Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Did African-American Slaves Rebel?

tags: slavery, African American history, The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr., slave revolts



Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

One of the most pernicious allegations made against the African-American people was that our slave ancestors were either exceptionally "docile" or "content and loyal," thus explaining their purported failure to rebel extensively. Some even compare enslaved Americans to their brothers and sisters in Brazil, Cuba, Suriname and Haiti, the last of whom defeated the most powerful army in the world, Napoleon's army, becoming the first slaves in history to successfully strike a blow for their own freedom.

As the historian Herbert Aptheker informs us in American Negro Slave Revolts, no one put this dishonest, nakedly pro-slavery argument more baldly than the Harvard historian James Schouler in 1882, who attributed this spurious conclusion to " 'the innate patience, docility, and child-like simplicity of the negro' " who, he felt, was an " 'imitator and non-moralist,' " learning " 'deceit and libertinism with facility,' " being " 'easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots' "; in short, Negroes were " 'a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, children in imagination.' ''

Consider how bizarre this was: It wasn't enough that slaves had been subjugated under a harsh and brutal regime for two and a half centuries; following the collapse of Reconstruction, this school of historians -- unapologetically supportive of slavery -- kicked the slaves again for not rising up more frequently to kill their oppressive masters. And lest we think that this phenomenon was relegated to 19th- and early 20th-century scholars, as late as 1959, Stanley Elkins drew a picture of the slaves as infantilized "Sambos" in his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, reduced to the status of the passive, "perpetual child" by the severely oppressive form of American slavery, and thus unable to rebel. Rarely can I think of a colder, nastier set of claims than these about the lack of courage or "manhood" of the African-American slaves....



comments powered by Disqus
History News Network