Steven Singer: Florida Attempting to Revive the “Happy Slave” Myth as Real History
Steven Singer has some thoughts about that Florida history program. Reposted with permission.
Frederick Douglass was widely considered the most photographed American in the 19th century, though he never smiled in a single portrait.
He stares out of the frame with a look of quiet dignity, but never joviality or contentment.
The reason for this is simple – he didn’t want to perpetuate the myth of the “Happy Slave.”
Douglass was born into bondage until he fled to the North at age 20. He was considered a fugitive for nine more years until 1845 when English friends raised $711.66 to buy his freedom. He was already a famous orator, author and abolitionist.
But he knew the power of a picture and how a still image of him grinning ear-to-ear might be used by slaveholders to indicate that people of color enjoyed their own servitude.
Now 158 years after the Civil War, the Florida Department of Education is trying to perpetuate that same myth with its new guidelines for Black history curriculum in public schools.
Among other things, the guidelines suggest that American slavery was not all bad because enslaved people developed skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
The guidelines say that teachers’ lessons should “examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).”
This seems like a strange thing to emphasize about people who were engaged in back-breaking, life-shortening fieldwork on the cotton, rice and sugar cane plantations. Putting the focus on the various tasks they completed seems to make slavery little more than another type of “agricultural work” – just one of many “trades.”
But we’re losing sight of the fact that it was forced labor! That seems an essential feature – a defining characteristic!
So enslaved people might acquire skills in bondage that they did not previously possess. They could sometimes become expert artisans who might earn money to buy things.
But they did not own their own bodies! They were property! That limits your buying power in kind of a major way – not to mention your humanity!
No skills, nothing you could purchase could possibly make you cherish your lack of freedom.
In his autobiography, Douglass wrote:
“I have observed this in my experience of slavery, that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.”
Of this, Douglass wrote:
“Every tone was testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. . . . To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. . . . The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
The new education guidelines in the Sunshine state are the latest since the Stop Woke Act was enacted in July 2022. The law says discussions about race must be taught in an “objective manner” and should not be “used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.” It also states that students should not feel guilty for actions taken in the past by people of their same race or origin.
Florida has taken broad measures to align its education standards with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s vision of a state “where woke goes to die,” which constrains teachers to discuss race, gender and sexuality, if at all, only in a way in which the Governor would approve.
The irony is that these guidelines show exactly why teachers need to discuss these subjects more openly and freely – why authentic history MUST be taught – not some far right fairytale vision of the past.
Not only are these guidelines insensitive at best, state policymakers do not understand the actual record. They seem to believe in Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” to colonize, civilize, and Christianize non-Europeans – that slavery was a means of protecting and bringing Africans into the civilized era.
But this is pure nonsense – what’s worse it’s antiquated nonsense.
People who were kidnapped from Africa and forced into slavery across the Atlantic were not savages who were civilized by white slavers.
These were people with their own cultures, heritages and, yes, skills.
Most Africans who were abducted to North America were from West Africa and West Central Africa.
Each regional clan or group had professions or crafts such as weaving, basket making, potting, or iron working. They grew agricultural products, made textiles, manufactured goods, music and art. They made traditional foods and had unique customs.
These skills were used by enslaved people in the American South and beyond creating many industries in the US, but their contributions were most often erased.
Take Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
Around 1850, an enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green taught a white man, Jack Daniel, the art of whiskey distillation – though it would take another 150 years before this would be publicly acknowledged.
Daniel was an orphan working as a day laborer on the farm of Dan Call, a Lynchburg preacher, grocer and distiller. Daniel took an interest in the distillery and pleaded to learn the trade. Call eventually introduced him to Green, who he called “the best whiskey maker that I know of,” according to a 1967 biography, Jack Daniel’s Legacy. He instructed the enslaved man to teach the young boy his distilling process.
Green taught Daniel “sugar maple charcoal filtering” (now called the Lincoln County Process), a universally accepted critical step in the making of Tennessee whiskey. This involves filtering the whiskey through wooden charcoal chips before being placed in casks for aging. Food historians believe this was inspired by similar charcoal filtering techniques used to purify water and foods in West Africa. The process imparts a unique flavor that set Jack Daniel’s whiskey apart from its competitors.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Daniel bought Call’s distillery, renaming it after himself. More than seven generations of the Green family worked either for or with the Jack Daniel’s brand.
It’s important to note that these were skills Green already possessed. They were not learned in bondage. They were brought with him to this country.
Another example of this would be Black cowboys.
Despite the relative lack of Black faces in Hollywood Westerns, Black men made up about 1 in 4 cowboys in the old West.
Men of color handled cattle, tamed horses, worked ranches, encountered outlaws and starred in rodeos. It’s estimated that anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 Black cowboys were part of the legendary cattle drives of the 1800s.
Many Black cowboys developed their skills in Africa – not America. People abducted from countries such as Ghana and Gambia were already experienced in managing large herds of cattle and their abilities with animals were highly desirable.
During the Civil War, some Texas ranchers who fought with the Confederacy left enslaved people behind to maintain their ranches.
Once again these were skills brought to this country just as the people possessing them were – by force.
The Cotton Gin offers a more contentious example.
Eli Whitney, a white man, is given credit for inventing the machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber.
However, there is much debate about where he got the idea.
Some historians believe Catherine Greene, a woman he was living with, devised the cotton gin and Whitney merely built it and applied for the patent, since at that time women were not allowed to do this. Others believe the idea was Whitney’s but Greene played an important role as both designer and financier.
However, according to the University of Houston’s College of Engineering, Whitney got the idea from an enslaved person known to history only as Sam. Sam’s father came up with a kind of comb to get the seeds out of a cotton boll. Whitney heard about the idea and simply mechanized it.
Whether Sam or his father were able to invent the cotton gin because of skills learned in America or Africa is hard to say, but they certainly didn’t profit off of them. If they were given any remuneration, it was nothing in comparison to Whitney.
Ironically, this device made the mass cultivation of cotton profitable. The result was that the enslaved population in the United States jumped from about 250,000 around the time of the Revolutionary War to around 4 million at the time of the Civil War.
Sadly, this is far from the only example of white people getting the credit for the intellectual work of enslaved people.
Jo Anderson came up with the idea or at least co-invented a reaping machine that revolutionized agriculture. But the credit went to Cyrus McCormick, the white man who owned him.
Cutting wheat in the early 1800s was slow, difficult and labor-intensive. Workers had to walk and cut the stalks with scythes, and laborers (also called “binders”) walking behind them gathered and tied the stalks into sheaves. The reaper was a device that sheared a wide path of grain. A worker would just need to rake the cut stalks off the machine’s bed onto the ground in ready-to-bind stacks.
In the 1850s, Benjamin Montgomery invented a steamboat propeller designed for shallow water. But since he was enslaved, his invention could not be patented in his name. His owners – future Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph – then tried to patent the propeller in their names but the request was denied since they were not the inventors. It went unpatented.
In 1831, a freed slave named Henry Boyd invented a “Tester Bed” that used wooden side rails. However, he had to let a white man, George Porter, patent his design for him since he could not do it, himself.
Free Black men were technically allowed to patent inventions but it could be incredibly difficult to do so. Often they ended up putting patents in the names of their white lawyers to give them a better shot at acceptance.
While some of these skills may have been learned in servitude, Black people rarely got to experience the rewards they deserved for using them.
It should be achingly obvious that being kidnapped and enslaved did not in the final analysis profit Black people even if they may have occasionally learned skills or earned a little money. Any suggestion otherwise is pure fantasy.
It is a political fiction that is being revived to stop any attempts at actual justice in this country.
Though they are no longer enslaved, African Americans still suffer from the after affects of our peculiar institution. Jim Crow laws continued until the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. Even then policies like red lining, discriminatory hiring practices, and over-policing of Black neighborhoods continued. Though progress has been made at each step along the way, Black people still suffer from institutional racism of which Florida’s new educational guidelines are a prime example.
Just in our public education system, children of color are more likely to find themselves in under-funded schools with fewer opportunities, narrowed curriculum and subjected to evaluation by biased standardized tests. They are targeted by fly-by-night charter schools which often have no elected school boards and worse academic records than neighborhood authentic public schools.
Florida’s new guidelines are another attempt to erase the problem without fixing it – to make even stating the racial realities impossible for teachers in the classroom and thus unlikely to be learned by anyone who doesn’t experience this type of inequity first hand.
As Douglass said in a speech in Cork, Ireland:
“The people of America deprive us [Black people] of every privilege—they turn round and taunt us with our inferiority!—they stand upon our necks, they impudently taunt us, and ask the question, why we don’t stand up erect? They tie our feet, and ask us why we don’t run? That is the position of America in the present time. The laws forbid education, the mother must not teach her child the letters of the Lord’s prayer; and then while this unfortunate state of things exist they turn round and ask, why we are not moral and intelligent; and tell us, because we are not, that they have the right to enslave [us].”
It’s no wonder he did not smile in his photographs.
I doubt his expression would change much, If he were alive today and presented with Florida’s idea of Black history.