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Money: Is Slavery’s Motivation Also Its Solution? Not Necessarily.

In class today, Dr. Bezio mentioned an age-old saying: money is the root of all evils. While attempting to justify the application of this saying to all of history’s evils would be both beyond my abilities and result in a reaction much too long for anyone to read, the sayings application to American slavery rings true. As David Smith and Howard Zinn note in their writings, slavery — specifically the enslavement of Africans in America — was born out of the strive for profits. Many of the early European settlers in America were “skilled craftsmen, or even men of leisure” (Zinn 25), thus making them untrained in the practical skills of farming and domestic chores. Recognizing the settler’s struggles, merchants brought African slaves across the Atlantic to be sold in the Americas. Indeed, the potential for profit by both parties — that is the settlers and merchants — is what drew merchants to strip Africans of their ancestral homes, families, and cultures to work as slaves across the ocean. The merchants were not wrong. The sale and use of slaves was so profitable that James Madison once claimed that he could “make $257 one every Negro in a year, and spend only $12 or $13 on his keep” (Zinn 33). This practice started formally in America at Point Comfort in 1619, however, the institution of slavery continued to rob countless more Africans of their lives both physically and figuratively. The destruction of lives in the name of money greatly benefitted the lives of European settlers and, thus, as some argue, a debt must be repaid.

A story from the David Smith article that caught my attention was that of Terry E. Brown, a park service superintendent at Fort Monroe, which sits on the sight of Point Comfort. Brown, the descendant of slaves, did not know the genealogy of his family until recently when he discovered an ancestral link to Cameroon. Discovering his family’s history made Brown “emotionally and spiritually tied to Africa” (Smith), filling a void in ancestral pride that was missing before. Reading this reminded me of a Facebook post made by my friend back in June. Like Brown, my friend could trace his ancestry back only as far as slavery. In his post, I remember him describing the shame he felt whenever an elementary school teacher would ask him where his family originated. Embarrassed, he recalled always answering with the Bahamas, a country in which his family has zero ancestral linkage. This embarrassment and loss of pride is part of what white merchants stole from Africans when they stole them from their homelands. While money was the motivation for this sin, it is not necessarily the answer. US Representative Jim Clyburn has spoken against reparations — the idea of repaying African Americansfor the work of their ancestors — claiming that it is “impossible to monetise” (Smith) the issues associated with slavery. I agree with Representative Clyburn that, while easy, money will not solve this evil the same way it created it. The divisions that slavery inflicted on this nation and the pain it caused in the soul of slavery’s descendants cannot be reconciled with money. The loss of culture and generational trauma will not be solved by paying one generation of reparations. Healing must require change on the personal, national, and institutional level. 

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  1. Christopher Wilson Christopher Wilson

    I definitely agree with you Michael that financial reparations for the cultural trauma African Americans- my people- have suffered at the hands of this nation would not do justice. I say this because Europeans in America used the money to purchase higher quantities of slaves so that they would not have to do the physical work necessary to improve their communities. For instance, Europeans, especially of high-status, felt that it was too difficult to learn how to farm and produce their own agricultural products which could then be exported for profit, so they bought slaves to do their jobs for them. Likewise, I believe that America “paying off” African Americans who have suffered a great deal from the Atlantic Slave Trade, America would be furthering the reality that it does not actually want to put in any work to help abolish the oppressive and violent institutions it’s created. If anything, financial reparations are an effortless way out for the white and privileged to continue demonstrating their superiority over African Americans.

    • Alexandra Oloughlin Alexandra Oloughlin

      I agree with what you are saying, that money is not the way to go about trying to fix the horrors that this country inflicted upon African Americans. It is taking the easy way out. But i think that the country needs to more than nothing. There needs to be some way to help trace ancestory, whether it is offering free genetic testing so that African Americans can find the country their ancestors originated from before the slave trade destroyed the ability to trace.

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