By Jacob Igor Torgeson
In 1756, an eleven-year-old African boy named Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped by slavers and taken to their ship. "I was persuaded," he later wrote, "that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits. . . when I looked around the ship and saw a copper pot boiling I no longer doubted my fate, and quite overpowered with horror, I fainted."
Equiano’s story is one of many that comes to life in a new documentary produced at WGBH in Boston for The American Experience. Africans in America, a four-part documentary exploring the role of African Americans in the economic and social development of the United States, airs October 19-22 on PBS. The series documents the lives and struggles of slaves and free Africans living in the United States from colonial times until the Civil War.
Work on Africans in America began more than five years ago when producers perceived a need to explore the lives of Africans in early America.
"There hasn’t been a documentary history on slavery from its origins," explains executive producer Orlando Bagwell. Africans in America is the first documentary to look at slavery "from its origins in the nation to abolition."
The four episodes of the series progress chronologically. The first details the slow growth of slavery, its impact on domestic and international trade, and its effects on both African and American society. It tells the story of Equiano’s journey to America by way of the harrowing Middle Passage. The second episode examines the American Revolution through the eyes of George Washington and Venture Smith, a slave who bought his family’s and his own freedom. The third, entitled "Brotherly Love," depicts the time following the Revolution, exploring the lives of African Americans in Philadelphia. The final episode tracks the progression of abolitionist and anti-abolitionist movements in the thirty years leading up to the Civil War.
Africans in America aims to tell what hasn’t been told before. "This period of American history is probably the most researched," Bagwell says. "Among scholars and historians, it’s very popular. The difference is, among the American public, the slavery period is not well understood, or even discussed." Africans in America attempts to bridge that gap. "For a medium like television to present it," Bagwell explains, "brings the history of slavery to the public in a way it’s never been shown before."
Africans in America examines five different aspects: the impact of African skills on the developing nation, the societal effects of the institution of slavery in North America, the evolution of American attitudes toward race, the struggle of Africans in America for freedom and equality, and the influence of African cultural traditions. The story is told in the words of the people who lived through the events and through interviews with scholars.
The series begins in the early days of colonial America. The colonies were established as profit-making ventures and many British settlers were ill-prepared for the task of carving out settlements in the frontier.
Initially, Africans brought to America worked side by side with white indentured servants at the same tasks. Blacks and whites cleared the land, planted and tended crops, and managed the daily business of the plantations.
The African slaves began their work when they were young, and were taught obedience from the beginning. Venture Smith detailed his own childhood in his memoirs:
I was pretty much employed in the house, carting wood for the household guests. My behavior had been as yet obedient. Then I began to have hard tasks imposed on me or be rigorously punished. I was about nine years old.
As the colonies and plantations grew, landowners became dependent on African labor. By 1700, the number of blacks in South Carolina was greater than the number of whites. African slaves became valuable for the skills they held before enslavement. Soon, Africans were woodworkers, tailors, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, longshoremen and even the pilots who guided ships in and out of harbors.
In the North, slavery was not as important to the agricultural economy. Farms were smaller and slave labor was not necessary. But in the larger cities, many blacks worked with their masters in services and manufacturing, running printing presses, building ships, and binding books.
Although slavery developed differently throughout the colonies, in all situations slavery began with the colonists’ need for labor, obtained through the use of slaves or indentured servants. Slavery presented a better economic option. The institutions were already in place to transport Africans to the colonies. African labor became synonymous with slave labor.
As slave owning became more widespread, slaves tried harder to escape. By the mid-1700s, most colonies had changed their common law to accommodate slave ownership and give greater power to the slaveholders. In some colonies, slaveholders were expressly given the right to mutilate and even kill slaves who didn’t behave to their master’s satisfaction.
By the time colonists began to agitate for their own freedom from the British, the institution of slavery was a well- entrenched way of life. Many of the arguments colonists built against British rule used the slaves as an example. During the Revolution, George Washington wrote:
We must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition that can be heaped on us, till custom and so shall make us tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.
Arguments like Washington’s were common, and many slaveholders were blind to the contradiction in their pleas for freedom. At the same time, other slaveholders were acutely aware of their own hypocrisy. Patrick Henry wrote:
Would any one believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it.
The experience of slavery helped to define freedom to the colonists. "A person’s sense of his own freedom was very much defined by the status of people who were close by," Bagwell said. "There was a level of struggle and poverty…that was present to everyone. What separates this struggling farmer, those indentured servants, and these Africans who are working as slaves, was the idea that the Europeans had the possibility of freedom, the possibility to achieve some sort of status in the society."
Slavery brought with it an economic burden as well. Industries built on free slave labor had no flexibility to convert to paid labor. Slavery became an expectation of business.
Venture Smith bought his sons out of slavery when he was forty. At the same time, he bought land, with the intention of farming. The farming would be accomplished with the help of slaves. "I bought a Negro man for no other reason than to oblige him, and paid sixty pounds for him. But a short time after, he ran away from me, and I lost all that I gave for him, save for the twenty pounds he paid me previous to his absconding."
Bagwell feels that one of the most important things that Africans in America shows is the early rhetoric and customs that formed American attitudes on race. By examining the development of slavery, "we can begin to explore the origins of race and racial identity in this nation."
When slavery began in America, colonists recognized a clear difference between African slaves and themselves in appearance and behavior. Ignorant of African culture and tradition, the differences were enough for traders and slaveholders to label the Africans "heathens," fit for enslavement.
As the slave trade developed, the Americans looked for more powerful and wide-ranging justifications for slavery. The words "white" and "free" became synonymous, and at the same time, the words "slave," "black," and "heathen" came to be interchangeable. By seeing the slaves as a "brutish sort of people," slave owners deemed slaves fit for any kind of treatment.
During the Revolutionary War, racial divisions deepened. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the equality of all men, but it was obvious that "all men" did not include blacks. Aware of the fundamental contradiction in the Revolution, educated whites sought further justification for enslaving Africans.
After the passage of the U.S. Constitution, new hierarchies of humanity were constructed and science was reinterpreted to place the African at the lowest echelon of human development. Even Thomas Jefferson searched for a rationalization for the enslavement of African peoples. In Notes on Virginia, he wrote:
I advance it as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowment of both body and mind.
While merely conjecture on Jefferson’s part, his words were seized upon by slaveholders as indisputable evidence. The pseudo-scientific notion that blacks were racially inferior spread, despite spirited resistance from black leaders, such as Benjamin Banneker and Absalom Jones.
Banneker, a free black man who was a surveyor and compiler of almanacs, published his response to Jefferson in 1791. "You. . .publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, that ‘all men are created equal. . .’. We are a race of beings who have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments. . . . It is the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the right of human nature. . . to extend their power and influence to the relief of everyone in the human race. . . ."
The slave owners of the South were unconvinced, and as far as they were concerned, now had a justification for their actions. Discrimination was as strong, if not stronger, in the North. By the outbreak of the Civil War, segregation and discrimination were law as well as custom.
For slaves, resistance to their bondage became a constant part of life. While acts of theft, poisoning, arson, and sabotage were common, African slaves found that the most effective method of resistance was to simply run away. George Washington wrote:
Dear Sir, I will take six or more Negroes, if you can spare such, upon the terms offered in your letter. . . relying on your word that on the whole they are healthy, and none of them addicted to running away; the latter I abominate. . .
Recently uncovered evidence suggests that slave revolts and insurrections were much more common than previously believed. In their correspondence and journals many slave owners show a near- paranoid fear of slave uprisings. The nature of slavery created conflict. In Equiano’s words, "When you make men slaves you compel them to live with you in a state of war."
Slaves seized the Revolutionary War as an opportunity to escape their bondage. At first, the slaves petitioned their masters in the same fashion as the colonists petitioned the British. In a Massachusetts petition, slaves reminded the colonists of the similarity of their situations:
Every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great Britain, pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners. We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.
At the same time, slaves tried to get directly involved in the conflict. Thousands of slaves volunteered to fight for the Continental Army, but nearly all were turned away.
The British, however, welcomed slaves into their ranks, an action that prompted what historian Gary Nash calls "the largest slave uprising in our history." Tens of thousands of slaves left their masters to join the British. Eventually, depleted of men, Washington’s Continental Army commissioned a unit of slaves as well. Slaves fighting for both the British and the Americans were told they would be freed after the war. In both cases, they were betrayed.
After the Revolution, opposition to slavery slowly coalesced. Abolitionist movements spread across the North, and many more free African Americans campaigned for the freedom of their brothers and sisters in bondage.
In an 1827 editorial, Freedom’s Journal summed up African American attitudes: "Too long have others spoken for us." Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, and David Walker publicly confronted the issues surrounding slavery. With the help of early white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, the abolition movement launched itself into the spotlight.
Debate waged across the issue for years. Some suggested that African Americans should return to Africa, and a few did. Yet most African Americans desperately wanted to stay -- but in an America with freedom. "America is more our country than it is the whites’" argued David Walker. "The greatest riches in all America have risen from our blood and tears."
In the years directly preceding the Civil War, Americans could be divided into three groups according to their visions of the future of slavery: those who saw slavery carrying America into the next century, those who wanted a free America for whites only that would be created by shipping all the Africans and their descendents back to Africa, and those who envisioned an integrated America, where all races would live together in freedom. The deep divisions between these beliefs would contribute to the division developing among the states.
As much as some wanted the return of Africans to Africa, it was clear that African culture was already embedded into life on this side of the Atlantic. Africans in America traces the continuation of African culture and studies the influence of religion, folklore, and music on the development of the American identity.
Africans’ religious beliefs differed greatly among tribes and regions. The unifying element was their belief in ritual and the power of one supreme being. In the late 1700s, missionaries began visiting slave communities and poor whites of the South. The themes of forgiveness and salvation were attractive to both the poverty-stricken and the enslaved. Thousands flocked to the missionaries, converting to Christianity and sparking "the Great Awakening." Christianity became a force in African American culture, and the African Americans in turn made their own mark on Christianity.
Some of the earliest African churches were quiet and pious, in the style of their contemporary white churches. But soon, the most popular black churches mixed dynamic African ritual with the more staid Protestant worship. Singing, dancing, and audience participation were integrated into services. A worshiper of the time said: "The way in which we worshipped is almost indescribable. The singing was accompanied by a certain ecstasy of motion, clapping hands, tossing of heads; one would lead off in a recitative style, others joining in the chorus."
The church took the central role it still occupies today in the African American community -- becoming a social and political center as well as a place of worship.
African oral tradition continued in bondage. For the slaves who had been born in America, the stories of elders were all that remained of their African homeland, and the stories of recently arrived slaves provided their only news from Africa. Storytelling was the traditional form of transmitting news and information over great distances, through a network that linked individual communities to the community at large. This network helped African Americans feel like part of the larger world, and later, the network would help to support slave fleeing the South through the Underground Railroad.
African music and dance has had a pervasive influence on American culture. While African music was banned by slave owners before the Civil War, the rhythms survived to inspire jazz, rock and roll, rap, and nearly every music that is distinctly American.
The music of Africans in America attempts to recapture the spirit of traditional African American music, and to be a thoughtful link to the past. Bernice Johnson Reagon composed the score for Africans in America, drawing on both the traditional music of the time, and her impressions of slavery’s history. From the beginning of the project, the music and production have shaped each other.
To the producers, the music of the series is simply another method for viewers to relate to events and experiences of slavery. "The music represents its own way into the history." Bagwell explains.
Making the history of the time more accessible is the overall goal of the Africans in America production team. In addition to releasing the score on compact disc, WGBH is producing a companion book, and the producers are organizing outreach programs in high schools.
"We want to find a way in which everyone can get involved in the discussion," Bagwell said. "What you really want out of it is for people to talk to each other, and hopefully, go back and try to learn more about it."
Africans in America relates the history as well as the human side of slavery by giving voice to the individuals whose lives were most affected by the horrors of the slave trade. At the end of his life, Venture Smith reflected. "I am bowed down with age and hardship. While I am now looking to the grave for my home, I have many consolations. Meg, the wife of my youth who I married for love, is still alive. I am now possessed of more than one hundred acres of land and three houses, but my freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal."