A recent Reuters investigation reveals that more than 100 U.S. political leaders descend from slaveholders. This includes five living U.S. presidents, two Supreme Court justices, 11 governors and 100 legislators across party lines. Amid rising debates on slavery and its legacy, from school curricula to the movement for reparations, Reuters examined how politicians are reckoning with these discussions as they reflect on their own familial ties to slavery, but many refused to comment on the findings. This examination refutes the notion that slavery is a relic of the distant past that has no bearing on our current society. It serves as a firm reminder of the legacies of slavery in the U.S. and how it shapes our political landscape.
Slavery was an economic and social system that allowed families to reproduce wealth, status and power. It was simultaneously a systemic issue and an individual choice: Slavery underpinned the economies of Europe, West Africa, and North and South America; and it was upheld by individual choices to buy and sell enslaved people.
As the descendants of enslavers, these 100+ political elite are direct recipients of the wealth and resources created by slavery. Slavery would shape all parts of the U.S. economy, from agriculture, textiles, banks, insurance and transportation. The 4 million enslaved people alive in the 1860s generated an estimated $3.5 billion, making them the single largest “financial asset” in the U.S. economy at the time. It is no understatement that the U.S. is built on the wealth of slavery.
For many African Americans, the link between slavery and their history is obvious and irrefutable. Those who descend from Africans brought to the U.S. through the transatlantic slave trade have no choice but to be aware of this truth. Even though I am not African American, I am the descendant of enslaved people relocated to the Caribbean, and there is no way for me to address my history without discussing slavery. It transformed the lives, cultures, languages and identities of my ancestors.
Even though initial feelings of guilt and shame can arise when reflecting on slavery and its legacies, addressing this history can serve as an important step in seeking racial justice. I decided to study the history of the African Diaspora for this reason during college. Learning about slavery and its impacts gives me a better understanding of the American socio-political landscape. I learned that there is no running from our history; it has already found a way to catch up with us in the present. It’s understandable that conversations around slavery are uncomfortable — it was a horrible system of mass human trafficking that displaced millions of people and reduced them to property. Even during slavery, Americans struggled with addressing the brutality of the system, so much so that it led to Civil War. It’s no surprise that today it’s still a sore topic. But that discomfort shouldn’t produce apathy, but instead could be a platform to further reflection.
Unfortunately, right-wing movements to actively erase this vital history are growing across the country. The rhetoric that discussing slavery makes white students feel bad is used to justify this erasure. In Florida, for instance, Gov. Ron Desantis has pushed laws that ban discussing the truth about U.S. slavery in schools, and has gutted AP African American history courses of their content on slavery and civil rights movements. As a Floridian, I’m frustrated knowing that the projects I put on for Black History Month just five years ago, that ignited my love for history, are now illegal in my school. The history of slavery isn’t just African American history – it is U.S. history, and all students need to learn it.
When discussing the legacies of slavery, the goal isn’t necessarily to assign blame. There are no historical slaveholders that are alive now, and their descendants aren’t responsible for this horrific system. However, that doesn’t negate the need to reflect on how this past system continues to shape the country to the detriment of some and the benefit of others. Slavery reinforced systems of racial hierarchy that still exist in the U.S. today. Black Americans, even those not descendants of American enslaved people, still pay the price of this inequality. White Americans also don’t need to directly descend from slaveholders to benefit from the legacy of this inequality either.
Slavery is an uncomfortable topic for most Americans. For some Americans, it evokes ancestral pain and dehumanization, but also resilience and survival. For others, it brings up feelings of shame and confusing questions of responsibility.
Movements demanding reparations are striking a chord with many Americans, leading to contentious discussions. On the local, state and federal levels, there have been efforts to research and propose reparation efforts to address racial injustice, particularly for African Americans. These demands have been met with mixed responses, as some efforts are successful and others are unsuccessful. Uncertainty looms on how to properly address slavery and the legacy of racial injustice — and move forward.
U.S. history is incomplete without reflecting on slavery and its effects, and when we address this history properly, we gain a better understanding of the country’s present and future. When we understand slavery, we can understand present economic conditions across different communities, geographic distributions, the rise of major cities, labor patterns across the country, and the emergence of diverse American cultures, cuisines and traditions. We have so much more to gain from learning our history when we let go of our fears.
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