The History of Slavery in America: Movie Review

The movie, A History of Slavery in American, is an emotional tale of the inhumanity suffered by captured Africans who were transplanted from their homes in Africa, to work in the sugar and tobacco plantations in the New World (The Americas). It all began in the 17th Century, in 1619, when a Dutch merchant sold 20 slaves to farming settlers in Jamestown. This marked the beginning of a thriving slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean. By 1860, over 4 million slaves had been forcefully transported to the United States alone, while millions more had found their way into the English colonies in the Caribbean region.

However, the liberation struggle began in the early 28th century, when fleeing slaves sneaked to the North using underground trails, where they joined antislavery and abolitionist movements opposed to the slave holding tradition of the Southern States. Notable figures in the struggle were Fredrick Douglas who upon leaving the south joined the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, and in 1847 founded The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper. Similarly, famous journalist William Lloyd Garrison started The Liberator in 1918, which popularized the war against slavery in the South. It culminated in the first and only American civil war in the mid 19th century, when the Northern Union states defeated the Confederate South. This moment, when the southern states put down their arms and the slave man became his own man, was the turning point of American history that gave birth to the modern day United States of America.

Nonetheless, the movie portrays worrying aspects of slavery in America. Most concerning was the existence of social institutions that perpetuated slavery. The legal system was particularly skewed to favor slaveholding, through legislations that prohibited slaves from engaging in activities that would enable them to be independent and self-reliant. As Nell Irvin, a painter historian at PrincetonUniversity puts it, “they were literally banned from owning property, seeking an education or raising families”. In addition, most of their rights were suspended in times of crisis or slave rebellion.[1]Religion was also exploited to this end, in the guise that slavery was good for the lost African soul, as it introduced them to Christianity and a superior civilization. Slaveholding was further exalted by the fact that only a few wealthy men owned slaves, including 8 of the first 12 American presidents.

Another aspect of slavery was the system of inheritance of slaves among the whites, in which case the whites and their descendants were the masters, while the Africans were the ‘inherited property,’ so to speak, thereby promoting a vicious cycle of white master-black servant relations.  The tag of ‘property’ upon the head of a slave was suggested in the manner in which they were selected: young, healthy males and females- chosen the way a farmer selects the best breed of animals, perhaps for purposes of profitable breeding. This degradation of the dignity of the Africans was made even more explicit in the selling of slaves like wares in the open market. On scene in the movie depicts an auctioneer’s parlor with the catchwords ‘Auction & Negro Sales!’ it provokes images of chained men and women, tethered in a cage like animals waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.

This notwithstanding, however, the movie points out an often forgotten fact in the debate on slavery in America: the fact that while slavery was partly promoted by industrial revolution- such as the invention of the Cotton Gin Machine by Eli Whitney in 1793 that increased the processing of cotton- hence the need for more slaves in the fields, slavery as experienced in America was purely a colonial import. The poor African who were mercilessly uprooted from their native homes, leaving behind their culture and families, were victims of colonial greed– for want of a better expression, which inspired colonial masters to get the best bargain in their venture to the agriculturally rich colonies in the Americas and other parts of the Caribbean Region. Thus, while the taint is smeared in the white slave owners in America, nothing is said of the English colonialist, who put in motion the gears that opened the Transatlantic route from the western African coast, to the Eastern coasts of North and South America.




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