Celebrate Black History Month: Defining Abolition

If you are reading these blogs hopefully you are noticing there is a theme running. I have been attempting hopefully not too poorly to bridge the past to the present. I feel that this is important because often there is this belief that slavery, The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the modern era are not as closely connected as they actually are. America’s slave past has had long lasting reverberations and while I do not consider myself a scholar on Black history I do have an invested interest in the subject. I hope these blogs are helpful on your journey to learn more about Black history and culture, but this is just a start. There are volumes of scholarship and other voices, some that we will be able to introduce you to and others you will have to discover for yourself.

Today I want to just focus on a word: Abolition.

Webster’s Dictionary defines the term as:

  1. the act of officially ending or stopping something : the act of abolishing something
  2. the abolishing of slavery

Now what is interesting to me is that the secondary definition speaks directly to the institution of slavery and just slavery, which I find problematic to a degree. If we look at the first definition that is more generalized it speaks to officially ending something or stopping something. If we look more closely at the root word it means to end the observance or effect of something; to do away with. To look at it in a different context: We have abolished fines for children’s materials at the library. Yet what that statement doesn’t speak to is the why, which is because it can be a barrier for some families, to feel welcome at the library. It doesn’t speak on the complexities that came to that choice and simplifies it. Now in the case of library services that works to some degree because it states plainly that we noticed an issue, addressed it and moved on. Libraries, while in the position as city, state, county entities to provide some services to those who are facing economic hardship, aren’t the entity that can solve economic disparities, we are just a part of the process and I believe most individuals understand that. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for slavery. There is no universal understanding of slavery. Ending slavery didn’t end racism, and to be honest we can’t even get a true accounting of history to even begin the process.

Let’s Unpack That

On January 31, 1865 Congress passed the 13th Amendment and it was ratified on December 6, 1865. The amendment reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." If you have watched Ava DuVernay’s "13th" you immediately see the catch (We will talk about that catch in a later blog this month). Following shortly after that are the 14th amendment that gave newly emancipated slaves “equal protection under the law” and the 15th amendment that gave Black men the right to vote.

Now I know many of us growing up heard that The Civil War was about “states’ rights” or “southern honor”. I can say from my own childhood education those points were drilled over and over, but I was a petty child with well, petty parents who always supported me in having an opinion. Sometimes I would add at the end of my answers on the cause of The Civil War the caveat of “states’ rights, to have slaves”. I once had a teacher try to correct me on this point in 8th grade, but I stood my ground. When I pushed her to tell me which “rights” the south was protecting and to list them out clearly; she couldn’t do it. Of course, the result was her giving me detention for a week and my mother promptly withdrawing me early for that entire week. I will say looking back I am proud of 13 year-old me for feeling empowered enough to speak up to an adult that I knew was teaching me the wrong thing but I also am disappointed I had to do it in the first place and I know most of our children aren't as empowered.

The Great Divide

In the late 18th century slavery was on its way out when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which made cotton processing an easier process. This made cotton a more profitable product and slavery increased due to its economic benefit to the largely agricultural south and the industrial north where cotton was processed into textiles and slave laborers were usually in skilled professions. Slavery had never been a large part of northern life but many people in the north made money indirectly from slave labor by investments in southern plantations. To explain it in simple terms it is like when the auto industry was bailed out during the housing bubble in 2009. Part of the reason why it was so vital that the auto industry get the bail out was how its failure could trickle downstream to parts, gas stations, car dealers and…etc. Some have even opined that slavery was another bubble.

Slavery was tolerated for many years until northern cities began to further expand their economies into trades, so one could even argue that technology and modernization spurred the division in opinions on slavery from north to south. As time went on that division grew as the Abolitionist’s Movement picked up, especially after the Fugitive Slave law was enacted, which is the real reason for the Civil War, in my opinion. The fact that that law made southern interests into northern territory may have really been a bigger factor. When Lincoln was elected in 1860 there was a fear that he and the Republican party would try to force the Southern states to end slavery. If you look at secession documents from the states that would end up forming the confederacy, slavery in many cases is expressed (*hint involuntary servitude”) as the reason for leaving the union. Now I will not delve too deeply into The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation (it only freed slaves in southern territory as they were seen as an instrument crucial to the southern war machine), Black soldiers contributions, or Sherman... we all know the outcome of The Civil War.

Yet as early as 1894 there has seemed to be a concerted effort to downplay that slavery was the cause of The Civil War and this miseducation was and may still be taught across the United States. No one is responsible for the actions of their ancestors but when we lie to ourselves and our children about that history, we should be held responsible. Like the framers who left the question of slavery to Lincoln, when will we begin to answer the question of all the injustice that happened after Lincoln?

Tonight’s challenge may be a difficult one but this one isn’t something I want you to research. Look at the books in your home, the things that you watch, the words that you say and ask yourself: “Would these things be hurtful to a person who doesn’t look me? Is this something I'm holding onto educating me or telling me a half truth? Am I reframing that material to explain why its good and equally problematic to some groups?” And if you find things in your lives that are like this, I would like you to ABOLISH those things from your life or consider ending and reframing how you use them. Part of moving forward to a more equitable society is admitting there may be things we are holding on to that we need to abolish. Just because things have always been done this way or it's comfortable doesn’t mean that it’s right, fair, truthful or equitable.

The Civil War

Embattled Freedom Journeys Through the Civil War's Slave Refugee Camps, book cover
100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, book cover
American Antislavery Writings Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation, book cover