What do you think was the worst thing about a slave auction?

That was the question on a 10th-grade American history homework handout we were shown this week, from a public school in the Northeast. Needless to say, it was from the Civil War section of the curriculum. It was followed by this puzzler: “How do you think slaves felt at a slave auction, and why?”

The mind boggles at these questions. A slave auction is the place where the purpose of slavery is fulfilled: to breed human beings for sale. Is there any facet of a slave auction that is not repellent? Can the horrors of a slave auction be hierarchized? What were students supposed to say to answer this question? It implies that there were some aspects of slave auctions that were less awful than others, which is simply untrue.

We asked what textbook the class was using, and were given a copy: American History: A Survey, with Alan Brinkley listed as main author on the cover (McGraw-Hill, 2003 edition). While the handout in question did not come from this textbook, its habit of qualifying slavery as only partly bad is shared and propounded by American History.

First, we’d like to remind our readers that We don’t talk about black slavery in America:

I don’t like to use the word “slave”. To me, it validates the concept that people can be changed from people to slaves, things, property. Many people have been and still are enslaved around the world. But no human being is a slave.

Like most Americans, however, American History uses the word slave without qualm. The damage this does is quickly apparent. Let’s parse a few quotes from the book.

From a section on black codes:

These and dozens of other restrictions might seem to suggest that slaves lived under a uniformly harsh and dismal regime. Had the laws been rigidly enforced, that might have been the case. In fact, however, enforcement was spotty and uneven. Some slaves did acquire property, did learn to read and write, and assemble with other slaves, in spite of laws to the contrary. Although the major slave offenses generally fell under the jurisdiction of the courts (and thus of the Slave Codes), white owners handled most transgressions and inflicted widely varying punishments. In other words, despite the rigid provisions of the law, there was in reality considerable variety within the slave system. Some blacks lived in almost prison-like conditions, rigidly and harshly controlled by their masters. Many (probably most) others enjoyed some flexibility and (at least in comparison with the regimen prescribed by law) a striking degree of autonomy.

—Using the word “slave” here does exactly what racists in the 19th century wanted it to do: it dehumanizes. “Slaves” do this and that, “slaves” experience different treatment by “owners”, “slaves” enjoy flexibility. How can we still be referring to some human beings as “owners” of other human beings in 2017?? It is inexcusable. And we’re not sure what proofs the authors have that “probably most” enslaved Americans were able to escape the harshness of black codes.

A quick note: history textbooks from big K-12 publishers are produced by freelance writers, and edited by freelance editors. The historian’s name on the cover means little. Usually that historian has been brought in to write a new chapter, a new section or two, and to help come up with supplementary material. The main text is mostly static. Freelance writers are given existing copy and asked to revise it in some way (usually to shorten it). HP authors have worked as freelance writers and editors for history textbooks, so we could take a page out of American History and say that “many, probably most,” freelance writers working on textbooks have no idea whether the content they are given is accurate/factual or not. They are not asked to vet the copy for accuracy. If, as some HP writers have done, they point out errors to their editor, the editor is usually at a complete loss about what to do—there is no contingency plan for changing what the copy says, just for shortening or moving it around or putting it into bullet points or multiple choice questions. We had nothing to do with the writing of American History, and do not make any claims to know exactly how it was produced; we work under our own assumption that it followed this standard procedure. And so when we wonder what proofs are given that “most” enslaved Americans were not subject to the full force of the black codes, we feel sure that that question, if it was ever asked by a freelancer, was never answered.

Back to the text:

White farmers with few slaves generally supervised their workers directly and often worked closely alongside them. On such farms, black and whites developed a form of intimacy unknown on larger plantations. The paternal relationship between such masters and their slaves could, like relationships between fathers and children, be warm and affectionate. It could also be tyrannical and cruel. In either case, it was a relationship based on the relative powerlessness of the slaves and the nearly absolute authority of their masters. In general, African Americans themselves preferred to live on larger plantations, where they had more privacy and a chance to build a cultural and social world of their own.

—It is hard to believe one’s eyes: the 19th century idea of paternalism is being endorsed by a 21st-century textbook. The relationship between “masters” and “slaves” was like that between fathers and children? The idea that slavery could be a “positive good”, helping poor ignorant black people to learn how to live in society and follow Christian teaching, was relentlessly shopped by proslavery Americans in the 1800s. And here it is again in the 2000s, as students are told that “intimacy,” and “warm and affectionate” feelings could grow between people who were being bred for sale and those breeding them for sale.

Of course, we should back up to the first line, in which enslaved people are described as “workers.” Another textbook came under fire for doing this in 2015; people who are enslaved and by law treated as livestock are not “workers”. We’ll revisit this below.

Finally, to describe large plantations as having safe spaces for people suddenly referred to as “African Americans” to have private lives and create their own culture, without giving any kind of proof of this claim, is pretty alarming. Why is this the one place where “slaves” are suddenly “African Americans”? The suggestion is that on large plantations–which were large because the forced breeding was ramped up–were in part havens in which black Americans began to create African-American culture.

Even so, according to some scholars, the actual material conditions of slavery may, in fact, have been better than those of many northern factory workers and considerably better than those of both peasants and industrial workers in 19th-century Europe.

—…we’d say “some (not most) scholars” on this one. Here enslavement is presented once again as just another kind of hard “work.” But it’s also yet another argument proslavery Americans made in the 1800s, before and after the Civil War, to promote and protect slavery. Yes, factory workers lived in abysmal poverty, and their bosses had total control over them at work. But they weren’t bred for sale, their families weren’t broken up and sold to different people who considered themselves their “owners”, and you could quit factory work if you wanted to. You could work your way up the ladder to be a boss. You got paid. You could vote. You could get married if you wanted to, to whoever you wanted to. You could move away. You were a citizen of this country, with the rights of a citizen. This is, to put it mildly, better than slavery.

Most free blacks [in the south], however, lived in abject poverty, under conditions worse than those of blacks in the north. Law or custom closed many occupations to them, forbade them to assemble without white supervision, and placed numerous other restraints on them. They were only quasi-free, and yet they had all the burdens of freedom: the necessity to support themselves, to find housing, to pay taxes. Yet great as were the hardships of freedom, blacks usually preferred them to slavery.”

—The “burdens of freedom” is an expression, a concept, that we have not encountered before. Again, echoes of the old proslavery arguments are heard: slaveholders give slaves food, shelter, clothes, religion; they care for them when they’re sick; they support them when they’re too old to work. Why, slaves had it pretty good! If it weren’t so breathtakingly awful to say blacks usually preferred freedom to slavery, we would laugh. Yes, black Americans usually preferred freedom to slavery. Like people usually prefer not being tortured to being tortured.

This last line is the most sickening, perhaps, of the echoes of proslavery arguments: that the enslaved liked slavery. That they knew they were not intelligent enough, not civilized enough, to be free, and they were grateful for their white masters’ help and care. The recently revived myth that “many” enslaved black men fought willingly for the Confederacy is a sign of the undying appeal of this idea to a small number of Americans (see more on this myth here).

Next time: more, if you can bear it, from American History: A Survey

12 thoughts on “What do you think was the worst thing about a slave auction?

  1. Words accrete meanings as contexts change. “Slave” comes from the word “slav”, or “slavic,” referring to the geographic area many peoples conquered by the Romans came from and from whom they required forced labor. It wasn’t usually a life long condition and did not carry a specifically ethnic overtone. What we’re trying to do in the 21st century is undo the accretions to the word which began in the late 1600s and 1700s when European plantation owners in the Caribbean found that forced labor done by those of African origin was of better quality than that done by peoples native to the Caribbean, and the practice spread to the North American mainland, most specifically in the South, where plantation-type farming was common. The word “slave” began to carry ethnic overtones–specifically African—which it had not had before. Jumping to the present: is the goal of this blog to show how ethnic overtones have been deliberately used to denigrate certain peoples since the late 1600s? I’m for that goal. But I’m not in favor of re-writing historical terms like the “Missouri Compromise” or the “Compromise of 1850” which were used to describe events in the long process many thought would avoid war (and eventually did not). Yes, slavery was clearly wrong and abolitionists were not afraid to say so. Also yes, the value of keeping the country together also played an important role. Does this blog favor not mentioning that desire? –Eventually the country could not be kept together. War was the result when the Confederacy was formed (partly because Lincoln had been elected), states in the south seceded and removed federal buildings and property, Lincoln sent troops to protect Fort Sumter, and Confederates shot at them.


    1. Hello Celinda; thanks for commenting. It’s not really the case that Africans were better slave labor than Native Americans, though we used to be taught that in school. We’re not sure we follow all of your argument, but the goal of this blog is to explore American history and correct false narratives. We’re glad you support that.


      1. Please, don’t make assumptions. I was not ‘taught” that “Africans were better laborers than Native
        Americans” at all and certainly not “in school.” I will try to find my source for the idea that Caribbean planters preferred African laborers to members of native Caribbean tribes, but I didn’t learn it “in school.” That information was presented in my source as an instance of one reason for the importation of labor from Africa. It may have been part of a history of the uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. Or it may have been in a book on Caribbean history–anyway, I wasn’t “taught” it, and I will check it out.

        The teams of authors of textbooks used in teaching history 1986-2004 in my school district were careful to avoid the “false narratives” of which you speak, presented a great deal of multi-cultural information, and used some primary sources. There was no “narrative” supporting the superiority of whites or excusing wrong things done by governments and by individuals.

        A graduate course in American History up to 1776 I took in 2010 at a local university had no textbook, of course–just a number of books, one of which contained misinformation (the claim that all settlers in western PA wanted to kill Indians). It was good to be able to locate that authors’ sources in the university library and find out where he got his information. He had his own “narrative,” and bent information to suit his purpose.


      2. Our assumption was not hostile, so you have no reason to treat it as such. We look forward to seeing your source, and engaging in objective debate.


  2. Why would a school in the Northeast of the U. S. have such a history book being used in a public school? Perhaps it is because they want Americans to get used to the idea of slavery being better than freedom – i.e. the government giving us ‘free’ everything. The Left wants Americans to want socialism so that they can control us.


    1. Hello Elizabeth; we have to say your comment is off base. Socialism is not slavery, socialism is not “free everything”, and comparing actual slavery to government-funded safety nets is fundamentally incorrect. There are arguments to be made against federally funded social programs, but saying that they represent slavery is not one of them.


      1. Illness and ill treatment are the far more likely reasons why there were fewer Native Americans than Africans enslaved in the Caribbean. In North America there was far more enslavement of Native Americans than we had known before; check out Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery by Margaret Ellen Newell for a fascinating and fact-based account of Native American enslavement in colonial New England.


      2. I still haven’t found the source from years ago which said the members of the Caribbean tribes weren’t as suited to the very hard physical labor as were persons from Africa–just sources which refer to the devastating effect on the Carib tribes of the labor to which they were subjugated. And another about the increase in the importation of persons from Africa. This source has still another slant on enslavement: https://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/HIST321-10.1.2-Ameridian-Slavery-in-the-Caribbean-FINAL.pdf


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