Letter from Berlin, the cool capital city of the Western country that arguably has the most brutal history of the Western world and is suddenly being hailed as the last bastion of liberal democracy. Ex-pat Laura Radosh will be writing for ROAR about what it’s like to watch from overseas as your country and your ideals go down the drain.
I’m a Brooklyn girl living in Berlin, Germany. And this is the view from here. One day I’ll write something about living here. But like many American ex-pats, right now I’m obsessed with the perspective distance gives me. The day I submitted this letter, Ben Carson, currently US Secretary for Housing and Urban Development actually publicly called slaves “immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked … even harder for less.” I wonder in this piece why I’m writing it. I think that may be my answer. Because too many of my compatriots are in dire need of a history lesson.
I’m stuck in a conundrum. After 53% of white women voters voted for the pussy grabber, I decided that was it—I may have identified as a white woman since I first became one, but as of now I’m a Jewish lesbian, or maybe a lesbian Jew (a demographic of which “only” about 1 in 5 is out of their minds according to voting stats). On the other hand, I also think now at the latest it’s time to come to terms with the fact that framing our identities as part of our politics has backfired. We thought we were giving the marginalized, often ourselves, a voice. We wanted to reject ways of looking at the world that engendered colonialism and slavery and sexism, and create new analyses and new opportunities. And to some extent, we did. But we also helped create our current situation, where basic civil rights gains in education are under attack (call your representatives).
Last summer, I met a fellow American expat, a black man who’d come here to get away from American racism, because despite the rampant structural racism in Germany, here at least most dangerous people aren’t also armed. He said something that’s been haunting me ever since. That those of us who grew up in big American cities in the 1970s thought we were some kind of post-sexism, post-homophobia, post-racism vanguard, but we were delusional. We’ve only always been this weird minority.
When I need to understand something, I read. In this case, I started re-reading our national sage, James Baldwin. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. A friend here in Berlin started a James Baldwin reading group and Raoul Peck made that kickass Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, a 93 minute rant on the state of the nation that you should watch right now if you haven’t already. In it, he quotes a speech Baldwin gave at Wayne State University in 1980: “[T]he world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank. That is all it means and the people who have tried to rob us of identity have lost their own cross of redemption.”
My conundrum isn’t new. What does it help to know gender is a construct if it’s still mostly women getting raped? Who cares that race is a construct, when young black men are in constant danger of being jailed, or even shot? And how did we get here anyway?
Jamestown, Virginia, 1619 . The first people are sold into slavery on the soil of what is now the USA. We should remember that back then, those doing the selling called themselves “Christians” or “English” or “gentry” and through their actions made those they had captured and sold—who thought of themselves as Kimbundu-speaking people of the Kingdom of Ndongo—into “Africans.” Nobody in this equation was yet “white” or “black.”
The first documented slave revolt in 1663 was followed a year later by the first colonial law legalizing slavery (in Maryland) and discouraging miscegenation or so-called mixed marriages, by stipulating that “freeborne English women” who married “Negroes or other slaves” would also become slaves, as would their offspring. Even cursory research suggests that after every revolt, new laws were passed in an attempt to prevent the next one. Laws are one of the best reflections of a society’s values and definitions. And every single definition of race in the colonies and early American states was linked to slavery.
The reaction to the alliance of (mostly European) indentured servants and (mostly African) slaves in Jamestown in the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion (oft touted as an uprising of the poor against the powerful, but just as much if not more a battle of everyone against the Indians), is generally seen as the moment in which racial slavery was cemented in America . The NY slave revolt of 1712 led to laws preventing slaves (at the time 20 percent of New York City’s population) from congregating or owning firearms. The 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina led to the Negro Act of 1740, which tried to prevent manumission by making it expensive to free slaves and forcing slave holders to go to court to do so. The list goes on and on.
Interestingly Britain, while it had colonies and a slave trade, did not have slavery on its soil, only indentured servitude. These unpaid servants were set free after a certain number of years and even had to be set free by law if they converted to Christianity. So the colonies had to abandon British common law to make lifelong slavery (first documented in 1640) legal. Virginia, the largest slave-holding state, “in 1667 adopted Roman law rule of partus sequitur ventrem, [so] these problems would disappear. This was the legal rule applied to livestock and other domestic animals: that the offspring of a domestic animal belonged to the owner of the female who gave birth.” This law defined black women as property or not human. Until then, it had never been applied to people. In fact in Britain it could not even be applied to swans, because they were royal animals. The 1667 law, which also instated lifelong slavery for blacks (named as such, but not defined), also stipulated that Christian slaves were no longer to be freed.
So “Africans” became “black” in order to 1) define a population that could be property forever, saving the landed gentry LOTS of money. 2) keep black slaves and white indentured servants and Indians from banding together to overthrow their oppressors 3) define a population that could even give birth to a new generation of life-long slaves (see 1). Of course if there was a “black”, there would have to be a “white,” defined first and foremost and sometimes only in miscegenation laws. So “white” was constructed to keep slave owners (the vast majority of whom were of European descent ) separate from their “black” slaves, and to make sure Europeans who mingled too closely with the latter also became “black” (or the women and all children of those unions, white men who married or raped black women remained white).
By 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson came before the Supreme Court (the case that tried to end and ended up confirming segregation), the court was forced to note that “It is true that the question of the proportion of colored blood necessary to constitute a colored person, as distinguished from a white person, is one upon which there is a difference of opinion in the different states;” but they didn’t let that deter them, deciding instead that definitions could be left to each state. And so anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books until 1967. Tell that to the next person who tries to tell you slavery ended in 1863.
Why a history lesson on slavery when I started out saying it’s past time to focus less on identity and more on politics (you know, making climate justice a reality, defending the rights of immigrants and transpeople, saving public education)? Because we need to know the formative myths of our country so we can reject them and focus on real values like empathy and kindness. And above all: freedom. The dictionary definition of redemption is ‘the process of offsetting a defect’. The foundational defect of our country is slavery. Unredeemed, we are trapped in this legacy. Or, in the words of Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote that much trampled-upon verse on Liberty’s pedestal: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Laura Radosh is a Brooklyn-bred, Berlin-based translator. Mostly she uses her words to channel social science and humanities research, though currently she’s working on a hard sci-fi novel. She’s delighted to use them here to hold high the banner of intersectional feminism.