“Why were people so mean to other people?” Corey D. B. Walker recalled his young daughter asking upon learning about the racial injustice of slavery.
In “Racial Slavery and Its Reverberations,” the second of four teach-ins that the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice has organized, a panel of three professors discussed the answer to Walker’s daughter’s question in much less simplistic terms. Walker, visiting professor of Africana studies, combined his expertise with that of with Evelyn Hu-Dehart, professor of history, and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., visiting professor of Africana studies, for an audience of around 20 students and community members in MacMillan 117 Thursday evening.
Cobb kicked off the teach-in by describing the roots of slavery in America. He cited Thomas Jefferson, who propagated the right to life, liberty and property, as the owner of more than 200 slaves, to emphasize the fundamental flaw in the American Constitution’s pretense of equality. Slaveholders lived in fear of rebellion and that free blacks might seek revenge or gain political influence because of their growing numbers, Cobb said.
“The great irony was that the African-American slaves took the ideals of the founding fathers seriously,” Cobb said. Black people upheld those principles by rebelling against slavery, “saving the country from itself.”
Hu-Dehart expanded the discussion to slavery outside the United States, sharing her findings from her current research in Cuba.
In the 19th century, Cuba was highly dependent on slave labor to support its sugar plantations. When the British blockaded the slave trade to the Americas, Cuba — which primarily imported slaves instead of “breeding” them — faced a huge shortage of workers as the sugar industry was at its peak, Hu-Dehart said. The government therefore turned to transporting workers from southern China, despite the huge distance these workers had to travel, she said.
These workers, whom the Cuban government imported, were bound by eight-year labor contracts that delineated conditions such as pay and medical benefits, Hu-Dehart explained after passing out copies of the contracts in their Chinese and Spanish versions. Even if these workers received similar treatment as the slaves on the Cuban plantations, the term “neo-slavery” seemed too simple to describe the Asian population’s position in Cuba, she said. The workers were, in a way, able to negotiate their own terms of work, even extending their contracts for chosen periods of time as short as three months, Hu-Dehart said.
“Was it simply an extension of slave labor?” Hu-Dehart asked. “Or can we see something that was a transition from slave to free labor?”
No matter how many theories and studies are conducted to understand slavery’s past, there is no way to intellectualize and thereby avoid the fundamental human iniquity that brought this institution about in the first place, Walker said in the final segment of the teach-in. “Can there be any amount of study that would change the human heart,” which invented the practice of slavery in the first place? Walker asked.
When asked during a question-and-answer period about how to remove the mentality of slavery that is inherent in humanity, Walker said he did not have the answer, and that the mentality is a collective issue that will take generations to eradicate.
The study of race and ethnicity helps the present generation “tap into the past,” and gives a sense of how the issue has developed today, audience member Emily Farris GS told The Herald after the event.