OPINION: Slavery Was About Profit – By Jamelle Bouie | NY Times

By Jamelle Bouie | NY Times

I spent most of this month working on a long piece on using data to understand the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is on the cover of the Sunday Review this week, if you want to check it out.

One of the parts we had to trim for space was a paragraph on the domestic trade within the United States. A significant part of the slave system, the domestic trade relied on the sale of “surplus” slaves from the states of the Upper South down to New Orleans and beyond. Here’s what I wrote:

Slaveholders in Upper South states like Virginia and Maryland produced a “surplus” of enslaved labor, which they sold to traders. Those traders brought their captives to markets in Charleston and Savannah and New Orleans, where they would be sold to the highest bidder to labor and produce profit. Enslaved women were expected, as well, to produce new capital, in the form of children, for their enslavers.         

In addition to this point, it is also worth saying why there was such a “surplus” to begin with.

The short answer is: TOBACCO. 

Tobacco, for most of the colonial period, was the agricultural backbone of chattel slavery in the South. Virginia and Maryland were, for all intents and purposes, tobacco colonies, where planters used huge numbers of enslaved people to produce vast amounts of tobacco for European consumption. This extractive agriculture — practically unavoidable to commodities-driven slave cultivation — exhausts the soil in fairly short order. That’s why slaveholders were one of the engines of American expansion in the first decades of the republic. They needed more and more soil to cultivate tobacco, cotton and other commercial staples.

One consequence of this, for the oldest slave economies in North America, was that there were more slaves than were needed to cultivate the land. Here’s none other than Karl Marx giving a succinct description of the dynamic in an 1861 essay on “The North American Civil War”:

The cultivation of the Southern export articles, cotton, tobacco, sugar, etc., carried on by slaves, is only remunerative as long as it is conducted with large gangs of slaves, on a mass scale and on wide expanses of a naturally fertile soil, which requires only simple labor.

Intensive cultivation, which depends less on the fertility of the soil than the investment of capital, intelligence and energy of labor, is contrary to the nature of slavery. Hence the rapid transformation of states like Maryland and Virginia, which formerly employed slaves on the production of export articles, into states which raised slaves in order to export these slaves into the deep South.

Knowing all this, you can very easily see how the slave system grew in the decades before the Civil War. The advent of the cotton gin made it possible to grow huge amounts of cotton in a variety of different environments. As demand for cotton grew as a result of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, so too did the demand for enslaved labor in the South and, in turn, the demand for new land to cultivate.

Demand for the labor stimulated the slave-breeding economy of the Upper South, and demand for land drove Native dispossession. As the historian Joshua D. Rothman notes in “The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America,” “The extension of slavery, seen across the Atlantic world in the nineteenth century, both furthered and was nurtured by technological, economic, political, and ideological changes that ushered in the modern age.”

The point I want to make here, both in the essay and in this addendum, is that we should not think of the slave system or the slave trade as somehow about racism and hatred. IT WAS ABOUT PROFIT. That’s why — and how — it lasted so long. And historical analysis aside, to see chattel slavery as part of a system of labor or profit — to see it as part of a larger class system — is to better understand the ideas, ideologies and institutions it produced over the course of its life and the ways they shaped, and continue to shape, our world.


The “Triangular Trade”. during Slavery (Wikipedia)

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  • kamtanblog  On 02/01/2022 at 12:12 am

    Very informative/interesting read.
    Thanks to GOl for sharing.

    Profit and greed a human curse/pandemic.


    K UK

  • Ian Wishart.  On 02/04/2022 at 11:33 am

    So Jamelle Bouie has discovered that slavery was for profit. What next, that the Pope is a Catholic?

  • wally n  On 02/04/2022 at 12:22 pm

    Somethings belong in the rear view mirror, hard to move forward, when plastered on windshield.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/06/2022 at 12:32 am

    REVIEW: ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America’
    — Imparts Powerful Lessons

    Documentary, directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler, captures Jeffery Robinson’s meticulous lecture

    BY ROBERT DANIELS | Los Angeles Times

    The California Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because movie-going carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

    There’s a moment in co-directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s searing documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” that, with greater thought, haunts the viewer to unfathomable ends.

    The film’s host, Jeffery Robinson, the former deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is touring the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, S.C., a place where the enslaved were prepared for the auction block.

    He and Ista Clarke, the operations manager of the museum, come across a life-size photo of an enslaved Black man and adolescent girl. The camera slowly tilts down the image of their bodies, taking notice of their tattered clothes, until it finally settles at their feet, where rusted, antique shackles, one being child-sized for the girl, rest.

    Imagine a system so finely tuned, that it comes with chains measured to the exact specifications needed to trap children. Such an industry didn’t emerge overnight.

    In fact, in the nearly 150 years since the abolition of slavery, those cold mechanizations used by white supremacists in America have only become more precise.

    “Who We Are”, a revelatory, albeit stiff documentary, anchored by Robinson’s personal anecdotes and footage of his 2018 lecture at New York City’s Town Hall Theater, uncovers startling research while surveying the country’s unimaginable racial crimes.

    Robinson’s meticulous presentation at Town Hall Theater is the result of a ruminative journey he began when he struggled to explain to his then-13-year-old nephew about race in America. Robinson explains to the packed auditorium how he sees history as a series of inflection points. For him, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination is one such moment where the fortunes of an entire race changed.

    While Robinson offers a passionate, engaging onstage energy, he can’t overcome the staid trappings of the lecture format. The pacing languishes under the academic weight of slides and facts and figures. Rather his field work, when he ventures to different states to study the visible links to our living archive, beats with a stronger pulse.

    By visiting the New York Cotton Exchange building, wherein slave owners received insurance on the enslaved, the film destroys the unfounded myth of slavery as solely a Southern problem.

    Robinson also meets with Mother Lessie Benningfield Randle, a 107-year old survivor of the Tulsa Massacre and speaks with Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. In discussing the violence perpetrated against African Americans, both women offer potent, harrowing memories. Copious videos of police violence against Black folks adorn the film. Though Emily and Sarah Kunstler thoughtfully cut these clips short of their most gruesome seconds, these images come with a major trigger warning.

    But Robinson’s best, most tender teachings arise from his personal anecdotes:

    How his parents navigated the redlining practices of Memphis, the aggressions he faced as St. Louis Catholic High School’s first Black student, and the day when a local African American teenager, Larry Payne, died at the hands of police, while Robinson and his father marched with King just days before MLK’s assassination.

    Payne’s still-grieving adult sister, Carolyn, reveals to Robinson the coldblooded apathy white authorities used to murder her brother. Their acute talk, contextualized by the haunting archival footage, vividly restored, of Payne’s limp body carried on a stretcher, thematically recalls the child’s shackles, or how white supremacists dehumanize Black people from womb to tomb.

    Through Robinson’s fervor for truth, Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s “Who We Are” chronicles how such heartaches, when observed on a personal level, remind us how knowing the unchangeable past can still improve the alterable future for the better. This film should be shown in every classroom.

    ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’

    Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, disturbing images, violence and strong language, all involving racism — Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/06/2022 at 12:33 am

    BLACK HISTORY MONTH — They gave us the shortest month, at dat!!

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