Slavery Remembrance Day Is Nothing More Than Partisan Politics

On August 23, instigated by the UN’s International Day to Remember Slavery and Abolition, Americans are being asked again to remember slavery. This date joins Juneteenth, marking the near end of slavery; Martin Luther King Day; Black History Month, a Black national anthem celebrating the end of slavery, and proliferating slave memorials. The United States acquired less than 1% of slaves from the major slave trades, and 3-5% of the slaves in the Atlantic trade, but Americans can boast that they have the most national reminders of slavery and more media on slavery than the rest of the world combined. Once again, America is self-flagellating over an institution endemic to humankind.

All nations have histories of slavery, but none obsess as Americans do with regular national reminders. That’s because they don’t see this obsession as benefitting their nations, and they want their people to look forward. Is America demonstrating exceptionalism? The use of sources that lack historical context and praise suggests, instead, partisan politics, and that never bodes well for America or Americans.

Without excusing slavery’s immorality, it’s important to keep America’s history of slavery (which the British brought to the colonies) in context against the backdrop of the world’s history of slavery.

According to the UN, this latest remembrance “is intended to inscribe the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples.” The UN, however, is focused on the Atlantic trade and ignores the equally large Arab and African slave trades, where buyers and sellers were people of color, and slaves were white, black, and brown.

Image: Christian slaves in Algiers 1815. Public domain.

The UN targeting Westerners for opprobrium while giving a pass to other guilty parties is nothing new. Middle Eastern, African, and Asian members would vigorously reject the UN airing diligently suppressed histories. It works well for them that Biden is broadcasting America’s seemingly sole responsibility for slavery:

More than 400 years ago, twenty enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to the shores of what would become the United States. Millions more were stolen and sold in the centuries that followed, part of a system of slavery that is America’s original sin.

No wonder Americans believe America invented slavery, and are uninformed that slavery was a global institution as “old as civilization itself.” They’re taking cues from Team Biden. They don’t know that Biden misdated slavery’s arrival in America, credited America for the unoriginal “original sin” of stealing people who were captured, kidnapped, and sold by Africans and Muslims, and implied that America created an institution that existed since the dawn of humankind.

America’s Remembrance Day also omits abolition. Why is that? The United States had the world’s strongest abolitionist movement. Some states abolished slavery long before the 19th-century trend. In all places, at all times, slaves were legally personal property. However, in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America, slaves had to compensate their owners for their freedom. In America, emancipation (when it happened) was unencumbered.

America also uniquely financed universities and schools and facilitated land purchases to help the newly free. In about 100 years, Western nations abolished a thousand-plus-year-old global institution. Western pressure and cash were needed to abolish slavery in Africa and the Middle East in theory, but it still exists in fact. In 1990, fifty-four members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference signed the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. It states that “Human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, or oppress them…” The caveat, though, is “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah”—and Mohammed explicitly authorized slavery.

The congressional resolution supporting slavery remembrance includes a laundry list of facts and fiction pulled from education materials. The 1619 Project earned journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize. At the University of Notre Dame, Hannah-Jones penned vile accusations about whites. Today she’s using the 1619 Project to center American history around slavery and to secure reparations. It has been adopted by over 4,500 schools, even though it’s been pilloried as a work of propaganda and grievance.

The new AP African American Studies curriculum is riddled with exaggerations intended to make black Americans feel good at the expense of white Americans.

Alex Halley’s Roots is credited with introducing 130 million to American slavery. Writer Alex Haley won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for nonfiction. But Roots is historical fiction. Henry Louis Gates called it a “work of the imagination.” Haley said, “I tried to give my people a myth to live by.”

But what of the oppressive myth given to whites to live by? All of these education materials underweight subject-matter historical experts, present materials without American or global context, and apply poetic license to data with roots in propaganda written by abolitionists. The outcome is beguiling historical fiction presented as nonfiction.

Objecting to the curriculum’s contents or providing contradictory data is a recipe for opprobrium. Witness Kamala Harris’ bizarre tirade because Florida’s African-American history curriculum correctly noted that skills training offered benefits for some slaves. Tim Scott also objected: “What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans, and even raping their wives.” H.Res. 414, supporting reparations payments, contains assertions that are more exaggerated. The U.S. economy, it insists, flourished from torturing, trafficking, starving, exploiting Blacks, and separating their families. “The most productive enslaved people were often whipped the most violently.” Slaves built America, and “millions of enslaved Black women were routinely raped.” (The U.S. slave population in 1800 was 894,000.) But productivity and innovation are not outcomes of systemic rape, torture, and starvation. Other assertions, such as claiming that America had the cruelest slavery in the world, are also easily refuted.

The cruelest slavery? In 1802, the U.S. black population was 1 million. If the US had duplicated conditions in the Caribbean—and treated slaves as badly as the French and British did—a proportionate die-off rate of black slaves in America would have reduced the American slave population in 1802 to 186,000 people, not 1 million.

In the Middle East and Africa, young slave boys underwent back alley castrations. Most died, but survivors were highly prized for loyalty and, in the Middle East, as sex toys. Male adults were commonly murdered because buyers mostly wanted female slaves—”mats of pleasure.” When women became old, say 40, they were often left to die.

Human sacrifice and infanticide were common. Dehydration and starvation killed up to 80% of slaves crossing the Sahara to get to market. These count among the cruelest slave practices, but the details are buried. Any characterizations of slavery in these regions imply a benign and beneficial system, contrasted with the extraordinary cruelty in America’s narrative.

Rather than presenting slave history through worst-case and embellished anecdotes, Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel applied formal economic models to historical data on slavery. He found that it was not routine for white planters to whip slaves, break up families, rape slaves, or work them around the clock. These actions dented productivity and incited slave revolts. In response to widespread condemnation, Fogel showed that, unlike his analysis, others used data slices, enabling slavery to be portrayed as cruel or kind. None of this was persuasive. The scarred back of Gordon, the runaway slave from Louisiana, was all any American needed to remember about slavery. That’s not right.

Americans must quit censoring data and concealing context, which is essential to understanding history. If Americans were given the comparative context of America’s history of punishments, rape, labor practices, and family breakups between slaves and free laborers, they would have a better grasp of American history. They might even wish to emigrate, which is why they need the context of past and present cruelties against free and unfree people around the world. With this, they might be singing God Bless America.

Why is the American government regularly asking Americans to recall a distorted slave history that demeans America on the world stage, zaps patriotism, exacerbates racial divisions, and diminishes how many Americans will be motivated to achieve the American dream? It’s not a manifestation of American exceptionalism. It’s more partisan politics competing in a race to the bottom. Americans need their next president to walk the talk of a unifier. This includes recalling American history objectively, inclusively, and in context. It’s a history that Americans can be proud of, and the world can admire. And borrowing the advice of our adversaries to focus forward, rather than backward.

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