a policy of genocide.

The second road, also rejected, was a free and cooperative system of labor for all immigrants. This would have involved, at a minimum, an abandonment of the European principle of masters and servants and would have required all men to live by the sweat of their brow Because the Europeans were already hooked on the master principle, because they could never somehow get over the idea that it was necessary for somebody else to work for them, this road was not taken. And the decision not to take that road left only two alternatives: temporary servitude and eventual freedom for all workers-red, black, and white-and the road of permanent servitude based on the work of one or possibly all three of the subordinate labor groups. This last road was taken, and one group was singled out for permanent servitude. Why?

To answer that question, we must back up again and consider the groups not selected.

First, the Indians. A popular idea to the contrary notwithstanding, the Indians were enslaved in all or most of the colonies. But Indian slavery and servitude created problems that the colonists preferred to deal with in other ways. To begin with, there was the problem of security It was difficult to keep Indian servants and slaves from running away because they knew the country and could easily escape to their countrymen, who were only a forest or river away. Another and possibly more persuasive argument against large-scale enslavement of Indians was that the supply was relatively limited. Finally, and most importantly, Indian servants and slaves were members of groups with a certain amount of power. These groups could (and did) retaliate. For this combination of reasons, it was considered unwise to enslave large groups of Indians, who were usually sold into slavery in the West Indies.

From the standpoint of the masters, the poor whites of Europe presented equally serious problems. The supply of poor whites, like the supply of Indians, was limited; and poor whites, like Indians, but for different reasons, could escape and blend into the whiteness of their country-men. The most serious problem, however, was that poor whites had tenuous but nonetheless important connections with circuits of power. There were pressure groups in England that concerned themselves with the plight of poor whites. This fact alone drastically limited the options of Colonial masters. For in order to safeguard the relatively limited supply of poor whites, it was necessary to make costly-from the standpoint of the masters-concessions to white servants and to improve their living conditions.

The last group the group finally selected-did not have these disadvantages, as Oscar and Mary F. Handlin noted: "Farthest removed from the English, least desired, [the African) communicated with no friends who might be deterred from following. Since his coming was in-voluntary, nothing that happened to him would increase or decrease his numbers. To raise the status of Europeans by shortening their terms would by inducing their compatriots to emigrate ultimately increase the available hands; to reduce the Negro's term would produce an immediate loss and no ultimate gain. By mid-century the servitude of Negroes seem generally lengthier than that of whites; and thereafter the consciousness dawns that the Blacks will toil for the whole of their lives...

Unhappily for the Africans, they had none of the disadvantages of the Indians and poor whites, and they had-again from the standpoint of the planter-distinct advantages. They were marked by color and hence could not escape so easily. The supply seemed to be inexhaustible, and the labor of Africans was relatively in expensive when compared with the cost of transporting and maintaining white indentured servants for a limited number of years. This last fact was decisive, and it was clearly understood by the colonists as early as 1645. It was in that year that Emanuel Downing sent a famous letter to his brother-in-law John Winthrop, saying, among other things:


"If upon a Just Warre the Lord shold deliver [Narragansett Indians] into our hands, wee might easily have nien woemen and children enough to exchange for Moores, which wilbe inore gaynefull pilladge for us then wee conceive, for I doe not see how wee can thrive untill we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our business, for our children's children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, soe that our servants will still desire freedome to plant for themselves, and not stay but for verie great wages. And I suppose you know verie well how wee shall mayneteyne 20 Moores cheaper than one Englishe servant."

Twenty Africans for the price of one English servant-how could a Puritan resist such a deal! And how could he overlook the final and deciding factor: the Africans were vulnerable. There were no large power groups nearby to retaliate in their name. Nor did they have power groups on the international scene to raise troublesome questions. They were, in fact, naked before their enemies, and their enemies were legion.

As the pointer on the roulette wheel neared the African number, the power brokers of England suddenly and dramatically increased the odds against Africans by announcing a new policy of restricted white emigration and massive support of the African Slave Trade. With the formation of the Royal African Company (1672), the wheel of fate came to an abrupt halt before the black square. For henceforth, as James C. Ballagh has pointed out, it would be "the policy of the king, and of the Duke of York, who stood at the head of the [Royal African) Company, to hasten the adoption of slavery by enactments cutting off the supply of indented servants, at the same time' that large importations of slaves were made by their agents."

But we must take care here to preserve perspective. Ballagh is suggesting, as others suggested before and after him, that history or some impersonal force decided for the colonists. But history is made by men and not by circumstances. And if history created the circumstances and the alternatives, it was still left to men in the colonies to choose between the alternatives. That happened, in the first instance, in isolated areas in the menacing decade of the 1640s. In that decade certain men in Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts began holding certain Africans in lifetime servitude. There are some indications that this was a deliberate gambit on the part of designing men who wanted to force a favorable legal decision in favor of slavery. If so, the gambit had its desired effect. For the first legal enactment in favor of slavery in the colonies came in 1641 in Massachusetts, which declared in its Body of Liberties that there "shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie am ongst us, unless it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us." This was, all things considered, a fateful and ominous "unless," for the following words clearly authorized African, Indian, and European slavery.

Once the genie was out of the bottle, there was a more or less deliberate effort to create a legal structure for slavery, a fact noted by Herbert S. Klein, who said: "Once these first hints about the existence of a status of slavery within the colony [of Virginia] had been made by the legislature, there seems to have developed at this point a conscious effort on the part of the Virginians to create a statutory framework on which to firmly base this condition."...

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A nation is a choice. It chooses itself at fateful forks in the road by turning left or right, by giving up something or taking something-and in the giving up and the taking, in the deciding and not deciding, the nation becomes. And ever afterwards, the nation and the people who make up the nation are defined by the fork and by the decision that was made there, as well as by the decision that was not made there. For the decision, once made, engraves itself into the landscape, engraves itself into things, into institutions, nerves, muscles, tendons; and the first decision requires a second decision, and the second decision requires a third, and it goes on and on, spiralling in an inexorable process which distorts everything and alienates everybody.

America became America that way.
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I often get confronted with the challenge of authority when someone hears my declaration of African America. My contention is, and has always been, if for no other reason African America exists simply because I say so. No other authority is needed. That is the way every nation began.

Seeing it being said by someone else is gratifying. Although I already knew it was true.

Thanks for the piece.

PEACE

Jim Chester

You are who you say you are. Your children are who you say you are.

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