Genocide, and the way it is defined today is highly debated. According to an online news article, some believe the term to be too narrow because, among other reasons, it is difficult to define or measure what “in part” actually means in the United Nations Genocide Convention (UNGC) as stated in Article II (BBC News 2). I believe this definition to define genocide best, because it captures the criteria listed in Article II of the UNGC quite well. “Murdering or otherwise grievously harming the members of an ethnical, racial, or religious group with the intention of destroying the group in whole or in part.” (Fein 127) Article II reads as follows:
“ In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”(Fein 131).
When looking at the definition, and the criterion outlined by the UNGC in Article II, and then at the aspects that defined the enslavement of the African race in the United States, it becomes obvious that slavery, as it was in the United States, meets almost all the criteria listed in Article II of the UNGC. Even more interesting however, slavery wasn’t designed to fulfill the purpose of killing off the African race, as what most people would think of the goal of genocide to be, but it was designed to make the slave a 100 percent productive member of a society. Their labor was needed for the agricultural base of the country ,as Walter Johnson states in his essay. (Burgett and Hendler 225) This meant the African and human identity had to be destroyed and replaced with the identity of a slave, which would guarantee, more or less, the former African’s would cooperate and accept their imprisonment as slaves. Of course, the biological person wasn’t destroyed, but the identity of being human, and being African was destroyed, which was a huge aspect that defined the African race. The skepticism claims that “in part” is hard to define, but I would argue, in terms of slavery, the loss of cultural and human identity was enough to classify as genocide. In this paper I will argue that the enslavement of the African people was focused on intentionally destroying the African and human identity of the African race, so they would be cooperative in their enslavement and in doing so, genocide was committed.
First off, I must make the point that the Antebellum South plantation was actually both, an institute that produced economically sound products that helped in the development of the country, and an institute bent on suppressing the slave’s former African and human identity, only leaving the biological sense of being. All this was working towards the purpose of making the slave as productive as possible. Glenn Hendler said in his essay on society, “We socialize freely with others, but we are also ‘socialized’ into normative patterns of behavior shaped by larger legal and political institutions.” (Burgett and Hendler 225) I am strongly suggesting the plantation was such a legal institution, in which was bent on “re-socializing” the African people into what the plantation owner wanted them to be. This concept of “re-socializing” wasn’t new, even back in the 1800s. When the British first came to the United States they saw the Natives as “savages” and looked to educate them in their modern ways of living as Benjamin Franklin observed in his essay. (Newman, Pace, and Woodyard 36-40) The plantation operated on a similar idea, but they weren’t interested in educating the African people in a way that was helpful to their own race, but in a way that was helpful to the plantation itself. Fredrick Douglass’s narrative seems to outline a sort of caste system that lied within the plantation. There was the plantation owner, who also owned the slaves; the slave over seers, who forced the slaves to their peak of productivity; and there were the slaves themselves, that were actually part of the plantation. (Douglass 25-31) in a sense, the slave was a prisoner of a circular chain of command. In other words, they were a prisoner of a system they were aiding, and in turn their cultural identity was being destroyed, leaving only the biological aspects and the mental state that they had to work toward the good of the plantation; since the African and human identity was compromised, genocide can be used to describe the caste system Douglass described in his narrative.
Slavery and the destruction of their human and African identity also fits within most of the criteria listed in Article II of the UNGC. Looking at the first criterion the UN listed (killing members of the group,) alongside slavery on plantations, it becomes evident that the way slaves were killed on these plantations assisted in the destruction of their original identity, and thus can be categorized as genocide. The way Slaves died on the plantation may not reflect what many may think of as “genocidal death,” the mindless killing of the group towards its biological destruction, but it is important to understand slaves served the purpose of making sure the plantation didn’t fail. However, slaves were in no way safe from the threat of death. Orlando Patterson, in his study, said, “The execution was suspended only as long as the slave acquiesced in his powerlessness.” (Patterson 77). This means slaves faced the constant threat of being killed if they displayed any type of power that threatened the plantation-slave society. Fredrick Douglass wrote in his narrative, “Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with anyone, not even giving Dembey an additional call raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more.” (Fredrick Douglass 39). Demby, the slave that was killed in this passage, was shot because he ceased to be valuable to the plantation because of his disobedience. The passage goes on to say, “Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves…if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example.” (Douglass 39). This also shows Demby was killed because he threatened the plantation with his lack display of power over the overseer. This disobedience, or power Demby demonstrated was dangerous, because it was a display of human identity, and the fear was an attitude of one slave could possibly reflect onto the other slaves, thus breaking the system that was suppressing them into slavery. Killing members of the African group did not serve the simplistic purpose of wiping out the race, but instead made the slaves fearful; stripped them of their human identity by forcing them to accept slavery. Killing slaves worked towards the purpose of destroying their identity as Africans, because it ensured, more or less, the slaves would stay 100 percent productive. The killing of slaves may had not worked toward the biological inhalation of the African race, but the fear derived from the possibility of dyeing destroyed an important aspect of what defined the group(their human and African identity) thus slavery fits comfortably within the definition of genocide I have presented.
The second criterion of the UNGC, “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” describes methods that were used to destroy the former African identity of the slaves. Looking at two separate passages, one from Douglass’s narrative, and the other from Jacob’s narrative, we see each type of harm, bodily and mental, at work. “I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.” (Douglass 24). Douglass is referring to the sight of his aunt Hester being whipped by a slave overseer, but the important aspect here is Douglass is focused distinctly on the physical aspects of the act of whipping, and the physical outcome. Now, looking at Jacobs’s narrative, a passage also reflecting on the act of whipping reads, “He said he did not mind the smart of the whip, but he did not like the idea of being whipped.” (Harriet Jacobs 16). This passage depicts the act of whipping in a completely opposite way than does the passage from Douglass’s narrative, because it completely dismisses the physical aspect of being whipped, and only states that the psychological damage caused by the whip was where the real damage was. These slave narratives depicting the same act, but seeing the damage done as two opposite types of damage, physical or mental, demonstrate that the slave population was inflicted with both types of punishment. The motive of this damage can be interpreted as yet another way to destroy the human and African identity of the slaves, because these acts would be inflicted as punishment, which would suggest they were behaving poorly. Genocide can easily be applied to this aspect of slavery.
Whipping was a very important part of slavery, because this type of punishment which was inflicted on the slaves was not a punishment that would be inflicted on a normal human being. The whipping of the slaves would cause slaves, even in the tiniest way, to actually believe they weren’t human, destroying their identity. First off, the whip, and the act of whipping in the slaves on the plantation-slave society, was a regularly practiced ritual. Patterson said, “There is no known slaveholding society where the whip was not considered an indispensable instrument.” (Patterson 77). And the plantation was no exception. In fact, the whipping of slaves was not only a possible act on the plantation, but it was also expected. (Colin Dayan 13), and the act of whipping is regularly accounted for in several literary works written by slaves. Douglass’s narrative depicts the whip regularly, as does Jacobs. Even in the novel “Kindred” by Octavia Butler depicts the act of whipping slaves a regular occurrence. “‘I’ll teach you I just wanted to be sure you knew what you were getting yourself into.’ He turned away from me, lifted up his shirt in the back so I could see his scars. Then faced me again. ‘I know,’ he said.” (Butler 98). I believe this passage really capturers how normal the whipping of the slaves was during slavery and to what purpose it served. As we can see Dana, the protagonist in Butler’s novel, is afraid to teach the slave boy to read, and that fear is directly derived from the act of whipping. Once again, fear is at work to control the slave, and destroy their identity, because reading is something only humans can do, thus “justifying” the punishment. Also, the whip was not just used on slaves, but also domestic animals such as horses. Douglass wrote, “For in nothing was Colonel Lloyd more particular than in the management of his horses. The slightest inattention to these was unpardonable, and was visited upon those, under whose care they were placed, with the severest punishment.” (Douglass 33). This passage shows that, even an animal which is whipped was given a higher authority than the slaves. This kind of treatment, in which the slaves are treated even worse than an animal, could cause the slaves to develop the idea they are much worse, and less important than the animal, corrupting their human identity. As I have demonstrated, the act of whipping the slaves, and incorporating it in the plantation-slave society, would in fact their human identity, thus, through the act of whipping, genocide can apply.
The next criterion, “inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” is interesting, even more so than the others, because it only calls attention to the “physical destruction” of the group rather than the physical and mental cooperative concept that has been imbedded in the definition of genocide itself. However, the living conditions the slaves were forced to live by did indeed physically destroy them, and that physical destruction, in turn, destroyed their cultural and human identity, which was the primary goal of the plantation-slave society. Once again, the physical destruction of the African people would serve no purpose to the plantation, however, the definition for genocide states the destruction of the race can be “in whole or in part.” In the case of the slaves’ living conditions, only physically destroyed the slaves “in part,” but did however, destroy the slaves’ African and human identity “in whole.” Douglass recalls several accounts which reflect directly on the regular, everyday living conditions of the slaves. Douglass wrote that the amount of food, and clothing each slave required, was required only through monthly and yearly allowances. (Douglass 26) the slaves were given either eight pounds of pork, or the equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. As for the clothing, they were given a yearly allowance of two shirts, one pair of pants, one jacket, a pair of socks and a pair of shoes; all that Douglass said couldn’t have cost more than 7 dollars. (Douglass 26) Douglass also wrote the slave children were given no food allowance and were only given one shirt every year. Douglass also went into detail about the sleeping conditions. He said all slaves slept on the ground, they had one blanket for each man and woman, but not for the children. There was hardly any time to sleep because of meal, and field preparation, and if one failed to hear the “driver’s horn,” “For if they did not awaken by the sense of hearing, they are by the sense of feeling; no age nor sex finds any favor.” (Douglas 26-27) Douglass, in only a couple pages, presents so much information about the obviously wearing conditions of slave life. As is obvious in the passage, these conditions were physically destructive, in part, which would already classify this aspect of slavery as an act working towards genocide, but the goal of the plantation was to destroy only the identity of the slaves, stripping them of their humanity, which, these living conditions did, so genocide, as it is defined, can be applied to the lifestyle of the slaves.
For the next criterion listed in article II of the UNGC, “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” does not apply to the enslavement of the African race. In fact, Walter Johnson wrote in his essay, “North America was alone among New World slave societies in having a self-reproducing slave population.” (Burgett and Hendler 222) However, my argument still remains intact because article II also states, “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy…” (Fein 127) This means that even if only one of the criteria was committed to destroy the group, that genocide was still committed, but it is still important to understand why births were allowed in the plantation-slave society. Once a baby is born and both, the mother and the father, are slaves, the baby becomes the property of the plantation owner. In Butler’s novel, Alice’s mother said, “Mister Tom said for him to choose a new wife there on the plantation. That way, Mister Tom will own all his children.” (Octavia 40) Owning the slave children was good and bad for the plantation owner. Good because it produced free labor, but bad because it took time for them to become a productive member in the plantation-slave society. Johnson said in his essay that other slave societies depended on the Atlantic slave trade for slaves. (Burgett and Hendler 222) Thomas Jefferson even wrote, “The two sexes were confined in separate apartments, because to raise a child cost the master more than to buy one.” (Jefferson 3) Assuming purchasing a slave on the Atlantic slave trade was cheaper than raising a slave child, as Jefferson demonstrates in the quotation, there must have been another motive of raising a slave child. I believe that motive to have been to destroy the identity of the slave children, before they even had the chance to develop an understanding that they were human. Douglass’s narrative goes into much detail on the treatment slave children were given. Douglass wrote, “We were not regularly allowanced. Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush.”(Douglass 43) The manner in which these slave children were treated served the purpose of introducing them to a new way of thinking and behaving, thus they would not even have a chance to experience their original African identity. This “re-socialization” of slave children could be interpreted as moving them from one group to the next, because socially they are being transformed, thus the last criterion of Article II could apply, and showing the socialization of the slave children destroyed the human and African standing of the slaves as a whole, proving genocide was at work.
This “replacement” of one cultural identity for another through the enslavement of the African race was also obvious in the culture of America itself. Looking at various essays and letter written by proslavery activist such as Josiah Nott wrote nearly seventeen pages justifying slavery by all means. (Drew Faust 207-38) the most interesting arguments Nott made was his argument to justify Egyptians were white, and each race was actually of a different species. (Faust 207-38) Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, wrote several passages which depicted the African race as a different species. “They seem to require less sleep. A black, after a hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning.” (Jefferson 535) Jefferson made the inquiry that the African’s sleeping habits were a result of their race. However, looking again at Douglass’s narrative and how he describes the sleeping habits, he claims the slaves’ sleeping habits were caused by the ruling of the plantation owner. “They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep;” (Douglass 27) there are two conflicting observations between the passages I have picked from Jefferson and Douglass. At the present time, I would be inclined to believe Douglass’s observation over Jefferson’s, but if I were to have lived in the United States in the 1800s, and one of the founding fathers, along with other respected individuals in the white community, said African’s are biologically inferior and/or different, I would almost be inclined to believe them. These inquires made by the U.S. community would undeniably influence the general population, thus stripping the African’s of their cultural and huamn identity. Jefferson doesn’t make any mention of cultural differences between the African race and the Anglo race. Therefore, these outside influences on the plantation-slave society would influence the plantation owners, and even some slaves that could read, to believe the African race was inferior, and meant to be slaves, stripping the cultural identity form the slaves, once again justifying genocide as a reasonable term to define slavery.
The destruction of the African race is evident even in the aftermath of slavery. A book called “Black Utopia” reveals several instances which anti-slavery activists required slaves and attempted to help them learn to be free. “And in her insistence that even the colonized Negro needed special training for freedom.” (William and Jane Pease 29) The passage refers to a woman name Frances Wright, and her thoughts on slavery. The idea slaves needed help was a very realistic one. Many people tried to start societies where they would hire Africans to work on their land, and then they would sell them the land, hoping they could profit from it. The book terms these slave-societies as “training grounds for Negros headed toward eventual assimilation into American society.” (Pease 20) Even long after the abolishment of slavery, in the 1960’s during the civil rights movement, these Africans were no longer Africans, they were African Americans, because their original African identity was lost in the years of reproduction in America as slaves. Today, and African American culture is no longer concerned with African traditions, but American ones. Great accomplishments such as the abolishment of slavery, and the civil rights movement are now what defines the history, and cultural aspects of the African Americans. It is almost like a whole other race was born from the hardships slavery brought upon the African people, and that is exactly what I am suggesting. The hardships brought to the African people from slavery killed off the race, but from that race, a new race was born.
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