On my journey to becoming “woke” I’m constantly in awe of sudden shifts/corrections in perspective on current institutions, or in my own knowledge of American History. My own history lessons (and not just those from the classroom, but cultural and political historical references as well) were always framed around the white perspective so things were simply neglected in many cases. For example, when I learned black men came back from World War II and could not buy homes because covenants had restricted sales – LEGALLY – to only white people. This opened my eyes to generational poverty and self-segregation and shifted the way I look at my current world.
Yesterday, I had a my world shattered in another way. Twitter threads from Ta’Nehesi Coates (thread here) and Bree Newsome (thread here) were spouting historical data about the percentage of black people enslaved in the South and how our whitewashed history refers to how slavery was “accepted at that time” forgets that it was only “accepted” if you ignored the opinions and views of those enslaved. Then Newsome tweeted, “Enslaved Black Americans represented 57% of the population of SC at the time the state seceded from the Union.”
Several things had never occurred to me based on my whitewashed understanding of our history, first – the high percentage of those enslaved. I’m not sure what I would have said before yesterday if you had asked me, “How many people were enslaved at the start of the Civil War?” But I’m certain I would not have guessed as high as it was. I did my own research and found this great article (with linked sources) – Slavery By The Numbers:
In 1860, slaves made up 57 percent of the population in South Carolina, the highest of any state in the union. Coming in second was Mississippi at 55 percent, followed by Louisiana at 47 percent, Alabama at 45 percent, and Florida and Georgia, both at 44 percent.
Why did I never consider this, that the majority of people in some states were enslaved? And even if it wasn’t a majority, it was a high enough percentage that this weird perspective we Southern white people like to take, “That was a different time…it was accepted then…” is completed missing a key perspective. Really that concept only means it was ACCEPTED BY WHITE PEOPLE. We are totally neglecting to consider the opinions of that multitudes of enslaved humans at the time who would like us to quit acting like slavery was considered “okay” back then when A LARGE PERCENTAGE OF PEOPLE DID NOT AGREE.
It seems so obvious when I spell it out but it was honestly NOT a perspective I had. I’m assuming I have slave owners in my family history, I don’t know that for a fact but I have white southern roots so I’m betting the chances are good. Of course, even if they weren’t slaveowners, the economy of the South was built on the success of the cotton industry thanks to slavery so I’m certain my family benefitted from slavery in some way. But I always kinda used the “different time” mentality when thinking about that. And now I see THAT IS DUMB AS HELL. It was only “accepted” during that time because we enslaved the people who would have disagreed. OF COURSE IT WAS “ACCEPTED.” We silenced those who did not accept it.
So now I look back on a lot of the times we gloss over our past transgressions as “accepted at the time.” Don’t we really mean, “Accepted by those in power who actively silenced the opposition?”
It’s just an amazing shift in perspective that makes me feel SUPER dumb but I want to share in case anyone is as blind as I was. I will never talk about slavery being “accepted at the time” again because it was not. 100% not accept by at least 45% of the population of the South. And if you consider that (hopefully) some white people disliked slavery (even if they were benefitting from it) then you can be confident that the majority of people in the South disagreed with enslaving people.
I refuse to feel shame at these awakenings, though. At the ignorance of my past self. Instead, I just push forward and make sure my children grown up understanding the things I did not.