The Hidden History of Slavery

David S. Reynolds

This review appears in the May/June 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review

Homegoing. Yaa Gyasi. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 305 pp. $26.95.

The Slaves Cause: A History of Abolition. Manisha Sinha. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016. 768 pp. $37.50.

The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War. James Oakes. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. 208 pp. $23.95.

The three books under review revisit the history of slavery from different angles. Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing graphically re-creates the oppression of blacks in Africa and America over 250 years. Fictionalizing the histories of two black families, Gyasi makes us feel the degradation of slavery and racism on our nerve endings. Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause traces abolitionism from its emergence in the seventeenth century until its termination in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment gave the vote to African American males. Sinha, while every bit as aware of historical injustice as Gyasi, offers a different version of black history, describing resistance on the part of African American activists who, along with progressive whites, organized, wrote, and sometimes struck violently against slavery. James Oakes’s The Scorpion’s Sting is a concise study of political and military strategies for emancipation. For Oakes, emancipation resulted from the Republican Party’s goal of containing slavery and of defeating it militarily during the Civil War. The three books fill significant gaps in our knowledge of African Americans—their sorrows, their struggles, their incremental victories.

Yaa Gyasi, now in her midtwenties, was born in Ghana, moved at the age of two with her family to America, and was raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Educated at Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gyasi learned much about her background on a research trip at twenty to Ghana. This immersion in African culture led her to write Homegoing, for which she received a seven-figure advance from Knopf. The novel tells the story of two African half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who are separated at birth. The beautiful Effia, after she reaches puberty, is taken from her village by a British slave trader, with whom she lives as a concubine in a castle-like trading post where many blacks are held in a subterranean dungeon, to be shipped west and sold into slavery. Curious about sounds coming from below, Effia is told they are produced by “cargo.” She has no way of knowing that Esi, the half-sister she never met, is lying among a fetid mass of chained women soon to experience the Middle Passage.

The remainder of the novel follows descendants of Effia and Esi over six generations in a series of vignettes that alternate between the two family lines. Switching between various family members while moving about in time and place makes for a disorienting reading experience that mirrors the unpredictability of the horrors that many blacks have encountered over the centuries. (To lessen the confusion, Gyasi prefaces the novel with a graph of both family lines). Among Effia’s heirs, each assigned a chapter, are Quey, who, raised among whites and educated in England, becomes, ironically enough, a slave trader; Quey’s son James, who is so disgusted by his family’s participation in the slave trade that he escapes to an African village and lives as a farmer; and, two generations later, Yaw, a historian and teacher who is at work on a book with the telling title The Ruin of a Nation Begins in the Homes of Its People—a symbolic indictment of both Africa, inhabited by villagers ready to sell their black prisoners to whites, and America, where racism, at odds with the nation’s egalitarian principles, is rampant. Effia’s line is brought up to date in the chapter on Marjorie, a Stanford graduate student who seems to be Gyasi’s embellished self-portrait. Marjorie’s boyfriend, Marcus, is a fellow student devoted to exploring his family’s history, which, as we have learned in previous chapters, reached back to Esi and came to include the enslaved Ness, the fugitive slave Kojo, the coal miner H, the Harlem housekeeper Willie, and her son Sonny, a heroin addict.

One of the most interesting aspects of Homegoing is its refusal to idealize the African past. Alex Haley’s Roots—the 1976 best seller that Gyasi, in an interview, said she did not read before writing her novel—begins as a kind of African pastoral with the adolescent Mandinkan Kunte Kinte learning his tribe’s traditions and helping with farm work, in tragic contrast to his later humiliation as an American slave. Homegoing presents the less glowing African woman’s experience of puberty. When a girl “has her first blood,” she immediately becomes valuable to her parents as a commodity to be exchanged with village leaders for food or supplies. At the sign of someone’s fresh womanhood, there is a week-long ritual to alert would-be suitors. If a young woman is found to have kept her period secret, she is publicly punished. Marriage is an economic arrangement that is especially demeaning for a woman because she typically finds herself one of her husband’s many wives. Besides polygamy, the villagers in Homegoing enslave captured foes and sell them into Western slavery. Gyasi thus reminds us that it wasn’t just the United States or Europe who was complicit in the slave trade. She has an African woman begin her account of the guilty parties involved by naming African peoples. “Everyone is a part of this,” the woman says. “Asante, Fante, Ga. British, Dutch, and American . . . and what does that say? We avenge lost lives by taking more? It doesn’t make sense to me”(98).

Gyasi reserves her harshest condemnation for American slavery. When one African character says, “America is not the only place with slaves,” his brother replies, “The way they treat the slaves in America . . . is unfathomable. Unfathomable. We do not have slavery like that here. Not like that” (103). Several characters in the novel are cases in point. Esi’s daughter, Ness, raised on a Mississippi plantation she calls Hell, has been flogged so severely that her back and neck are covered with scars. Her son, Kojo, flees to freedom in Baltimore only to fall victim to the Fugitive Slave Law during the 1850s; his wife, kidnapped and sold south, commits suicide after giving birth to H, who encounters another form of slavery during the Jim Crow era, when he is falsely convicted of a crime and is condemned to years of hard labor in coal mines.

While Gyasi has been widely praised for Homegoing, she has also been taken to task for the bleakness of her vision of the African American past. Isabel Wilkerson, in an otherwise positive review in the New York Times Book Review, writes of the novel, “[O]n the whole, African Americans are shown as passive, boats buffeted by the currents. Rarely do we see the richness of their lives—the organized resistance, the faith in the face of near hopeless odds, the creativity and ritual that grew out of hardship.” True enough. Novelists make choices, and Gyasi chooses to write with a gloomy pen. Nothing makes this clearer than a comparison between her chapter on Sonny and the classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, an author Gyasi admires greatly. As Gyasi’s Sonny fingers some dope, the narrator muses, “There could have been upwards of a hundred Sonnys in Harlem. He didn’t want to admit that he was one of them”(251). Although Gyasi later hints that Sonny will break free of his addiction, she doesn’t provide the release into redemptive creativity that Baldwin does in his story of a Harlem addict, also named Sonny, who achieves transcendence as a jazz pianist. In contrast, Gyasi ties her Sonny romantically to a would-be Billie Holiday whose promise as a vocalist is shattered by heroin.

Yes, it would be nice to have more light in this dark, fictional tunnel. But Gyasi’s novel is itself a kind of light, with its resonant prose and its powerfully imagined vignettes. The novel’s final scene, in which the formerly aquaphobic Marcus joyfully swims in the ocean along with the once-pyrophobic Marjorie, who has just gone near a fire for the first time, signals the kind of victory that this well-educated couple has achieved, despite all the defeats and anguish of the ancestral past. Moreover, there is a kind of redemption in Gyasi’s portraits of family relationships throughout the novel. Gyasi reproduces the ebb and flow of emotions between scarred or bitter characters who manage to find love. In doing so, she joins a number of novelists—Charles Chesnutt, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison, to name a few—whose depictions of relationships have brought alive the humanity of black people with a power unachievable in nonfiction. Homegoing can be considered an act of historical recovery—the recovery of richly imagined experiences that otherwise would be treated more cerebrally. Gyasi has her historian character Yaw (a pun on the author’s first name?) tell his students:

This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely on the words of others. . . .We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? (226)

This is the familiar plea to retrieve the history of ethnic minorities that W. E. B. Du Bois made in the early twentieth century and that has resounded far and wide since the civil rights era. Gyasi answers this plea in novelistic fashion; Manisha Sinha answers it from a scholar’s vantage point. Sinha, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, starts from a premise—the injustice of slavery—similar to Gyasi’s. “Modern racial slavery,” Sinha writes, “was a monstrous hybrid that combined the horrors of an archaic labor system with the rapacious efficiencies of capitalism” (3). Also like Gyasi, Sinha notes the ubiquity of racism. Sinha quotes the nineteenth-century black abolitionist Theodore S. Wright as saying that racial prejudice “scourges us from the table, it scourges us from the cabin, from the stage-coach, from the bed, wherever we go” (315).

The difference between Homegoing and The Slave’s Cause, other than that of genre, is that the former book emphasizes the horrific while the latter highlights the constructive. Gyasi accentuates the misery of blacks. Sinha, in contrast, illuminates their rebelliousness against slavery. Traditionally, histories of abolitionism concentrate on the white figures in the movement: Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in England, and William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, among others, in America. Sinha does not neglect the white radicals. To the contrary, she expands the list of white activists to include a host of others, reaching back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as Quakers, Mennonites, Puritans, and freethinkers. But her special contribution is to show that abolitionism was a “radical, interracial movement”: interracial in that it involved scores of African Americans, many of them hitherto neglected; and radical not only because it challenged slavery but also because it fueled protest in areas such as in women’s rights, the abolition of capital punishment, the peace movement, and rights for immigrants and workingmen.

Sinha discusses even the most marginal voices in the abolition movement, such as enslaved people who sued their masters for freedom in the pre-1800 era, when some states granted legal rights to blacks. The freedom suit that had the most lasting historical impact was that of the Massachusetts slave Mubet, whose successful suit for freedom led to the abolition of slavery in the state and to her marriage to Jack Burghardt, who was later claimed as an ancestor by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois (70). For those who couldn’t go to court, civil disobedience was an available weapon. For instance, the abolition of slavery in Rhode Island was spearheaded by a South Kingston slave, Abigail, who refused to be taken south with her children when her owner sold her to a South Carolina man (74). Communal protest arose in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, where blacks formed societies, schools, churches, and Masonic lodges. In pamphlets and other writings they denounced the racism and hypocrisy of mainstream America.

Despite this activism, undertaken in cooperation with whites from Anthony Benezet to Theodore Parker, blacks were confronted with shrinking social rights in the North and the rapid growth of slavery in the South. When organized protest yielded few results, a number of blacks advocated violence or emigration. Sinha places the Haitian revolution in the 1790s front and center in the movement against slavery. The success of Toussaint L’Ouverture and other Haitian blacks in driving the European powers from their island set an example for American slave rebels from Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner to the insurrectionaries aboard the Amistad and the Creole, culminating in the doomed but heroic assault on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 by John Brown and his band of black and white warriors.

The inescapability of racism in America generated an impulse to leave the country. One of the notable aspects of Sinha’s book is its subtle discussion of colonization, the white-led program to rid America of blacks, and emigration, the movement among blacks to exit the United States. The American Colonization Society, formed in 1816, gained celebrated members such as James Monroe, Henry Clay, John Taylor of Caroline, and Andrew Jackson. The society not only helped found Liberia but also was behind the deportation of thousands of blacks in the four decades before the Civil War. The colonization torch was passed on to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who included in her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, passages urging American blacks to colonize and Christianize Africa, and to Lincoln, who pursued colonization early in the Civil War. Radical abolitionists, black and white, at first disdained colonization, but a surprising number of blacks eventually considered leaving the country and forming independent communities in places like Haiti, South America, Canada, and Africa. Among those who recommended emigration at one time or another were the black leaders Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Mary Ann Shadd, Samuel Ringgold Ward, and William Wells Brown. Delany and Garnet formed the African Civilization Society, which aimed, in Garnet’s words, “to establish the grand center of Negro nationality from which shall flow streams of commercial, intellectual, and political power which shall make colored people respected everywhere.” Delany’s mottoes were “Africa for the African race, and black men to rule them” and “Self Reliance and Self-Government on the Principle of African Nationality” (578). Although only a small minority of blacks actually left the US permanently, the emigrationist spirit did not die out, as evidenced later by Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa crusade and Black Zionism in the twentieth century.

The breadth of Sinha’s book allows her to make the better-known aspects of abolitionism seem fresh. William Lloyd Garrison’s founding of the American Antislavery Society in the 1830s and his later disagreements with the Tappanites over women’s rights, with Frederick Douglass over the Constitution, and with Wendell Phillips over Lincoln—this is familiar territory, as is the rise of antislavery politics with the Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican parties. What makes Sinha’s treatment original is that she gives voice to neglected reformers—many of them people of color and a good number of them women—who simultaneously made contributions to abolitionism even as the major figures were making the headlines. Sinha shows that abolitionism was a juggernaut that gathered momentum over decades, leading to the Civil War. Without the dissemination of abolitionist ideas, Sinha demonstrates, the antislavery Lincoln might not have been elected in 1861—and, had that not happened, the Civil War may not have occurred when it did. And so, the four-year bloodbath that took the lives of some 750,000 Americans was in the end, as Sinha writes, “the abolition war” (584). Lincoln, when praised for freeing the slaves, humbly paid homage to others: “I have only been an instrument. The logic and moral power of Garrison, and the anti-slavery people of the country and the army have done all” (585).

The final phrase in Lincoln’s statement, which recognized the army’s role in emancipation, is one that James Oakes would especially appreciate. No one has done more than Oakes, a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, in revealing the importance of the Union Army in liberating America’s four million enslaved blacks. In his magisterial book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, Oakes emphasized that military action and congressional legislation took the lead in freeing the slaves. By the midsummer of 1861, only a few months after the war started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, General Benjamin Butler had begun the practice of freeing fugitive slaves (known as contrabands) who came within his lines, while Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which set free fugitive slaves who arrived behind Union lines. Emancipation by the army and Congress accelerated as the war proceeded. Lincoln, though sympathetic to emancipation, was slow to pronounce it for fear of losing the slave-holding border states, which remained loyal to the Union.

Oakes’s The Scorpion’s Sting is a worthy follow-up to Freedom National. Based largely on a series of lectures Oakes gave at Louisiana State University, The Scorpion’s Sting provides the historical background of legislative and military emancipation. The title refers to a common trope among Republicans who wanted to end slavery by encircling it with free territory so that it would die off naturally, like a fire-encircled scorpion that stings itself. Oakes shows that Republicans did not want war. They thought it would take a long time—perhaps a century, Lincoln estimated in 1858—for slavery to die. But, as Lincoln put it, “the war came.” Once it came, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans were ready to apply time-tested principles to eradicating slavery. One of these principles, military emancipation, had precedent in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when thousands of enslaved blacks had gained freedom by escaping to the British army. Military emancipation pointed to a larger premise, accepted under the law of nations, that the natural state of humans was freedom.

Oates does an excellent job in The Scorpion’s Sting of distinguishing between the proslavery and antislavery view of enslaved people. For the former, the conviction that slaves were property that could be bought and sold originated in a devotion to property rights, which, in this view, undergirded the Constitution. The antislavery side accepted the idea of property but turned it on its head by insisting that the right to own oneself was the source of all property rights. Nothing was more basic than the right to own one’s own labor and one’s own person. Slavery, from this perspective, could be established only by positive law: that is, through legislation passed by individual states. The western territories were under the domain of the federal government and of natural law. Freedom, then, was national, and slavery was local. Although the federal government did not have constitutional sanction to interfere with slavery where it already existed, it could prevent its spread where it was not already instituted by positive law.

During the Civil War, the North used two main weapons, legislation and military action, against slavery. The Republicans banned slavery in the western territories, stopped enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law, and made emancipation a condition of West Virginia’s joining the Union in 1862. The Union Army, meanwhile, used the tactics of hard war to win victories over the Confederate Army, freeing slaves as it went. Slavery, then, died a slow, bloody death.

Despite the differences in tone and emphasis between The Scorpion’s Sting and the books by Gyasi and Sinha, all three are conjoined in debunking the Great Man approach to history, by which the past is a mountain range whose peaks alone are worth noticing. Gyasi portrays daily experiences of ordinary blacks; Sinha unearths little-known African American and white radicals; Oakes digs beneath politics and leaders to discover the hidden mechanics of emancipation. As such, these books are especially fine examples of the bottom-up approach to history that has been flourishing for more than two decades.

The question posed by Yaw in Homegoing—“Whose story am I missing?”—has challenged authors and scholars in various fields. Rarely has the question been answered as movingly as in Gyasi’s Homegoing, as authoritatively as in Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause, and as thoughtfully as in Oakes’s The Scorpion’s Sting.

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