Book review: ‘The American Slave Coast; A History of the Slave Breeding Industry’
Special to the Daily
The United States has long fed its citizens a milk toast version of American history, sifting out the ugly and uncomfortable realities of the earliest days of the republic, but there has been a recent and noticeable shift, with the emergence of an acceptance for the exploration of buried truths.
Cultural historians Ned and Constance Sublette have penned a deeply-researched and extensive account of the history of one of this nation’s ugliest stains — slavery. Throughout its nearly 700 pages, “The American Slave Coast; A History of the Slave Breeding Industry,” wipes clear the sugar-coating that many traditional textbooks have given the history of slavery — especially regarding the pivotal figures in American history who played crucial roles in perpetuating the very lucrative practice of brokering and working human beings for economic and political gain.
As the title suggests, the authors focus their exposé on the much overlooked industrial aspect of slavery, which was the breeding of a domestic slave population from the millions of unfortunates kidnapped from the shores of Africa. It does the book a disservice, though, to say it focuses only on that particular horror of the history of slavery. Every variable that contributed to the establishment of slavery is dissected, and no stone is left unturned, which makes the book a provocative read.
The most compelling narrative that runs throughout the many pages of the book is the ongoing role several of this nation’s first and most revered leaders played in the perpetuation of slavery, even going so far as to ingrain it in the Constitution. “Three slave owning politicians loom large in our narrative as principal enablers of the territorial expansion of slavery and, consequently, of the slave-breeding industry: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk.”
The Sublettes are straightforward in their critical analysis of the motivations of the prominent and powerful men, especially Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase, which protected Virginian slave holders, of which Jefferson was one, set up that colony’s dominance in the domestic slave trade, which remained and strengthened long after slave importation from Africa was eventually banned. Jefferson’s efforts led directly to Andrew Jackson’s drive to purge the ancestral lands of Native American tribes, to make room for agricultural cultivation that required massive human (slave) labor.
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A cultural shift occurred in the newly emerging African American community, as a result. Intact families were rare, for they were broken up intentionally, with people sold individually, with traders taking no account of sentimentality and emotions. At the heart of this merciless practice by the slave owners was fear, a deeply held uneasiness that if enslaved families were left intact to maintain bonds, they would be more inclined to rise up and rebel against those who were oppressing them.
The most distressing aspects of the book come from the many first-hand accounts that are included — stories from former slaves or disgruntled slaveowners — who left behind documentation of the extent of the highly lucrative commercial enterprise that surrounded the trade and sale of blacks throughout the coastal states and the south.
The authors are emphatic in saying that there can be no separating the history of slavery from the history of sexual violence. They discuss at length the concept of the “capitalized womb,” a dominant system in the antebellum south that withstood all external efforts of eradication. As awful as slavery was for men, it was doubly so for women, especially young girls. Few narratives by enslaved women survive, but those that do have a consistent theme of added repression and abuse because of their roles as breeders.
“Forced mating” was a common practice, even among President Polk’s own slaves. His female slaves were often put on the slave block with their young offspring, not necessarily to be sold together, rather to show fertility. For many in the South, slavery was a perpetuation of white men raping black women without any repercussions. In addition, the white wives of the slave owners had little legal recourse of their own to protest the practice.
Ultimately, though, for southern elites, slaves were equal to money, and the children of those slaves were the interest. Slaves were often used as collateral for a loan, and taken into consideration when determining the value of a particular group of slaves, was the breeding potential of the female slaves.
As the colonists shifted and maneuvered to position themselves for dominance it became clear that a big motivation for the split from England was freedom — the freedom to keep slaves. “The paradox of liberty versus slavery of the nation’s birth is no paradox at all. Liberty was the right to property. Liberty for slaveowners meant slavery for slaves.” The Sublettes call the Constitution a “fugue of silences,” saying that the men who crafted it ignored the concept of slavery except to acknowledge its existence. During the drafting of the document, slavery was the elephant in the room, and the original “three-fifths clause was a politically acceptable accounting gimmick for figuring out how much to rig the national vote on behalf of slaveowners.”
As this nation continues to grapple with racial tensions that many deny still exists, “The American Slave Coast” provides an eye-opening and mind-broadening analysis of an aspect of America’s history that is so tightly woven into what this country was and what it has become.
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