Black History Matters

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Hurrah for Roni Dean-Burren and her son Coby Burren who used Facebook to call out the Texas McGraw- Hill textbook for calling the Atlantic Slave trade and the middle passage “immigration,” and slaves “workers.”

It always amazes me that the same forces who argue slavery is not relevant to current struggles for equality are those engaged in efforts to erase the history of slavery.

This is a story of the power of individual voices and the power of a social movement. Dean-Burren spoke up and the Black Lives Matter movement used their now mighty megaphone to bring attention to her words. More than a million people have seen and shared the video Dean-Burren posted! As a result the company has been forced to recall and revise their text.

Before we say Hooray and move on, let us flip the script here.

Done right, It DOES make sense to talk about immigration in the context of slavery – to talk about the continuum of choices people have had, and continue to have when moving from one place to another. Slavery provides one extreme in which people were moved without choice in chains and with such violence that the middle passage itself was a place of genocide, mass torture, historical trauma.

12.5 million people were forcibly removed from Africa in chains. Slavery lasted four centuries. As we strive to measure the qualitative difference of this experience from other forms of human migration, genocide and forced labor, these numbers count.

The slave trade engaged in these practices to maximize profits from unpaid forced labor. So yes, slavery was about work. The inhumane conditions on slave ships– killing 1/6 of those on the boat — was a business calculation. Breaking spirits, dividing families, removing people from their communities, cultures and language groups, was found to be effective in maintaining slavery.

As we look at how people are moving across borders today we see that like during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, the labor needs of elites continue to play a central role. While some are pushed out by war – like refugees in Syria, others are pushed and pulled by trade policies that erase economic choices, forcing people to leave families and cultures and join migration streams.

People may come across the southern border to the United States for reasons other than labor but the majority are part of a stream created by the needs of U.S. agriculture, service, and construction industries. Their undocumented status is helpful to those wanting to maintain low wages and keep workers from organizing. For people who cross without papers into the United States there is a middle passage across a dangerous desert.

No, it is not the same as slavery, but organizations like the Coalition of Imokalee Workers have found that without organizing there is no end to how oppressive current employers can be – including forcing, and not paying workers.

The historical legacies of slavery cross racial groups. It would be perfectly relevant to discussing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that made it illegal not to return someone who escaped North to freedom, back to bondage , in the context of 2011 legislation making it illegal for a citizen to drive an undocumented person in their car in Alabama. Controlling the movements of labor and using race to dehumanize are the continuities.

It is essential for our youth to learn the ugliest aspects of 16th- 19th century history – Indigenous genocide and the Atlantic Slave trade. The story is not all depressing. The resistance of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass and John Brown, Harriet Jacobs and thousands of abolitionists and slave resisters can inspire young people who see what Douglass meant when he said without struggle there is no progress.

So if the Texas textbook industry wants to talk about slavery in the context of immigration and work – bring it on. But let us make the correct analogies, and tell true stories that center liberation struggles, past and present.

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