Black Movements in America
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Black Movements in America

Cedric J. Robinson

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eBook - ePub

Black Movements in America

Cedric J. Robinson

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Cedric Robinson traces the emergence of Black political cultures in the United States from slave resistances in the 16th and 17th centuries to the civil rights movements of the present. Drawing on the historical record, he argues that Blacks have constructed both a culture of resistance and a culture of accommodation based on the radically different experiences of slaves and free Blacks.

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The Coming to America

Virginians owned more than 40 percent of all the slaves in the new nation. 
 And Virginia furnished the country’s most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality.
—Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery American Freedom
The explicit moral paradox presented in Morgan’s observations was intended to discomfort his late twentieth-century readers. On the eve of the celebration of two hundred years of American independence, one of the most respected historians of colonial and revolutionary America sought to ferret out what inevitably would be concealed in the official spectacles of national pride—the parades, exhibitions, newly minted histories, documentaries, and the like: America had been and is still a nation of freedom and injustice. Morgan reminded his readers that this enduring contradiction prevailed in the consciousness of those who led the country into rebellion against Britain in the late eighteenth century. In the same place, at the same time, and in the same minds, the Utopian dreams of liberty and justice competed for right of place with the reality of slavery. By reconstructing the extreme passions of prerevolutionary America, Morgan instructed the nation’s present citizenry to forgo hiding in the shadow of their patriotic rituals.

Blacks and Colonial English America

Colonial America was, of course, the historical crucible within which the paradox of slavery and freedom was stamped on the American Revolution and the nation. These opposing desires were dramatized in 1619 at Jamestown just twelve years into the existence of that settlement. In that year, the Virginia colony was the site of the first representative legislative assembly (the House of Burgesses) in English America and served as the disembarkation point of the first African bond laborers in the colony. Of course, the enslavement for both Africans and Native Americans had already begun in the New World; English colonists, merchants, pirates, and financiers had been preceded by their Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French counterparts. The appearance of unfree labor at Jamestown, then, was not exceptional, but it did historically alter the fate of the English colonies. Subsidized by African labor, the economies of the English colonies expanded from marginal to commercially productive through the exporting of such commodities as tobacco. Economic independence fueled a desire for political autonomy; in short, for the right to keep a larger share of both the plunder and the well-gotten goods. In the seventeenth century—the first century of English immigration to North America—there were already signs of this development, like Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. But absolute self-governance would take another century to mature. Meanwhile, the very presence of slaves incited those who were not slaves to create a political order that would preserve their privileged status (just as was done in ancient Athens). Alerted by their proximity to the enslaved, side-by-side in those small communities, the colonists quickly resolved never to taste the bitter brew of slavery themselves. To achieve this end, they had to restrain their masters above as well as the classes and slaves below.
While the English colonial settlements in Virginia, Maryland, and New England were of a modest size, and African slavery limited in importance, no official attention was given to African slaves, Black servants, or free Blacks. It was only a bare step above common sense, for example, when in 1639 that Virginia enacted a law forbidding slaves to possess or be given firearms or other weapons. All this changed in the second half of the seventeenth century. After 1660, a number of laws were passed that provided a window into the colony’s troubling relationship with slavery and slaves. In 1662, a law was passed preventing a child from inheriting the father’s status if the mother was a “negro woman”; in 1667, another law prevented baptism from freeing “slaves by birth”; in 1680, a law was passed “for preventing Negroes Insurrections”; in 1692, another to aid “the more speedy prosecution of slaves committing Capitall Crimes” established special courts for slave trials.1 Each of these laws, as well as those passed to regulate the civil rights of free Blacks (in 1668, a new law made free Black women but not other women subject to poll tax; in 1670, another forbid Christian Blacks from purchasing Christian servants; in 1691, another banished from the colony anyone involved in interracial marriage) marked a crossroads. Just as the laws targeting free Blacks reflected the bewilderment of colonial officials toward the ambiguity of “Black” and “free” (such as occasioned in 1656 by Elizabeth Key’s suit for freedom since she was the child of an African slave woman and an English planter; or in 1667 by Fernando’s suit for freedom since he was a Christian), the incremenetal construction of slave law mirrored reality: “Englishe” men were sexually consorting with African women; Africans were acculturating to colonial society; and slave workers were turning toward resistance. Since the latter is our particular concern here, it may be useful to reconstruct the social and political contexts of slave resistance during the colonial era.
The Blacks in English America were slaves, indentured servants, or freemen. In Virginia during the second half of the seventeenth century, the proportion of nonslaves among the Black population in counties like Northhampton rose as high as 29 percent (as in 1668, when 13 householders were freemen2). But as the import of African slaves increased dramatically in the 1670s, the proportion of free Blacks decreased rapidly and until the Civil War hovered between 4 and 10 percent. The overwhelming majority of imported Africans and Creole Blacks were slaves or servants who worked in the towns, plantations, and farms. But here as well as elsewhere in these colonies, it is important to remember that these bondspeo-ple and their few free representatives did not exist in a pristine complex of social binaries: masters and slaves, whites and Blacks.
The earliest English settlements, mirroring the great political and religious upheavals of seventeenth-century England, had radically different histories, rationales, and doctrinal characteristics. This was markedly so even in the southern colonies. Virginia was a commercial venture; Maryland, a retreat for Catholics; Carolina, a Utopia spun from the imagination of a philosopher; and Georgia, a last chance for debtors. Eventually they all were dominated by a slave economy captained by aristocrats who had as little concern for their poorer countrymen as they did for their slaves. But the colonies’ destiny of slaveowning was barely discernible from their origins. To be sure, in the absence of slavery these colonies might not have survived; but had they eschewed slavery it is certain that the history of America (and much of the Western world) would have been less dramatic.
The Virginia colony was begun for pure profit by a joint-stock concern, the Virginia Company of London. In political matters, the military stockholders of the Company appeared to have been given a free hand by their aristocratic and bourgeois partners. In any case, the adventurers established the form of the colony’s governance. For the first seventeen years of the settlements, every man, woman, and child among the immigrants was given a military rank and subject to military discipline (“Laws Divine, Morall and Martial”). With an overrepresentation of gentlemen among the first colonists, the Company was compelled to augment its English-born artisans by recruiting craftsworkers and laborers from Italy, Holland, France, and Poland. And within the laboring classes, those immigrants incapable of paying passage contracted to work for the Company for seven or more years; such farm-tenants and servants constituted the European work force. They proved insufficient to meet the expanding colony’s needs. The resulting pressure on Native American labor, land, and goods precipitated retaliations in 1622 (350 colonists were killed) and 1644 (500 were killed). Following the ravages of Indian wars, internal disputes, and epidemics, the company’s charter was revoked in 1624 and it continued as a crown colony until the American Revolution. Meanwhile, substantial numbers of Africans were imported to augment colonial laborers. By the time of the revolution, the slave population numbered nearly 190,000.3
The second of the southern colonies, Maryland, was founded in 1632. It was granted to a single proprietor, George Calvert (Lord Baltimore), whose interests were both profit and religion. Baltimore’s intention was to found a settlement as a refuge for Catholics, but Protestants soon outnumbered Catholics, although the latter were the dominant landholders. In part because of supplies from Virginia, the colonists achieved economic stability early on. When William and Mary acquired the English throne in 1689, they revoked the Calverts’ charter. Proprietorship was returned to them only when the family renounced Catholicism in 1715. At the end of the seventeenth century, Maryland’s slave population (in 1690 at 2,162) was second only to Virginia’s (9,345), and throughout the eighteenth century, it remained one of the principle slaveowning colonies. By 1770, nearly 64,000 slaves resided in the colony, constituting almost a third of the total population (202,599).
North Carolina, founded in 1665 and South Carolina, founded in 1670, were largely based on secondary settlements, respectively, from Virginia and the West Indies, which were supported by the wealth of eight proprietors. The original grant for Carolina was made in 1629, but actual settlement did not begin until 1663. Even then the settlements did not reach substantial numbers until after 1718 due to the anticolonial resistance led by the Tuscarora and Yamasee. The original Carolina constitution of 1669 was coauthored by Anthony Ashley Cooper and John Locke, the philosopher. It was abandoned in 1693 to allow greater powers for the provincial assembly. The colony was officially separated into North and South in 1729, though by then provincial assemblies had long functioned as separate entities. With North Carolina largely characterized by small-scale farming, it was South Carolina with its production of indigo and rice for the European and West Indian markets that flourished with the import of African workers. Between 1700 and 1770, the slave population in South Carolina expanded from approximately 2,500 to 75,000—indeed, slaves made up more than half of the total population (which was 124,244 in 1770). In North Carolina, the number of slaves was nearly equal to South Carolina’s, but the ratio of colonists to slaves was 3 to 1.
Georgia was founded in 1735 by a group of wealthy philanthropists led by James Oglethorpe, who was the owner of a slave plantation in South Carolina and a director of the Royal African Company. The profit for the investors in the scheme was to be had from silk production, a project never realized. Since their explicit purpose was to rehabilitate imprisoned debtors through labor, the original philanthropists prohibited slavery (as well as what were viewed as social vices among the poor: rum, self-gover-nance, concentrations of property, and so on). “Experience hath Shewn,” the trustees wrote in 1734, “that the manner of Settling Colonys and Plantations with Black Slaves or Negroes hath Obstructed the Increase of English and Christian Inhabitants 
 and hath Exposed the Colonys so settled to the Insurrections Tumults and Rebellions of such Slaves & Negroes.”4 But long before it was legalized, Georgians began importing Black and Indian slaves from South Carolina and Virginia. Thus began an enduring hostility with their international neighbors, the Creek nation and the Spanish in Florida. Fugitive slaves attempting to reach Spanish territory had to pass through Creek lands, and the Creeks were inconstant allies to the colonists in recapturing them. The Spanish were even less accommodating, not only harboring the fugitives but also disrupting British shipping and frustrating the crown’s ambitions to control North America and the Caribbean. Eventually, the Georgians helped precipitate a war between Spain and Britain, ostensibly over the severing of Captain Robert Jenkins’s ear, called the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–42). By 1753, dissatisfaction among the colonists with the Utopian restrictions against slavery was so intense that the crown revoked the charter and nullified the laws against slavery and the accumulation of property and capital. This was not enough to resolve the problem of maintaining the security of slave-holding in Georgia, however, an issue that would provoke important American wars in the next century. By the American Revolution, Georgia’s slave population had grown to over 10,000, just short of half of the total population.
The northernmost colonies’ role in slavery concerns us less for their accumulation of slave populations than for their transatlantic shipping of slaves—they provided the principal North American merchants and mariners in the slave trade. Regarding slave resistance, New Englanders were often quite literally caught in the middle; in midvoyage, their ships frequently became the loci of slave insurgency. Their foundings, however, are of interest because they at first seemed so remote from the circles of secular greed constituted by the English aristocracy and its upper-middle class. Among the New England colonies, religion was a principal motive for settlement. At Plymouth, founded in 1620, the colonists chartered by the Virginia Company were Pilgrims (Separatists or Congregationals) opposed to the clerical dictates of the Church of England. Despite their experience of aligned churches and states, they nevertheless founded the governance of their settlement on a theocratic model. Committed to a self-sufficient economy based on farming, fishing, and trade, the settlement largely avoided hostilities with nearby Indians (Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Pequot) until the Pequot War 1637. At Massachusetts Bay, founded in 1628, it was reform-minded Puritans rather than Pilgrims who controlled the colony.5 Fueled by their disgust with the corruption of the Church of England, their colony was intended as a model of purity and orthodoxy. Their strict religious regimen, however, produced its own dissidence and new settlements based on even more radical extremism: in 1635, Reverend Thomas Hooker and some of his followers began the founding of Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersford; in 1638, Anne Hutchinson, who was branded a heretic, led her followers to found Portsmouth (then Pocasset); in 1636, the Calvinist Quaker Roger Williams was banished (or fled) and subsequently founded the Providence settlement; in 1639, William Coddington founded Newport; and in 1643; Samuel Gorton resettled at Warwick (then Shawomet). Meanwhile, Puritan loyalists founded New Haven in 1638. All were, of course, strongly theocratic in governance.
Slaves appeared in New England sometime between 1624 and 1638. The latter date is a certainty, for among the cargo of the Desire, which arrived in Boston on December 12, Captain William Pierce had brought Blacks for whom he had traded captive Pequots in the West Indies. In 1644, Boston merchants launched ships to Africa; and in 1676, frustrated by their inability to compete with the large European slavers on the Guinea Coast, they are reported to have innovated the scouring of East Africa and Madagascar for slaves. By the next century, the Puritan and Boston traders’ pioneering had made the New England colonies, as Lorenzo Johnston Greene reports, “the greatest slave-trading section of America. There came into vogue the famous triangular slave trade with New England, Africa, and the West Indies as its focal points.”6 Notwithstanding New England merchants’ central role in the slave trade, the number of slaves in permanent residence in New England was small; by the time of the American Revolution, slightly more than 16,000 slaves lived among the 659,000 New Englanders (which included New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut). In this region, slave populations were maintained largely through natural increase rather than importation. For example, between 1750 and 1770, Massachusetts maintained its slave population at approximately 4,500. The largest of the slave-holding colonies of New England was Connecticut (in 1770 slaves numbered 5,698), followed by Massachusetts (4,500) and Rhode Island (3,761).
In the middle colonies of English America there was New Netherlands (founded in 1624). It was not colonized by the English but by Dutch merchants of the Dutch West Indies Company. In 1644, however, it was captured by the English and became the property of James, the Duke of York. The small number of Black servants and African slaves who arrived during the period of Dutch control inhabited an ambiguous legal domain, since slavery had no legal standing. One English captain taken prisoner during the war reported that Blacks “were very free and familiar 
. freely joining occasionally in conversation, as if they were one and all of the same household.”7 There were free Blacks (some even owning immigrant servants), intermarriage was legal, and many had been armed during the Indian war of 1641–44. But from 1644 on, the conditions of Blacks in the New Netherlands descended toward the hell existing in the southern colonies. Between 1682 and 1702 (when the Act for Regulating Slaves was pa...

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