America’s History of Human Chattel
by Anitra D. Brown
It was an avalanche of events—all at once, it seems, bringing America’s horrid history of human chattel slavery to the forefront for me in recent weeks.
Right off the heels of the new WGN series “Underground”, which has been picked up for a second season and chronicles a fictional band of runaways from a Georgia plantation, there was the long-awaited broadcast of the re-imagined mini-series “Roots”, which brought Alex Haley’s story of one African-American family’s saga from the shores of West Africa to enslavement on American plantations to audiences new and old in a bold fashion. The remake was enhanced by historical facts unknown nearly 40 years ago when the original “Roots” aired in 1977 and improved by technical advancements in film-making not available then, according to the show’s producers.
And finally and a little closer to home, more and more Black Louisianans are discovering their ancestral connection to the Georgetown 272—the 272 men, women and children enslaved in Maryland and “donated” by wealthy parishioners to Georgetown University. In 1838, they were gathered and sold to plantations in Louisiana by the Jesuit priests who operated the university for more than $3.3 million (today’s dollars) to save the school from financial ruin.
Local education advocate Karran Harper Royal is one who has learned recently that her husband and their children descend from this group. During a chance meeting at a recent gathering, she excitedly shared her news with me and followed it up with an e-mail telling more about her husband’s great, great-grandfather Francis Hawkins, who was a young boy when he was loaded on the Katharine Jackson ship in Maryland bound for Louisiana, eventually being sold to the West Oaks plantation in Maringouin, La.
“My husband descends from the Hawkins, Butlers and Randolphs, all of whom were enslaved people on the plantation. There may be even more. I am just now getting to look at the enormity of all of this,” Harper-Royal wrote in the e-mail. “It sends chills through my body every time I read one of those yellowed pieces of paper with my husband and my children’s ancestors on them. Yes, we know many of our people were enslaved, but on the heels of “Roots”, to see their names makes it real.”
I wanted to watch the new “Roots” on purpose; because unlike Snoop, I wanted to be reminded—not of “how they did us”. Instead, I wanted to be reminded of how my ancestors prevailed despite it all. They survived the deadly Middle Passage, the treachery and evils of enslavement, and later, Jim Crow and domestic terrorism. They survived this and more—treatment so vile, vitriol, and abominable that it could never be told fully by Hollywood cinematography. They endured, survived and rose from the most ghastly experience known to mankind and made way for my very existence in the process.
While new “Roots” aired to rave reviews, viewership was lacking. The premier of the series aired on A&E networks (A&E, History and Lifetime) to 5.3 million viewers. Only 4.2 million watched the finale. For perspective, the 2012 A&E miniseries The Hatfields & the McCoys drew 14 million views on its last night. In 2013, A&E’s miniseries Bonnie & Clyde garnered 10 million viewers for its premiere. Moreover, the first night of the re-imagined “Roots” faced stiffer competition in the ratings war from Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, which was watched live by 16 million viewers.
That means three times as many Americans watched a professional basketball game than those who watched the first night of one of the most epic stories ever told.
I can’t help but wonder if more people—especially Black people—chose not to watch “Roots” for the reasons given by Hip-Hop icon Calvin Broadus (aka Snoop Dogg). In an Instagram post, Snoop said: “I’m sick of this: “How the (expletive) they gonna put “Roots” on Memorial Day? They just going to keep beating that (expletive) into our heads as to how they did us, huh?”
He said some other stuff too—stuff about Black folk telling other stories and about how he wasn’t going to watch “Roots”. And he encouraged others to boycott the show as well.
Well, I hoped that the words of Snoop Dogg didn’t stop folk from tuning in. Still, a cursory review of social media posts suggests there are plenty of folk that share the rapper’s perspective. And the numbers are disappointing.
What a shame. I think, for sure, Snoop must have been rolling down the street, smoking “indo” and sippin’ on gin-n-juice when he made his ill-informed declaration on Instagram regarding “Roots”.
I for one made it my business to watch the re-imagined version each and every night it aired—glued to a recliner in the living room, eyes fixated on the television. I remember watching the original in the late 70s and early 1980s as a kid; and, I have caught snippets of it through the years during one of its many rebroadcasts. The one emotion I remember feeling most any time I watched “Roots” as a child was anger. It used to make me mad, watching what I figured my ancestors had endured in this country. Like Mr. Broadus, all my young mind could see was denigration and degradation. I could not stand it. I couldn’t discern it then; but I realize now that was not the story at all.
Recalling that adolescent anger is one of the reasons I wanted to watch the new “Roots”. I just knew that anger wasn’t what I was supposed to feel—at least it wasn’t the only thing I should have taken away from the story. And now that my understanding and perspective have grown, I wanted to watch the new “Roots” on purpose, because unlike Snoop, I wanted to be reminded—not of “how they did us”. Instead, I wanted to be reminded of how my ancestors prevailed despite it all. They survived the deadly Middle Passage, the treachery and evils of enslavement, and later, Jim Crow and domestic terrorism.
They survived this and more—treatment so vile, vitriol, and abominable that it could never be told fully by Hollywood cinematography. They endured, survived and rose from the most ghastly experience known to mankind and made way for my very existence in the process.
We are surviving today.
I find it ironic that one of the biggest news stories of recent weeks is about a young white college student given a slap on the wrist for raping an unconscious woman because a judge didn’t think the boy could handle a few years prison. Yet no one wants to be reminded of how enslaved Blacks were treated in this nation…and at whose hands.
It seems we can’t get enough of stories about the Holocaust or what happened to Native Americans or Japanese Americans in the country (all unfair and unpleasant activities that deserve to be etched forever in the country’s collective psyche, indeed), but to be reminded of the enslavement of African people in the Americas is akin to blasphemy.
Here we are in 2016, having to declare that Black Lives Matter. Yet, some do not want to be reminded of slavery.
Well, I don’t ever want to forget that my story—the story of my family, of my people does not begin with me and does not begin here in this place. If I ever get tired or despondent or dismayed, I am reminded of what they endured so that I can stand today.
For those, like Snoop, who think that “Roots” and other media—films, books, television shows—that dare remind us of slavery are about showing Black folk oppressed and subjugated, think again.
They are stories about the strongest people to ever live. At the end of the day, they are about the truth of America.
Let’s Never Forget!
To be sure, I think the rest of America (yes, I mean White folk) need regular and vivid reminders of this country’s sick and sad past. With some history textbooks now being rewritten to refer to the enslaved as “unpaid workers”, it seems now is as good of a time as any to be reminded of the truth. Truth is the wealth of America was stored up in the cotton fields, the cane fields, the tobacco and indigo farms by Black hands worn and pricked from the wear and work. This nation’s prosperity is built on Black bodies—bloodied, branded and bent. And while the story of the Georgetown 272 is one of the latest to be told and compelling, indeed, about a dozen of the country’s most prestigious universities—Brown, Harvard, the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia and Dartmouth among them—have ties to slavery and the slave trade.
Let’s Never Forget!
I cannot wait to write and edit more articles in future issues that remind us of our past, including sitting down with Harper-Royal and her family to dig deeper into her family’s Georgetown 272 story and maybe eventually a deeper exploration into my own ancestry.
I urge readers to explore the history of people of African descent in America. Great places to start locally are repositories of material culture and museums such as Le Musée de f.p.c. and McKenna Museum in New Orleans and the River Road African-American Museum in Donaldsonville. They too share stories of survival while celebrating the contributions of Black people to this nation.
We can never forget!
That is why this issue of The New Orleans Tribune is dedicated to never forgetting, from a book review of Sublette’s The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, which honestly examines the brutality of slave breeding, to a feature story on the local Whitney Plantation and its focus on telling its story from the perspective of those once enslaved there to an update on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open later this year on Sept. 24, as part of the Smithsonian, we want to remind our readers of the past…and of the truth.
Let’s Never Forget!