Our world is built around the idea of power; those who have it get to say what story is the one that is told. When you want to enslave people, physically placing them in shackles will only do the job half way. When those people have knowledge of self, they are much harder to break. You can expect many uprisings that will deplete your forces in the long run and eventually you will succumb to them. Separating the people from their roots and other information will tighten those shackles, but not only around their wrist or feet, around their minds. After you control one’s mind, the body has no choice but to follow.
When I used read science-fiction stories or watch movies of dystopian futures I began to notice a trend that was interesting. When the story's antagonist (dictator or big brother figure) came to power they did so by effectively cutting the people off from their history by burning the books and the art and punishing those who told tales of the past; how things used to be. By doing so, they were able to control what the people believed about the world they lived in and, in turn, what they ultimately believed about themselves.
The institution of (chattel) slavery here in the United States was so successful because the people in charge did just that, they were able to cut the people off from everything they knew and believed in and as a result, the slave masters created a whole new world for them. Now, I previously made sure that I indicated which form of slavery was used in the Americas because the practice of slavery was not new, nor was it exclusive to this country. In it’s most basic form slavery was often a result of a defeat in war. Your country/tribe lost, you could be subject to servitude unless instructed otherwise (i.e. Take no prisoners!).
Many instances the captives had a fixed sentence they had to serve as slaves and then would be able to go back to their families, they were also allowed to retain their native language, and marry. As we know, slavery in America was for life, chances are if you were born a slave, you would die as one, or if you were captured and forced into slavery, you wouldn’t be able to earn your freedom. There was no going back to your family. Slaves were forced to submit and assimilate. That meant learning a new language, denouncing customs of their old country, and also converting to a new religion. Once the masters were able to break the people down and force them to change the way they thought, the template was set for the next generations to come. It is precisely the reason why after a few generations chains were no longer needed to keep a slave on a plantation. They kept themselves in check.
Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist, humanitarian, and civil war spy was famous for making hundreds of trips to different plantations to find slaves and guide them to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. Those who are somewhat familiar with her story may think her only opposition were the slave owners and plantation overseers. However, she also had other people to worry about; some of the very people she was risking her life to save. She would arrive to liberate the people that were in bondage, but some didn’t understand the fact they were even enslaved. Because of this, they felt that there was nothing wrong with the way their lives were, and felt running away was absurd. Some went as far as trying to sabotage her mission by telling local authorities her plans to help Black people escape.
Tubman often had to threaten some people with the handgun she traveled with because she knew if someone got cold feet and wanted to turn around, they could lead authorities back to her. She couldn’t risk that. We see this character in every slave movie; the “Uncle Tom” figure that loves his master more than he loves himself. Think of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film, “Django: Unchained,” or Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks cartoon. While watching we scream at the screen and curse under our breath because it is upsetting to see some who looks like you not love himself and the skin he was blessed with. However, it's important to note, that type of self-hate is a learned behavior, programming over years and years of hearing you are inferior while at the same time your circumstances are proof to those teachings. With no other information to say otherwise, our perceived inferiority is a narrative that some had no choice but to agree with. It is very easy to look back on those people who didn’t want to escape with disgust and confusion, but we have to understand what world they saw through their eyes.
I’m sure we’d all like to think that we would be those runaways that fought for freedom, but doing so without proper context and perspective denigrates the inner struggle many slaves faced. Born servitude, many thought it was normal because it was all they knew, the idea of being free didn't register in their minds because they couldn’t fathom someone of a darker complexion free as the people that owned them, and being equal to the folks that oppressed them. Not to mention, they were human beings with families and natural fears of the unknown. The enslaved were then given religious “proof” that they were, in fact, inferior and that God made the world this way for a reason. Then the people are denied availability to any information that says otherwise and punished when they tried to learn basic skills like reading and writing. When you don’t know any other way, your mind subconsciously agrees to anything it is told. Those slaves that were afraid to escape were subjects to the power that was held over them, both physically and mentally. American chattel slavery may be over, but the affects are still being seen today. What lens do we collectively see the world in now?
Malcom X. Bowser is a writer, curator, and founder of Urban X.