All posts by Amy

Reflection on Schwartz and Anderson’s Essays

Reading Schwartz’s “Resistance and Accommodation in Eighteenth-Century Brazil” has provoked several questions on the nature of human experience, as well as the nature of history. Schwartz’s essay exposes us to the significant and rare primary source in which certain slaves commented on Brazilian slavery. This is incredibly valuable, as we typically learn about slavery through the eyes of outsiders. The treaty of peace exemplifies how the slaves wanted better working and living conditions, in order to “play, relax, and sing . . . without hindrance” (p. 79). In response to this, Schwartz comments, “This reference to the larger dimension of man, to his spirit and not only to the body, represents that which was perhaps the greatest contribution of the slaves to Brazilian culture, that is the desire to maintain these human dimensions intact under the most difficult conditions of life” (p. 75). In reading this paper, we are obtaining a deeper understanding of Brazilian slavery. Despite their enslavement, we see the fundamental aspects of human experience shining through. This allows us to question human nature versus nurture, and how they contribute to these seemingly universal aspects of the human experience. We are able to detect major similarities between ourselves and the slaves who wrote this letter, despite the contrast between our privilege and their oppression. It is fascinating to read this source and find these ressemblances, as they lead us to wonder how much humans share despite their completely different lives. However, it is also important to question how well this primary source reflects Brazilian slavery. Was this unique behaviour to these particular slaves? Was this document modified by slave owners or historians? Who decided to create this treaty, and was its creation corrupted?  Though these primary sources are incredibly interesting, they provoke many questions on the reliability of historical documents.

In Anderson’s “The Quilombo of Palmares,” we are shown the culturally rich Palmares, which was a state of escaped slaves in Brazil. This paper helps to concretize our understanding of the differences between American and Brazilian slavery, due to the development of culture in Brazil. During our study of American slavery, we learned about the notable and heartbreaking assimilation that was forced upon African slaves. In Brazilian slavery, however, much of the culture was able to be preserved. Anderson’s essay explains that the people of Palmares were ethically, racially, and culturally diverse (pp. 547-548). Therefore, Brazilian culture as a whole was able to adopt a range of cultural diversity, leading to the fusion of certain elements (i.e. Afro-Brazilian music). Understanding the difference between the culture in Brazilian and American slavery is imperative, because it allows us to question the effects that it continues to have on their current societies. Anderson’s essay leads me to wonder how differently culture was maintained in escaped slave states, such as Palmares, versus within plantations. Beyond that, it provokes my curiosity on the fusion of African and Brazilian cultures, and how much this has affected the present day.

Overall, these two essays provide insight into Brazilian slavery, in comparison to American slavery. They are both incredibly valuable resources to use when examining the preservation of African culture in Brazil, which is one of the fundamental themes in this topic. 

Reflection on “The Subject of the Slave Trade”

Reading John Sweet’s essay, “The Subject of the Slave Trade”, has provoked several questions regarding the values that were assigned to enslaved people. Throughout our study of slavery in the Americas, we have frequently circled back to the question, “Was slavery in the Americas primarily an economic phenomenon, or a racial phenomenon?”. Sweet’s essay highlights the connection between these two phenomena, by discussing how enslaved people were treated as number values. In the essay, Sweet explains how, 

. . . the Zong massacre was a sign of how far the modern financial revolution had come. . . . As Lord Mansfield rules. . . the people thrown off the Zong could not be seen as the murder victims: in the eyes of the law [it was] ‘the same as if horses had been thrown overboard’ (p. 25).

From the moment people were captured, they were no longer treated as people. The “African captives were exported so that their labor power could fuel the plantation economies of the Americas” (p. 31), meaning they were seen as capital rather than people. We see this conveyed through the very layout of the Brookes slave ship. The “schematic plan of the slave ship Brookes [shows] the vessel’s hold crammed with tiny black figures, each representing a captive” (p. 31). The slave trade was entirely detached from any humanitarian sentiment. Perhaps, this inhumane treatment was a method used to save the slave traders from guilt. Or, perhaps, this was due to the slave trade’s revolvement around economics. Sweet’s essay provides extensive justification for slavery being an economic phenomenon. However, it could not have been purely economical, because it was only black people who were being valued as inferior capital, and it was primarily white oppressors reducing them to those positions. The combination of economic and racial motivations led to the values that were assigned to enslaved people, and this created the extreme maltreatment that is widely recognized.

One of the fundamental takeaways I had from this essay is the involvement of sympathy and humanitarianism in the abolition of slavery. When discussing the motivations behind abolition, it is fairly clear that morality influenced this movement. The effect that morality had on the abolition of slavery was evidently important, but to what extent? Sweet explains that the Anglo-American conversations surrounding abolition have shifted from “self-flagellation [to] self-gratulation” (p. 16). Thus, many historians have begun “emphasizing the role of humanitarian sentiment” (p. 16) in this movement. This shift leads to dangerous territory. Once we begin congratulating people for supporting abolition, we begin to accept the bare-minimum. For instance, Baucom demonstrates the,

. . . many pitfalls and paradoxes of a politics of empathy, such as its emphasis on cruelty and suffering rather than justice and equality. . . . First, there is the inherent tendency of sentimental spectatorship to slide from empathy to self-gratulation, inaction, and even to self-pity”(p. 25).

As humans, we have the tendency to applaud ourselves for sympathizing with others. But in doing so, we are distancing ourselves from the real problems. We are excusing ourselves from taking action, because we begin to feel that our sympathy is enough to consider ourselves “allies”. It is imperative that we do not become “historical spectator[s] impressed by the idea of [our] own sympathy for the suffering” (p. 26), because people want real change, not sympathy. We see heavy remnants of this theme in our current society, as explained by the term “performative activism”. Performative activism occurs when people “advocate” to increase their social status, rather than to support a cause. Having “humanitarian” motivations can prevent change from occurring, or can slow down the process. It would be interesting to know whether sympathy and humanitarianism accelerated or obstructed the abolition movement. And beyond that, how it still affects equality for black people today.

To summarize, Sweet’s essay prompted me to question the significance of economics in slavery, along with the motivations behind the abolition movement. This essay discusses several fundamental questions that arise in the study of trans-atlantic slavery, and it is heavily supported by evidence. Though it is quite lengthy and dense, it serves as an excellent document that raises numerous questions on the slave trade.

The 1619 Project

Despite being written as a journalism project, I believe The 1619 Project surpasses that, serving as a combination of history and journalism. It features a great deal of historical information, along with the current, sociological effects that the past has had on society. Often, history is used as a tool for understanding the present; it is a way to make sense of our current society. As Serwer says, The 1619 Project is “a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions” (Serwer, p. 1). The formation of American society—the society which is enveloped in anti-black racism and white supremacy—can be traced back to slavery. This project incorporates history into modern issues, showing how we still see prominent traces of past events in our everyday lives. Silverstein, the Editor in Chief of The New York Times explains, “The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in telling our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life” (Silverstein, p. 4). As IB History students, we all know: scope is essential when writing history. Many criticisms against The 1619 Project argue the fact that it does not discuss “the widespread practice of slavery outside the Americas” (Niemuth, p. 4). However, the writers of the project limited their scope to the United States, rather than slavery as a whole. Their objective was to discuss the “marginalization of African-American history” through education about slavery, and they fulfilled that. Although their claims were often worded strongly, there was evidence supporting their arguments. There are definitely elements of their history that are framed, due to this focus on America. Regardless, it is still history. Connections to present society or to select ideologies should not diminish this project, because we see this across the board. By nature, history will be framed, because historians and writers are people above all else. We see flaws throughout history, whether that be through documentation, subjectivity, or bias. Nevertheless, we still consider that to be history, so this project should be, as well.

Reading these arguments and counter arguments has raised several questions regarding both historical objectivity, and how history is remembered according to a nation’s “identity”. We often portray history as something that is solely factual, based on evidence, and fixed. In actuality, this is not the case. As Hannah-Jones states, “people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts” (Serwer, p. 14). There are a plethora of factors that can alter the accuracy of history, ranging from poor documentation to the manipulation of evidence. We make mistakes, we have opinions, and we can be blind to our errors. Though it is important to be as factually accurate as possible, perfection seems unattainable. This makes me wonder, is it impossible to achieve full objectivity in history, considering relativity, framing, and context? And if so, whose truth should we prioritize? Between The 1619 Project and the critiques, there seem to be two routes, “The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for the rights they may never fully realise” (Serwer, p. 4). Along with questions about prioritization, this raises questions about the impact that “American identity” has had on history. Certain historians tend to favour the idea that America is in a state of constant progression, and will continue along this upward trajectory. Others, who have felt the seemingly ever-present oppression within America, tend to be more pessimistic regarding this progression. These viewpoints are impacted by nationalism, experiences, and maltreatment. As a result, they impact the frame of history.  The 1619 Project is “Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, [making] the story of the country’s great men necessarily look very different” (Serwer, pp. 1-2). In history, I believe it is important to see these different perspectives. We hear from those who have had white privilege since the formation of the nation, then those who have been oppressed by this. Returning to my question about prioritization, I personally believe that we should be listening to and elevating the voices of the people who have been most affected by systemic racism and slavery. However, it is equally important to examine slavery using other resources, to ensure that we have well-rounded knowledge.

Overall, The 1619 Project is an excellent “supplementary” resource, in terms of its purpose to “enhance traditional curricula, not replace [it]” (Serwer, p. 5). It is a unique way for people to examine slavery and racism, as it provokes many questions about those topics, and about history itself. By evaluating it rather than solely reading it, we’re able to raise these questions on the nature of history, which is an essential component in historical education.

US Constitution: Articles I & II

The first two articles of the US Constitution place control in the hands of two classified groups: the legislature and the president. The people chosen to fulfill those roles are elected by a third,  greater power: the people. Although they all carry influence and power, there is a gradation of importance between these groups, especially the ones within the government. Yet I must wonder, how prominent  is this gradation?

We are first introduced to the importance of each group in similar passages in Articles I and II. Regarding representatives, the Constitution states, “No person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States,” (Article I, Section 2) whereas for the president, “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States . . .  shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” (Article II, Section 1) The annotation of that first quotation states that unlike representatives, senators must be 30 years old, and 9 years a citizen. (p. 2)  From this information, we can conclude that from least to most important, we can rank the jobs: representatives, senators, president. Although this is not surprising, it is important to establish the hierarchical aspects within the constitution when discussing the division of power.

On the other hand, reading the Constitution has debunked some of those same ideas that the president is the leaderthe one who is completely in charge— and that everyone else has a minor role below him. Realistically, the president’s principal jobs are approving bills (Article I, Section 7), commanding the Militia (Article II, Section 2), making treaties (Article II, Section 2), appointing other government officials, and (not to be an elastic clause) other roles not specifically stated. The legislature’s duties are much more extensive, hence the fact that Article I is much longer than Article II. This had led me to realize that having the “executive Power”  is not what it seems.  Now, I am not minimizing the role, because I fully comprehend that being the president involves a great deal of work that is not mentioned in the Constitution. What I am saying, however, is that in terms of laws and regulation of the US, the nation is not as reliant on this figurehead than I previously thought.

The House has a (more) democratic system involving direct representation: when there are more people within a state, there are more representatives (Article I, Section 2). The senate resembles a republic, in the sense that each state has two elected senators, regardless of the size of the state (Article I, Section 3), meaning that it does not represent the people to scale. We like to call the United States a democracy, and yet the Constitution is a, if not the primary historical document used. The combination of these republican systems along with the non-existent mention of democracy in the Constitution shows that perhaps we have been using the word to express what we want for the nation, not what we have.

When entering Office, the president must take the oath, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (Article II, Section 1) So, in essence, they are seeking to defend the constitution, not the people. Consider what this oath protected before the amendments. To oversimplify, it would be white males. Even presently, the president is referred to as, “he” throughout the Constitution, reaffirming the belief that white men were the only beings considered “people”. If the president’s role us to uphold the Constitution, will change ever occur? Amendments change the Constitution, but to what extent?

The first two Articles of the Constitution explain the current division of power in the United States, according to a group of white men in 1787. Since then, 27 amendments have been made to this document that the US has deemed a necessary part of their government. And who knows, maybe it is essential. Maybe it will continue being the primary historical document they use in the leadership of their nation. However, I must ask, will there ever be a point where we have make so many amendments that we realize the Constitution is outdated? Is it still the best system for an evolving nation such at this one?

The Declaration of Independence

The Fourth of July. A holiday consistently celebrated by Americans, recognized internationally, and questioned far too little. Based on a nearly 250 year-old piece of paper signed by an assembly of privileged white men. A day which declares: almost 250 years ago, the US became independent from the rule of Britain, resulting in freedom for white malesand no one else.

Independence Day is based off of the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and other Founding Fathers. Created in a time where minority voices were suppressed significantly more than they are now. Slavery was prominent, women were without rights, and people who weren’t fortunate enough to fit into that small classification of white males were treated as nothing. And yet, we use this document as a representation of freedomdemocracy.

The Declaration claims that “certain unalienable Rights” of every man are, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (p. 1) The very fact that there were slaves who had none of these fundamental rights, proves the invalidity of the statement. Further, the men writing this declarationthese aforementioned words, were contributing to the absurdity of this document by owning slaves. They claim that, “all men are created equal,” (p. 1) and yet their actions negate that. When reading the Declaration, I wondered, how could they write this without realizing their hypocrisy and contradictions? I later realized that in their perspectives, people of colour,  women, and essentially anyone other than white men, were not included within these statements; they were not considered people. 

Following this precedent, all American, white males have these inalienable rights and are created equally. If you don’t fit into this category, sorry for your loss, you are clearly inferior, better luck in your future endeavours. Although the ideas of equality presented in this document are admirable, the circumstances in which it was created devalue its sincerity.

They claim that, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” (p. 5) What about the oppressions they were causing—oppression that extends far past taxation?

In my opinion, this annual ritual celebrating the “independence” and “democracy” that was not actually obtained through the declaration must be put to rest. It is insulting the minorities who struggled, and still struggle with their fundamental human rights, it is celebrating the slave owners who wrote it, and it is exemplifying the problem of over-relying on old documents to justify our current situations . The nation and world has greatly evolved since then, and we cannot keep honouring the same, outdated documents and ideas. They will prevent us from developing new ones, and growing to our fullest extent.

What is Democracy?

In theory, democracy is a collection of voices being heard; making a difference. It’s freedom, justice, inclusivity, equality, empowerment. It’s the knowledge that when you make a decision, that choice is pooled into a defining  category that dictates the leader of your nation. And yet, dig deeper, and those values are negated.

We like to define democracy as “majority rule”. This definition seems to overlook the fact that we often have minority governments, like we currently do in Canada. Even when we have a majority government, is it truly a majority? Typically, voter turnout lies around 60-70% of eligible Canadians. When polled about their reasons for abstaining to vote, many claim they’re either disinterested, they disagreed with all the political leaders, or are too busy/away. How can we claim to be a democracy, a system run by the people, when 30-40% of citizens aren’t having their voices heard, or don’t want their voices to be heard?

I would like to consider democracy as fair. And technically speaking, it is. However, can we call the system that empowers those with “opinions” that discredit someones existence fair? I love the idea that everyone is entitled to vote, but at what cost? To me, democracy is a flawed system. In so many instances, what I consider the bad has conquered the good. It shows the world the sheer number of people willing to deprive others of their fundamental human rights and respect. It shows us that people are willing to ignore climate change, permit racism, allow homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, misogyny. . . Democracy has disappointed me, because the people have disappointed me.

To me, democracy is the voice of the people. It’s the oppressed receiving the chance to fight for their rights, and the oppressors having the ability take those rights away. It’s the exclusion of youth; society telling us that we are not capable of having our own opinions. It’s the explanation people use to justify hateful speech, and malignant beliefs. It’s the segregation between blue and red, conservative and liberal, right-wing and left. It’s the boundaries created within society; the rationalization of hate.

Democracy is the best system we have. However,  there is an evident difference between something being the best of the options, versus being good regardless of comparison. The system needs reforming. Our society needs reforming.