Slavery’s Legacy and the Racial Awakening of 2020

Historian Vincent Brown discusses the centuries-long impact of the slave trade and its links to today’s racial inequities.

Artwork depicting Jamaican uprising in 1759, with a Black man attacking a White man with a sword at a dinner table

By Michelle Nicholasen

This is the first of a two-part interview with Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Vincent Brown about his work on the transatlantic slave trade.

The eighteenth-century Atlantic slave trade stretched from the British, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and Spanish empires to Africa and across to the Americas, and it ensnared within it the lives of millions of dislocated Africans who were forced into slavery. On some plantation islands, like the British colony of Jamaica, 20 percent of the slaves came from what was then called the Gold Coast of Africa (modern-day Ghana), and some were experienced soldiers and warriors from the interstate wars there. Perhaps it is no surprise that the largest slave uprising in the eighteenth-century British empire occurred in Jamaica, where a few former warriors led an island-wide rebellion between 1760–1761. 

Using the only primary sources available—those of slaveholders—historian Vincent Brown carefully pieces together the rebels’ experience in his book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, and reveals their sophisticated strategy for insurrection.

Tacky’s Revolt was only one of a network of slave uprisings throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. Brown argues that, taken as a whole, slave revolts should be seen as part of a broader landscape of warfare. The stage for rebellion was set: the European empires battled each other for plantation territory while maintaining the slave trade through violence and fear. Indeed, violence sustained the imperial economy, and it would eventually be harnessed by the oppressed themselves.

Though it ultimately failed, Tacky’s Revolt was an impressive campaign of strategy and endurance whose story was retold among Blacks migrating across the ocean. It helped revise the view of Blacks at that time from subdued captives to offensive political actors, and likely inspired leaders of the Haitian Revolution thirty years later. It also gave momentum to the abolitionist movements that would continue through the late nineteenth century.

We spoke to Brown about why some of the themes from his book are disturbingly resonant today as the US reckons with its own legacy of racial injustice.

Q: Tacky’s Revolt tells the story of an enslaved population in the eighteenth century, but themes of violence, fear, and White power resonate. Is it fair to draw parallels to our society today, 300 years later?
 

A: I do think that there are ways in which thinking about the long history of slavery, war, racial oppression, and racial violence resonates with us, especially in a moment when we are witnessing the kind of brutality and murder we've seen on these police videotapes.

People often ask, is there something about that history of slavery that has caused the situation we find ourselves in today? I'm always very careful to answer that there are proximate and underlying things that determine the situation that we have right now.

Of course, the history of slavery will be one of the underlying things: the way in which the Americas were colonized from the conquest of the Native Americans to the importation of African slaves, and the suppression of the enslaved population, which was incredibly violent wherever you found slavery. The racialization which made evidence of descent from slavery—like dark skin or other features that clearly identify you as having African genetic heritage—mark you out for discrimination.

Map showing how many Africans arrived from the Gold Coast to various destinations in the Caribbean from 1661-1760

Q: Is seeing Black people as “other” part of that legacy, as well?
 

A: The habit of valuing Black lives less than other lives persists across generations of domination. Generations of people grew up accustomed to the idea that, in a slave society, there just aren't penalties for free people harming enslaved people.

And there aren't penalties for White people harming Black people, for the most part. The penalties are extreme for the reverse. So in Jamaica in the mid-eighteenth century, it was a crime for Black people to (even) imagine the death of a White person. It was a capital crime that was on the books. Needless to say, there was no such capital crime to imagine the death of Black person.

One can trace out the legacies of that habit if you look at sentencing in the court system in postslave societies. If a Black person is the victim of a violent crime, the perpetrator of that crime will almost always get a lighter sentence than if a White person is a victim of that violent crime. And that's not just when White people kill Black people. That's when Black people harm Black people as well.

So a Black person harming another Black person will get a lighter sentence than a Black person harming a White person, because within the governing institutions the value of that Black life is less. That’s a pattern that's established in slavery. 

Q: What about the structures put in place today that perpetuate the devaluing of Black lives?
 

A: There are also proximate causes. If we think in particular about police killings, a lot has to do with cases like the 1989 Graham v. Connor case, in which it's established that if police officers feel threatened or feel afraid they have the right to use deadly force. As it happens, that just creates a whole new level of police impunity for killing people who are already more vulnerable to premature death—disproportionately Black and Brown people. Of course, the police in the United States kill a lot of White people too, as it's often pointed out on the right. I think the police kill something like 1,000 people a year in this country, whereas I read the other day that the police in Norway haven't killed anybody in ten years.

The fact that this level of state violence should be acceptable to any of us is a terrible shame. 

Q: One thing that stands out in your book is the state of fear and terror the colonists in Jamaica lived in, fear of their slaves rising up against them. This fear of Blacks, and the presumption that they are dangerous, has a very long history. There’s an absurd inevitability in this set up. If you enslave people, yes, they are going to fight back, and fight for their lives.
 

A: Exactly. I tend to think of slavery itself as a state of war. A famous abolitionist African man named Ohlaudah Equiano, who went by the name Gustavus Vassa, wrote an autobiography and became one of the most celebrated abolitionists in late eighteenth-century England. He said that when you make people slaves you compel them to live with you in a state of war. 

Yes, these colonists were afraid, in part because they surrounded themselves with brutalized slaves. In Jamaica especially, 90 percent of the population was enslaved. And it wasn't just that they had military experience, it was that they were destitute and desperate. But the profits from that slave society were so great that greed generally overwhelmed fear. The colonists lived in fear, but greed carried the day.

Portrait engraving of Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) from 1789

Q: You write: “…slaveholding historians convinced many people that it was the Africans who were intrinsically dangerous.” Many Americans have grown up hearing about how poverty makes Black people dangerous and desperate, and so the cycle continues. Why can’t we as a society shake this association?
 

A: What the colonists don't question is the legitimacy of their slaveholding society, which is perpetrating so much violence every day; the shock to them is that the violence can ever come the other way.

It’s a question of, what are people accustomed to? How is it that they learn to relate to that enslaved population and that Black population? Anti-Black militarism is an outgrowth of slavery. What non-Black people learn is that violence is legitimate to keep Black people in their place.

And that's why it seems to be so much more publicly acceptable for White vigilantes to carry guns in the street. Look at the McCloskeys at the Republican convention—the idea that they could be heroes to a certain segment of the population because they were pointing guns at peaceful protesters...if those peaceful protesters weren't generally understood to be Black, and if those gun-wielding citizens weren't White, we would have a totally different conversation. There's a kind of fundamental assumption that White people are generally entitled to defend themselves from Black people with aggressive intimidation, and deadly force if necessary.

Q: Right, because Black people are so threatening…It makes me think of the Central Park dog walker who jumped to the conclusion that the birdwatcher who confronted her, a Black man, was dangerous.
 

A: I don't think you can separate the murder of George Floyd from what happened with the Central Park birder days before. The funny thing is, I think she was an actuarian or risk assessor, which makes sense, because very quickly she made the assessment that she could call the police on this guy. And they would believe her, and therefore she wouldn't have to follow the leash laws in the park.

Q: Hmm, that's interesting, because I read her reaction as pure fear.
 

A: Oh, the fear was so fake. On the 911 phone call her voice suddenly starts to crack. She's ginning up the sound of the fear in her voice because she knows it'll work, because a White woman in danger will signify urgency, heightened by saying, "there's a Black man...I'm in the rambles, I'm lost." On the video you can see her just standing there performing this. So, my first thought was, really, this is Mayella Ewell from To Kill a Mockingbird. Honestly, I recognized that performance from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Q: So her fear was contrived? 
 

A: Totally contrived. That's right, it's like, “here's the situation I want to get out of. I have no expectation that I should regard his life and not expose him to the danger that police would present to him. My biggest concern is that I not have to follow these leash laws, and because I see that this is a Black person telling me to follow the leash laws, I can make the calculation, the risk assessment, that I can invoke the police who will suppress him. And then I can get away with whatever I want.” And that's part of how racism works socially. It's not just that people have personal animus toward other people, it's that they recognize whose lives are valued less and what they can get away with in the face of that knowledge.

Q: The pure cruelty of George Floyd’s death shocked the world. In your two most recent books, one of the primary sources you use is a diary from a slaveholder named Thomas Thistlewood, who documented the heinous and barbaric things he would do to his slaves, types of torture that can’t be written here. It must have been very difficult to read those diaries. 
 

A: It was brutal. Most of the sources that researchers are reading are sources produced by slaveholders. Now the cruelty that you find in those records, especially Thistlewood's diary, I think that's what comes from impunity. If they're never checked, if they're living in a society in which the law, the militia, the British Army, the Royal Navy, and Parliament are all stacked on their side to give them impunity so that they can make money for the benefit of empire, well, they'll just do anything. So, the sexual depravity is on display, the physical cruelty, the mental cruelty, the humiliations. That's a fundamental part of the way slavery operates, which in my book is fundamental to the way the political economy of empire works.

Q: I’m not sure we have seen a murder so blatant as George Floyd’s.
 

A: Of course, the Emmett Till photographs shocked the world; it wasn't necessarily the police in that case, as far as we know. Black deaths have been on display for a long time. People look at it and are shocked, then they may look away and forget. But Black people are rarely surprised by this kind of thing. The stories we tell each other, and the ways we warn each other about how you avoid certain situations are all about the possibility that this could happen. For example, I'm a tenured Harvard professor. I'm fairly well to do. Yet I avoid the police whenever I can. I tell my children to avoid the police.

I regard the police, as I do any other group of people with weapons, as a potential danger. That's ironic, really, because in class terms, in American Society, the police are supposed to be protecting my interests. And yet, as someone who's descended from enslaved Africans, who has a Black family...I don't trust that the police will be on my side. So I approach encounters with the police with extreme caution, as if I were going into an encounter with gangsters.

Quotation from Vincent Brown pulled from article text

Q: Could this be a time where people in our country collectively, finally, get it?
 

A: I should hope so. People are surprised. They're appalled, they're shocked. They're angry. Maybe they're even understanding the kind of anger that erupts on the streets. The danger is they revert to being more worried about the anger on the streets than they are about the impunity of the police. And then they begin to feel more afraid of the population that's been suffering that kind of brutality. If a majority of the population becomes more afraid of them than they are of an unaccountable police force, then we're right back to where we were.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Vincent Brown is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. He studies sources, circuits, and aftereffects of the African slave revolt in the Atlantic world. His new book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard University Press, 2020), has garnered several awards and accolades. 

Captions
 

  1. Uprising of the black slaves in Jamaica in 1759. Includes scene of murder, slaves attacking European men at table, decanters, and swords. François Anne David (1741–1824), Soulevement des Negres à la Jamaïque en 1759, c. 1800. Credit: John Carter Brown Library, Box 1894, Brown University, Providence, R.I. 02912 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  2. Africans Arrived from the Gold Coast, 1661–1760. Credit: M. Roy Cartography & Design
  3. Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa') by Daniel Orme, published by Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), after W. Denton stipple engraving, published 1 March 1789 NPG D8546. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)