Friday, February 5, 2021

I Couldn't Be Prouder - Reframing What It Meant To Be A "Slave"

 One of the things that used to cause me no end of shame and discomfort when I was in middle school and high school was the discussion of slaves in America.

There were many things they could have been called.

The Myth of the Happy Slave

Kidnapped Enslaved Africans.


Kidnapped Enslaved People.

Enslaved for Generations.

Denied basic humanity for Generations.

Raped, Beaten, Worked, Violated, Experimented upon, and Viewed as Property for Generations.

How was it faced in my history books?

Ha! Got you! It wasn't faced at all.

Slavery was usually dealt with using as little language and discussion as possible. The books downplayed it when it was discussed.

Oh, they said that not all slave owners were mean. They assured us that slaves were valuable and so it would not have made sense to treat them badly. Oh, yes, there were some terrible slave owners, but not all of them were bad.

I have no doubt that my classmates were telling themselves that if they'd lived in those times, they would have been "good" slave owners.  They never would have beaten their slaves.

Some probably were certain they wouldn't have had slaves at all, and I am sure some of them would not have. 

Some no doubt were certain they would have been part of the Underground Railroad, and perhaps they would have been.

What none of them took into account - mostly because our textbook didn't deal with it at all, was what the enslaved people thought of this whole situation.

Oh, and that's a thing I should discuss if you've never heard me bring it up in the past.

I would like to respectfully submit that from here on in we should always refer to the state of living for those people abducted and forced away from their homes as enslaved.

The word "slave" suggests that a person is a thing. Being a slave in the context of early American history is like a brand. It suggests that this was a natural state of being for the captured Africans. It is like that big scarlet letter. Trust me. My classmates were being told that I was a descendant of slaves.

You don't need another party to be a slave. If you are in someone's custody, they own you. Being free is not your natural or normal state.

The word "enslaved" suggests that somebody is actively doing something to you.

As opposed to saying that Africans were slaves and that is a mark against us as a people, I should endeavor to say that they were enslaved. Enslaved is an active thing. It requires an enslaver. Without an enslaver, the enslaved are free. 

I wonder what my classes would have been like if instead of talking about Southerners and "their slaves", how it would sound if we'd been taught about "Enslavers and their victims."

Substitute Enslavers for Southerners, and I suspect those kids who looked at me out of the sides of their eyes when someone said, "slaves" would have instead stared down at their textbooks and hoped I wasn't looking at them as "enslavers". I also wish the textbooks had been more clear about how truly evil it was. 

I was not the one who should have been ashamed of my ancestors in that situation. They hadn't done anything wrong or immoral.

So, just to bring the point home, this is what happened.

- The enslavers removed the youngest, strongest men women, and children from West Africa for three hundred years.

- It is estimated that over the three centuries of human devastation - fifteen to twenty million Africans were abducted from their homeland.

- We will never know how many of these people were murdered during transport from Africa to the Western World, but it is estimated to be at least one million. (Yes, murdered. The process of transporting them, and the way they were transported led directly to their deaths) - and yes, I'm still salty about this.

The Upshot?

In Africa -

For three centuries the Western World removed their youngest, strongest, brightest, and most promising people. 

Cultures collapsed -

Families were destroyed -

People lived in perpetual fear -

Progress stagnated -

Traditional ways were abandoned and lost -

The people were devastated, scattered, and traumatized - REPEATEDLY for three centuries

In America -

Imagine that you have rounded up the youngest, strongest, most able men, women, and children you could find. You put them in pens.

Some of them are not going to survive that. The strongest will. The most cunning. The ones who have the most will to live. The angriest.

Put them on ships and send them across the ocean.

Some of them are going to die. Who will survive? The strongest. The most cunning. The ones who have the most will to live. The angriest.

Now, you are on the other side of the ocean. What have you got left?

The Strongest of the strong

The Most Cunning of the cunning

The Most determined to live

The angriest damn people on the planet

The ones who were able to reach inside of themselves and find a reason to go on whether it was through music or stories or hope

That is a pretty intense group of people. 

That is the group that the enslavers in America tried to keep like livestock.

When you look at it like that, then lots of things make sense.

These were not a group of people who'd been beaten down and dominated.

This was a group of people who had figured out how to survive. 

Phyllis Wheatley - First black Poetess in America
Harriet Tubman comes from This!

Sojourner Truth comes from This!      

Frederick Douglass comes from This!

Madam CJ Walker comes from This!

Phyllis Wheatley comes from This!

All of the glorious, brilliant, determined, angry, stubborn, hopeful, beautiful black men, women, and children who have the blood of survivors running through their veins come from this!

I come from this. 

That is who I am.

And I couldn't be prouder.

I Couldn't Be Prouder - Reframing What It Meant To Be A "Slave"


  1. Erica TaraporevalaFebruary 5, 2021 at 8:44 PM

    powerful telling, I can imagine you telling this. So proud to know you not just as a storyteller but as a descendent of this wonderfully glorious determund people who survived the horror and cruelty and greed and small mindedness and brutality of the enslavers.

  2. Yes Yes & Yes! I have never seen it explained like this! When I came to this post I imagined some scholarly or clever refiguring but this, this - while crazy clever - is also a revolutionary way to see the spirit of the enslaved who survived the Middle Passage, the big steal - the savagery. Can’t wait to share this. Fantastic. I feel elevated by your thoughts! Thank you.

  3. I love your designation of "enslavers." It gives the era a whole different light.

  4. Yes! Important to differentiate who are the Doers and who are the Done To.

  5. Wow, the image of "blood of survivors running through their veins" will stick with me.

  6. Thank you Donna. So eloquent, so powerful.