Harriet Tubman reaches into a river to rescue runaways escaping slavery on one of her journeys to free for her people. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Harriet Tubman reaches into a river to rescue runaways escaping slavery on one of her journeys to free for her people. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

Slavery. It was once widespread in the so-called “land of the free.” Slavery is this country’s “Original Sin.” Slavery is a crime against humanity. And despite the fuss that has been raised by the anniversary of the ship landing with the first 20 African enslaved persons brought to Jamestown, Virginia, America is far, far, far from making amends to the millions whose centuries of stolen labor made this country rich and strong.

Slavery’s proponents always knew it was wrong, even as they wallowed in its excesses. Euphemistically, white southerners called it their “peculiar institution.” It was so very cruel they had to give it a nickname in order to talk about it in polite conversations. President John C. Calhoun defended the “peculiar labor” of the south in 1828 and the “peculiar domestic institution” in 1830.

It was “peculiar,” all right — and cruel and inhumane.

The Peculiar Institution in America begins with the earliest European settlements and ended “de jure” with the Civil War, but continues “de facto” up until this very hour. Slavery existed both in the north and in the south, at times in equal numbers. The industrialization of the north and the expansion of demand for cotton in the south shifted the balance, however so that it became a regional issue, as the southern economy grew increasingly reliant on forced, free labor — slave labor.

Now that August 1619 is behind us, everyone can agree that it’s been at least 400 years since slavery was introduced in this country, even though Sir Francis Drake is said to have plundered slaves from a Spanish ship, taking them to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1586.

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches that British Admiral Sir John Hawkins first brought a consignment of Africans to be made slaves in 1555, 64 years before the widely accepted date. Hawkins was the first to profit from the “triangular trade” among Africa, the Caribbean and North America, trading human beings for commodities.

There is also evidence that even before that, in 1526, there were slaves brought on a Spanish expedition, which even featured a slave revolt, 40 years before the first permanent European settlement in North America, in what is now South Carolina. But certainly that symbolically important “400 years” marker has now been passed.

But a residue of pain and suffering remains in the aftermath of the end of chattel slavery after its 310 years. At the very least, a first step was pointed out by actor and activist Danny Glover, who recently called on international leaders to “apologize” for the enslavement of Africans in the past through reparations for their descendants … and oh, let’s stop calling enslaved Africans “African Americans.” If they ever were really “Americans” they would never have been enslaved!

“I call upon you today as policy representatives and socially conscious citizens, public servants of our countries guided by personal ethics, religions, faith and/or official oath of office to avow a commitment to democracy, justice, equality and human rights,” Glover said recently in a speech before the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) on “Reparations for Slavery and the Genocide of Native Peoples.”

“The call today for reparatory justice for Afro-descendants is an imperative for expanded democracy and spiritual and material well-being. It is a test case for human decency that conforms to the accepted standards of morality,” Glover said.

And speaking of presidents — on the Northeast Portico of the memorial dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president is quoted as saying, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free…”

So, we agree. America’s 400-year-old slavery was/is abhorrent; was/is a crime against humanity; and its victims are deserving of compensation — reparatory justice — for their pain, suffering, and loss.

Slavery, America’s “Original Sin.” It’s time to repent. It’s time to atone.

Did you like this story?
Would you like to receive articles like this in your inbox? Free!

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *