During this crucible moment in time, when everyone in America (and around the world) has turned their eyes to the struggles of the black community, a lot of people are questioning why… Why must we continue to focus on the African American segment of the country and Black Lives Matter, when it’s obvious so many other races are also fighting to keep their heads above water? Socially, emotionally, politically, economically. Aren’t we past this now? Don’t All Lives Matter? When can America finally leave the horrors of the past behind and start focusing on the promise of a better future?
The answer is painful but simple. Never. As a nation, as a people, we will never move past this point in history until the power structure stops fighting it, stops denying it, stops ignoring it—and takes a good, hard look at what all the fuss is about, at the origin story behind this lingering pain and prejudice. These racial tensions will never dissipate until we all remember and honor the grisly roots of our nation with compassion. The issue of black lives in America can never be resolved until everyone understands the massive toll slavery has taken on our shared consciousness, as both an institution and a practice, including the painful scars it left behind on both the black community and the societal systems we uphold today. We must trace the history of slavery to make sense of where wealth inequality and roots of discrimination come from. But don’t worry, it won’t take long. We only need to go back a mere 160 years, to the time right before the Civil War, when the Antebellum South was fighting hard to keep African slaves in chains.
Stop and let that sink in. African people—men, women and children—were held as slaves in America for centuries and finally freed in 1865 when Congress passed the 13th amendment and abolished the practice. That means, BLACK PEOPLE WERE SLAVES IN THE U.S. JUST 155 YEARS AGO. That also means, African Americans have been free in the U.S. for less time than they were enslaved. Within the landscape of time, it might as well be yesterday. No one, no matter how much they want this problem to go away, can disagree with that. There’s also no denying, the institution of slavery merged humanity and depravity in a madness that was so complete, it has continued to echo throughout the halls of our shared history.
So, let’s recall some truth. Let’s take a little trip back to the Antebellum South, fondly known as the plantation era, and see if we can figure out why so many people are still struggling to overcome the effects, even today. Could it really be that bad? Is systemic racism even real? And does it still have the power to hurt modern society?
We are learning, the answer is yes. It is. It can. It does.
And if you doubt this truth, or anything pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement, you need only peer into the darkness and remember (or perhaps even learn for the first time) what exactly created the unimaginable pain we are still dealing with today. But don’t worry. Understanding the origin of black suffering won’t be difficult, because it isn’t related only to laws or mandates or lengthy documents. It is also comprised of physical objects made from metal, leather, and cloth—objects with the ability to tear, mutilate and scar human flesh.
We don’t need to go far to complete this journey—only to the state of colonial Virginia, where some 20 Africans landed in 1619 on a Dutch ship. For the next 40 years, many black men were free and even allowed to marry and raise families. A basic racial divide existed, yet many Africans lived willingly on plantations to work the tobacco fields, which was one of the most lucrative industries in the country. But this was backbreaking work, and by the late 1600s, the demand for able bodies had exceeded the supply of indentured English servants. This is where things grew uglier. The south realized their way of life would implode without willing and affordable human labor, so they removed the need for willingness and affordability altogether by claiming black lives without consent or pay. Problem solved. This reality gave rise to the importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean and turned the status of any black Virginian into one of permanent servitude.
This claim on human ownership took hold immediately, and laws were soon passed to ensure black children were reigned in upon birth. The first slave-holding territory in Virginia changed the existing law of legitimacy through the father, as was the case in Great Britain, and insisted all children born from a black mother be regarded as property, regardless of their father’s status. In this way, a new slave was literally born every day. And by the early 19th century, Virginia had become the center of the slave trade, often shipping blacks born in the territory to other fast-growing states along the eastern coast, as well as the Deep South. Virginians quickly distinguished themselves as being both brutal and pragmatic.
Despite the horrors of this time, the antebellum era leading up to the war demonstrated just how much worse things could get. After centuries of a booming transatlantic slave trade, where some 300,000 Africans were shipped to the U.S., the Union was now on the brink of destruction and the south’s unique brand of prosperity was under attack. Slavery was everywhere in the region—on farms and plantations, in the fields, inside private homes, in towns and cities, in local businesses, and around the periphery. Because feeding and housing slaves was also costly, only about 25% of southerns could actually afford to own them. But that made no difference to the simple white farmer, who defended the system of racism because it helped them aspire to a higher social standing. These white people may have been poor, dirty, and ignorant, but with the acquisition of a black slave or two, they could instantly elevate themselves to a more powerful place.
Talk of emancipation around the Civil War did two things: it created both fear and hope. Southern whites looking to hold on to tradition were threatened, while black slaves were enlivened by the possibility of change. As you would expect, this turned plantations into even harsher places and black slaves into increasingly daring protestors. During this time, Virginia was notorious for its slave revolts and uprisings, which grew bolder as the war persisted. And as conditions and conspiracies became more frenzied, so too did the penalties for slave infractions, often lapsing into wildly inventive and sadistic forms of torture. Does that sound melodramatic? Perhaps we should revisit some of those physical artifacts left behind by the system of slavery. But beware. These memories don’t just tell stories—they scream and howl and weep and bleed.
As subjects of white masters, black slaves were systematically brutalized… not for predictable things like running away or fighting back… but for things like speaking in their native language, not working hard enough, reading a book, trying to keep ownership of their children, accidentally breaking something, or marrying in secret. For these misbehaviors, slaves were muzzled, mutilated, raped—whatever it took to keep the deep-seated system of oppression in tact. This exercise of remembering is not just about reading and thinking—but feeling. What would it be like to wear a “punishment collar,” crafted from iron and designed to keep you from sleeping or lying down or even moving around? Could you do it for a day? A week? In some cases, slaves wore these humiliating contraptions for a month. What does that do to a person? What physical and mental marks remain?
If there’s an overarching symbol for the antebellum era, it’s not mossy trees or steamy summers or bourbon cocktails—it’s the whip. Lashing the naked body of a black woman or child was a normal practice. An everyday and completely normal event. To see a person whipped is horrifying enough, let alone enduring it. Or worse, watching someone you love, maybe even a child, suffering under the constant lash of a whip. This grisly punishment was not just reserved for big, strong men who did something really offensive. It was applicable to even the most vulnerable. Slaves had no power to object against whites, which meant plantation overseers were free to brutalize pregnant woman if they saw fit, whipping them until they lost consciousness or in extreme cases, died. Feel free to pause and let that sink in. The sound of cracking leather above the bloody shrieks of a pregnant slave. How long does it take for that sound to fade into the backdrop of history? Fifty years? A hundred? More?
Being ruthlessly beaten with a whip—or any object for that matter—is mostly beyond a person’s ability to grasp. The act alone is so mind-blowingly painful and brutal, it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly get worse. Yet in places like colonial Virginia, effective methods for increasing the physical and psychological agony of a whipping were always in the development phase. And if a slave’s “crime” was bad enough, an uptick in brutality could surely be justified. If an overseer didn’t find satisfaction after a mere whipping, pain-inducing materials like pebbles, salt, hot brine, lime juice, or turpentine would be ground into the open wound to create unendurable agony and ensure the skin would never heal properly, forever riddled with deep ridges and bumpy, painful scar tissue.
What about the iron masks and bits, created in all shapes and sizes, created to impart hell upon the living? Should we remember those? Slaves were sometimes forced to wear these iron gags as they completed their daily tasks, regardless of the severe discomfort, and would could spend days with their faces locked up tight. They couldn’t eat, drink, spit, yawn, talk, cry, or do anything with their mouths. Sometimes the metal bit would depress the tongue as well and make swallowing impossible. If the slave didn’t suffocate or suffer a severe anxiety attack, the mask would be removed to display dire chafing, burning, and scarring.
Although they lack the social and historical symbolism of the whip, these iron masks of torture were a well-used tool in the Antebellum South—and a verified way to mentally and emotionally traumatize black slaves. What would it take to place one of these on another human? On a black child? What goes on in the mind of a person capable of this? And how many years have to pass before it’s no longer a painful scar on everyone?
Even though branding wasn’t typically used for punishment, it was considered a valuable way to keep track of slaves and ensure they stayed on the correct property. It was viewed as both pragmatic and necessary to slave owners who needed to identify a particularly troublesome slave or to simply mark a piece of “property” in the event that it should be misplaced or lost. Branding was done routinely during the slave trade for these purposes and would usually sear its mark on a slave’s shoulder, buttocks, abdomen, palm, or in some cases, a woman’s breast. Yes. If you were black and living in Virginia anywhere from 1660 to the late 19th century, you could be subjected to branding on your bare breast with searing hot metal. Just like a cow or a pig. All it took was for one white person to decide you were a risk, a rebel, a runaway, or a thief.
Aside from simple leg and arm restraints, the use of neck shackles was a common way to keep slaves together during transport to other regions. This torturous method employed thick, wrought iron bands screwed together at the joint, and they deprived slaves of the ability to move independently or stretch their necks, often leading to severe muscle pain. Stifling heat and sweat usually led to gruesome chafing on the delicate skin as well as serious neck injuries. Sometimes a slave’s ankles and wrists were also bound, making any natural movement or escape impossible.
Like all other punishments, the mutilation of slaves was used to punish and terrify those who displeased their master. This blanket term could include amputation of feet or hands, facial or genital mutilation, burning, or even castration. Because a slave’s guilt was rarely really proven, many slaves were unfairly punished with hellishly everlasting consequences. Many poor slaves believed their dead bodies would return to Africa when they died, so some resorted to suicide as a way to relieve their suffering and return to their motherland. As a result of this thinking, slave owners would purposefully mutilate the corpses of former slaves in an attempt to show those still living the error of their thinking. They would never make it home in one piece. They would never escape their bonds. The mutilated corpses would then be displayed on the plantation to prove the futility of ever trying to return to beloved Africa. The slave may have killed his own body, but the white master would kill his dream and those of everyone else.
For a slave working unrelenting hours without proper food, water, or rest, running away was always a temptation, no matter what the punishment might be. And for some, it was the only way they could ever hope of seeing their loved ones again. As if in collusion with the nefarious slave owners, the southern landscape surrounding most plantations was filled with swamps, thick brush, and unbearable heat, not to mention snakes and biting insects. In a place like Virginia, a runaway slave was a big problem for any plantation owner because their disappearance invariably affected their bottom line, resulting in a considerable financial loss.
Even worse, many masters and overseers would do anything to avoid the humiliation of losing a slave and being labeled as weak by their white neighbors. Losing a slave was a matter of pride. When a slave finally found the courage to run, they were not only chased by human hunters, but also by packs of vicious bloodhounds. Savage and menacing, these dogs were trained to attack on sight and would often run themselves to death before giving up the chase. Once they caught the slave, as they usually did, the air would be filled with the sound of dreadful yelping, terrified screams, and the smell of blood and filth.
If you ask anyone what they value most in this world, they will likely tell you—family. Human beings are hardwired to love their children unconditionally and thrive on the support and intimacy of those they hold dear. For most parents, the mere thought of losing a child is beyond a nightmare, a notion so devastating, it is without shape or definition. And yet, in the days of antebellum slavery, it was commonplace. An everyday thing. No big deal.
While many slaves in places like Virginia did not expect to keep their children, they could surely dream of nothing else. White masters and overseers had little to no regard for the bonds of black families and would just as soon rip a child from his mother’s arms as take a nap. If it meant increased profit, convenience, or sadistic satisfaction, it was done without a second thought. Because in this dark period of history, we are not talking about people mistreating other people. We are talking about people looking at another race and seeing them as property, equal to livestock, devoid of intelligence, feelings, or basic needs—inhuman. Black slaves had been brought over from across the sea specifically because they were seen as durable in nature and capable of handling harsh conditions without breaking. They were brought over to work hard, taking on labor no one else could possibly manage. It was their lot in life.
Every aspect of their bodies, from their eyes to their genitals to their feet was assigned monetary value, just like a racehorse. This grievous perception allowed southern whites to disregard the emotions of slaves and find justification in separating their families. In selling them, buying them. Within the systemic institution of slavery, taking a child from his or her slave mother may prove a little troublesome at first, but such a loss would soon be forgotten—much like a bitch forgets her puppy. But we all know, the connection between mother and child is one that transcends all other emotions, something that can never be replaced or removed—and surely, never forgotten. What does it feel like to remember that?
Also known as lynching, the punishment of hanging while burning was really just an execution, as it always led to death. It was saved specifically for slaves who committed really outlandish crimes like organizing a rebellion, drinking from the wrong fountain, or insulting a white woman.
Because this heinous act took a fair amount of manpower, it usually called for some kind of mob to chase down the slave, hang him from a tree until he was nearly dead, and then set him on fire so he could suffer even more in his final moments. In most historical pictures of black lynchings, the men suffering the abuse were not even slaves—they were free black men living in the 20th century, surrounded by a smiling crowd of white men, women, and children, many of whom are clearly enjoying the spectacle. And since statistics are also worth remembering, here’s one: between 1880 and 1926, less than 100 years ago, more than 90 African Americans were lynched in the state of Virginia. That’s more than two per year. And all this happened just one generation ago. Is it possible people can forget so quickly?
Truly, the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South knew no bounds. They arguably comprised one of the darkest, most ghastly periods in human history, let alone American. So, in this modern moment of wonderment about how we can all learn to honor and understand our shared story, especially in the south, it’s worth remembering what we are really talking about. Yes, it’s true a great nation should not be ashamed of its history. And yes, forgetting anything from the past is a mistake. Remembering is a powerful part of the work we must do to keep ourselves moving forward, learning, and growing into more socially and emotionally evolved people. But given the extent of suffering behind our shared history, perhaps it’s a wise to stop fighting for divisive symbols, such as Confederate flags and statues, and focus on periods of positivity and justice for all.
So, to those individuals in the south and around the country who are feeling sentimental about their historical emblems, remember they are not history—they are symbols. Perhaps we should stop celebrating the bravery of soldiers, the simplicity of the time, or the poetic words of some racist old man—and do some other kinds of remembering.
If we cannot relinquish these statues and symbols in the name of progress, will they haunt and separate us forever? Is seeing a daily reminder of some Confederate figure more important than offering respect to the burned and beaten black children of the past?
Given what we know of slavery, wouldn’t it be worth it to put those public epitaphs aside in the name of human decency? Perhaps by focusing (somewhat desperately) on the heroism of someone like General Lee, instead of on the people trampled beneath his beliefs, it’s easier to accept the ugliness of what been done. Make it alright, justify it. When we release the tight grip on those romantic symbols from the antebellum era—like the ones involving military bravery and stamina—there’s no way to keep from slipping into the unbearable memory of what happened. Those statues prevent us from remembering the darkness on the other side and have become a barrier between people and their acceptance of the truth, o of each other. Without them, there is only the bleak reality of what came before.
When white supremacists in the south recently chanted the phrase “blood and soil,” it became clear they had forgotten exactly whose blood it was that soaked that earth for centuries. It most certainly wasn’t theirs. And until we all start remembering and accepting the truth of what’s been done, the epic proportions of brutality and horror imparted on black people in America, change will never fully arrive without more violence. The pain and resentment won’t go away, it won’t stop, it won’t fade—not until we muster the strength to see it all and move on with integrity. Are these arguments about monuments, flags, and racist rallies really about the first amendment? About free speech? Are they really about appreciating and remembering the American experience? Because if so, they sure are forgetting a whole lot.
And the rest is history.