Last week you may heard about the woman who scaled the Statue of Liberty in a form of protest on Independence Day. Her message was that injustices experienced by minority groups in the U.S. need to be better recognized before we go celebrating a day that is dedicated to freedom and equality. As imagined, her actions have garnered a variety of responses. Regardless of whether we agree with her opinion or her demonstration, we can all understand her argument and see where she is coming from. If it is self-evident that all men are created equal and have God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, why did the man who wrote these words own slaves, and why would racial segregation not be dismantled for almost 200 years later?
It is agreed upon by scholars in a variety of fields that American racism is a product of American slavery, not the other way around. In order to better understand racial tensions in the U.S, it does one well to be educated on the history of the Atlantic slave trade, and how an almost purely economic institution came to have such long lasting effects in social, artistic, political, and religious realms.
Slavery has existed long before the Americas were ever colonized; however, colonization and industrialization provided the first opportunity for slavery to be such a profitable industry. Put simply, the trade pattern acted as a triangle. High demand raw goods from the New World like cotton, coffee, sugar, and tobacco were sold to Europe where they were manufactured and sold as luxury items. The Europeans would then take modern manufactured goods to trading settlements along the West coast of Africa. These settlements were operated mainly by European colonial powers, especially Portugal, Britain, France, and Spain. Items such as guns, rum, and textiles were given to African traders and Kings in exchange for slaves. These slaves would normally be criminals or captured prisoners from a conflict with a neighboring tribe. The new slaves would be packed aboard ships and sent to areas across north and south America where they would provide the manual labor on plantations that grew the raw materials that would be sent back to Europe, thus repeating the cycle.
As the system grew, more slaves were required, causing African leaders to intentionally pursue war in order to capture slaves they could resell. As more captured slaves were traded for weapons with multiple tribes who sometimes would fight each other, these conflicts steadily became more costly and significantly stunted the able bodied population of Africa. War effectively became the continents primary business, to the point that when the slave trade was abolished in 1807, the African tribes it had supported experienced a total economic collapse, leaving them defenseless and susceptible to colonization.
For the slaves that were broth to the America’s, their stories depend on where they were taken. They could have been freed by an unopposed decree from Europe, or revolted and overthrew their oppressors, or the subject of a 4 year war where they were liberated from slavery, but still faced 100 plus years of systemic racism.
The effects of slavery are long lasting and exist across the world, and it is important that we remember the blessing we are afforded in this country that all people, regardless of our race religion or creed, are able to not only voice our opinions, but also to be able to pursue an education of our history to better understand the roots of those issues that surround us.
(Editors Note: Riley Heck is an 18-year old Caucasian scholar student in Virginia. I met Riley on a plane ride to Norfolk, Virginia and found his perspective and intellect to be vast and most intriguing. He penned this article when asked by me. KENNETH D. MILLER)