The United States of America is the land of the free and home of the brave that enslaved men and women built. It is an irony for all times. In 2016, the former First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, delivered one of the best speeches in modern history at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Particularly striking was the line, "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves." She meant the White House but there is a metaphor in her statement.
The line obviously caused quite a stir, proving that while America has, for the most part, admitted the horrors and macabre realities of slavery, it is not ready to accept the contribution slavery made to the current edifice America is. Politifact and Snopes, renowned fact-checking websites, weighed in: Was the White House Built by Slaves? Indeed it was true. According to Snopes, "Recent research has uncovered that the majority of laborers responsible for the construction of the White House and other buildings in the U.S. capital were slaves."
From the unnecessary noise made about Michelle Obama's largely accurate, hard-hitting statement, one cannot help but notice the urge of America to downplay the utility of slavery in building what has become the U.S.A.
Slavery is relegated to some useless and unnecessary frolic of Southern America. A whole economic institution which could have formed the bedrock of the greatest modern economy is reduced to a whimsical congregation and ownership of black people for no economic reason. Therefore, the contributions black people made are then undermined and following this reasoning, they need to be grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a nation as great as America yet they contributed nothing. No greater lie has been told.
Edward Baptist penned a revealing book titled The Half Has Never Been Told and his golden thread throughout the text is that slavery was integral to establishing the United States as a world economic power. Baptist says the massive industrial transformations in America and Britain in the 19th century happened in cotton textile factories, which were the first factories of the industrial system. None of these changes would have been possible without having cheap cotton delivered to the factories from Southern U.S.A. where the enslaved toiled and suffered. The cotton was so cheap that it put all other cotton producers out of business in the 1830s.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic says by the 1840s, 59 percent of American exports were cotton produced by slave labor. The North of the U.S., however, should not be absolved as it provided a wide variety of services to the slave South. Baptist, therefore, says much of the success that initially pushed America came from the labor extracted from enslaved people and financial wealth came from enslaved people's commodified and sold on markets.
A point is made by Tasha Williams that because the estimated market value of slaves reached seven times the currency in circulation, they were now used as collateral, rented out or sold to raise cash. Her conclusion, which cannot be faulted, is that "Enslaved humans, therefore, boosted the economy not only with their labor but by living and breathing as relatively liquid assets." In other words, the U.S. economy was purchased with the very lives of slaves. The initial push for an economy that is now valued at $20.4 trillion came from slavery and it is a fact the country has to learn to face. It is not enough that America accepts the barbarity of slavery, it should also accept the contribution slavery made to the world's largest economy. Slaves were the capital in early American capitalism.
The Europeans even disrespected her humanity to the extent of displaying her brain, skeleton and sexual organs in a Paris museum until 1974.
Header Image Credit: H. Tees