I have spent some 14 hours in the recently opened National Museum of African American Culture and History (NMAAHC) and still have only seen one-half of its historical content. My plan is to spend a few more hours checking things out before writing a column focusing on it.
However, it is not too early for saluting the museum for doing something that I have never seen done in an American public institution: to tell the truth about the economic foundation of the continent of North America, and in two separate narratives.
The first narrative states without qualification, “The Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration of people in world history. Profits from the sale of enslaved human beings and their labor laid the foundation for Western Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas.” Personally, I would have said “enslaved Africans,” but the point is clear.
A second narrative emphasized “Slavery’s success built the economic foundation of American in two generations. Cotton produced by enslaved people transformed the fledgling nation into a world power and leader in global trade…”
Again, I would have said “enslaved Africans,” but again this is a harsh truth about this country’s economic wealth that is not taught in American history courses throughout the country.
My position is re-enforced by comments made by Professor Craig Steven Wilder in his must-read book, “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” which provides comprehensive details on how many of this country’s major colleges and universities were launch and financed by wealth obtained from enslaving African people.
‘Cleansing the stain’
In a chapter entitled, “Cotton Comes to Harvard,” Professor Wilder explains the connection in two different passages. The first noted:
“The Northern elite was cleansing the stain of human slavery from the story of its prosperity. Some of the best-educated people in the nation were revising history to romanticize and sanitize their relationship to bondage. They erased their pasts as masters or reimagined their slaves as a lower order of adopted family – trusted, faithful, and beloved servants whom they had treated with dignity and human sympathy. They recast their enslavement of African into a tale of decorative servitude.”
The second noted, “The great families distanced themselves rhetorically from the planters of the West Indies and the South – despite numerous shared surnames – by claiming histories as merchants, investors, and insurers, and then elevating underwriting, finance, and trade to high arts.
Slave traders became Atlantic merchants, and the biggest firms received the greatest praise. It was an age of euphemism, populated with fragile lies, half-truths, and deflections.
Tied to slavery
“If most White Northerners found it difficult to tolerate antislavery zealots pointing fingers at the South, they also dreaded the abolitionists’ critique of the social order of New England and the Mid-Atlantic. The shipping, finance, and manufacturing economies of New England and the Mid-Atlantic remained firmly tied to human slavery long after the retreat of slaveholding in the Northern states.”
I would have called them “powerful” families rather than “great” ones. But Professor Wilder’s comment and the narratives from the museum shows clearly how the history of the United States has been falsified and deceitful. We owe NMAAHC and Professor Wilder for the proper documentation of that history.
A. Peter Bailey’s latest book is “Witnessing Brother Malcolm X, the Master Teacher.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.