If slaves could be whisked suddenly to modern America, they would be dumbfounded by people who use slavery – 158 years “after freedom broke” – to create the illusion that white oppression still cripples blacks at every turn.
They’d see Oprah, Obama, black mayors, black police chiefs, black surgeons, black attorneys, black scientists, athletes, astronauts, and entrepreneurs, and wonder if something magical happened in America. It did. Freedom.
Still, Ibram X. Kendi wrote the column, “We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic,” for The Atlantic in May. Calls to lift the COVID-19 stay-at-home policy, he wrote, is an example of “the psyche of the slaveholder” never leaving America. Conservatives wanting to open the economy is “the slaveholder clamoring for his freedom to infect, and the enslaved clamoring for our freedom from infection.”
So being forced to lock down is freedom and being free to choose is slavery. Got it.
It takes a doctorate in African-American Studies to make such mush ring like truth. People like Kendi are doing it a lot these days. And why not? The hellish history of human bondage glitters with caverns of rhetorical gold. If looking backward is your thing, there are mountains to dig through. After all, American plantations were bustling sanctums of Hell.
Think of George Lewis. He had the misfortune of being the slave of two sadistic masters – Lilburne and Isham Lewis – Thomas Jefferson’s nephews. The Lewis brothers were the sons of Charles Lilburn Lewis and his first cousin, Lucy Jefferson, the former president’s sister.
In 1811, “Slave George” accidentally broke a water pitcher that belonged to Lucy. In a fit of demonic rage, the brothers tied the teenager to the floor, lit up a fireplace, and forced other slaves to witness what happens when slaves get lazy.
Lilburne chopped George’s neck with an ax, then ordered a slave to cut up his body parts, one by one, and throw them into the fireplace. The other slaves, terrified out of their minds, watched the dismemberment from evening until 2 a.m.
Fountain Hughes must’ve known about Slave George. His grandfather was Wormly Hughes, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson. But Hughes was far more “fortunate.” His master was a Christian man who preferred to treat slaves “civilly.”
It didn’t matter. Hughes loved freedom. He preferred death to slavery.
“If I thought … that I’d ever be a slave again,” Hughes said, “I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog. You’re not a thing but a dog.”
Fortunate for us, Hughes was born 17 years before emancipation. He lived until 1957, two years after Rosa Parks’ arrest sparked the MLK-led Montgomery bus boycott. Hughes lived long enough to be one of 23 ex-slaves tape-recorded for the Library of Congress between 1932 and 1975. Engineer Herman Norwood interviewed “Uncle Fountain” on June 11, 1949. He was 101.
Nestled in the reflections about his history were three sentences Hughes uttered that captured the two basic ways that blacks responded – not to the horrors of slavery – but to the challenges of freedom.
“Colored people that’s free ought to be awful thankful,” Hughes said. “And some of them is sorry they are free now. Some of them now would rather be slaves.”
Ex-slaves would “rather be slaves”? Why? Because they never learned how to live in freedom. It was a shock.
“Didn’t know nothing ‘bout reading and writing,” said ex-slave Harriet Smith, recorded in 1941. “All I knowed they teach you is mind your master and missus. Momma and them didn’t know where to go, see – after freedom broke. … Didn’t know where to go.”
They were like the Hebrews in Moses’s day whose wilderness experience was so excruciating that some longed for Egypt.
“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt,” they said. “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3, NIV)
In a similar way, freedom was so shocking to American ex-slaves that they missed the predictability of their lives in bondage.
“Who wouldn’t be [afraid]?” asked Shelby Steele. “Freedom is a frightening thing. It places such a burden of responsibility on you – the person who has it. You’re now responsible. … [F]reedom says: ‘We’re not responsible for you anymore. You’re responsible for your underdevelopment. You fix it or you don’t, it’s up to you.’
“Freedom requires a whole different orientation toward the world,” he said. “Freedom is saying: ‘You can’t use oppression as an excuse anymore. If you’re not doing well, it’s on you.’”
As racism, lynching, and Jim Crow polluted the air in his day, ex-slaves like Booker T. Washington endured the excruciating burdens of freedom, to build an institute that still stands today. W.E.B. Du Bois – who considered Washington to be an “accommodator” and an Uncle Tom-type – pursued redress in politics. And why not? Oppression was real.
But today, oppression is over. The good guys won. Yet, a fresh generation of Kendis and BLM-types hang on to Du Bois’ legacy of agitation as if nothing has changed. Demanding that government fix things that individuals can only fix for themselves is the psyche of the slave never leaving America. A slave mentality.
“The black leadership has no clue how to move ahead,” said Steele, “so they move backward. … They reinvent their oppression – even as it has faded away. They make it up in their minds all over again. Racism is around every corner. There’s systemic racism. There’s structural racism. There are microaggressions and there is white privilege. This is the shock of freedom.”
We can’t whisk generations of slaves to America. But Fountain Hughes told us how to honor their memory – the people who were actually harmed by forced servitude from birth to death for centuries: “Colored people that’s free ought to be awful thankful,” he said.
Gratitude is a first step to looking forward. Looking backward is not working and getting worse. It’s produced broken families, black-on-black crime, looting, burning, twerking on top of police cars, and incessant complainers who exploit the sufferings of their ancestors for power, money, politics, and stolen glory.
If an ex-slave can be “awful thankful” in 1949, so can blacks born in freedom, 158 years “after freedom broke,” in the freest country in history.