Slavery: An Incalculable Human Loss
America's Long-Running Holocaust
What was life like on the slave ships? Olauda Equiano, an enslaved African who eventually wrote a narrative about his hellish experiences, described it in this way: “Now that the ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate … almost suffocated us. The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered it a scene of horror almost inconceivable …”
The picture that emerges, then, is one of institutionalized racial violence, inhumanity, abuse, and murder on a scale that many white Americans, to this day, simply do not allow themselves to consider.
Certainly the manifest abuses associated with the slave trade—in terms of economic exploitation, or wanton cruelty, or the darkest uses of available technology—rank alongside the worst human rights travesties of the most infamous dictators of the twentieth century. Having acknowledged that, one must then factor in the reality that these practices persisted, not for a few years under a single despot, but for more than four centuries in a profitable program of human conquest endorsed, for most of its duration, by the highest secular and religious powers.
Slavery was a sustained American holocaust. The vast majority of its victims' voices will never be heard. Those few that have survived are harrowing indeed.
“Bought and Sold in the Market Like an Ox”
Consider, for instance, the account of Henry Bibb, whose The Life and Adventures of an American Slave was published in 1851:
A slave, may be bought and sold in the market like an ox. He is liable to be sold off to a distant land from his family. He is bound in chains hand and foot; and his sufferings are aggravated a hundred fold by the terrible thought that he is not allowed to struggle against misfortune, corporal punishment, insults and outrages committed upon himself and his family; and he is not allowed to help himself, to resist or escape the blow, which he sees impending over him. I was a slave a prisoner for life. I could possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to my keeper. No one can imagine my feelings in my reflecting moments, but he who has himself been a slave.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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