The recent events of the Black Lives Matter movement have prompted teachers everywhere to reconsider their curriculums and find ways to teach children about the impact of racism in our society. My book, Islamic American Heritage: Prominent Slaves and Our Founding Fathers, the second volume of a three-part series of textbooks that focus on the history of Muslims in America, gained some interest for many teachers.
One teacher wrote me to say that I should consider using the word “enslaved” instead of the word “slaves.” I found this to be a very interesting request and promised I would address the request in my blog. Honestly, like many others who use the word, I had no ill-intent, and my use of the word was simply a result of my experience in the society in which we live. In actuality, I sought to shed light on the contributions of these African Americans who had given their lives for the foundation of our country. Regardless of ill-intent or not, I was reminded by this request that words shape the way we think and the way we think is expressed in words. ‘Enslaved’ made me consider the inhumanity and racially driven motives of plantation slavery of the South, while ‘slavery’ made me consider the normalcy of the practice in the context of the time period that it was practiced, unfortunately, somehow making it somewhat excusable.
After giving the idea some thought, I was reminded of several complexities surrounding slavery around the world in history. Research for my book taught me that slavery around the world and within various places in the United States was not the same. We cannot judge slavery as it was practiced around the world with the same light that we view human rights today. Not all slaves were captured while living in peace, and not all slaves who were brutally captured while living in peace were Black. Not all enslaved people were required to work whenever their owner requested, and not all slaves were denied an opportunity to gain their freedom.
Most students, and teachers for that matter, don’t realized that, in the past, slavery was commonly practiced around the world and within most accepted forms of slavery, it was acceptable to:
- Take slaves as a result of losing a war, as a result of committing a crime, or if money was owed. Many times, slaves were taken at sea as part of a privateering practice that was used from the late 1500’s to the early 1800’s and an accepted form of warfare.
- Offer a slave a chance to earn his or her freedom for ransom money given by his or her family or by providing a designated number of years of work.
- Free children of freed men born to enslaved women.
- Have the opportunity to work alongside their owners.
- Be afforded time off which could be used for soliciting their skills for extra pay or producing and trading their self-raised products.
- Have time limits on the hours of hard labor that are required.
- Enslave those who were not educated.
What we learn from comparing southern slavery to slavery practices around the world is that for the most part, plantation slavery was horrific even for the standards of the times. Unfortunately, the image of plantation slavery is the only picture we see through movies and not therefore, the more common practices of slavery around the world become overlooked.
So, when studying the lives of the enslaved, it is important for students to consider two questions:
How were the civil rights of the enslaved person violated in the context of norms of the time he or she lived?
Was that experience particular to that group of people (systemic racism), or did other people also experience the same injustices?
First, let’s consider how slaves were brought into servitude. The word “enslaved” lends to a vision of a person living in a peaceful community in his or her village and then is brutally captured without warning. Not all Africans were captured this way, and not all people who were enslaved this way were Africans. Some Africans who were enslaved and brought to the U.S. were captured after losing battles with neighboring African tribes and the person who sold the slaves to the slave traders was an African himself. Omar Ibn Said’s enslavement is a good example of this manner of enslavement. In history, we can also find instances where people of other civilizations were also brutally captured while living in peace. For example, in Australia, South Sea Islanders were reported to have been brutally captured and taken to Australia for slave labor to work alongside British convicts. Even privateers of north African countries would brutally capture white colonists and Europeans and enslave them in North Africa. However, white enslavement is not comparable to the African slave trade. It is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were placed on slave ships as part of the transatlantic slave trade, and that only 10.5 million even survived the journey. Some historians compare this number to the number of whites captured by North Africans, which is estimated to be around a million between the years 1530 and 1780 to show that the enslavement of Africans in America was not particular to Black Lives. However, in these cases, the legality of the capture of the white slaves was disputed by North Africans and Americans. While Americans saw the capture as illegal, and thus a result of piracy, North Africans saw their capture as legal and within the norms of privateering, a common practice of warfare at the time. More historical research is needed to establish the numbers of those captured while living in peace compared to those who were captured under disputed standards of the times in order to determine the degree of the injustice practiced.
Next, let’s consider the concept of redemption. (Redemption here is not to be confused with the Catholic term used to refer to salvation of humanity by Jesus to free a person from the enslavement of his or her sins. It is also not meant to be confused with emancipation, which is a policy of freeing enslaved people, or reparation, which is the repayment of descendants of slaves in an attempt to equalize the social and economic disadvantages caused by the history of slavery in their family). Redemption is the opportunity for an enslaved person to negotiate his freedom. Islam is recognized by historical American political figures to be credited with establishing redemption for slaves. Yarrow Mamout, a resident of Georgetown, was able to use redemption to gain his freedom even though he was an enslaved American. To achieve redemption, he was required to make enough bricks to build a home. Charles Sumner, a congressman who served just before the Civil War, highlighted the crime of the South to deny the enslaved the right of redemption. He orated on the Senate floor that redemption was a standard set by Muslims several hundreds of years earlier. So, more important than how the people were enslaved was the concept of redemption and whether it was afforded to the enslaved.
Finally, in studying slavery, we can consider the conditions in which the enslaved lived and the rights that they were afforded. Not all enslaved lived in equally brutal conditions. For example, Bilali Muhammad was placed by Thomas Spaulding as the overseer of all of the slaves on Sapelo Island. The slaves on Sapelo Island were allowed to practice the religion of their choice and continue to speak their native tongues (usually Fula or a combination of Fula and English). Additionally, they required to work a limit of 6 hours of hard labor a day. They could use the rest of their time to fish or raise crops and trade their goods with each other. The Gullah of Sapelo Island provided a source of rich cultural contributions to American culture that we may overlook if we only teach one picture of slavery.
So, in summary, here are some rhetorical questions we can leave you with when teaching students about slavery in history:
- Was all slavery wrong in the context of the times it was practiced?
- Whose rules do we use to determine whether slavery was justified?
- What risks do we take when only portraying or considering one view of slavery in history?
- How can studying a diverse representation of slavery practices bring us together? How could studying only one view of slavery divide us further?
- Are people still enslaved today? What does this form of slavery look like?
- How can we rectify in the future the injustices of the past?