The new Florida history curriculum on slavery says that some enslaved persons learned skills while enslaved that later benefited them, provoking shock and outrage across the nation.
One of the things that is wrong with this way of looking at the issue is the white nationalist assumption that white slavers were repositories of useful knowledge that they sometimes deigned to pass on to the poor benighted enslaved from the backward Dark Continent. I will come back to this point below.
Governor Ron DeSantis, who ordered the new standards, defended this point before an all-white audience on Friday, saying, ”They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. But the reality is: All of that is rooted in whatever is factual.”
Uh, just so you know, West Africa had a long tradition of producing blacksmiths and likely some enslaved artisans came already knowing all about it.
When challenged to give supporting details, the Florida Board of Education gave a list of 16 persons. On investigation, it was found that more than half of them weren’t enslaved, the rest didn’t learn any useful skills while enslaved, and one of them appears actually to have been white.
The curriculum puts an emphasis on those slaves who worked as tradesmen and artisans (for no salary) as opposed to vast majority, who toiled as field hands and often were worked to death, as Josh Marshall discusses. He sees a distortion of the record coming from such odd over-focusing on some things and neglect of others.
DeSantis’s sort of discourse ignores that the enslaved were strictly forbidden to learn to read and write English, and the few who did so had to resort to dangerous subterfuges. Not sure how many “useful skills” the illiterate could learn.
Being someone’s property, having him rape you at will, and his ability to sell off your spouse and children whenever he liked, seem to me to outweigh any minor skills an enslaved person picked up. There is not good evidence that very many of them picked up very many marketable skills, and mind you that if the southern slaver states had had their way no enslaved Africans would ever have been able to try to put any of his or her skills on the private market, what with being owned and all.
But let us turn the real direction of useful knowledge, which was often from the enslaved to the ignorant and often unlettered whites who happened to own them.
Sylviane A. Diouf in her Servants of Allah explores issues in the enslavement of West African Muslims in the New World. She argues that because they traveled from town to town seeking knowledge and teaching it, the West African Sufi masters and Muslim clerics were disproportionately at risk of being captured and enslaved, since they were so much on the road. We don’t know what proportion of enslaved Africans were Muslims, but it likely was between 10% and 20%. Because of the large number of Muslim clerics among them, the Muslim enslaved were disproportionately literate in Arabic and in other languages written in the Arabic script in West Africa, such as Wolof, Mandinka and Hausa. She says that many slave-owners prized these literate Muslims, who often also had good book-keeping abilities, and depended on them in that regard, since many white slave-owners were not very literate or well schooled.
Some of the enslaved West Africans were highly educated royalty or scions of old clerical families schooled in Timbuktu, who were well versed in Greek sciences adopted into Islam. Many could have debated Aristotle with any white intellectual if the white person learned Arabic (Thomas Jefferson studied it a bit but remained blithely unaware that some of his own slaves may have been able to read it). Many white slave owners and proprietors of smaller farms wouldn’t have had similar knowledge. Some of the enslaved left behind autobiographies and other documents in Arabic, as with Omar ibn Said.
Judith Carney in “The African Origins of Carolina Rice Culture” discusses how historians have shown that rice cultivation in South Carolina depended on West Africans’ knowledge of the crop and their discovery of a distinctive strain. Wetland rice farming is much more productive that upland rainfall-based farming of the crop. Not only did enslaved West Africans know much more about rice growing than Scottish immigrants to the Carolinas but African women in particular possessed specialized knowledge of growing this crop.
She observes, “In 1453, decades before ships would reach India and Asian rice systems, the Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Azurara visited the mouth of the Gambia River and recorded the first European mention of West African rice cultivation: “They arrived sixty leagues beyond Cape Verde [Senegal], where they met with a river which was of good width, and into which they entered with their caravels. . .they found much of the land sown, and many. . . fields sown with rice. . .And. . .all that land seemed. . .like marshes.”
Senegambia was a region from which many enslaved kidnap victims were brought to North America.
She adds, “Wherever rice cultivation occurs in West Africa, women are involved. Rice is either a female crop or onecultivated with a sharply demarcated gender division of labour, men preparing the land for cultivation and women in charge of sowing, weeding and hoeing.”
It is therefore no surprise that in colonial South Carolina, too, “female slaves constituted the majority of ‘prime hands’ on Carolina and Georgia rice plantations.Women were especially involved in the tasks of sowing the seeds, weeding and hoeing, their group labour with long-handled hoes described by one observer of an ante-bellum rice plantation as a ‘human hoeing machine’.”
Leland Ferguson in Uncommon ground: archaeology and early African America, 1650-1800 shows that slaver farm owners often depended on the “pioneering” skills of Africans in clearing wilderness, and their knowledge of how to use adobe in making walled houses, woodworking knowledge of how to carve wood into water buckets and how carve a canoe out of cypress trunks, make baskets, recognize and use useful herbs for seasoning and healing, and their knowledge of pottery. West Africans were often used as coopers because of their woodworking skill in making staves and hoops for barrels. He sees African architectural techniques everywhere he looks in the archeology of the colonial Carolinas.
My colleague Jason Young has done amazing work on the Black potters of South Carolina and the African techniques they brought to bear, which can be seen if pottery in the Carolinas in the 1850s and 1860s is compared to that being produced in Africa itself.
So Florida and Ron DeSantis should put all that in their pipes and smoke it. They should be grateful to generations of enslaved Africans for having provided to their white owners an encyclopedia of useful skills whereby the pampered whites could go on to provide for themselves after the end of slavery.
Maybe they should even think about finally paying the arrears owed to the families of those kidnapped Africans for all their contributions to the building of America.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on July 23, 2023, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole. It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.
Image Credit: NPR