February: a month that’s too short to celebrate the centuries’ worth of contributions Black Americans made to American history—and in 2019, evidently, a hot mess of a breeding ground for racial stupidity in the news! Whether it’s Liam Neeson revealing his past racist vendetta. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam admitting he was in a racist yearbook photo involving blackface. Or Gucci apologizing for and removing its “blackface” sweater. So much blackface. Even though we’re in 2019, it keeps happening. And because it keeps happening, we need to keep learning why and what to do about it. Time to hit the books! Again! In the spirit of Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racism syllabus, we put together our own.
By Daina Berry | Many enslaved children have vivid memories of the sale experience. Marlida Pethy of Missouri recalled that when she was “nine or ten years old,” she was “put up on de block to be sold.” Of the stand, she recalled, “It was just a piece cut out of a log and [it] stood on [one] end.” Her recollection about her price is even more telling: “Dey was offered $600 but my mistress cried so much dat master did not sell me.” The mistress’s attachment to her human property was so great in this case that the family decided not to sell Marlida. Such interventions were not always successful or helpful. Several enslaved people reported that their mistresses were as violent and sadistic as their husbands. In this case, we do not know if Marlida preferred to remain with her mistress. All we know is that Marlida was not sold and that, decades later, she remembered the monetary value she carried at auction. It made a deep impression on her young mind.
Black History Month is the time that connections need to be made between the ancestors of Black heritage and the living inheritors. As educator Christopher Emdin wrote on our blog, the stories of past battles should never be told as if they are over or conquered. The stories are alive and playing out today. The connections are more powerful when they’re grounded in the context of history. In the spirit of Emdin’s observations, we’re offering a list of recommending reading to bridge the past with the present.
A Q&A with Daina Berry: Since the early twentieth century, when trained historians and economists wrote about the institution of slavery, many included the monetary values of “prime male field hands” in their work. They argued that these individuals were the most valued and quantifiable members of the plantation community, and that by tracking their prices one could analyze the profitability of the institution. I was always struck that few scholars provided historical context for these prices and that women, children, and the elderly were rarely included. I also knew that enslaved people had very different conceptions of their value.