The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) has launched a global news feature series on the history, contemporary realities and implications of the transatlantic slave trade. This is Part 5 in the ongoing series.
I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others. Rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.” — Frederick Douglass
“Ignorance is the greatest slave master in the universe… The greatest prison anyone can escape from is ignorance.” — Matshona Dhliwayo
“These Negroes aren’t asking for no nation. They wanna crawl back on the plantation.” — Malcolm X
Five centuries ago – on Aug. 18, 1518, to be exact – the King of Spain, Charles I, issued a charter authorizing the transportation of slaves direct from Africa to the Americas, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.
Five-hundred years later, the devastating effects remain.
Some argue, however, that slavery continues to exist — in that far too many African Americans possess a slave’s mentality. Books on the topic are a plenty.
Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint wrote extensively about the high suicide rates among Black males which doubled over a 15-year period beginning in 1980. “African-American young men may see the afterlife as a better place,” Poussaint wrote in his book, “Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans.”
In her book, “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” famed author and social worker Terrie M. Williams writes about the “high toll of hiding the pain associated with the Black experience” on mental health.
Portland State University scholar Joy DeGruy also tried explaining the slave mentality in her controversial theory, “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome.”
The Urban Dictionary and other works says that a slave mentality is one of feeling inferior or of feeling lost without hope, a feeling that we do not have the power to significantly alter our own circumstances.
“Another sad symptom of having a slave mentality is believing that White people are superior,” writes Kuuleme T. Stephens in her blog. “A person conditioned to quietly, and without objection, accept harmful circumstances for themselves as the natural order of things. …They’re also conditioned to accept their master’s view and beliefs, about themselves, and strive to get others, within their group, to accept their master’s view.
“I often hear people make the claim that Blacks were better off when they were slaves. I myself have been known to say such things when people piss me off and respond out of ignorance to a posting or article. My reason for making such an argument is if Black Americans are not going to stop living in the past and blaming other for their problems, we will never move forward as a people. …To maintain a belief that you are owed something and entitled to things when you are doing nothing to help yourself is absurd.
“To stay ignorant as a lifestyle choice and have others (the government) take care of you and tell you what to do is exactly what the slaves did, and some continued to do even after they were freed. …My great grandmother, whose father and grandfather were slaves, has a slavery mentality because they were raised by slaves and their opinions and beliefs were passed down as such.”
Even now, millions of Americans of recognizably African descent languish in societal backwaters, according to historians and experts on slavery. And, the dichotomy that exists between those who view living in America as a struggle to survive and those that see it as a land of opportunity has driven a wedge between many in the African-American community.
“We’re absolutely still slaves today,” said Sean XLG Mitchell, a hip-hop activist and author of several books on the Black experience, including “The African American Spiritual Practice of Seven.”
“We’re the only race of people who do not have a cultural orientation regarding our identity. Every powerful and successful race and/or ethnic group of people have an orientation that centers around language, education, religion, names and customs which is where their unity, self-respect, pride and dignity-the prerequisite of power- comes from,” he said.
As a result of slavery, African Americans do not have a cultural orientation that centers around their historical experience as a people. “We see the outcome in the deficiency of our social and economic development. To a certain extent, we’ve been fighting racism and injustice all wrong which is why it’s been an ongoing issue for over  years. Real empowerment comes from culture and until we understand and embrace what it means to be an African people will always be slaves,” Mitchell said.
“I believe there is a dividing legacy of slavery that have pitted certain segments of the Black community against each other,” Mitchell continues. “We have an obvious color barrier between light skin and dark skin, creating somewhat of a caste system that gives privilege to the lighter shade in most cases whether we’re referring to employment opportunities or relationships.
“It’s all a fallout of slavery because slaves often were pitted against each other as a means of preventing unity.”
During slavery, the dark-skinned Blacks worked in the fields while light-skinned Blacks worked in the house, hence the terms “field Negroes” and “house Negroes.”
“It got so bad, that not only did the slave owner, who was often responsible for the lighter shade of brown his slaves had, give lighter-skinned Blacks more respect, but so did the dark-skinned Blacks,” blogger Jasmyne Cannick writes in an opinion column for NPR.
This was best illustrated in Spike Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze” in the scene set in a beauty salon between the “jigaboos,” the darker-skinned Blacks with “nappy” hair, and the “wannabes,” the lighter-skinned Blacks with “straight” and often weaved hair.
“You know, I can’t think of one time that I witnessed or heard of White children taunting each other for being paler than the next, but I can think of numerous occasions where I have seen Black children teasing each other for being ‘too Black,’” Cannick said.
“And while our lighter skin shades can be attributed to the Massuh’s preference for his female Black slaves over his own wife, we can’t blame the Massuh for us continuing to feed into the hype that light is good and dark is bad,” she said.
Post-slavery, post-Jim Crow, and post-Civil Rights, African Americans haven’t reached their full potential in part because of an acute lack of effort with too many wallowing in self-pity, say those who’ve argued against reparations.
Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., and an opponent of reparations, suggested that African-Americans have actually benefited from the legacy of slavery.
“Almost every Black American’s income is higher as a result of being born in the United States than any country in Africa,” Williams, who is Black, told ABC News.
“Most Black Americans are middle-class,” Williams said, claiming that the U.S. has made “significant” investments in African Americans since the slave trade ended.
“The American people have spent $6.1 trillion in the name of fighting poverty,” he said. “We’ve had all kinds of programs trying to address the problems of discrimination. America has gone a long way.”
Countering that argument, others said America has continued to do a disservice to Black Americans, prolifically using the criminal justice system as tool akin to slavery that almost assures a lifetime of dependency on taxpayers.
“My expertise is the criminal justice system, which has long been used to intimidate, oppress, and abuse African-Americans. While officially our laws today are color-blind, which is different from the time of slavery, as implemented and used they aren’t,” said Roy L. Steinheimer Jr., a professor of Law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
What about Black-on-Black crime?
According to an evidence brief from the Vera Institute of Justice, titled, “An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System,” and a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that most violence occurs between victims and offenders of the same race, regardless of race.
The rate of both Black-on-Black and White-on-White nonfatal violence declined 79 percent between 1993 and 2015. The number of homicides involving both a Black victim and Back perpetrator fell from 7,361 in 1991 to 2,570 in 2016.
The issue isn’t the crime, it’s the selective disproportionately harsher punishment and sentencing of African Americans.
“Some of the laws, such as those disenfranchising convicted felons, have their origin, if not in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, then in the era that saw the emergence of the KKK and White supremacy. They were clearly intended to keep African-Americans and likely, though to a lesser extent poor Whites, from the ballot box,” Steinheimer said.
Meanwhile, some of the newer laws that have negatively affected African-Americans still appear to result from some underlying beliefs that go back to the times of slavery.
“Interestingly that thinking has survived even during times of mass migration, which is presumably indicative of how deep-seated it is in American culture and law,” the professor continued.
The “broad scope of the criminal justice system reinforces the wealth disparity between White and Black by making those caught up in it ever poorer and serves to drive even some of the better-of people caught up in it into poverty,” Steinheimer said.
“The economic impact resulting from slavery therefore gets magnified and reinforced by our criminal justice system, which increasingly stacks fines and fees,” he said.
In a dissertation for the Brookings Institute, Glenn C. Loury wrote that the dream that race might someday become an insignificant category in our civic life now seems naively utopian.
In cities across the country, and in rural areas of the Old South, the situation of the Black underclass and, increasingly, of the Black lower working classes is bad and getting worse. Simply put, the playing field has never been level for Black Americans and that has only worsened the mental health of the community. “No well-informed person denies this, though there is debate over what can and should be done about it,” Loury said.
“Nor do serious people deny that the crime, drug addiction, family breakdown, unemployment, poor school performance, welfare dependency, and general decay in these communities constitute a blight on our society virtually unrivaled in scale and severity by anything to be found elsewhere in the industrial West,” he said.
“Slavery is one of the foundational pillars of American society, propping up the nation starting in the earliest days of the Republic and touching the lives of everyone in America. And its legacy has been long lasting,” said Hasan Jeffries, a James Madison Montpelier historian and history professor at Ohio State University who specializes in contemporary Black politics.
“The deeply rooted belief in White supremacy that justified slavery survived its abolition in 1865 and undergird the new systems of African-American labor exploitation and social control, namely Jim Crow, that sought to replace what had been lost as a result of emancipation,” Jeffries said.
As a result, slavery has caused certain symptoms of dysfunction in the African community, which has been reinforced in each generation, according to historians at the African Holocaust Network.
The legacy of slavery has promoted and nursed the direct association between being African and being inferior. Being African and being unequal. Being African and being incapable and less worthy.
It also promotes ways of thinking which continue to impede growth and development, such as cultivating dependence and reactive behaviors, and more content to be at best an observer complaining about the world, instead of being a change agent in the world.
“The deterioration of the Black American family is staggering,” Stephens said.
“If you ask a young Black American what they want to be when they grow up, most will say they want to be a rapper/singer, football player, basketball player, or baseball player, and that is if they can tell you what they would like to be at all,” she said.
“No one tells them that only 0.03 percent make it to pro basketball, 0.08 percent make it pro football, and 0.45 percent make it pro baseball.
“We have a 40 percent dropout rate, for every 100,000 Black men in the U.S., 4,777 are in prison or jail; for every 100,000 Black American women, there are 743 in jail or prison, and 72 percent of Black American women, and teens are unwed mothers.”
Historians at the James Madison Montpelier in Virginia said that it’s no accident that the U.S. Constitution opens with a message of inclusivity, establishing “justice” and ensuring “domestic tranquility” for the people.
However, it’s what that most famous preamble – and, indeed, the rest of the document – doesn’t address that’s more telling: The Constitution’s authors omit the vital distinction between their view of the differences between persons and property and, in doing so, ultimately protect one of history’s most oppressive institutions: Slavery.