Dear Mr. Barkley:
I write you out of love. I write you out of profound pain. I write you out of deep concern. I hope you accept this letter in the spirit that I write.
Mr. Barkley, I understand that you said, in so many words, that slavery was not so bad and that you were tired of people bringing up slavery. I was shocked by both statements. Then I was mad. Then, I was terribly disappointed. Finally, I was just in deep hurt and great pain. Now, I am trying to help you and all those who may think like you.
Mr. Barkley, allow me to tell you why slavery was “not so bad,” but very, very bad. First, African people were snatched from their families, their villages, their communities, their tribes, their continent, their freedom. African people were made to walk hundreds of miles in chains. They were often beaten, poorly fed and abused in many ways. Women and girls were routinely raped. The whole continent was ravaged and still suffers to this day. Mr. Barkley, this is very, very bad.
Second, African people were placed in “slave dungeons” for weeks and sometimes months until the slave ships came. They were often underfed, terribly beaten, raped and stuffed together so tightly they could hardly move. African people were packed in the holds of ships with little space to even move. They performed bodily functions where they lay and then lived in it. They were oftentimes beaten, raped and abused mentally, physically and emotionally. Many died from disease and broken spirits. Some were so terribly impacted that they jumped overboard and drowned when brought to the deck of the ships. Millions died during the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. Mr. Barkley, this is very, very bad.
Third, African people were broken like wild animals. They were stripped of every element of their identity. Their names were taken. Their languages were taken. Their religions were taken. Their histories were taken. They were forbidden to have family. They had no rights to own anything. They were considered property. Their personalities were permanently altered. Their freedom was taken. They became chattel sold from “slave blocks.” This crushing of identity impacts us to this day. I call it the psychology of the oppressed. Mr. Barkley, this is very, very bad.
Fourth, African Americans were worked from “kin to can’t;” that is from “can see” in the morning to “can’t see” at night. There was no pay for their long, hard labor. Many were poorly fed. Most felt the lash of the whip. All felt the lash of the tongue. Many were repeatedly raped. Their children and other loved ones were sold at will. Some mothers killed their baby girls so they would not have to endure the ravages of slavery. Mr. Barkley, this is very, very bad.
Fifth, African Americans had no right to defend themselves no matter what was done and how wrong it was. By law, they could not even testify against their abusers. As U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Toney said in the 1857 Dred Scott case, “A Black man has no rights a White man is bound to respect.” This became the law of the land and its legacy bedevils us to this day. Mr. Barkley, this is very, very bad.
Sixth, African Americans were perceived and treated as sub human. The only way enslavers could square this terrible treatment with their Christian beliefs was see us as less than human. Therefore, they could proudly place such beautiful words in the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution with impunity: i.e. – “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To them, African Americans were not human so these beautiful words did not apply. Even the U.S. Constitution designated us as three-fifths of a person. That’s why White terrorists, in and out of uniforms, can kill us without punishment. The legacy of being less human lingers with us today. Black lives are worth much less than White lives. Mr. Barkley, this is very, very bad.
Seventh, it required great violence to implement and maintain the worse form of human slavery known to humankind. It required unbridled violence by enslavers, slave catchers, local, state, federal governments and the entire society. Maintaining the institution of slavery created a very violent society that infests us to this day. That’s why the United States has far more violence than any country in the world. Mr. Barkley, this is very, very bad.
Eighth, even after slavery formally ended, we still had Jim Crow. These same imbedded attitudes generated state-sanctioned terrorism for nearly another 100 years. The Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups hanged, mutilated, maimed and murdered without any punishment. It was state sanctioned terrorism because the “state” did not do anything to prevent it. That’s why even during the Civil Rights Movement murders took many years before even a modicum of justice was forged. Just look at the deaths of Medgar Evers, James Chaney, the four little girls murdered by the bombing of a Black Birmingham Church and so many others. That is why today Trayvon Martin could not walk the streets of his neighborhood and Jordan Davis could not play loud music in his car and Eric Garner was choked to death and Michael Brown was gunned down. Mr. Barkley this is very, very bad.
Mr. Barkley, if you knew your history, you would not say slavery is not so bad and you are tired of people bringing up slavery. The legacy of slavery is everywhere. However, you are not totally to blame because you were deliberately denied the opportunity to learn you history. That is one more legacy of slavery. I hope you will seek the full history for yourself so that you will not ever say such things again.
With deep concern,
Hank Sanders is a 9-term Alabama State Senator. A practicing attorney in Selma, Ala., he is a graduate of Talladega College and Harvard Law School.