In many of our schools and in our public discourse there is still an inability to grapple with the ever-present threat of violence that loomed over the lives of the enslaved. The recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama—the country’s first memorial dedicated to lynching victims—underscores how that violence extended into the Jim Crow era and affects the criminal justice policies of the present day. While West’s comment is patently false, it demands that we counter it with fact, no matter how often those facts have already been trotted out as evidence. To take one example, consider this passage from Edward Baptist’s seminal book The Half Has Never Been Told:
Innovation in violence, in fact, was the foundation of the widely shared pushing system. Enslaved migrants in the field quickly learned what happened if they lagged or resisted. In Mississippi, Allen Sidney saw a man who had fallen behind the fore row fight back against a black driver who tried to “whip him up” to pace. The white overseer, on horseback, dropped his umbrella, spurred up, and shouted, “Take him down.” The overseer pulled out a pistol and shot the prone man dead. “None of the other slaves,” Sidney remembered, “said a word or turned their heads. They kept on hoeing as if nothing had happened.” They had learned that they had to adapt to “pushing” or face unpredictable but potentially extreme violence. Enslavers organized space so that violent supervision could extract the maximum amount of labor.
The pervasive threat of violence was predicated on the fact that enslaved black people were the single most valuable commodity in American life. As Yale historian David Blight has discussed, the four million slaves in 1860 were worth more than every bank, factory, and railroad in the country combined. The millions of enslaved Africans brought to this country in chains and under the whip and amid ubiquitous fear did not remain enslaved in the chains of its southern plantations by choice. But there was a choice that was made. It was a choice by slaveholders (and those who did not own but benefitted enormously from the existence of slavery) to make black bodies the national currency, the bedrock upon which this country would become a global economic superpower.
As W.E.B Du Bois wrote in the opening to his book Black Reconstruction: “Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale.”
Amid the incessant violence that fueled the U.S. economy, what is perhaps most remarkable is that enslaved black people continued to resist anyway. There are famous examples like Frederick Douglass, who both physically fought his slave master and also learned how to read and write in spite of attempts to keep him from doing so. There is Harriett Tubman, who helped dozens of slaves escape bondage despite the risk of coming back into slaveholding territory time and time again. (West, true to form, tweeted a fake quote attributed to Tubman that read, “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”) And there is Nat Turner, who led an insurrection that forever changed American slavery, by reinstilling a sense of fear in slaveholders that their slaves might rebel at any moment.
But there are incalculable other ways that enslaved people rebelled, subverted, and fought back, ways both subtle and unsubtle. Some stole food or livestock or other valuable materials from their masters. Some purposefully disabled the machinery that made their work possible. Some plotted together to collectively do their work at a slower pace, impeding the production of the plantation’s goods and thus affecting their masters’ bottom lines.