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Did Slavery Ever Really End in the U.S.?

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If investigated carefully, this question is not nearly as absurd as at first it might seem. Consider this: the institution of slavery had at least two important components, a physical one: involuntary labor enforced under the duress of a tyrannical economic and political system; and the psychological breaking down of the individual minds so that both slave and master would see the slave hierarchy as the only sensible way of life.


It seems clear from the outset, that slaveholders realized the important facts of this reality: that the psychological component of slavery was by far the more important aspect. Accordingly, they went to great pains to take control of the slave's mind even as they went about subduing and using up his body. To say that the "slave had to be broken," as well as "broken in," is to cite more than just an old ante bellum cliché.


But an equally important little understood "other side" of the slave story is that the white mind also had to be colonized and "broken in" almost in the same as the slave's. Whites too had to be indoctrinated and socialized into a new form of unnatural and very much diminished humanity in which brutalization of other human beings would become normal for them. However it is viewed after the fact, this peculiar process of socialization also took a psychological toll on the white psyche and on white humanity.


But as is typical with investigations on the effect of racism on the white side of the racial equation, rarely has the issue of slavery been examined in terms of what its psychological effects might have been on whites whose humanity was reduced to the level of becoming brutalizers of other human beings as a result of it. Although the effects may have generally gone unnoticed, since they were made a normalized part of the culture, there is much evidence that slavery was a heavy psychological burden on the white mind. The rise of the Abolitionists is just the most obvious example of this moral stress. There is a great deal of additional after the fact evidence attesting to the truth of both ends of this two-pronged thesis.


It is clear in hindsight that on the white side of the ledger, the whole white moral cosmos had to be turned on its head to accommodate and contain the guilt and other psychological burdens of turning a whole race into brutalizers of other human beings, and then trying to justify this process of dehumanization as a normal and respectable way of life. There is little doubt that the authority of the Judeo-Christian religion has suffered and forever will be blemished as a result of selective interpretations designed to morally justify the brutality of slavery. An ideology of white superiority was invented specifically for the same psychological reasons and will also remain an enduring stain on white humanity. The same goes for the terror used across the U.S. but mostly in the South to underwrite the new racist way of life.


All of these shameful forms of national behavior were superimposed onto the entire white American way of life and then was smoothed over as morally normal, even if they were never considered morally respectable or morally licit. The fact that white consciousness and identity became one and the same with "the ways" of the brutal system of inhumanity introduced by the slave system, ensured that that the white conscience would carry a heavy burden psychological far into the future. Inhuman laws were enacted to protect the new "pseudo superior" way of life. It was done so out of a deep sense of guilt and out of white fears that blacks would eventually rise in rebellion, and with God's help, be able to extract their "just" revenge for the brutality waged against humanity, as well as against God's own moral laws.


On the black side of this racial ledger, is the infamous (and probably apocryphal) Willie Lynch Memo, which lays out in excruciating details an instruction manual for how blacks were to be "broken in" in the same way as was done for farm animals. The fact that the slave's close personal lives and attachments were brutally severed and stripped away; that they were not allowed to speak their native tongues or practice their native religions; that their families were split up and strewn across the southern states on different plantations; that slaves were severely beaten at the slightest infraction of the rigid rules; and were forbidden to read or write, among many others, all strongly supports this view.


Thus, in the background of the institution of slavery, the white moral world became a confusing house of horrors arguably far worse than that of the slaves, who as clear victims of an inhumane system could always claim the moral high ground. If this reading of history is in any way a reasonable interpretation of its facts, as most evidence would seem to suggest it to be, then the question posed in the title of this article is not only not absurd, but then becomes not the end, but the beginning of a much more interesting story about American culture in particular and its social life more generally.

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Herbert Calhoun Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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