How Did We Get Here?

Today’s post was inspired by the 1998 hit, Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here, by Canadian R&B songstress, Deborah Cox.

In this 1998 hit, Deborah repeatedly posed the question of how this guy came onto the scene and basically swept her off her feet after being burned by love too many times before. Sis was perplexed and to be honest, so are we. Not by how she was swept off of her feet, dude was a cutie and he treated her the way she deserved to be treated. Unlike our girl Deborah, black people as a collective cannot lay claim to this whole idea of being treated “right.” And, with so much going on, there are moments where I sit back and wonder how we got to the current state we’re in. Like sometimes you have to look to your neighbor and just say ‘how?!’ Don’t fret, because I’m here to clear up some of the confusion. So, the short answer to how we as a collective got here is simple, take a listen to 1619, the New York Times audio series is pretty dope. Hosted by, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the series takes us back to day damn one of the arrival of the first slaves in this country.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what is it that played into this idea that blacks were less than and therefore should be treated as such? In order to better understand this conundrum it’s important to understand two things. First, we must look at how race was socially constructed and developed to take a lead role in systemic oppression. Second, how race, used as a social construct; laid the foundation for black bodies to be the primary resource to help a young and inexperienced America. Black-American slaves were used to build and establish America’s economy into one of the most powerful and wealthiest nations of the modern world. The 18th and 19th century saw many nations buy into this notion that race was scientifically linked to genetics and hereditary traits.  As such, black people took center stage as being a direct threat to the fragility of western civilization and their hopes of globalization and colonization. Because black people were believed to be the defect in human biology, we were collectively viewed as disposable machinery. Now, I firmly believe that behavior follows belief. So, when we look at the global campaign that was colonialism, we see this continuous narrative portraying blacks as less than, was etched in the hearts and minds of nations around the world. Exploitation, manipulation, and dehumanization were intricate in ensuring blacks were viewed as the degenerate aggressors by their oppressors. Concepts such as eugenics, degeneration theory, and nationalism derived from European society and this idea that the new urbanization that had taken hold in society, at the time, had brought about a host of problems such as densely populated areas, poverty, and increased crime. And it had, but the causes of urbanization were mostly attributed to this idea that the people who populated these areas were somehow genetically inferior and defective. Sounds familiar doesn’t it.

At the height of slavery the combined value of all enslaved people was more than that of all the railroads and all the factories of the nation combined.

Matthew Desmond

So, how does this play into politics and behavior? In my opinion, way back then, far-far ago when the 13 colonies were founded the groundwork was laid. The plantations required workers to cultivate and harvest the crops that were the life-blood of the economy. The need to rid society of the immoral underclass in Europe was the perfect set up for “cheap” labor; remember that’s “cheap” and not “free” labor. Things are okay – if you can call it that- but as many of us know, the American Revolution that led to the Revolutionary War heavily impacted this “cheap labor” of white servitude.

Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock: Scene in the hold of the blood-stained Gloria shows a sailor walking among African captives in the hold of the slave ship. From the book REVELATIONS OF A SLAVE SMUGGLER, published in 1860.

The colonies were fresh off a victory from the British that lost its battle in trying to bring the colonies under a more centralized form of government to regulate trade. However, the victory would be short lived if they didn’t replace their labor force soon. After the war, immigration to the U.S. decreased dramatically and the cost of any labor agreement came at a higher cost. The colonies were left with a serious need for labor. But, we all know wars are costly so this new and improved labor would undoubtedly need to be involuntary and free.

I have ALWAYS held the premise that America’s soul is rife with greed. The Atlantic Slave Trade which lasted 400 years and brought over 10 million Africans to the America’s is by far one of the greatest acts of violence against humankind. Now, slavery in and of itself was never a friendly endeavor, but there are a few things that I personally believe led to the atrocities that was American Slavery. First, the serious need for “free” labor after the American Revolutionary War. Second, the ongoing Transatlantic Slave Trade that had already proven that Africans could withstand strenuous conditions as to where the indigenous people of America succumbed to disease; white servitude didn’t fare much better. Third, the invention of that damn cotton gin single-handedly threw American slavery into overdrive. This revolutionary machine dramatically decreased the time it took to process cotton thereby fueling the need for growth and expansion as cotton had become the leading export of the country at the time.

“One man and a horse will do more than fifty men with the old machines…Tis generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a Fortune by it.”

Eli Whitney, Jr. to his Father, 11 September 1793.  Eli Whitney Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Growth in the sense that plantation owners, aka “Massa,” now had the perfect tool to produce more cotton and thereby grow his income. Obviously the need to expand meant they would need to increase operations by recruiting a new, more resilient labor force. This new labor force would solidify America’s place in the global markets as an economic powerhouse, but it would have a lasting negative impact on the slaves themselves and their descendants. This new world inevitably paved the way for the environment we live in today.

In order for capitalism to thrive there must be competition and an oppressed group. Being that politics is ruled by money, there will always be an agenda to divide and conquer. Yes, I know we’d like to believe that we live on Sesame Street where we can all come together and sing kumbaya but this just is not the case. Case in point, the Civil War was truly a war of commerce. The south relied heavily on human slavery to keep their businesses afloat while the north had discovered a more advanced form of technology to do the same. Lincoln freed the slaves because the north basically found a new way of commerce with the introduction of a more organized labor force and machines (industrialization); not some humanitarian effort. There simply wasn’t a large need for slave labor anymore.

So again how did we get to a place in modern day America to where it still feels like White America’s foot is on our necks? Fast forward to 21st century America and where do we find ourselves? Generations and centuries later, after being brutalized, murdered, exploited, and dehumanized, much like Deborah, we have trust issues and are hella guarded; as we should be. When you have been lied to, mistreated and misused as much as black people in America have, you don’t walk away unscathed. Black people have always been viewed as less than, but the introduction of industrialization meant that black bodies now needed to be repurposed.

So, how did they go about repurposing? Well, if we consider that blacks have always been seen as a commodity and not human then one can see how the relationship both ebbs and flows and is exclusively conditional with little to no promise of reciprocity or equitability.

This country runs on the exploitation of our hopes and dreams. We saw it in the exploitation of black labor after the ending of slavery through sharecropping and servitude and the proceeding Jim Crow era. As a result many left the south seeking better opportunities in the north and were met with systemic oppression in the form of poor neighborhoods and poor performing schools. This led to the continued inability for blacks to be successful and provided a necessary resource for the modern prison system and low wage jobs that paid little to nothing. These are just a few of the factors that perpetuate this modern day cycle of poverty. There will always be a battle to overcome. And while there have been euphoric moments of racial solidarity; I caution revelry in these moments for too long because, remember any commodity can be manipulated and leveraged to meet the needs of ones self invested interest.

Unlike our girl Deborah Cox, we won’t be able to turn around to a more friendly and just system welcoming us with open arms. Unfortunately, our knight in shining armor is running late or worse, may be NOWHERE on the horizon.

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