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“American Negro Slave Revolts” by Herbert Aptheker Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Aug 16th, 2020

Introduction

According to Marcum and Skarbek (2014), the slavery period in the United States occurred from the 16th to the 19th century. During the American Revolution, slavery had become a part of the nation’s foundation. Although the number of slaves was small during this era, they were present in almost all the regions in the United States. Weiner (2001) notes that the American slavery system was a struggle between the white masters and the Negro slaves.

The masters tried to impose their authority on the slaves, while the slaves fought to be independent. In addition, Marcum and Skarbek (2014) note that the white masters were determined to strip the slaves of their dignity and social standing. The slaves were recognized as ‘socially dead’ and were not allowed to belong to any standard society. Prior to the ratification of the constitution, many states in the North attempted to introduce legislation to abolish slavery. However, slavery continued to be part of the social norms in the South. The slave population had increased drastically by the beginning of the Civil War.

This period was characterized by slave revolutions, and the end of the slave trade did not stop the Americans from smuggling the slaves into the country. Aptheker (1976) wrote a book titled American Negro slave revolts analyzing the slave rebellions that affected the United States for over two centuries. In the book, Aptheker (1976) attempts to dismiss the belief that the American Negro’s rebellion was characterized by inactiveness and compliance. Moreover, Aptheker (1976) disapproves of the notion that the Negro slaves were treated well by the white masters. The aim of the current research is to review the book American Negro slave revolts and assess Aptheker’s main arguments. In addition, the essay will assess the researcher’s opinion on the impact of slavery in modern American society.

A brief overview of author Herbert Aptheker

Aptheker (1976) was born in Brooklyn in 1915, and he grew up to become a popular political activist. In reference to Aptheker and Kelley (2000), the author’s childhood was very comfortable, and his family was rich. On the contrary, his childhood coincided with the slave unrests in most parts of America. Moreover, it was a time when the federal government strengthened its bases in Louisiana and North Carolina in preparation for the Turner uprising (Aptheker, 1976).

These Negro experiences motivated Aptheker to write the book. As an adult, he devoted his life to political activism as he viewed the slavery period as a violation of the rights of African Americans. Aptheker wrote many books based on the history of the African Americans, which led him to become a prominent scholar in the 1940’s. However, this situation changed after he joined the Communist Party in the 1950’s. According to Aptheker and Kelley (2000), his master’s studies thesis was also an illustration of the various forms of Negro rebellions in the South. Specifically, the thesis focused on Nat Turner and his heroism during the rebellion.

The thesis also revealed that the revolutions were genuine and were caused by the poor treatment of the slaves by their masters. During this time, many scholars described African Americans as uncivilized and inferior, a notion that Aptheker disputes in his book. Aptheker (1976) analyzes many cases of slaves who resisted white oppression. On the contrary, the majority of the work published by other authors denied or downplayed the existence of such rebellions. In summary, Aptheker was known for his efforts to promote racial equality in the United States at a time when the Negro was not regarded as a human being.

Analysis of the book American Negro slave revolts

Aptheker’s (1976) arguments in his book are well researched and provide an analysis of the situations that elicited the slave rebellions all over America. He exposes a world that many scholars were afraid of facing up to, making his book very remarkable. This is true because he admits that most newspapers refused to publish his articles (Aptheker & Kelley, 2000). The book also recounts the author’s experience with a newspaper in Virginia, which claimed that his support for the Negro revolts was based on ulterior motives.

In most of the chapters in the book, Aptheker acknowledges that the revolutionary war enabled the white man to fight for the republican ideologies. However, slavery and slave ownership were contrary to these ideologies and against the principles of free speech, free press, and respect for human rights. Weiner (2001) provides an analysis of the book Domesticating slavery by Jeffery Young. This analysis offers evidence that Young’s opinion was contrary to the real reasons behind the Negro revolts. Young supports the slaveholder’s behavior and views slavery as a form of market capitalism.

The author notes that the slaves played a significant role in promoting the American economy, and indicates that the revolutions were unwarranted. Moreover, Young indicates that the ‘market-oriented’ nature of the slave owners justified the ill-treatment of the slaves. Specifically, the slaves were forced to work in the white masters’ homes and farms. Weiner (2001) supports Aptheker’s opinion by stating that that the revolutions created the independence experienced by the African-American race today. The majority of the literature published during the slavery period failed to recognize the kind of oppression that the slaves went through.

Additionally, these authors argued that the slave trade and slavery were social norms. In reference to Aptheker (1976), the majority of the slaves lived in poor and inaccessible areas. Some were forced to live in swampy zones, subjecting them to diseases. Despite these conditions, they were expected to work for long hours in the cotton farms and provide any services demanded by their masters.

Aptheker talks about the fugitive slaves (maroons) that defied their masters and opted to live in poor environments to avoid any unjust treatment. Marcum and Skarbek (2014) agree that the white masters viewed the rebellions of the fugitive slaves as a threat, and government reports failed to provide the correct information on the number of slaves participating in the revolts. Aptheker (1976) also admits difficulties in determining the number of slaves involved in the rebellion, as such reports were altered by the government. However, the author acknowledges that the presence of the maroons was proof enough that the slaves were dissatisfied with the treatments that they received.

Littlefield (2007), who assesses the problems encountered by Negro mothers during slavery, also reports the presence of these poor environments. According to Littlefield (2007), these mothers were mistreated and forced to work in cotton farms with their children. Pregnant mothers were also subjected to hard labor. The author notes that the African American mother played a great role in the slave rebellions and challenged the view of gender and race in society.

This is an indication that the fugitive slaves were present, and their demands were actually genuine despite their negative depiction in the media and scholarly literature. Aptheker (1976) also acknowledges that the white masters were living in fear as they were threatened by the notion of black liberation. Furthermore, free Negroes always lost their liberties upon traveling, and the topic of slavery was never discussed openly.

The masters applied every trick possible to justify the position of the slaves in the society. This was because of the fear that the slaves would attempt to fight for their rights and liberate themselves. In the book, Aptheker (1976) points out the use of religion by the white masters to instill submissiveness and tame the slaves. Such teachings allowed the use of punishments as a form of instilling discipline among the slaves. The preachers would alter religious teachings to justify the master’s treatment of the slaves. However, Young’s book argues that the masters were genuinely concerned about the spiritual welfare of the Negros (Weiner, 2001).

In addition, Young reports that religious teachings enhanced their English speaking capabilities. Aptheker (1976) indicates that the federal government acknowledged the use of religion to tame the slaves as the officials needed free labor in an effort to promote economic growth in America. Weiner (2001) supports Aptheker’s point of view by indicating that the masters were opposed to the spread of Christianity among the slaves. The masters viewed Christianity as a threat to their oppressive leadership.

Generally, the masters knew that Christianity would oppose their ideologies and change the social standing of the slaves. In summary, Aptheker’s book supports the rebellion as a means of liberating the slaves and provides evidence to show the unjust treatment that they received from the white regime. Moreover, the book notes that many scholars during the time were biased in giving their accounts of slavery, and very few authors focused on the plight of these slaves.

Opinion on slavery and its effect in the society today

The impacts of slavery are still being experienced in the American society today. While some may argue that the effects of slavery lay solely on the Civil War, I believe that they extend far beyond it. In my opinion, one of the major effects of slavery today is the effort by society to remain ‘politically correct’. This is due to the unjust treatment of African Americans and other minorities in the past. Moreover, the ‘political correctness’ is an indication of the racism and oppression brought about by the slave trade. According to Marcum and Skarbek (2014), the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s enabled the black people to fight for their rights and liberties.

As a result, there was an increased level of awareness regarding the treatment of minorities in society. Political leaders and the media try to develop opinions that are acceptable across all races. This is also evident during political campaigns where candidates develop ideologies that pledge support for various racial groups across America. In addition, individuals become overly cautious of their speech and are careful not to elicit any form of racial discrimination.

The limited use of the ‘n-word’ also provides an example of the level of ‘political correctness’ that the society wants to display. While the word Negro is used countless times in Aptheker’s book, the Civil Rights Movement recognized it as a form of stereotyping of the African Americans. In general, the society’s effort to be ‘politically correct’ provides evidence that the effects of slavery are still being experienced in modern day society.

Fenton (2012) argues that the black race discrimination issues today are due to slavery. According to the author, there have been many cases of racial discrimination in the society even after the Civil Rights Movement. If slavery was absent, the black American would be treated the same as the white counterpart and racism would also be absent. In reference to Aptheker (1976), the Negro was made to feel as if being black was a curse, and subjected to inferior treatment by the white race. Fenton (2012) notes that racial discrimination and the treatment of the black race as an underclass continues to be evident in the South despite the efforts by the civil rights groups to end it.

The black race has also been associated with poverty, drug addiction, and poor family structures. Such racism fails to recognize the fact that some African American personalities are successful and have equal social standing to their white counterparts. In support of this author’s opinion, I believe that the race problem brought about by slavery is one of the causes of the economic inequality that is present in America today.

The African American race continues to be stigmatized and stereotyped due to the slavery history. The black race is still depicted as inferior and as a result, individuals experience helplessness and despair. Perhaps this could explain the poor family structures reported by Fenton (2012). The media has played a vital role in the spread of racism across America. This media displays black people as criminals and intellectually inadequate.

While there are so many races present in the United States, political debates tend to focus more on the interactions between the whites and the African Americans (Weiner, 2001). In addition, the status of the black man in the society is assessed based on the progress made by the black race since the Civil Rights Movements, which is hardly the case for the white race. In the view of this, the discrimination of the African Americans in the modern society provides evidence that the effects of slavery are still present today.

In his book, Aptheker (1976) analyzes the scholarly work of Du Bois and his view of slavery. According to Du Bois’s prediction, the 20th Century would be characterized by discrimination based on color. To say that this prediction came to be is an understatement. In reference to Littlefield (2007), the African American family structure continues to face criticism. Such criticism fails to recognize the white masters as the source of the instability within the black family. During the slavery period, the black families were similar to the white families. The only difference was the limited rights that the African Americans had due to oppression.

Slavery inhibited the normal structure of the black family and made it impossible for the parents to secure the lives of their families. In addition, the African Americans had no rights to marry as the masters viewed them as their properties. The notion of the black family being unstable still continues to characterize the modern American society (Littlefield, 2007). The African Americans continue to be reminded of the experiences of their race during the slavery era.

This notion is misplaced because such instabilities within families are also present in other races. Moreover, slavery has subjected the African Americans to criticism based on the past and not the present experiences. The society only chooses to remember the experiences of the blacks during the slavery period and fails to recognize the positive efforts made by this race to date. I believe that slavery was wrong as it brought forth the existence of unstable family structures that form the basis of discrimination today.

Weiner (2001) notes that the African Americans make constant efforts to justify their positions as equals to the white race. According to Weiner (2001), such justification is a form of the emotional wounds brought about by slavery. Littlefield (2007) also recognizes that the sole purpose of slavery was to make the black race feel inferior and less human compared to the white race. I believe that human beings are creatures of their environments and their experiences continue to shape their perspectives for many years. Moreover, the society plays an important role in molding our emotional perceptions and hence affecting our values and beliefs.

Weiner (2001) notes that the black families either consciously or subconsciously continue to teach their children about the need to act equal to the white race. This is an indication that the wounds brought about by slavery are still fresh. It also implies that blacks continue to live in constant fear of being labeled different. According to Littlefield (2007), emotional discrimination has become a social norm in the American society. Furthermore, the rate of unemployment and school dropout among the African Americans continues to be high. These trends could be due to the subconscious psychological degradation of the black race. In conclusion, it seems slavery affected the psychological and emotional perspectives of the African Americans in regard to their social standing in the society.

Conclusion

Unlike most authors in the past, Aptheker (1976) recognized and justified the Negro rebellions during the slavery period. The author argues that the white master subjected the slaves to unnecessary oppression. In this view, the Negros were justified in fighting for their liberties. In the book, the author recounts the experiences of thousands of slaves during this period. Moreover, Aptheker (1976) illustrates the discrimination in scholarly literature and newspapers in reporting on the plight of the slaves. Some authors masked the true experiences of the Negros and supported the stand of the white man.

The use of religion to justify the unfair treatment of the African Americans is also assessed in the book. Generally, the slaves were subjected to poor living conditions and their rights violated by the black man and hence the need for the revolts. This research confirms that the effects of slavery continue to be felt in the society today. Specifically, African Americans continue to face discrimination based on their experiences during slavery, and the society seems unwilling to let them forget. My opinion is that slavery was wrong and unjust and it violated the rights and freedoms of human beings.

References

Aptheker, H. (1976). American Negro slave revolts. New York: International Publishers.

Aptheker, H., & Kelley, R. D. (2000). Interview of Herbert Aptheker. The Journal of American History, 87(1), 151-167.

Fenton, Z. E. (2012). An essay on slavery’s hidden legacy: Social hysteria and structural condonation of incest. Howard Law Journal, 55(13), 319-339.

Littlefield, M. B. (2007). Black Women, Mothering, and Protest in 19th Century American Society. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2(1), 53-61.

Marcum, A., & Skarbek, D. (2014). Why didn’t slaves revolt more often during the Middle Passage? Rationality and Society, 26(2), 236–262.

Weiner, M. F. (2001). Rethinking slavery. Reviews in American History, 29(1), 29-34.

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