Ever since I started writing The Slave Have NamesI’ve had great conversations around the history and legacy of chattel slavery in the United States. Most Americans are like I was – aware but uninformed about the details – and most are very eager to learn and appreciate the full depth of the the way that this institution operated historically and shapes American culture even today.  I’m bolstered by those stories.

"Slavery 3" by Cliff James

“Slavery 3” by Cliff James

But once in a while, I come across people who want to downplay slavery, who want to make it seem more acceptable, more humane, and not at all relevant today.  I don’t think these individuals often realize what they are doing – I think they are being honest about wanting to understand, and yet, their own desire to make this institution seem less horrible misleads them.

Here are five of the ways I’ve heard people try to justify, lessen, or explain away chattel slavery.

1. Slavery existed in the North, too. Obviously, I get this one from southerners most, and they aren’t wrong. Slavery did exist in the north – no doubt about it.  But that fact does not lessen the reality of slavery or make it any less abhorrent.

Reminding people of the fact that people were enslaved in the North simply tries to make us Southerners feel better about the way we not only practiced slavery but also fought a way to continue that practice.  The truth is that while people in the North did own slaves, the number of enslaved people in the North were miniscule compared with the population of enslaved individuals in the South.  So yes, people were enslaved by northerners, it as the South that perpetuated this system and used it as the basis of our economy for over 250 years.

2. Black people owned slaves. Again, this is true. But again, the fact that people owned other people of their “race” does not make slavery any less awful.  It just shows that all humanity is capable of horrible things.

And this statement – only uttered by “white” people, as far as I’ve heard – speaks to the long and continuing racism that pervades American culture.  It’s quite the racist statement to imply that “if they did it to their own kind . . . ” as if black people were somehow essentially different than white people.  As if the designations of “black” and “white” were established by some set of “real” categories rather than just arbitrary systems used to oppress.

3. Slavery existed around the world.  Also, true.  And again, this fact makes chattel slavery in the U.S. no less horrible.  This statement is the equivalent of “they are doing it, so why shouldn’t I?”

4. Many formerly enslaved people stayed on the plantations where they worked even after Emancipation. Another fact – yes.  However, when someone brings up this argument, it’s often to suggest that “things weren’t that bad” for enslaved people on the plantation.  But when we suggest such things, we often speak from our own experience of being able to leave “bad situations” if we choose to do so.

In contrast, many of the people who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation had been kept from learning to read and write, had no livelihood apart from their former masters, and owned no land.  So some former masters offered them “wages” – often wages far too low for survival – and the opportunity to live on the plantation land if they continued to work for their former masters.  These people did not have a great number of options, so many took the work they could to support their families and – in time – to be able to build their own lives.

5. The slaves had a place to live and food to eat. So it wasn’t really that bad. In no way can I agree with this statement. In no way is this correct or accurate or reasonable.  Food, water, and shelter are human needs.  So when someone provides – or allows – these basic needs they are doing another human no favors. They are doing the minimum.

Additionally, the provision of shelter and food was not entirely disinterested on the slave holders’ part. After all, if enslaved people were not healthy, they could not work, and if they could not work, the master could not profit.

Usually, when I hear these statements, I try to talk with people, to help them understand.  Sometimes, someone seems to grasp a new perspective on this institution and the people held in it. Most of the time, they don’t – the desire to downplay this part of our history, the desire to alleviate some personal guilt, the desire to act as if American really is a land where everyone is “equal now” makes their create myths to justify their own desire.  Most of the time, I leave those conversations in tears – disappointed in people I respect and love.  Disappointed that we still cannot – will not – see . . . because until we do, we cannot – will not – heal.

For there is no justification for this system. None at all.

What justifications do you hear people express about American chattel slavery?


This month, I am giving away 5 copies of The Slave Have Names on Goodreads.  Be sure to stop by and enter if you’d like.