Remembering the history of slavery, to confront racism and oppression today.
A privileged class of people lived in world built on a cotton industry that ripped children from mothers, placed Black people in coffles, and used whips and torture to extract work out of slaves.
A song remembering the history of slavery
How should the history of the United States be told and commemorated?
This is an important question, because the way we remember our history will influence how we see the present. If we tell a history that glorifies white supremacy, it can make us blind to racism today. If we tell a history that calls attention to the power systems that granted privilege to some and exploited others, it can help us become more sensitive to systems of power and oppression today.
There are several ways that this issue is relevant. Currently, many places are grappling with questions about what to do with Confederate statues, monuments, and symbols, or places named after Confederate heroes. These Confederate monuments and symbols glorify an army that fought to uphold White supremacy in a war over the expansion of slavery. Of course, racism was not limited to the Confederacy, and the United States has a long history of White people exploiting and oppressing people of color. The United States is filled with monuments to White men who were not part of the Confederacy, but who were part of a privileged class that benefited from slavery, or from racist policies, or from the exploitation of people of color. Many textbooks of American history give the impression that the United States became a great and powerful nation because of the ingenuity and courage of the White men who are the heroes of our country, and these textbooks sometimes fail to clarify that the United States became great and powerful because these White heroes used cruel and oppressive techniques to extract labor out of Black people and to take land from Native American people.
If history is told in a way that glorifies White heroes, those people who benefited from the oppression of others, it allows us to ignore the great disparities that exist between groups. It allows us to tell a narrative that ignores the fact that some people benefitted from membership in a privileged class and that forgets the anonymous faces of those given a life of hardship merely because they were born into an oppressed class.
This type of history is both distorted and dangerous. It teaches us to justify the oppressor and ignore the oppressed.This type of history teaches us that when White people are successful and victorious, the reason they are successful and victorious is because they are great people and not because of the way in which they oppressed others to gain their advantage. This, in turn, allows us to maintain a mistaken belief that group disparities are appropriate and fair. For example, at the current point in time, compared to White people, Black people are arrested more often, imprisoned more often, paid less, and less likely to hold high-status occupations. The distorted history of White heroes makes it easier to ignore these disparities, or to try to justify these disparities, or to presume these differences are caused by something other than racism. This is because the history of White heroes is a history where White people gain their advantage because they have outstanding capabilities, not because they exploit others. When we fail to see oppression in history, it makes it hard to see it at the current point in time.
What is needed, then, is a balanced and accurate telling of history. When people do things that are ingenious and courageous, this is something wonderful to celebrate. But, when people do things that are cruel and oppressive, it is important to tell this story as well. And, if we find too many historical monuments all glorifying heroes that have white skin, it means we need to recognize the racism – this includes both the historical racism that made White people more likely to become heroes, and the present day racism that allows for a continued distorted portrayal of history. In this vein, it is especially important to remember the legacy of slavery in the United States and the torture that White people inflicted to extract profit out of their slaves.
The song, Whips, tells a story of slavery in the United States.
S pecifically, this song focuses on the time from around the 1820s to the 1850s. Although slavery was always horrific, it seems that slavery during this time was especially harsh and cruel. (Both the song and the following discussion draw heavily from the book by Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told.) During the first half of the 1800s, the United States was gaining new territory in the South by taking land from Native Americans, and cotton plantations began to spread, first across Georgia, and then into land around the Mississippi river. At this point in time, the world had high demand for cotton, somewhat like there is a high demand for oil today. It turned out that cotton could grow well in the South and it could be produced quite cheaply using slave labor. Consequently, the United States became the top world supplier of cotton, and this was the primary factor driving high economic growth in the United States. Not only did southern plantation owners become wealthy, but also White people in the North benefitted from the economic growth and access to cheap cotton.
This booming cotton industry had two important consequences for slavery.
First it meant that slaves had to be moved west.
At the time of the American Revolution, most White people and most slaves lived close to the Atlantic Ocean. As cotton plantations expanded west through Georgia and then to land around the Mississippi, slaves needed to be moved to these new plantations. This created a high market demand for slaves. Slaves were a commodity. They were typically called, “hands,” and not, “people.” Sometimes they were bred and sold for profit. Sometimes they were sold for punishment. Sometimes they were sold to pay off debts or used as collateral on loans to buy more slaves and to expand plantations. The buying and selling of slaves became big business.
The important thing to know about the buying and selling of slaves is that it ripped families apart. Children were separated from their mothers, and once sold, they would never see or hear from each other again. Wives were separated from their husbands. The song, Whips, refers to a “Georgia Man,” which was a term that slaves may have used to refer to a slave trader from around the time when many slaves were being moved to Georgia. If you were a slave, without warning, you could be sold, or a family member could be sold, and then taken away by a Georgia Man to a labor camp a thousand miles away. To move slaves west, sometimes they would be forced to march in coffles. Men might be chained in a line with iron collars around their necks, and women might be tied in a line with ropes. They had to sleep, eat, and eliminate body waste all while chained together, and then White men on horses forced the coffle to march.
Another important consequence of the booming cotton industry on slavery was that White masters developed more and more effective ways to use torture to increase production.
An analogy can be made between the cotton industry at this time and the industrial revolution. A key feature of the industrial revolution is that people invented techniques to make production more efficient, meaning that the same number of people working the same length of time produced more product. With slavery, plantation owners invented new techniques in the use of torture to increase the productivity of slaves.
In the system that was adopted on many cotton plantations, each slave would pick cotton from sunrise to sunset, and at the end of the day the slave’s cotton would be hung on a scale and weighed. The overseer had a ledger indicating how much cotton each slave was capable of picking. If a slave did not pick his or her allotted weight, the slave was whipped. This whipping was horrific. Whipping left deep bloody gashes in the skin. It sometimes made people pass out, vomit, and shake. The thing that made this system efficient, however, had to do with what happened if a slave picked more than his or her allotted weight. Each time a slave picked more than his or her allotted weight, the overseer knew the slave was capable of picking that amount, and so the overseer increased the slave’s required allotment. Slaves that picked the most cotton were not necessarily whipped any less than other slaves. Instead, each slave was whipped at frequency designed to maximize production efficiency. As slave owners became more effective in this use of whipping, cotton productivity increased. For example, over the span of two decades, from about 1815 to 1835, the average amount of cotton picked by one slave in one day increased from a little under 50 pounds to over 100 pounds – it more than doubled. This was not due to any innovations in equipment or techniques for picking cotton. It was due to innovations in the use of torture to extract more work out of slaves. After slavery ended, when workers were paid for picking cotton, the level of worker efficiency substantially dropped. Torture proved to be highly effective.
Blood from whips that tear the flesh
So, the song, Whips, tells this horrendous story. The song tells the story of coffles and chains, and of children ripped from the arms of pleading, crying mothers. And, this song asks if we will now hear this story, hear these words to be told, if we will now erect the statues and memorials, if we will now correct the history books, if we will now honor the Black people, the heroes, upon whose backs the whips fell, and upon whose backs a booming capitalist economy was built. These are the people who suffered, who were sacrificed, whose backs bore the scars from whips, so that the United States might become a great nation. And, by remembering this story, we may increase our ability to notice and confront racism and oppression today. When history memorializes stories of privilege and exploitation, it reminds us that issues of privilege and exploitation are important. This history shapes our perspectives and our values, and it teaches us that these are real issues that need to be confronted.
The breaking of bread
The song also draws from a metaphor of breaking bread, “Hold this remembrance in the breaking of bread.” Notably, the Christian Bible has stories of Jesus breaking bread. In these stories, before Jesus was whipped and killed by the powerful Roman government, Jesus had a meal with his disciples where he broke bread, used it as a metaphor for the suffering of a broken body, and then asked his disciples to remember him. Throughout the history of Christianity, people have used the breaking of bread to remember the suffering of Jesus. Moreover, many passages in the Christian Bible describe Jesus as preaching a message of compassion and concern for people who are poor, people who are captive, and people who are oppressed. It also records Jesus as saying that whatever people do towards those who are oppressed (for example, those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, or imprisoned) is the same as what people do toward Jesus himself. Thus, it seems especially fitting to use the metaphor of broken bread as way of remembering those who suffered, remembering those whose backs bore the scars from whips, and also as a source of inspiration for confronting the oppression that exists today. This metaphor could be viewed from a religious perspective or from a secular perspective, but either way, it could be valuable to break bread and to remember the broken bodies of those who are now oppressed.