Inheritance: How the Transatlantic Slave Trade Followed Us into the Twenty-first Century
“The story of the African American is not only the quintessential American story, but it’s really the story that continues to shape who we are today.” — Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
The transatlantic slave trade terrorized and transformed the world for over 350 years, during which time about 12.5 million Africans were stolen from their homes and shipped to Europe and the Americas. The importation of slaves to the United States was banned in 1807, but slavery continued to be a legal, lucrative part of everyday life until 1863, only 157 years ago. The systematic captivity and forced labor of Black people was legal for longer than it’s been against the law.
How could such a deep wound that bled for so long heal overnight? It can’t, and it hasn’t. The institution and consequences of slavery and the racism and oppression it was built on and bred is as much a part of our society today as it was 200 years ago. As Mab Segrest tells us in Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum, African American scholar Saidiya Hartman calls this legacy the “afterlife of slavery.”
Although slavery has been practiced all over the world for millennia, recounts PBS’ Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, the transatlantic slave trade was a new type of slavery based on race, which until then had never been a concept. People defined themselves by tribal and family lines, not by what their skin looked like. In colonial America, though, the arbitrary ideas of race and class were used to determine people’s status and whether or not they deserved to be free.
Suddenly, this novel idea of racial identity shaped and meant everything. If you were white, you were entitled to freedom. If you were Black, you didn’t have that option, and neither did your children or their children. Servitude was seen as African people’s proper place in life and the world, what they were designed and destined to do. It was a system and way of life some white Americans and even slaves born into captivity never questioned because it was all they’d ever known. Even people who were “good to their slaves” and thought of them as “part of the family” were still depriving other human beings of their freedom, and often they didn’t think twice about it. That’s just the way it was and had been for generations.
Such ingrained, racist ideas don’t vanish just because the law changed. Some of the unconscious attitudes we now hold towards each other look exactly the way they did 200 years ago. In colonial America, Africans had to be constantly wary of white people, never sure what they’d do next, while white people became more and more fearful the more Africans they kidnapped and brought to the States. Everyone was living in fear, and we’re still scared of one another today. The consequences of that fear are tragic.
We Still Have the Money We Made from Slavery
For white slave owners, the idea of race and the dehumanizing meanings attached to it were about power, wealth, and maintaining the status quo. In colonial America, slavery was considered an ethical source of power and prestige. Besides, without free labor, white slave owners knew that all the money would dry up.
“By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the economic future of the new colonies would be tied to the buying, selling, and maintenance of black people, bred to be the lifelong slaves of whites.” — Africans in America
In other words, the systematically forced labor of Black people laid the foundation for the prosperity and economic success of the greatest nation on earth. White people made money off their slaves, passed that money on to their children, who passed it on to their children, and so on. It continues today. Old money doesn’t die.
“From one century to the next, the [white] family profited from enslaved people, their wealth passing from generation to generation. As enslaved families were torn apart, white people — from the elite planter class to individuals invested in one enslaved person — were building capital, a legacy that continues today.” — New York Times.
And almost everyone in colonial America was somehow tied to the slave trade and profited from it, whether they were merchants, shipbuilders, or investors. Some people owned one slave, while others owned hundreds. Some white Americans merely enjoyed a bit of sugar in their tea or a scoop of rice on their dinner plates. In one way or another, all our ancestors helped to uphold the institution of slavery, even if it was simply by averting their heads from it all and pretending it had nothing to do with them.
How Slavery Shaped Medicine
According to former New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, unaddressed racism in the medical field and the lack of research surrounding it is responsible for the health care disparities we see today, differences the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally acknowledged in 2017. One of the specialties in medicine that most clearly illustrates the historic and modern role of racial prejudice in medicine is gynecology.
When the importation of slaves was banned in the United States, slave owners depended on domestic slave births if they were to continue reaping the profits of free, forced labor. Treating gynecological and reproductive issues in enslaved women became a priority for white slave owners, so they began volunteering their female slaves for experimentation.
Most notably, J. Marion Sims, hailed as the founder of modern gynecology, developed a treatment for vesicovaginal fistule (VVF) by experimenting on Black slaves. Over the course of four years, from 1845–1849, Sims experimented on 114 enslaved women with VVF, conducting 30 experiments on a single person named Anarcha. Through these means, modern science discovered a way to treat VVF using silver wire, and Black women remained valuable in the eyes of the white men who legally owned them.
Not only did these women not consent to what was happening to them, but Sims didn’t use anesthesia, either. For him, this was easily justified because it was believed Black people didn’t feel pain the way white people did since they supposedly had thicker skulls and less sensitive nervous systems. Sims’ biography, published in 1950, pondered if the women’s stoic endurance of these experiments was also due to racial differences.
Differences in pain tolerance is a concept that continues to plague the US health care system in the twenty-first century. A 2016 survey showed that half of the white medical students participating in the study reported biased beliefs about biological differences between races and were more likely to rate Black patients’ pain as low and to treat these people less effectively.
“Participants who endorsed more false beliefs about biological differences between Blacks and whites showed a racial bias in the accuracy of their treatment recommendations.” — Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Racial bias in medicine isn’t confined to gynecology, either. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought racial prejudice in medicine into stark relief. A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted on 4,917 adults in the US found that 27 percent of Black people knew someone who was hospitalized with or died because of COVID-19, while only 10 percent of white and Hispanic people had similar experiences. In some major cities, Black people are dying more from the virus, too, and experience higher rates of diseases that put them more at risk for contracting it, including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Experts say this is partly because of generations of mistreatment and marginalization by health care providers. Slaves’ descendants have inherited what historians call the “Slave Health Deficit,” which has forced Black people into poor-quality care since the era of Jim Crow segregation.
“Ever since slavery we have suffered disproportionately from certain illnesses or in general health.” — Dr. Oliver Brooks, president of the National Medical Association, the oldest organization for Black physicians.
This has been the reality of our highly praised health care system since our country was founded, and as long as we let racism fester in an industry meant to save lives, people will continue to die.
Slavery in Our Criminal Justice System
As soon as slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, mass incarceration of Black people began, and at the same time, the Thirteenth Amendment deemed slavery perfectly legal in American prisons as a form of punishment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The stage was set for the “afterlife of slavery.”
In former slave states in the South, countless Black men, women, and children were imprisoned after slavery was abolished and subjected to forced labor and convict leasing systems as a result of “Black Codes” that remained legal well into the 1900s. Black codes were revised Slave Codes that imposed curfews and broad vagrancy laws on Black people and made it illegal for them to do such things as not have a job, quit a job, or carry a gun, resulting in the mass incarceration of Black people under a Constitution that allowed slavery as a form of punishment.
Although the explicit purpose of many current state and federal laws is not to oppress Black people, the ways they are passed and enforced still disproportionately affect people who are Black, especially when it comes to sentencing guidelines, the death penalty, voting laws, prosecutorial abuse, law enforcement policies, truth-in-sentencing laws, drug offenses, and three-strike laws. For instance, Black people get harsher sentences for the use and sale of crack cocaine than do white people under current sentencing guidelines, and even though the United States Sentencing Commission has urged Congress to change these guidelines, no action has been taken. These instances are a reflection of colonial America, where Black people — enslaved or free — received harsher punishments than white people who were convicted of the same crime.
As a result of such biased legislation, 70 percent of the 2.3 million prisoners in the US today aren’t white. While white men have a one in 20 chance of going to prison at some point in their lives, Black men have a one in three chance. One out of every nine Black men under 25 years old are either locked up or on parole or probation. The Department of Justice estimated that 22 percent of Black men 35 to 44 years old have been to prison, and once these people are behind bars, they’re faced with similar conditions slaves encountered in colonial America.
“Similar to the mass number of Africans enslaved in America during the colonial period and prior to the Civil War, mass numbers of African-American males have temporarily or permanently lost the right to vote, to freely travel without harassment from government officials, to obtain a quality public education, to obtain meaningful employment, and are often punished more severely than whites who commit the same crimes.” — Floyd D. Weatherspoon, professor of law at Capital University Law School.
With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the US managed to simultaneously ban and further institutionalize the enslavement of Black people, and 200 years later, slavery remains a thriving part of our society.
The Roots of Police Brutality in Slavery
“When you make men slaves, you compel them to live with you in a state of war.” — Olaudah Equiano, writer and former slave who bought his freedom.
That’s what our criminal justice system has become: the stage for a war that’s raged for hundreds of years and revolves around fear, ignorance, abuse of power, and racial control. This is clearly illustrated in modern instances of police brutality against Black people in the United States, atrocities that have their roots buried in slavery.
In 1800s America, police didn’t always carry guns because citizens felt intimidated by the idea. A driving force for police eventually arming themselves with guns and other explosives was the fear white people felt towards Black slaves and the revolts they initiated, fear that was stoked by lies and could only be quelled, they concluded, if police had the means to protect white America.
In an effort to weaponize his police force, the mayor of New Orleans, Denis Prieur, launched a highly publicized campaign against Bras-Coupe, a black maroon leader who would come to represent everything there was to supposedly fear in Black Americans. Newspapers at the time reported that Bras-Coupe was “a fiend in human shape,” “fire shoots from his eyes,” and he had an “iron-like” abdomen that repelled bullets. Although cops in New Orleans weren’t immediately armed with guns, the fear these reports were meant to kindle and ignite became an inescapable part of society. By the beginning of the 1900s, police all over the US carried guns, a development that could be traced to white people’s fear that Black citizens would always pose a threat.
Today, Black people are still a target of that fear and continue to lose their lives as a result. In an analysis of 12,000 police homicides between 1980 and 2012, ProPublica found that Black men were 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than white men were.
“Blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of the police.” — ProPublica
Furthermore, multiple studies show that the vast majority of these victims gave no indication that they would use violence or had committed a violent act. Data compiled by Mapping Police Violence shows that “fewer than 1 [in] 3 Black people killed by the police in 2014 were suspected of a violent crime,” and 69 percent of them weren’t armed, like George Floyd, who was shot and killed by police after allegedly attempting to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. However, police officers often cite fear as their reason for discharging their weapons, fear that’s been bred into them for generations, and is usually grounded more in fantasy than it is in reality.
As if they were predicting the inhumanities that the future held, colonial reformers advocated that allowing police to use deadly force just because they were afraid and felt like they being threatened was dangerous. Fear is too subjective a basis for deciding who lives and who dies and through the centuries has morphed into the occurrence of institutionalized murders that usually aren’t brought to justice. For example, in 1955, Emmett Till was hunted and lynched by a group of white vigilantes for allegedly whistling at a white woman, and none of his killers were convicted. This same lack of accountability has become a part of today’s law enforcement, as well. Police are rarely charged after committing violent crimes against Black men, and even when they are charged, juries are hesitant to convict them. We gradually built our criminal justice system upon a foundation of slavery and murder, and then we turned a blind eye.
That blind eye may be slowly opening, but within this racist system, even defending Black people and their inalienable rights can be dangerous. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 imposed a $500 fine on anyone who housed a fugitive slave, and since the Civil Rights era, protesters for racial equality have been charged with crimes and victimized by police brutality, even though the right to protest is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Most recently, people around the US protesting the death of George Floyd have faced brutal backlash from the police, including 75-year-old Martin Gugino, who was shoved onto his back at a peaceful protest and left to bleed from his head onto the concrete sidewalk as police officers and military personnel filed past him. We’ve constructed a nation where it’s not only illegal to be Black, but it’s also illegal to stand with our fellow citizens and say, “Enough is enough.”
The Beauty in Survival
Because of their strength, resiliency, and creativity, enslaved Africans enriched American culture in a way that’s also followed us into the twenty-first century. They molded Christianity into what they needed it to be, into what felt right for them, combining Christianity with what they instinctively knew from home. Their faith was loud, passionate, expressive, uninhibited, mystical, and musical, characteristics still found in some denominations of Christianity today. Africans brought religion to life in the States.
They enriched American literature, as well, offering firsthand accounts of the horrendous experiences they endured in captivity. In 1789, Olaudah Equiano authored The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano as an anti-slavery effort, a book that reached tens of thousands of people and helped to advance the abolitionist movement. In 1845, Frederick Douglass wrote and published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a best seller and was translated into many languages, and in 1860, Harriet Jacobs, the first female in the US to write a fugitive slave narrative, published The Deeper Wrong; Or, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. A collection of literary works called Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938 features more than 2,300 additional firsthand accounts highlighting slaves’ experiences in the US, pieces that continue to serve as a reminder of what our past truly holds.
Slaves influenced music, too. Gospel music is rooted in work songs that slaves used in the fields to share news with each other, learn about God, and boost morale, and can still be found across the world. “Negro spirituals,” on the other hand, expressed slaves’ beliefs, sorrow, and anger through music and became the means by which they let the world know what they survived on a daily basis and how much they needed God to get through it. Today, 260 “Negro spirituals” have been published.
Blues and jazz are both products of abolition. The blues developed as a response to the deplorable conditions Black people lived in after abolition. One particular style of blues, rhythm and blues, had a major influence on rock ’n’ roll, soul, and R&B. Jazz, too, has roots in the freedom and mobility that newly freed slaves created for themselves after abolition. The strength and survival of the slave followed us into the twenty-first century as closely as the oppression and racism of the slave owner.
Will Africa Ever Be the Same?
The transatlantic slave trade also left gouges and craters in Africa’s culture, population, natural resources, political leadership, and infrastructure, some of which have yet to be replenished because someone stole it and never gave it back. African communities were gutted as their people were scattered across the globe as merchandise with negotiable price tags. The kingdom of Lunda, once a powerful center of trade, started to deteriorate in the early 1800s because the slave trade shattered communities and caused eruptions of conflict.
Wildlife was devastated, and natural resources were confiscated. The environment in Central Africa deteriorated, and kingdoms fought over resources that were once abundant. The West African coast is still dotted with the remains of “slave castles” and forts, where captives destined for Europe and the Americas were once imprisoned and sold, cannons pointed out to the sea, unperishable symbols of European wealth and influence.
White people changed the religious landscape in Africa, as well. In Kongo, Christianity brought titles like “king,” “duke,” and “count.” Missionaries taught Africans how to read and brought quinine to Nigeria to help control malaria. Catholicism began to spread throughout Central Africa, and whole communities blended Christianity and traditional African religions that were based in oral history, customs, priests, and other experts in spirituality. However, people in Kongo started fighting over religion because of Christianity, too. Many Africans felt repelled by white people’s Christianity because they spotted contradictions in its teachings, some of which attempted to deprive Africans of pride in their heritage.
With the introduction of slavery and other European commodities also came guns and other explosives, which changed the way war was waged in Africa forever. It was uglier, and there was more of it. People fought just so they could capture more slaves to buy more guns in order to protect themselves against their already heavily-armed rivals. Even the face of war and business transformed in ways no one could turn back from.
Before European involvement, many kingdoms in Africa were large and wealthy. Some of the richest, most purely democratic kingdoms in world history were reduced to struggling, third-world countries that have yet to regain what was taken and coerced from them. Songhay was known for the University of Sankore, while Mali was larger than western Europe and one of the richest nations on earth. Because of white greed and entitlement, these and other African kingdoms toppled and never regained their prosperity. They still struggle today. We see these struggles in the news, but do we ever ask ourselves: if these countries had been allowed to keep what they had in the first place, would they be where they are today?
What Can We Do?
These crises in Africa and the centuries-old, hateful, power-based racism embedded into the culture and wealth of the United States doesn’t go away just because we want to deny its presence or insist it doesn’t matter anymore, or off-handedly lament that there’s nothing we can do about it now. What are we supposed to do when we wrong someone? We apologize and ask how we can make it right. What do we do when we steal from someone? We make restitution and give back what wasn’t ours to begin with. Police brutality, housing and employment discrimination, gerrymandering, disproportionate rates of incarcerated Black men, and unanswered-for hate crimes look more like slavery than they do restitution.
Americans need to change at a fundamental level. We have to alter the way we think about Black people. We need to conduct more research on the racial biases that still exist in a number of industries, including medicine and law enforcement, and what we learn from this research must be integrated into education and training, an obligation we clearly haven’t fulfilled.
“From the time we’re in medical school, and I went to a medical school in a predominantly Black city, we do not get enough training, if any, on providing culturally competent care.” — Dr. Victoria Dooley, a physician based in Detroit.
This is undoubtedly true in many other professions, as well. If our Black brothers and sisters are to live the healthy, happy lives that are rightfully theirs, this has to change.
Changing these thought patterns, though, has to start long before we begin training for our careers. We have to teach our children that racist ideas persist and are inaccurate and devastating. I think this is especially important for little white boys, since, in general, they’re the ones who will grow up to inherit the most power in society. Instead of teaching our children a white-washed version of American history, it’s our duty to educate them about what really happened and how it continues to shape who we are as a nation. That is how we will slowly, generation after generation, kill the racism that grows like a virus in our collective, intergenerational subconscious.
“[George Floyd’s] death is the symptom of a disease. We will not wake up one day and have the disease of systemic racism cured for us. This is on each of us to solve together, and we have hard work ahead. We owe that much to George Floyd, and we owe that much to each other.” — Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Granted, I’m writing from the perspective of a white woman whose ancestors weren’t systematically enslaved, whipped, beaten, raped, and amputated. I don’t have to have discussions with my son about police brutality because I’m afraid for his life or worry about the shame my daughter may be taught to feel over the color of her skin or texture of her hair. I’ve never been followed at the store by wary associates because I happened to have more melanin in my skin than they did. However, I am writing from the perspective of how history really happened and continues to shape us today.
I’m writing from the perspective of the truth. Our truth.