The American Historian

History Lesson

Earl Lewis

Riding the New York City subway, especially in the summer, is not for the meek or easily offended. The platforms are often hot, steamy, and smelly. Subways cars are also not where you would ordinarily expect to find a history lesson. But that’s what happened in the middle of July, 2016. As the L train made its way from Brooklyn to Manhattan, competition for a seat turned into a story about slavery, race, and history. From video footage and reported accounts, a dapperly dressed white gentleman lost his claim to a seat. His competitor that day was a nicely adorned woman of African descent. Rather than accept his loss as part of the give and take of life in the city, he verbally abused his new foe. That alone is a reason to reflect on this encounter. Millions of times a day people engage in the most democratic act of urban living, hurrying to put backside on a vacant seat. Unlike the 1940s and 1950s, when African American residents defied law to sit in white sections of Jim Crow streetcars and buses, no section of the L train now belongs to one community more than another.

Yet there he stood anachronistically calling forth a time that had past, seeking to open a door that would enable him to pull the past into the present. Interestingly, there are no recordings of others coming to the woman’s defense. She alone had the job of guarding the portal that distinguishes the past and present. She did so by insisting on her right to the seat and reminding the gentleman that the accident of birth that made him white did not bestow him with other talents, rights, or privileges. With history as her witness, she calmly asked him to move on and respect her right to the seat. In a kind of metaphor for an age, she seems to be saying to her adversary: you want the guise of competition but only to the degree you always win.

As she remained seated, and proving by the second her ability to hold her own verbally, the gentleman made two quick assertions. By this time in the summer of 2016 both major political parties moved closer to settling on a presidential candidate. While they had not been discussing the upcoming election heretofore, the conversation abruptly turned in that direction when he professed his allegiance to the Republican party candidate Donald Trump. She retorted that revelation of his leanings told her a lot about him, more than anything else he had said. Had the confrontation ended there, it would not have served as a history lesson. But before a companion could persuade the gentleman to shut up and move on, he predicted a Trump presidency, after which blacks would be “put back in the f***ing fields!”

Any student of American history knows that since the founding of the nation, conscientious men and women have struggled to understand how a country, formed on the principles of liberty and freedom, could so steadfastly retain its allegiance to slavery until a civil war ended that long chapter only to replace it with lynchings, segregation, and mass incarceration. Even today, more than a half a century after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, beliefs about slavery haunt daily dealings and human interactions as incidents that summer in Texas and elsewhere signaled.

In 2019 we remember the four hundredth anniversary of the importation of the first nineteen African peoples into colonial Jamestown. That simple act did more than build on a system of racial thinking, as Ibram Kendi so brilliantly delineated in Stamped From the Beginning. It also created a racialized political economy in which one group’s labor as well as their bodies produced and constituted wealth. The system of bond labor found in 1619 Virginia would take a few decades to evolve into the world of chattel slavery that traded and sold black bodies for profit. Once it had, the practice of slavery expanded north, south, and west, and it touched every institution—churches, schools, banks, shipping lines, businesses, government, everything. For more than two hundred years, slavery also marked every person of African descent. Anyone and everyone deemed to have African blood would be presumed to be the property of someone else.

Over the last six decades historians have wrestled with how to interpret the institution’s effects on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the men, women, and children who belonged to others as well as those who deemed them property. Stanley Elkins, influenced by the events of the holocaust and World War II, labeled slavery a total institution that overinflated whites, infantilized blacks, and created childlike men and women, ever debilitated by the brutalizing effects of the plantation system. A decade or so later, Eugene Genovese argued that masters, rather than brutes, were paternalistic, had close relations with their charges, and treated them more like children in a parent-child relationship. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, economic historians, described a rational system governed by concerns for profits, wealth accumulation, and economic viability. This view gained new energy when a subsequent generation of historians interrogated the economic imperatives of the plantation system, its interlocking connections across regions and institutions, and the expansion of capitalism. Others, meanwhile, insisted that from sundown to sunup, enslaved people did more than react to the vagaries of a capricious and racist world; they loved, danced, told stories, laughed, cried, and worked to retain a semblance of their humanity. During this time they molded a black culture and consciousness.

The L train gentleman likely had no sense of this historiography. He invoked a view of the institution predicated on black subordination. Had his female opponent known the body of literature she may have corrected him. She may have said that slavery varied by region and staple. Some men and women worked on their own and managed to purchase their freedom; others simply stole themselves into freedom. One should not confuse a tobacco farm in Virginia with a sugar plantation in Louisiana. Cotton became king as slavery moved southward and westward but that was not the world of iron workers near Richmond. Moreover, not all slaves were black. Millions were native and not all slaveowners were white; a few were native and fewer yet were black. Slavery, ultimately, was one thing and many things across time and space.

She may have said that you not only stand on the other side of time, but you stand outside the mainstream. In fact, if she had viewed a conference held at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History months before the official opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, she may have found herself quoting founding director Lonnie Bunch. Bunch told the assembled that while many looked forward to the opening of the museum on the Washington Mall, scores of blacks, whites, and others hoped the institution would minimize the role of slavery. He read from a representative list of the letter writers begging him to forget that long chapter of the past.

Unfortunately, forgetting is not a viable option. Slavery looms and lurks everywhere. It hangs, symbolically, from homes and buildings festooned with confederate flags. It is surfaced in battles over monuments, street and school names, holidays, and political rhetoric. It is a part of the script when police take out an Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge or a Philando Castile in Minnesota. More insidiously its touch can be seen in the pattern of what artist James Pate labeled “Kin Killin Kin,” characterized by the incessant murders of young black and brown men, women and children by other black and brown people. Here children from select zip codes do not expect to live into old age, and they act and behave in a manner that frequently fulfills that prophesy. It is not that they want to die; rather, easy access to guns, a street code that rewards retribution and frowns on reconciliation, an underground economy that has grown in parallel with the deindustrialization of America, and an educational system that often thwarts ambition and redirects creativity, leaving many on the pathway from school to prison (if you are lucky), contribute to narrowed expectations.

Whether on the streets or as an incarcerated ward of the state, the specter of slavery looms. Slavery is where generations of blacks—and whites—learned the harsh lessons of worth and expendability. After all, a generation and a half of historiography has shown that slavery fueled wealth accumulation and capitalism and caused uncalculated violence and psychological trauma. This business of transforming humans into property and capital left a mark on all. Nearly every American institution supported slavery, and universities with widely different origin stories have found they have a slavery past.

So rather than shrink from the challenge of talking about it intelligently, informed by scholarship, replete with the full range of contradictions, 2019 should mark the beginning of a national encounter with our slavery past. Perhaps then one could explain to the L train passenger the time of chattel slavery and the economy it supported has disappeared forever. To know the economic history of slavery is to know we are not returning to a nineteenth century economy. Yet, like the L train passenger, some hold on to a vision of the future that takes them back to the past. They risk living out of sync with time. As we move forward and confront the pending macro-economic, social, and political changes ahead, addressing the history of slavery may be a good place to start. Here history can be our friend, if we are willing to entertain a history lesson.


Earl Lewis recently returned to the University of Michigan as a professor of history and African American and African Studies, and the inaugural director of the soon-to-be created Center for Social Solutions. Previously a dean of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies at Michigan and provost at Emory University, he served as the sixth president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from March 2013 until March 2018. He is the current OAH president and also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.