If It’s So Hard, Why Talk About It? American Slavery in History and Memory

by Lois E. Horton (Professor Emeritus, George Mason University)1

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News reports of racial conflicts and controversies—neo-Nazis and white supremacists, Black Lives Matter activists, and National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem—and conflict over Confederate flags and statues of Confederate heroes remind us of our shameful past, of the contradiction between slavery and a commitment to freedom and equality.  They should also remind us of the enduring rationalizations attempting to reconcile that contradiction, rationalizations that labeled blacks as dangerous and inferior.         

This fundamental contradiction is represented by Thomas Jefferson, who owned more than 150 slaves at the time he wrote “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  He recognized that slavery was wrong, but he feared black anger and retribution and could see no way to do away with it.  It was, he said, like holding a “wolf by the ears . . . we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.  Justice [was] “in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”2         

The problem was reconciling the contradiction—keeping the profitable, and brutal, system of racial slavery and yet maintaining a belief in freedom and equality.  The answer was rationalization, rationalization demonstrating that slavery was necessary and that Africans and African Americans were best suited for slavery.  Two basic rationalizations developed. First, enslaved black people were dangerous and angry, especially black men; slave revolts and rebellions proved they needed to be controlled.   Second, black people were inferior—childlike, lazy, lacking ambition and intelligence.  Hence, they needed to be cared for.  From this developed the belief in slavery as a benign system, where the plantation was like a family with singing and dancing “happy slaves” who were loyal to their masters.           

Two competing Civil War narratives, are still evident in conflicts over Confederate monuments.  In one, seceding states aimed to preserve slavery, as they declared when they took up arms against the United States.  In the other, a “Lost Cause” fiction was rooted in slavery’s rationalizations, a doomed patriotic South with contented slaves and honorable leaders was loyal to liberty.  After the Civil War, this narrative preserved the power of whites, prevented the realization of black citizenship, and enforced racial difference.  Perceptions of dangerous, angry black men justified lynching, vagrancy laws with harsh punishments, and convict labor.  Believing African Americans were lazy, incompetent, and intellectually inferior exaggerated racial differences and justified sharecroppers’ indebtedness, segregation, preventing black voting, and a miserly welfare system that periodically cut off aid to force people to work and prevent supposed dependency.           

Rationalizations to reconcile the contradictions of American slavery still shape our present.  They live on in economic inequality that meant that in 2013 the median net wealth of a white family was $142,000, while a black family’s was $11,000;3 in a welfare system, erroneously assumed to serve mainly blacks, that equates poverty with immorality, requires work or work training, and places limits on lifetime aid; in systematic discrimination in housing, voter registration, and employment.           

They live on in selective law enforcement that led to stop and frisk laws in New York City where eighty-four percent of those stopped were black and Latino, though they were only fifty percent of the city’s population, and even though the majority of drugs and weapons were found on whites, only sixteen percent of those stopped.4           

They live on in drug wars with three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences, where people of color, thirty-seven percent of the total population, comprised sixty-seven percent of the prison population in 2015;5 when a crack cocaine epidemic, defined as a black problem, prompts drug wars and mass incarceration, while an opioid epidemic, defined as a white problem, results in treatment plans and a crackdown on doctors and pharmacies.           

They live on when many people see the Black Lives Matter movement as asking for special privilege, and when a white policeman shoots and kills an unarmed, nonthreatening black man, an acceptable defense is that he was afraid for his life.           

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin observed that white people in America were trapped in a history they didn’t understand and wouldn’t be released from the tyranny of the past until they understood it.6  Understanding how slavery’s rationalizations about black danger and inferiority shape our present means uncovering painful realities, but it is “a matter of patriotism . . . patriotism not based on military chauvinism or jingoistic nationalism,” but “based on a commitment to America’s highest ideals and a determination that America’s promise will one day become America’s reality.”7


1 Excerpted from a public lecture honoring James Oliver Horton, Honolulu, Hawaii, November 16, 2017.

2 Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820; James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and the Making of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 104.

3 Thomas M. Shapiro, Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future (New York: Basic Books, 2017, Primo by Ex Libris ebook), introduction.

4 Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2016), 2.

5 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, revised edition (New York: The New Press, 2012; NAACP, “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” naacp.org, consulted 11/14/2017.

6 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963).

7 James Oliver Horton, “Patriot Acts: Public History in Public Service,” The Journal of American History 92, 3 (December, 2005): 801-810, 801.