UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, commemorates the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on August 23.
Slavery may be a thing of the past, but its legacy remains very much with us, and in ways you might not think of at first.
This day Marks the Start of the Haitian Revolution
August 23 marks the first days of the Haitian Revolution after the revolt began on the night of August 21, 1791 as a tropical storm swept over the island.
It took more than a decade of terrible violence with many twists and turns, but the Haitian Revolution was the first slave revolt to create a free and independent state.
Saint-Domingue was the Richest Caribbean colony and Richest French Colony
The French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on the island of Hispaniola was one of the richest colonies in the world. It exported sugar and coffee.
Saint-Domingue was the crown of the French Empire and represented France in the Americas. This slave colony paid for a lot of beautiful buildings in Paris.
Slavery in Saint-Domingue was Brutal
A particularly brutal type of enslavement was practiced there. It was considered better business to work people to death than to care for them. Horror movie kinds of punishments were given for the smallest things.
A small number of French and their families used extreme brutality to control a large number of Africans. They spent plenty of time in the stables too, so they had mixed race children and put them to managing the plantations and abusing Africans too. Can you imagine how conflicting that must have felt?
The colonizers not only abused Africans, they abused the land. They ruined the soil and deforested the land, turning one of the richest islands in the Caribbean into an enduring environmental tragedy.
Other Nations Punished Haitians for Freeing Themselves
Inspired by the French Revolution, Haitian slaves finally revolted. People were shocked by the Revolution’s violence without acknowledging their own hand in it.
French, Spanish and British all entered the fight, complicating things and extending the violence.
After independence, other countries, including the U.S., refused to recognize the new nation out of fear that their own slaves would revolt. France required reparations that drained the vitality of the new country.
Haitians should have been rewarded for their human rights achievement. Instead Haiti was punished for believing that human rights apply to everyone and freeing itself.
Slavery was Authorized by the Church
There has always been slavery and in every part of the world. It used to be that if you lost a war, you got enslaved, but the Atlantic slave trade was the only slavery based on race.
Slavery was authorized by the Roman Catholic Church in a papal bull of 1452. Pope Nicholas V gave Portuguese King Afonso V permission to capture non-Christians and hold them in perpetual servitude.
This must be what Colombian salsa legend Joe Arroyo was referring to when he sang about “esclavitud perpetua” in his signature song “No le pegue a la negra” (Don’t beat the black woman).
The Church doesn’t support slavery today, but it’s a disappointing legacy. How could you?
The Enormity of Slavery is Hard to Digest
It’s not a nice thing to think about, and nobody wants to talk about it, but if we don’t it will continue to devil us.
Slavers (and now White supremacists) claimed ideals of religion, liberty and democracy. Their ideas sound noble, but become less so when you look at the bigger story. The duplicity of slavers against the backdrop of the Enlightenment is especially cynical.
It’s hard to digest our own role in slavery. Racism exists everywhere, but it doesn’t exist anywhere quite like it does in the United States. Our form of racism is more violent.
It’s because we lost the U.S. Civil War like we lost Iraq. We gave the South back to the losers. We allowed the losers back into government and confederate hate has poisoned every level of American society: health care, education, jobs, police and justice, military, and Local, State and Federal government.
Lynching (mob hangings of innocents) were common in our country until the 1960s. The U.S. Military only banned displays of the confederate battle flag in 2020. Now even the Office of the President has been soiled by a racist who promotes confederate ideology. It’s just sickening.
It’s 2020. You can’t say you didn’t know.
Racism is more Institutionalized in U.S. Society Than you Think
Many national institutions are tainted by efforts to maintain white supremacy from the Jim Crow years after the U.S. Civil War.
All those confederate statues are not historic. They were put up after the Civil War by confederates to terrorize African Americans. They are a warning that you can be abused and killed at any time, for no good reason.
Our education system is famously unequal.
Our national addiction to sugar is a legacy of slavery.
We don’t have universal health care like other developed nations because unequal health care is a means of suppression.
Policing in our country began as slave patrols. We want to respect the police, but how do you respect police who behave like a slave patrol? The knee that choked the life out of George Floyd was a confederate knee.
In the 1960s, an entire generation of Black leaders was systematically taken out. Then the war on drugs destroyed family structures by locking up entire communities.
Our election system gets twisted to make it harder for people of color to vote. Poll watching and voter suppression are even part of the 2020 presidential campaign.
The New York Times 1619 Project points out many of the ways that slavery defines who we are as a society today.
The Black Lives Matter movement finally got Americans to say “systemic racism” out loud. It’s true and really upsetting. These are not the American values that we were raised to believe.
Racism is a form of self-destruction. All the former slave nations are mere shadows of their colonial selves. We are self-destructing now too. We don’t lead the world any more. We are behind other “developed” countries in many ways and falling further behind.
Instead of working together on progress, too many Americans put a lot of energy into keeping a large segment of society down. It brings us all down.
When the United States works for all its people, the whole country will rise, not in revolt, but in creating a better future for our families and for our country.
What is the point of talking about racism and slavery?
It’s a hard thing to talk about and we are all responsible. It’s time for each of us as individuals, communities, a nation, and as citizens of the world to embrace our own responsibility.
Avoiding the legacy of slavery only hardens racism. That is why we need to talk about it.
~ Keith Widyolar, August 23, 2019 (Updated in 2020).
Imagine Yourself Being Forced Through That Door
Imagine yourself and your family being beaten, kidnapped, raped and forced through that door.