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February 23, 2015 / bswitaba

Black history: Why African-Americans can’t breathe

Black lives matter protest

In 2014, the U.S witnessed probably the worst violent protests and civil unrest of its kind following the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson. The riots were triggered owing African-Americans felt that Brown’s shooting was a result of a long standing racial tensions between the majority black population and the majority white city government and police.
Later in the year, the Eric Garner incident where he was put in chokehold by a NYPD officer sparked further outrage by the American public.
Indeed the 2014 riots are no different from the 1965 Los Angeles race riots where irate black residents began looting and torching local stores in retaliation to police brutality.
So what really continues to ail the U.S to a point that the African-American counterpart can’t breathe to date?

Black Oppression

The African-American condition started with the curse of slavery following the middle passage. Unlike all other other inhabitants of America, he was made to go there without his own consent. As Booker T Washington notes in his book “The Future of the American Negro”, he (African-American) was compelled to leave his own country (in Africa) and become a part of another through physical force. While in America, the black were forced to labour on cotton fields, sugar-cane plantations, tobacco fields and rice swamps in the heart of the black belt (Southern States) for about 250 years under deplorable conditions which were calculated not to inspire them with love and respect for labour.
In the Southern states, blacks were viewed as lesser human and in many instances misrepresented by prejudiced historians and religious leaders – that Ham, the father of the black man, was cursed by his father, Noah and thus blacks deserved a lower place in society as a result of the curse.

Slaves thrown in the Ocean during the middle passage

In the 1820’s, white Americans viewed freed blacks as a threat to security. They would lynch them on flimsy grounds at any given opportunity. This triggered to a push for their repatriation to Africa. This move prompted to the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was mandated with assisting in the movement of more than 13,000 freed blacks to Liberia. These freed blacks came to identify themselves as Americo-Liberian, developing a cultural tradition infused with American notions of racial supremacy, and political republicanism.

In the post era of the Emancipation proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, The Southern white still invented a new kind of slavery in the form of debt peonage under the watch of state apparatus during the reconstruction period.
With the abandonment of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency established as part of the United States War Department by an act of Congress in March 1865 to furnish food and medical supplies to blacks (former slaves), blacks found themselves destitute.
Government plans to redistribute land totaling about 325,000 ha (about 800,000 acres), to the former slaves and to people of proved loyalty to the Union, in lots not exceeding 16 hectares (40 acres) were also shelved.
Considering blacks in the Southern countryside did not have a meaningful form of income, they resorted to getting food rations on credit under the debt peonage. In order to clear this debt, they had to work for the creditor (white man) until the debt was deemed “paid”. Here, the creditor was the one mandated to determine when and if the debt was indeed “fully” paid. This is to say that in most cases, one would have to work endlessly until the white creditor felt the debt was cleared!

Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret terrorist organization in the southern states in the postbellum era became a thorny issue for Southern blacks.
KKK generally believed in the innate inferiority of blacks and therefore mistrusted and resented the rise of former slaves to a status of civil equality and often to positions of political power. Black KKK victims usually underwent merciless flagellation, mutilation, or lynching to instill fear among the rest of the black populace.
These activities were justified by the Klan as necessary measures in defence of white supremacy and the inviolability of white womanhood.

Lynching of African Americans

Black Disenfranchisement

The ratification of the 15th amendment gave black males suffrage with an exception of the women. However, this right to vote was complex to achieve all together.
By the end of the 19th century, southern white leaders had begun to undermine the 15th Amendment’s guarantees of black voting rights through devices such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Black political and economic freedom was also suppressed by sheer terror from the infamous terrorist organization KKK.

Booker T. Washington, a great African-American orator of his time reacted to this erosion of black rights by advocating a policy of racial accommodation.
In his famous speech dubbed “The Atlanta Exposition Address” (1895), presented before a predominantly white audience, Booker urged blacks not to emphasize the goals of social integration and political rights but to acquire the vocational skills that would provide opportunities for economic self reliance instead. His address seemed to please whites more than it did the blacks.
Many people among them W.E.B Dubois, the first African American to earn a PHD, criticized Washington because they felt his speech undermined the quest for racial equality. They felt that Booker T. was accommodating injustice-and he was accepting the alleged inferiority of the African American race. While Dubois advocated for a “militant” approach to deal with the problem of the colour line, Booker favoured a “diplomatic” course.

Slave scars as a result of flagelation

In later years, Dubois would be stripped off his American citizenship and eventually settled in Ghana where he died on the eve of Luther’s famous speech of “I have a dream”.
Other notable instances of black disenfranchisement are as given in the chronology below:

1965: In Selma, Alabama state troopers attacked black civil rights demonstrators marching against racist voter registration procedures.
2000: Protesters marched against racist intimidation of black voters in Florida.
2004: More African-American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the 15th amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

According to former U.S president Jimmy Carter, there are more African-American adults under correctional control today, in prison, or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850 (the antebellum decade).
It is worth noting that in the 1960’s, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would be the reincarnates of Booker T and Dubois respectively. While Luther advocated for non violence to achieve racial equality, Malcolm stood by his “by all means necessary” mantra. In one instance, he (Malcolm) had this to say “A racist doesn’t care if you are for violence or non violence”.

Institutional racism.

The American system has time and again failed African-Americans. It tends to treat some Americans less equally than others based on race.

In the 1850s for instance, The Dred Scott Case (Scott vs. Sandford), was a landmark court case in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that a black person could not be a US citizen.
In 1846, Dred Scott, a slave living in St Louis, Missouri, had sued to prove that he, his wife Harriet, and their two daughters were legally entitled to their freedom. After being tried in Missouri state courts and in a federal circuit court, the case went before the US Supreme Court in 1856. The following year, the Court rejected Scott’s claim. Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney concluded that blacks, even when free, could never become citizens of the United States and thus did not have a right to sue in federal courts.

In 1868, the U.S would eventually adopt the 14th Amendment, which declared that all persons born in the United States were citizens of the nation and of the state in which they lived.

Malcolm X would humorously echo Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s sentiments (of the Dred Scott case) when he said “Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American”.
In the dark days of slavery, a black man (slave or free) could not testify against a white man in a court of law as his testimony would not stand before the jury however much it was credible!

The fugitive slave laws in 1793 and 1850, which provided for the return of runaway slaves to their masters, made it extremely difficult for run away blacks from Southern states to find a safe haven in the Northern states where slavery was prohibited.
This gave rise to the legendary underground railroad, a loose network of anti-slavery northerners that “illegally” helped fugitive slaves reach safety in Canada in the quest to escape Southern bondage.

In 1917, white opposition to black gains had become more intense. For instance in East Saint Louis, Illinois, more than 200 blacks were killed by a white mob that invaded a black community. In the same year, 63 black soldiers in Houston, Texas, were summarily court-martialled, and 13 were hanged without being given the right to appeal after a black battalion rioted in reaction to white harassment.
Around the same time, many black soldiers in uniform were attacked and some killed by whites seeking to reinforce traditional patterns of racial domination.

Similarly, the Jim Crow Segregation laws relegated the black folk to a sub-human and a second class citizen. The stringent racist laws stretching back as far as the mid 1850s to the 1950s led to the rise of the civil rights movement whose mission was to fight racial separation and inequality in the U.S.
The civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X (then leader of Nation of Islam), would be assassinated at the height of the movements by alleged government snipers.

The 1960’s also saw the rise of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. These militant groups sought black liberation through socialist revolution. Their primary objective was to fight for the independence (separate state) and self-determination of black people in the U.S. The reaction by the U.S government to quell the black liberation by these militant groups was disastrous -a military assault of tear gas, water cannons, and then a barrage of gunfire, as police launched 10,000 rounds of ammunition into one of the groups compound. As if that was not enough, a police helicopter dropped an FBI supplied C-4 plastique bomb onto the roof of the one the houses in the compound! Other members of these militant groups were charged, sentenced to life imprisonment and or to death. In the documentary “Long distance revolutionary”, Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American political prisoner of the Black Panther Party (formerly on death-row), points out “They (the state police) created mass murder, holocaust, in a major city in America. And not one of them has ever been charged with any crime at all”.
Now isn’t bombing your own citizens morally wrong? A heinous crime of the highest order for that matter!
Institutional racism is further portrayed in the same documentary where Mumia Abu-Jamal is quoted saying “The history of blacks in this court system is clear enough. When a black man confronts a police, he’s not supposed to survive; he’s not supposed to walk away from that confrontation”.
As of date, most Panther members are living in exile around the world and some of them are FBI’s most wanted persons with a hefty reward on their head. One such panther is Assata Shakur, an aunt to the late hip hop artiste Tupac Shakur. Assata has been living in Cuba since the 1980’s where she sought political assylum. The FBI have a 2,000,000$ reward for anyone with leads to her arrest.

The continued endless killings of unarmed teenagers in this age and era by the police force is no doubt a clear indication of black youth criminalization by the American system.
On average, blacks in the U.S are considered more likely to be convicted of a criminal offense than whites: the comparative poverty of the black community (poverty is often an indicator of crime) does not explain this statistically. If convicted, a black person is considerably more likely to be imprisoned than a white person.

In the last analysis, the black American has had a marathon history of close to 400 years in fetters; tossed from one conveyor belt of strife, to one of being spat upon, to another of endless atrocities.
To him, being an American has been a curse rather than a blessing, a burden rather than a relief.

Of what significance is the symbolism of Juneteenth if he can’t breathe simply because of his skin color?
In the words of Frederick Douglass, “To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, is inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony”.

It is therefore about time the American system fully came to the realization that any discrimination based simply on race or color is barbarous. Black lives matter and they need to be given a fair chance to breathe too.

Image of chained slave

As we celebrate black history month and #MalcolmAt50, let’s honour all those who relentlessly fought against slavery as well as the blacks who fearlessly led rebellions against the vice: Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and others.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas – Frederick Douglass

Souls of Black Folk – W.E.B Dubois

The Future of the American Negro – Booker T. Washington
Up From Slavery – Booker T. Washington

A Life in Black Panther Party – Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary. A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal – A documentary written, directed & edited by Stephen Vittoria © 2013 Street Legal Cinema

Blacks in the U.S: Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD].


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