You may empathise. Imagine you’re in a conversation and, for whatever reason, the topic moves onto slavery. In fact, you may have been actively avoiding the topic; alas here we are. You’re getting into the dark stuff; the oppression, miseducation, crushing of souls and you feel tension in the group starting to build.
And just like a vent dispersing a build up of pressure, you hear the argument “we were all slaves once”. Watch the Jamaican High Commissioner, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba as she refutes countless interruptions whilst debating at Oxford. One of those interruptions was the question “isn’t slavery an ongoing human phenomena” to which she bellows “that doesn’t make it right!”
We shall cover the psychological harm done when diluting the transatlantic slave trade amongst other forms of slavery. We shall also explore the notion that slavery is normal, the unrivalled cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and the motivation behind the argument “we were all slaves once”.
A nation in therapy | the psychological harm
Imagine a husband who abused his wife (physically or verbally) so harshly that she rightly wants recognition of the harm done to her. If she gains recognition of the wrong done to her, she can then highlight to her spouse how she wants the relationship to continue.
My question to you is, what would motivate the husband to say something along the lines of “but you hurt me too…” or “I only called you $@#($), it’s only words! I was called far worse the other day!”. I would argue that the husband is trying to dilute his guilt by making the damage which he has caused seem less significant. He is trying to remove the platform on which his spouse wants to make a stand.
Why people argue “we were all slaves once”
People argue that “we were all slaves once” for the same reason. They consciously or subconsciously associate themselves with the harm done via the slave trade. In my opinion, they needn’t do this. There isn’t a person alive today who had a hand in the trauma delivered under the transatlantic slave trade. However, I do argue that although you don’t inherit the sins of the father, you do inherit the world which has been left to you.
Which leads us onto another question to explore. Why would someone who didn’t directly participate in the slave trade feel guilty by association with it? I’ll propose another thought experiment to try and explain.
Imagine this. You go to a restaurant with a group of friends and the food is awful. You want to complain to the chef and get your money back. But you have one friend who insists you’re over-reacting and defends the chef and the restaurant. I would argue that the only reason why that one friend would defend the chef is if they have some kind of rapport with them.
This rapport could be simply due to how that chef fits into the structure of that person’s life ie they eat at that restaurant on a regular basis. That rapport could also be that the chef is that individual’s friend. The individual is trying to defend their rapport with the system, the structure, or their close ones. Just as many people who deny racism or the harshness of it are trying to defend the structure or the individuals who form their “norm”.
As Martin Luther King Jr said
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice”
To conclude, people say that “we were all slaves once” to dilute the harshness of slavery. And they dilute the harshness of slavery to protect the system that protects them. A symbiotic relationship between the so-called moderate and the structure which bore them their privilege.
Slavery is normal (so is revolution)
An argument often made is that slavery is a normal human phenomena. I would agree that humans for the history of humanity have been trying to get people to do things for them for as little pay as possible. The less in and the more out, the greater the return on investment.
However the reason why I find this argument futile, is partly because the transatlantic slave trade was in a league of cruelty of its own. But the main reason I find this argument redundant is that if slavery is normal, so is revolution.
Whether it is Spartacus vs Rome, Toussaint Louverture vs Colonists, Zanj East Africans vs the Abbasid Caliphate; as long as there has been slavery, there has been revolution. Any logical person would use their power to overthrow their oppressors. It isn’t just our duty to overthrow oppression, it is within our very nature.
The transatlantic slave trade was unrivalled cruelty
We continue to address the slave trade because the effects are still felt today. The individuals who make the argument that “we all descend from slaves” have no tangible connection to slavery. We, however, do. The narrative of slavery is still very much alive today
- Black people are 7x more likely to be stopped and searched (ref)
- Black women are 5 times more likely to die during pregnancy, childbirth and post-birth (ref)
- African Americans are half as likely to be prescribed pain medication (ref)
- Black children are 2.6x more likely to be excluded for the same or even when displaying better behavior than their white counterparts (ref)
- Black children are under-assessed i.e. “in-school bias” results in their intelligence being underestimated when compared to other children who produce the same quality of work (ref)
- Black and Muslim individuals need to send up to twice as many job applications to receive an interview for identical CVs (ref)
- Black people are paid 17% less for the same level of education than their white counterparts (ref)
In other words black people are seen as dangerous, dispensable, hardier, naughtier, stupider, lazier, worth less. That is the underlying narrative which produce these horrendous statistics
And this is because, the unique trait of the transatlantic slave trade is that it was linked to something as concrete as race. All black people were seen as inferior without exception. It wasn’t classist or linked to something as changeable as a surname or a religion; the trade was linked to something as concrete and inescapable as race. We are black today and we have been black since the beginning of the human race. The entire time that inferiority is linked to race, inferiority will follow us. This is why we must change the narrative.
But underneath the dehumanising structure of the slave trade was the unrivalled cruelty. Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped by African traders as a young boy. He was later sold to European trades. It is then that his experience of slavery became a living nightmare.
I found Jamaica to be a very fine large island, well peopled, and the most considerable of the West India islands. There was a vast number of negroes here, whom I found as usual exceedingly imposed upon by the white people, and the slaves punished as in the other islands.
(p. 139). Kindle Edition.
white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty;
(p. 32). Kindle Edition.
One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it;
(p. 32). Kindle Edition.
I was very much affrighted at some things I saw, and the more so as I had seen a black woman slave as I came through the house, who was cooking the dinner, and the poor creature was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and could not eat nor drink.
(p. 38). Kindle Edition.
where slaves meet with the best treatment, and need fewest recruits of any in the West Indies, yet this island requires 1000 negroes annually to keep up the original stock, which is only 80,000. So that the whole term of a negro’s life may be said to be there but sixteen years!
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano illustrated (p. 80). Kindle Edition.
Slavery in many other nations has been used as class reset. For example, one tribe defeats another and the prisoners of war are taken as slaves. Slavery is awful in any sense but in Africa and some parts of Asia, slavery had a closer similarity to the British class system. One could marry, buy and negotiate their way out of slavery. In Moorish north Africa for example, many of the leading generals were direct descendants of African slaves.
The average life expectancy for an African once he/ she reached Jamaica was 7 years. According to CLR James in The Black Jacobins
“The blowing up of a slave had its own name. — “to burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger”: obviously this was no freak but a recognised practice”
CLR James. The Black Jacobin (p. 10)
The violence of the transatlantic slave trade is unrivalled. It cannot be compared to other forms of slavery of which have no tangiable effect today.
Shining light on trauma
The founder of Psychology, Sigmeund Freud described the foundations of therapy as consciousness shining light on the unconscious mind. In his theory, if one can become conscious of their subconscious minds, they can begin to heal.
I would argue that diluting or dismissing the trauma of colonialism prevents healing. It draws out the pain. If we can’t have an open and honest discussion about our shared history then healing cannot begin. So to those who say “we were all slaves once”, I argue that you are having no logical, historical or societal contribution. You are merely contributing to your own feeble comfort. Sit down, shut up and let the rest of us discuss.
To learn more about your history, go to www.blackhistory.school where I have written an entire African history curriculum and am currently working to produce a comic universe based on our amazing black heroes.