Why should black Americans celebrate the bicentennial?
AFRICAN-AMERICANS have played an integral role in making the United States Constitution, and America's promise, come alive for everyone. From slave revolts to civil disobedience, African-Americans have shaped American concepts of personhood, liberty, and legitimate protest while triumphing over centuries-old oppression. The unamended Constitution implicitly recognized slavery and declared a slave to be three-fifths of a person. Today we take for granted many of the rights we have, such as the right to marry and to self-defense. A slave continuously had to reaffirm his personhood from assaults. These assaults took their legal justification from the intent of the Founding Fathers that blacks be excluded from the rights and principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The Founding Fathers defined blacks as property to smooth over the dichotomy between the professed ideals of the American Revolution and the reality of a slave economy that greatly enriched Northern merchants as well as Southern plantation owners. In 1777, blacks brought to the attention of white America the dichotomy between slavery and the professed ideals of the American Revolution through a legislative petition. But they got nowhere with their plea.
And the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, epitomized the dichotomy between ideals and sad practice when Chief Justice Roger Taney stated that blacks ``are not included, and were not intended to be included, in the word `citizen' in the Constitution ... [being a] subordinate and inferior class of beings.''
Being property, not persons, African-Americans could not be ``murdered.'' White America could not afford to concede that blacks had genuine human reactions or emotions. A 19th-century state supreme court judge verbalized a related attitude in his statement, ``What acts in a slave toward a white person will amount to insolence is manifestly impossible to define - it may consist of a look, the pointing of a finger, a refusal or neglect to step out of the way when a white person is seen to approach. But each of such acts violates the rules of propriety, and if tolerated would destroy that subordination upon which our social system rests.''
Just 32 years ago, white and black reaction to Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man revealed the nature of the tensions that have remained powerful in this nation.
From 8,000 to 10,000 blacks served in the Revolutionary War, depending on promises of emancipation afterward. Instead, many were reenslaved after the war. Between 1520 and 1860, there were more than 200 recorded slave revolts. Estimates are that perhaps 1,000 slaves per year successfully escaped to the North. Others built independent encampments in the South. Some lived with Indians or returned to Africa. Blacks also asserted their liberty through lawsuits, mass migrations, sit-ins, and other demonstrations.
Slavery was also justified as the means to convert pagans to Christianity. Needless to say, once slaves were converted, they were not freed. One prayer book for slaves specifically identified whites as ``God's overseers,'' to be obeyed as ``God himself.'' In spite of strictly controlled services, the slaves exercised their right to religious freedom by conducting their own services in secret, with a much different emphasis.
In a country often hailed as a longstanding haven for persecuted religious groups, African-Americans, free and slave, encountered laws that could punish them with 30 lashes for conducting religious meetings. Nevertheless, between the 1840s and 1850s, the number of African churches increased, as did the clandestine activities of their associated schools. The traditional focus on self-help among African-Americans continues today through the black ethic of serving the community.
Other groups within the US, such as Hispanics and native Americans, have taken inspiration and techniques from the struggles of African-Americans. Blacks supported universal suffrage more consistently than whites, including white women, after the Civil War. White women in the suffrage movement frequently advocated that the vote be limited to educated females and pushed for their own exclusive enfranchisement as a means to thwart any effects from the vote of black males. Today, the gender gap in voter participation is much more recent and less prominent among whites and Hispanics. As early as 1964, black women under the age of 35 were outvoting black men.
History books and the media frequently portray more than 200 years of slavery and the African-American experience as an afterthought, a footnote, or a separate chapter to the development of the US. Yet ample documentation exists which attests to the tremendous impact that slavery and blacks have had on the economic, social, and political fabric of this country.
Through greater recognition of these documents, the media could present a more balanced view of American history that would impart deeper personal and worldwide significance to our national holidays. The media could thus help to make our national holidays a time of deeper reflection and renewal. In a world where racial and ethnic differences still divide, we could all celebrate the contributions of African-Americans to better understanding and liberty for all peoples.
Valerie Phillips-Stubbins, a graduate of the University of California Law School, Berkeley, is a free-lance writer.