Shifting realities from slave to criminal


On this day in 1514, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull condemning both slavery and the slave trade. This decree followed dicta by two of his predecessors, each of whom had the potential to strongly curtail — or at least prevent the expansion of – the African slave trade. As history well-reflects, the repugnant trade in human beings was neither ended nor substantially impeded.

In his study of European politics of the era, Maurice Jackson, professor of history at Georgetown University, writes: “If it is true that the process of death begins at birth, then it is also true that the seeds of the demise of slavery were spread at its beginning.” Jackson goes on to characterize the march to end slavery as one of the highest and lowest points of human history” and an age in which contradictions were abundant.

Jackson’s observations seem to be born out when one considers that in 1563, England’s Queen Elizabeth chastised a seafarer named Hawkins for bringing Africans in bondage back to Europe. Paradoxically, Elizabeth’s realm was both expanded and fattened by the very Guiney trade she nominally condemned. Predictably, Hawkins’ activities proceeded unabated.

As British colonial designs expanded in the new world, the contradiction only became more glaring. As colonial settlers resolved to break from the English crown, many observers noted the disjunction. Of this hypocrisy, noted British writer Samuel Johnson asked: “How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the Negroes?”

Many sources note that Christian churches were a strong source of inspiration for the early anti-slavery movement. Here again, though, the contradictions abound. Just as theologians like the Anglican Bishop Morgan Godwyn and George Fox, founder of the Quakers, denounced slavery, proslavery forces were equally quick to lean on the apparent condoning of slavery in certain biblical passages.

Godwyn in particular helped to spur debate with publications like his 1680, Negro and Indian Advocate. In it he writes: “These two words, negro and slave are by custom grown Homogeneous and Convertible.”

In this one line Godwyn presages the plight of young black men in many modern cities. To be young, black and male is to encumber the heavy mantle of presumptive criminal. As Rashawn Ray, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, wrote for the New York Times: “When asked during the 2008 campaign if he identified as black, President Obama simply said: ‘The last time I tried to catch a cab in NYC....’ His comment signaled to blacks that he experienced discrimination, while simultaneously illuminating a fatal flaw with race relations in the 21st century — our inability to separate black man from criminal.”

Harvard University criminologist Robert Sampson speaks to a similar point when he penned the phrase “durable spoiled identity” to describe the plight of American ghettos. The neighborhood is flawed (with an implication of moral flaw); therefore all of its residents are similarly flawed.

We see the effects of this here, locally, in Pine Bluff. Only in our case, it is not just a neighborhood; it is an entire community. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have city leaders clamoring for identity campaigns.

As our local leaders attempt to manage external perceptions of our city, they’d do well to think about the trajectory from slave to presumptive criminal. One is real. One just assumed. The social and economic effects are, however, pretty similar.