Last Updated on August 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1351
“Elizabeth Keye” by Jennifer L. Morgan
Morgan begins by describing a 1662 act of the Virginia House of Burgesses which decreed that children in America will be free or enslaved according to the condition of their mother. Elizabeth Keye, Morgan goes on to say, was the daughter of Thomas Keye, an English member of the House of Burgesses, and a woman born in Africa. In 1655, Keye petitioned the court for freedom from indentured servitude on behalf of herself and her child and won. However, six years later, the Virginia Assembly revisited the case and ultimately decided that a child whose mother was an African slave would also be a slave, no matter who his or her father was.
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“The Virginia Law on Baptism” by Jemar Tisby
Tisby poses the question of how Christianity in the United States came to be seen as the religion of the White man, particularly since Black people are the most Christian demographic in the country. The answer, according to Tisby, is that “white Christians deliberately retrofitted religion to accommodate the rising racial class system.” To this end, they ensured that Christian baptism would not free a slave. Although many African Americans eventually converted to Christianity, progress was slow at first, since the hypocrisy of White Christian slave owners was obvious. Black Americans converted in spite of not because of the religion of the slave-masters.
“The Royal African Company” by David A. Love
Regarded from a moral viewpoint, “the institution of slavery is a sin, a form of genocide.” However, from the perspective of kings, traders, and bankers, slavery is a profitable business, and the large amounts of money to be made justify the abuses. The Royal African Company, based in England, was the most important organization in the transatlantic slave trade. Between 1673 and 1683, England became the world leader in the trade, commanding 75 percent of the market. The Royal African Company was a joint stock company, but a substantial holding was owned by the royal family, and the firm enjoyed the benefits of royal patronage. Although the Royal African Company itself is now long gone, its legacy lives on in various injustices, such as mass incarceration and prison labor.
“Bacon’s Rebellion” by Heather C. McGhee
In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy young Englishman, led a short-lived rebellion against Virginia Governor William Berkeley. In Bacon’s army, Black and white soldiers fought on an equal footing and were equally awarded commissions. However, as the author points out, the cause of the rebellion was Governor Berkeley’s willingness to negotiate with Indigenous tribes. The rebellion might therefore be seen as one of the countless historical examples of the powerful forcing the powerless to fight against their own interests, with Black and white newcomers fighting together against the Indigenous population. Although the author’s view of Bacon’s Rebellion has changed since she first heard about it, she observes that the soldiers may have been fighting for equality and justice, even if these ideals were not Nathaniel Bacon’s aim. The story is “vexingly American” in its combination of violence and hope.
“The Virginia Law that Forbade Bearing Arms; or the Virginia Law that Forbade Armed Self-Defense” by Kellie Carter Jackson
By the period Jackson considers, 1679 to 1684, almost 40 percent of the enslaved population of North America lived in Virginia. Lawmakers saw a risk that the slaves might come to be the majority and passed various “racist laws of control” in anticipation of this. They passed laws which prevented large gatherings of slaves and which made it illegal for them to own guns or protect themselves from assault by white people. However, the gun ownership laws were routinely violated by white slaveholders, who gave their slaves guns for the purposes of hunting and farming. Today, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is enthusiastic in protecting the Second Amendment, but the NRA has never supported the right of Black people to own guns to protect themselves. Gun ownership and race are inseparable in America, as the latter has always been a tool of white supremacy.
“The Code Noir” by Laurence Ralph
In 1685, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French Finance Minister, drafted the “Code Noir,” which sought to regulate the lives of slaves in the French colonies of North America. The code was particularly important in its effect on marriage between enslaved and free people. If a free man married an enslaved woman, their children would be slaves, and if a free woman married a slave, their lives would be circumscribed by various draconian rules involving work, travel, and other areas of life. The author asserts that “the control, regulation, vigilance, and surveillance indicative of the 1685 Code Noir” are still clearly visible in the major formerly-French metropolis of the United States, New Orleans, which recently had the highest rates of incarceration of any American city.
“The Germantown Petition Against Slavery” by Christopher J. Lebron
The author begins by observing that “allies” of the oppressed are often called upon to give up more of their privilege than they are prepared to relinquish, even though such sacrifices do not meet the needs of the oppressed. He contrasts this situation with that of the Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania, in the 1680s. The Germantown petition of 1688 is one of the first documents to describe slavery as “an affront to the human condition” and to make a humanitarian argument against it. This makes the petition a model of what is needed in white Americans: an unshakeable moral conviction that Black lives matter.
“The Middle Passage” by Mary E. Hicks
The author gives a brief history of the early years of the transatlantic slave trade, from Portuguese dominance, which lasted until the early seventeenth century, to the involvement of the Dutch, English, and French after the Dutch supplanted Portugal in the Elmina region in 1637. In attempting to regain their monopoly, the Portuguese relied on the expertise of West African mariners and boatbuilders. These middlemen were “vectors between avaricious European and American merchants and the West African brokers who sold them Black people.” They were witnesses to terrible suffering, but their individual interests led them to participate in the crimes and horrors of the Middle Passage.
“Mama, Where You Keep Your Gun?” by Phillip B. Williams
In this poem, Williams lists various places, literal and figurative, where the speaker’s gun might be concealed. These places represent the various forms of oppression Black Americans have endured, leading the speaker to conclude that she herself “is the crime,” irrespective of what she may do with her gun or where she may keep it.
This part of the narrative focuses on the ways in which slavery became codified in law while growing as a central part of the burgeoning American economy. Bacon’s Rebellion, despite the equivocal intentions of Bacon himself, represents one of the last possibilities of Black and white Americans working together as equals. The gap between European indentured servants and African slaves became wider, until slaves were regarded as a separate caste, denied basic rights under the law. Kellie Carter Jackson examines the extent to which Black people were prevented even from defending themselves, while Laurence Ralph argues that even the Code Noir, more liberal than other contemporary systems of law, was a deeply racist and repressive document that caused lasting harm.
Ralph’s approach, like that of several other authors, including David A. Love in “The Royal African Company” and Christopher J. Lebron in “The Germantown Petition Against Slavery,” is to conclude his essay by noting the similarities between contemporary attitudes and conditions and those of the seventeenth century. In this way, the authors emphasize how little has changed, with Lebron even asserting that twenty-first century “allies” have much to learn from the Germantown Quakers of the 1680s. This method of approaching the subject of slavery is a clear corrective to the conventional narrative of moral progress in this sphere. Similarly, authors such as Love and Mary E. Hicks avoid easy retrospective moralizing, instead making the point that slavery seems to have been regarded by its proponents in pragmatic terms as a matter of business which offered attractive returns on investment.