Race, Religion, and Different Habits of Mind

Posted on July 21, 2015


In examining the roots and nature of racism in this country, it is often instructive to compare similar experiences across different countries and different peoples. Or, how did others deal with the same institution?

It is kind of like traveling. It generally broadens and deepens one’s understanding of not only the places you traveled to, but also of your own world.

Mark Twain wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In exploring slavery and racism, we need to look beyond the experience of the African in the English colonies that became the United States. Virtually every major country in Latin America also experienced African slavery.

Some of these regions, including Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, had large African slave populations.

Let’s be clear on one other issue. Indians too were enslaved all across the Americas. The residue of slavery, however, did not stick to their culture in the same fashion as it did to Africans.

A friend, a poet, came to Tuscaloosa years ago on a Fulbright scholarship to teach at Stillman and UA. After a few months, he commented, “you know Larry, I didn’t know I was black until I came here!”
He was an intelligent, gifted man who knew of course the realities of the world, but he never felt “black” in his home country. He was, in fact, a mulatto of light skin, but, more than that, he was a poet and man respected as such in his world. That he was black, or of African descent, was of course obvious, but incidental.

What is the difference between being black in our country and black in the many places I have traveled and worked in Latin America, like Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Peru?

Slavery still existed in Spain and Portugal when the explorers, settlers, and conquistadors came over in the late fifteenth century to settle in the New World. Slavery had in fact existed in Iberia since Roman times. It was a familiar part of society and culture.

To be enslaved in the Roman empire did not imply color. Slaves of all races existed. See the movie Spartacus which is historically correct, at least with respect to the impartiality of slavery under Rome. Anyone, especially of course captured warriors, could and were enslaved, from Britons to Africans.

On the other hand, when the first Englishmen successfully planted a few colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America, they had little or no personal or social experience with slavery at home. It didn’t exist in England and had receded into antiquity and was not part of their daily lives.

In 1619 about twenty African slaves were landed in Virginia on August 20 from a Dutch ship. She had captured them in an earlier engagement in the Caribbean with a Portuguese slave ship bound for Mexico and dumped the Africans in Jamestown in exchange for provisions.

Having little or no experience with slavery, the Africans became inextricably associated with the institution in the minds of the English colonists. To be a slave in Virginia was to be an African. Indians had proven to be very poor slaves, but Africans proved more tractable for many reasons.
The English, furthermore, were slow to evangelize the Africans.

While some may already had accepted baptism from the Portuguese in Africa, many still worshipped native gods or were Muslims.

On the other hand, every slave arriving in the Spanish or Portuguese colonies was baptized and instructed, no matter how cursorily, by the Roman Catholic Church. The fine points of theology were not an issue; saving souls was paramount.

Many English Protestants, on the other hand, felt baptism conferred a form of spiritual equality among all believers, and Africans were simply unprepared to be taught in the mysteries of the faith.

Thrown into the killing work of the plantations, the African slaves were hardly ever thought of as anything other than exploitable plantation labor. In fact, the term “chattel” slavery came into use, thinking of the slaves as property not people. They were Africans and slaves, two terms that became almost synonymous among white plantation society.

The color black became associated with slavery in the English colonies, but not necessarily in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

When slavery receded across the Western world in the nineteenth century, the former slaves entered society in two different ways.

In Latin America, they became “free men,” like everyone else. In the United States they were “freed men,” very clearly implying they carried the stigma of slavery in their genes, and all that having been a slave implied.

This column published as Slave Culture Impacts Racial Perceptions in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 19, 2015

Posted in: History