An authentic look at a historically rebellious people
“The facts presented here certainly refute the stereotype of a docile Negro slave; the American Negro consistently and courageously struggled against slavery in every possible way and he must continue in this tradition if he is to break down the barriers of discrimination today.” – Herbert Aptheker
The city that houses Times Square, the Empire State Building and Wall Street also houses a deep dark secret forgotten by many and hidden by the American Education system. In 1741, Manhattan, NY was once the city that housed one of the largest slave populations in the 13 colonies. Among the majority of slaves and poor whites, there was a planned conspiracy to overthrow slave owners and reclaim the city. Upon discovery of the alleged plot, over 200 people were accused of conspiring and were either killed or exiled. This was called the New York City Conspiracy of 1741 and it was one of many slave revolts that occurred in NY. In 1991, as construction workers were breaking ground at 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, they found bones in the rubble. Activists including my great Aunt Adunni Oshupa Tabasi, formerly known by her slave name Evelyn Price, was instrumental in stopping the disruption of the burial site, getting the 419 bones forensically tested, having them reburied honorably, then getting the site memorialized from future disruption. Some of the bones found at Federal Plaza were those of people killed in the slave revolts of 1712 and 1741[i] as it was the only burial site designated for both free and enslaved Africans from 1690 to 1794 in NYC, then called New Amsterdam[ii]. In 2007, The African Burial Ground was officially opened to the public. During the ceremony, my aunt, referring to the attendees stated, “They have no idea what we had to do to make this day possible[iii].” This is just one of many forms of black history or even NYC history not mentioned in history books and not taught to children with an African ancestral bloodline or those born and raised in the city[iv]. Instead, what we are taught from textbooks is a whitewashed version of history that passively acknowledges the history of blacks in America. In this article, I will demonstrate how textbooks purposely and erroneously depict blacks[v] as a docile people, when in fact, we are and always have been revolutionary.
Several historical textbooks have manipulated African American history to portray an uncomfortable level of acceptance to the mistreatment of black in this country as subsequently mentioned below. This aberrant portrayal of history is used to shape the minds of contemporary children to ease white guilt and offset black pride. One recent and public aberration of history can be found in the 2016 edition of McGraw-Hill’s 2010 geography textbook. It stated that the Atlantic slave trade brought “millions of workers” to labor on American plantations[vi]. After social media protest, McGraw-Hill acknowledged the word “workers” was a misnomer and as a form of restitution, they decided to ship replacement stickers to be placed over the word in the textbooks[vii]. However the damage has been done and one can only think, how often has history been manipulated? How long has black history been altered to possibly curb resistance and anger that might ensue from the knowledge of what really happened during slavery? Analyzing moments like these also begs the question: who is responsible for telling history? Or better yet, whose history is it?
During my upbringing, I often heard the saying, “the telling of history goes to the victor,” I interpret that to mean, whoever wins the battle has the right and authority to tell the tale in a way that highlights and justifies the winner. If this is the case then contemporary textbook historians and editors are on the side of the American victor – white supremacy. However, we must acknowledge that their rendition of black history is not as it seems. African slaves would vehemently disagree with being called imported workers. Africans were kidnapped from their homes in Africa, shipped to the Americas in unsanitary and inhumane boats, groped during auctions, illegally sold against their will to slave owners, forced and beaten to toil in a foreign land and perform other duties as assigned without compensation other than the preservation of their enslaved lives.
And yet, our textbooks continue to sugarcoat the African slave experience in America. A textbook printed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt claimed that some slaves stated their masters treated them kindly and provided them with adequate food and clothing[viii]. Yet the book failed to explain that those slaves were more than likely rice planters or experiencing Stockholm’s syndrome. Stockholm syndrome is a condition where hostages develop a psychological allegiance with their captors as a survival technique during captivity[ix]. Rice planters from Africa were the only ones successful at growing rice in this country. Beforehand, white settlers did everything they could to harvest rice and failed. Once the African slaves arrived with knowledge of rice growing, they were sold to the highest bidders and were treated better than slaves on cotton and tobacco plantations[x]. This was the case as white settlers were getting rich off the African slaves’ knowledge of growing rice. Regardless of slaves stating that their masters treated them kindly, they were still kidnapped and in bondage. The clothes that slaves were given were made of flax. Flax is a very rough material, itches and feels very uncomfortable on the skin. Slaves like Booker T. Washington wrote, “It is almost equal to the feeling that one would experience if he had a dozen or more chestnut burrs, or a hundred small pin-points, in contact with his flesh. Even to this day, I can recall accurately the tortures that I underwent when putting on one of these garments.[xi]” Wearing clothing provided by slave-owners were often times unpleasant, yet the aforementioned textbooks failed to reflect true American history from various perspectives. Instead, youth in the United States grow up believing slaves had a good life and were docile. In fact, Dr. Herbert Apheker, a Marxist historian, political activist and author of American Negro Slave Revolts, researched and documented that over 130 slave rebellions occurred from 1670 – 1865. These findings contradict the textbooks’ notions of a complacent demeanor amongst slaves in captivity. To protest their captivity slaves were resilient and cunning in the pursuit of freedom. Their acts of resistance included violent rebellions and absconding to free lands.
Nat Turner, for example, was a black preacher/prophet in Virginia who led a historic slave rebellion in 1831[xii]. Turner’s rebellion led to the demise of several local slave owners including their wives and children. He was ultimately defeated in Jerusalem, Virginia by federal soldiers. It was in Jerusalem where Turner’s rebels, as well as his movement, came to a bitter end. Although Nat Turner escaped initial persecution he was later captured, tried and hung for the assassination of 60 white people. The 1700 – 1800’s was beset with violent slave rebel movements and conspiracies to rebel. Many resulted in limited success, were short-lived and had dramatic and inhumane consequences for those who participated. Despite the proper acknowledgement in American history textbooks, movements like Turner’s rebellion and the NYC conspiracy of 1741 did exist and included, the New York City rebellion (1712)[xiii]; Cato’s Conspiracy in Stono, SC (1739)[xiv]; Gabriel’s Rebellion (1800)[xv]; The Louisiana uprising (1811)[xvi]; and Denmark Vesey’s Conspiracy (1821-1822)[xvii] to name a few. These rebellions sought to and in fact successfully killed slave owners who opposed their pursuit for freedom, well, at least until the militia and local volunteers slaughtered rebels in their tracks. The aforementioned rebellions all resulted in the annulation of rebels, progressively stricter slave laws and ultimately, the goal of slave liberation subdued from achievement[xviii]. The slave rebellions overall saw minimal success at the time of their occurrence. In hindsight, despite the slaughter of rebel slaves, when we take a collective and aerial view of the rebellions, the movements’ achievements were great and communicated the demands of a revolutionary group of people. The constant flow of rebellions and uprisings led to discrepant political dialogues between the North and South. The North’s discourse pushed for the freedom of slaves as a means to end slave revolts. The South’s counter argument demanded that the north reinstate slavery as the means to end the rebellions. Despite the tangible outcomes of this bloody history, blacks are portrayed as a docile group of people during slavery is the resonating theme found in many contemporary historical textbooks taught in middle schools across America.
The barbarity of violent slave revolts lead to the evolution of a silent, nonviolent and discreet movement called the Underground Railroad. This movement was undertaken by former slaves and their white supporters. The mission was to liberate slaves in the south and shuttle them to freedom in the north. This movement lasted over 50 years[xix] – between 1800 and 1860 – yet successfully freed over 100,000 slaves[xx]. During the period from the 1600-1800’s the fight for freedom and against injustices exuded in the form of violence and absconding to the north. Although death may have been eminent for black rebels, it was not a fail-safe deterrent for the freedom fighters – they were a revolutionary people. Harriet Tubman, a famous conductor for the Underground Railroad stated,
“I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” [xxi]
After suffering through 400 years of slavery blacks had to face 88 years of Jim Crow laws from 1877 – 1965 which segregated whites from blacks[xxii]. These laws exacerbated racial hate which manifested itself in the mistreatment, beatings and senseless killings of black people. In the spirit of resilience, with the advent of the civil rights movement, African Americans found themselves once again advocating for liberty and equality. The movement began with isolated organized groups eventually working together to end racial injustices using nonviolence and civil disobedient tactics. The movement dates back as early as 1942 with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who staged the first restaurant sit-down later coined sit-ins to demand racial equality[xxiii]. The movement further developed to include the most notable sit-in of 1960 by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)[xxiv] which forced Woolworth department stores and other establishments to change their segregation policies[xxv]. The Freedom Rides of 1961 pushed back the boundaries on racial inequality[xxvi]. Freedom Rides were a tactic to publicly expose black passengers’ experiences while traveling state-to-state on “public” transportation. Through televised beatings of black passengers and their white supporters on these rides, alongside pressures from the then U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and CORE, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in favor of desegregating the bus system. The “I Have a Dream” speech of the late great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the March from Selma to Montgomery for voter equality also took a nonviolent approach and gained successful outcomes. The civil rights movement slowly fell to the wayside after government repressions lead to the assassinations of Malcolm X (1965) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) as well as the dismantling of the Black Panther Party[xxvii] [xxviii].
Comparing how traditional “textbook” depictions of Black history have treated resistance movements to the less sanitized historical accounts rooted in documents and evidence, has led me to ask the question: how will the history books remember our present moment? How will they depict the tragic killing of unarmed black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? Those killings, and many others abruptly incited national protest against injustice and inequality. Present day movements like #BlackLivesMatter are in keeping with the spirit of the black revolutionist. #BLM started as a social media hashtag to impress upon social media the significance of black lives in the wake of public awareness of white cops and vigilantes killing unarmed young black men[xxix]. Circumstantially, it morphed beyond a hashtag on social media and into an organization dedicated to rebuilding the black liberation movement once silenced by government repressions[xxx]. At the onset, the movement failed to accumulate notoriety. Consequently, in 2015, the tragic death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in St. Louis, Missouri catapulted the hashtag and mantra of #BlackLivesMatter into fame. Since its inception, it appears the phrase itself is more relevant than the organization. This was primarily due to local riot and protest organizers using the hashtag to represent their efforts. The phrase was thrown around like a loose beach ball in a field of tightly packed college students. It lacked guided direction and leadership. It became a free-for-all mantra like “I can’t breathe[xxxi]” or “hands up, don’t shoot[xxxii].” The organization attempted to get a handle on the use of the phrase and the emerging protests popping up all over the United States but not before incidents like the killing of five police officers in Dallas at a #BlackLivesMatter event took place. The organization’s lack of leadership and an ineffective media relations team allowed the media to paint the narrative for #BLM[xxxiii]. This led the media to perpetuate a reputation labeling the organization as a hate group that only promoted matters of blackness[xxxiv]. How will history textbooks depict their efforts in 50 years? Organizations during their infancy stage are often riddled with countless mistakes to which they must overcome and establish themselves accordingly. Their success should be measured in the form of political, economic and social change that occurs as a direct result of their efforts. Along with their efforts as present day revolutionists, there are several grassroots organizations pushing the envelope of resilience.
The Movement for Black Lives is comprised of 50 organizations united to form a larger organization who shares a common agenda to end racial inequality in America[xxxv] [xxxvi]. They have set forth a collection of demands to the U.S government that includes, end the war on black people; reparations; invest in health, education and safety of black youth while divesting in the criminalization of black people; economic justice; community control of underserved and underrepresented black communities; and full and independent black political power. With a joint effort, this revolutionary movement has taken on a new phase in political activism and continues to contradict the historical textbooks depiction of blacks as a docile people. Movements of this nature will ensure the agenda for racial equality and social justice is not lost but rather continues to have a voice in society.
The fight against the injustices of inequality has been a long-standing civil war in America. Blacks/African Americans have been fighting to right these wrongs since the advent of slavery. It’s been a long, challenging road but truth – in terms of historical events and henceforth, persistence, organization and unity of blacks and its surrounding communities are very necessary to ensure true liberty and equality is achieved for all.
Discovery of Nat Turner: wood engraving illustrating Benjamin Phipps’s capture of Nat Turner (1800-1831) on October 30, 1831. Public Domain Image. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nat_Turner_captured.jpg
[i] Boyd, Herb. “A Monument At Last – The African Burial Ground, N.Y.C. | The Network Journal,” November 2007. http://www.tnj.com/archives/2007/november2007/headliner.php.
[ii] “African Burial Ground National Monument (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed February 21, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/afbg/index.htm.
[iii] Boyd, Herb. “A Monument At Last – The African Burial Ground, N.Y.C. | The Network Journal,” November 2007. http://www.tnj.com/archives/2007/november2007/headliner.php.
[iv] “African Burial Ground National Monument.” NYCgo.com. Accessed February 21, 2017. http://www.nycgo.com/attractions.
[v] In this writing the term Blacks and African American will be used interchangeably.
[vi] Fernandez, Manny, and Christine Hauser. “Texas Mother Teaches Textbook Company a Lesson on Accuracy.” The New York Times, October 5, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/us/publisher-promises-revisions-after-textbook-refers-to-african-slaves-as-workers.html.
[vii] Rockmore, Ellen Bresler. “How Texas Teaches History.” The New York Times, October 21, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html.
[viii] Rockmore, Ellen Bresler. “How Texas Teaches History.” The New York Times, October 21, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html.
[ix] Huddleston-Mattai, Barbara A., and P. Rudy Mattai. “The Sambo Mentality and the Stockholm Syndrome Revisited: Another Dimension to an Examination of the Plight of the African-American.” Journal of Black Studies 23, no. 3 (1993): 344–357.
[x] Marton, Renee. Rice: A Global History. Reaktion Books, 2014.
[xi] Washingston, Booker T. “Up from Slavery: An Autobiography.” Accessed February 21, 2017. http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/washington/washing.html.
[xii] Conniff, Michael L., and Thomas J. Davis. “Africans in the Americas: a history of the Black diaspora.” PERSPECTIVES IN HISTORY (2004): 101.
[xiii] Aptheker, Herbert. “American Negro slave revolts.” Science & Society (1937): 512-538. Pg. 515.
[xiv] Ibid., page 516.
[xv] Ibid., page 519-520.
[xvi] Ibid., page 523.
[xvii] Ibid., page 525.
[xviii] Gray, Thomas R., and Nat Turner. “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” (1831).
[xix] Siebert, Wilbur Henry. The underground railroad from slavery to freedom. Reprint Services Corporation, 1898.
[xx] Bial, Raymond. The Underground Railroad. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.
[xxi] Bradford, Sarah Hopkins. Harriet, the Moses of her People. JJ Little & Company, 1901.
[xxii] Laws—Meaning, Jim Crow. “Origins, and Purpose.” Jim Crow Laws (2012): 1.
[xxiii] August Meier & Elliot Rudwick (1975). CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement. University of Illinois Press. Pg. 6.
[xxiv] Ibid, page 4.
[xxv] Riva, Sarah. “Desegregating Downtown Little Rock: The Field Reports of SNCC’s Bill Hansen, October 23 to December 3, 1962.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71, no. 3 (2012): 264-282.
[xxvi] August Meier & Elliot Rudwick (1975). CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement. University of Illinois Press. Pg. 135.
[xxvii] Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall. Agents of repression: The FBI’s secret wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Vol. 7. South End Press, 2002.
[xxviii] Jones, Charles E. “The political repression of the Black Panther Party 1966-1971: The case of the Oakland Bay area.” Journal of Black Studies 18, no. 4 (1988): 415-434.
[xxix] Garza, Alicia. “A herstory of the# blacklivesmatter movement.” (2014).
[xxx] Ibid, page 27.
[xxxi] Allen, Tennille, Kellie Carter Jackson, Colin Dayan, Jenny Korn, Danielle Legros Georges, Charles Nfon, and Rae Paris et al. “I Can’t Breathe.” Transition 117, no. 1 (2015): 1-15.
[xxxii] Waltz, Brandon. “Hands up Don’t shoot.” (2014).
[xxxiii] Blake, John. “Is Black Lives Matter Blowing it?” CNN.com. http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/29/us/black-lives-matter-blowing-it/ (accessed December 16, 2016).
[xxxv] A few of the 50 organizations include Baltimore Bloc, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), #BlackLivesMatter, Philadelphia Student Union, The National Conference of Black Lawyers and Mothers Against Police Brutality. (For a complete list click here: https://policy.m4bl.org/about/.
[xxxvi] The Movement for Black Lives is endorsed publicly by organizations like Color of Change, Million Women March and the National African American Reparations Commission to name a few.