What would you tell these people?

A few mornings ago, I think before I had even heard the alarm clock go off, I was bombarded by friends who were not pleased (and as it turned out, I and other sane people were not pleased) with a review of Edward Baptist’s latest book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismThe review appeared in The Economist, which has since apologized for printing it.  In part the reviewer stated that Baptist wrote in a way that “almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” An image of Lupita Nyong’o who portrayed Patsey in the award winning film, “12 Years A Slave” was captioned “Patsey was certainly a valuable property.”

Slavery in the Atlantic World operated for centuries upon the labor of human beings from Africa and their descendants in the European division of North, Central, and South America into colonies as well as in the Old World (though to a far lesser extent). I am not going to here recount the details of enslavement across time and places; but, I will simply ask what would a defender of slavery say to these people who experienced the institution?


Could you tell this woman that she was better off enslaved?


Detail of a South Carolina woman. Library of Congress.

Detail of a South Carolina woman. Library of Congress.

Could you tell this man that he was better off living in a system that often did not allow him to protect his wife and children? Mother? Sister? Friends?


Detail of Virginia man. Library of Congress.

Detail of Virginia man. Library of Congress.

Could you tell this child that she was more valuable enslaved?


Detail of a Richmond, Virginia girl. Library of Congress.

Detail of a Richmond, Virginia girl. Library of Congress.

How honest could you be about how these children got their light skin?


Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans. Library of Congress.

Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans. Library of Congress.

I read Melvin Collier’s post tonight that really struck me from the honesty contained in a death certificate. When Nancy Cole died in 1914, her son noted that he could not hazard even a guess as to the names of his mother’s parents because she “was bought from a slave trader in 1845 aged 14 years.” How would Nancy Cole feel knowing that in 2014 there could be anyone who could say or hint that “slavery wasn’t that bad?”



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3 responses to “What would you tell these people?

  1. Jeremiah DeGennaro

    Very well said. I often feel like the primary cause of ridiculous statements about slavery is a lack of empathy. Showing these photos and capturing the humanity of the subjects up close is a great way to help people empathize with the victims of slavery. Sadly there are those who find it difficult to see the humanity of others even when those people are literally staring them in the face.

  2. laura k

    I use the “new orleans children” images in my docent training to illustrate racism in propaganda during the Civil War. The original images were meant to help raise funds for educating enslaved children and arguing for their freedom. The subtext in the image of course being, “these kids have potential. See they are so white!” Even then not everyone grasps the lesson.

    In regards to the book, I’m excited to see something that will help curators to present different aspects of slavery. Generally, the go-to is punishment. Not to devalue that topic, but its such a familiar topic that I see a lot of knee-jerk reactions and automatic shut-downs. Illustrating how slavery affected people economically, stripped their ability to self-sustain etc. might open some ears simply because its not something they’ve heard before.

    Love the post! Little late in seeing it.

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