The ‘Dixie Narrative’ and the Meaning of Slavery

Ibrahim Sundiata

*This is a guest post from Ibrahim Sundiata, emeritus professor of African/Afro-American Studies and History at Brandeis University. Sundiata is former chair of the History Department at Howard University and a past fellow of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He taught at the Universidade Federal da Bahia in Brazil on a Fulbright and is the author of four books including Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914–1940 (Duke University Press, 2003) and From Slaving to Neoslavery: The Bight of Biafra and Fernando Po in the Era of Abolition, 1827–1930 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995). His fifth book is entitled Not Out of Dixie: Obama and the American Identity Crisis (forthcoming).


In the spring of 2015, an academic furor erupted in Boston. A newly hired professor in Sociology and African American Studies tweeted that American universities (including the one that had just hired her) were disfigured by white male racism. Beyond this she expressed the view that Europeans had invented slavery and had been the first human beings to keep generations in bondage. Slavery in the United States was the sum of all abominations; it made slavery a “personhood” instead of a temporary condition. “There is…no race except Europeans who kidnapped and transported human being [sic] in order enslave them and their offspring for life.” Eventually the matter exploded onto the Boston/Cambridge print and electronic media. Finally, the “offending” faculty member was prevailed upon to issue an apology. In defense of her historical views, the assistant professor observed that “In the last year alone, the inconvenient matter of race has made itself an unavoidable topic of discussion in our country…” Might not this historical debate be another attack on Black America – different kind, but the same in intent, as the drama being played out in the streets between young Black men and the police?

The case of the assistant at Boston University is not isolated. We Americans live in what I call the “The Dixie Narrative.” In this flawed version of history, slavery was confined to Dixie and slaves grew cotton. Racism, not economic interest, drove the slave trade and slavery, which existed as the ultimate form of psychosexual torture. Africans, in this version of history, were selected as slaves because they were black. In this narrative, nowhere else in the history of humanity has slavery existed and nowhere else were human beings chattel. The numbers immolated in the holocaust of the “Middle Passage” and in the cotton fields ran into the hundreds of millions. The “Dixie Narrative” ignores the fact that far vaster slaveries stretched in a bloody arc from Havana to Rio (Less than five percent of those enslaved in the Atlantic Slave Trade came to North America).

W. E. B. Du Bois commented that “The most magnificent drama in the last thousands years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new found El Dorado of the West. They descended into Hell.”1 In some tellings, hundreds of millions were swept up and cast into the Trans-Atlantic inferno. According to the Dixie Narrative, this Hell was the southern United States, where the bulk of enslaved persons raised cotton and were supposedly subject to the worst regime of pychosexual torture in world history. In the identity politics of President Barack Obama’s America, slavery is the nation’s mortal sin, before and after which all other denials of rights and discriminations are venal (for example, homophobia, misogyny, classism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia). As a historian of Africa, I have been intrigued by the backstory to Du Bois’ “magnificent drama.” What is the relationship between this infernal place and the “dark beauty” left behind? I stand on the boundary between the wish for a certain past and the historical evidence of that past. Just what are the connections and disjunctures between the narratives that have grown up between Africa and her scattered North American children?

Today there are more slaves in the world than there were in 1860. However, for Americans, slavery continues to be “The Peculiar Institution.” The image of this institution has gone through various permutations. Early in the twentieth century Southern white historians like Ulrich B. Phillips painted a rosy picture of Southern bondage. Indeed, slavery was a benign “school” for blacks. The 1915 film Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith contained images of both “ferocious bucks” and “faithful darkies.” The popular image of benign slavery perhaps reached its height in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which illumined American movie screens in 1939.

Sociologist Ron Eyerman notes that, on the black side of the color line: “slavery was traumatic in retrospect, and formed a “primal scene” which could, potentially, unite all “African Americans” in the United States, whether or not they had themselves been slaves or had any knowledge of or feeling for Africa.” Furthermore, “Slavery formed the root of an emergent collective identity through an equally emergent collective memory, one that signified and distinguished a race, a people, or a community depending on the level of abstraction and point of view being put forward” As in a reverse mirage, “If slavery was traumatic for [the first] generation of [black] intellectuals, it was so in retrospect, mediated through recollections and reflection, and, for some, tinged with some strategic practical, and political interest.2

I argue that the further we move from slavery, the more traumatic it appears. The turbulence and violence of the 1950s and 1960s meant that the nation at large would never again wholly embrace a juleps and magnolias view of the South. In the late fifties, historian Stanley Eakins compared plantations to Nazi camps, both producing an infantilized and dependent type of human being.3 In 1965, Malcolm X proclaimed to a rapt audience: “I know you don’t realize the enormity, the horrors, of the so-called Christian white man’s crime…One hundred million of us black people! Your grandparents! Mine! Murdered by this white man.” 4 A decade later, Malcolm’s biographer, Alex Haley, published his Roots, The Saga of an American Family. Encompassing a multigenerational forced migration from West Africa to Dixie, the pop cultural phenomenon swept the country both as a book and a TV series. A sea change in the image and meaning of slavery had occurred.

rootsBy the 1930s, some African American scholars, influenced by a class analysis, were beginning to see American slavery as one more manifestation of the labor question. In Black Reconstruction (1935), Du Bois said that the post-civil repression of black folk was an attempt to force them back into the role of bound agrarian labor. Paul Robeson and Richard Wright both saw economic exploitation, rather than innate and independent racism, as the motive force behind slavery. One of the most perceptive critiques came from Eric Williams, historian and later prime minister of Trinidad.5 In his 1944 Capitalism and Slavery, Williams mocked the idea that white paternalism had led to the abolition of the British slave trade. Indeed, “goodness” had nothing to do with it — Britain ended its slave trade once the money wrung out of the Caribbean sugar colonies had been invested in manufacturing. Less noticed was Williams’ other conclusion: “The ‘horrors’ of the Middle Passage have been exaggerated. For this the British abolitionists are in large part responsible.” Furthermore, “A racial twist has…been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism, racism is a consequence of slavery.”6 With this statement, Williams puts himself far beyond the boundaries of the Dixie Narrative.

The Narrative endures. Recently, in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, an exhaustive volume on the economics of slavery, Edward Baptist painted a picture of starvation and death as stalking Old Dixie:

Slavery…killed people, in large number. From those who survived, it stole everything….massive and cruel engineering [was] required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive then to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire…Changes that reshaped the entire world began on the auction block where enslaved migrants stood or in the frontier cotton fields where they toiled. Their individual drama was a struggles to survive. Their reward was to endure a brutal transition to new ways of labor that made them reinvent themselves every day…” (xxiii)

Contrarily, we have a few attempts to counterbalance the demerits of bondage. A notable example comes from the Anglo-Canadian economic historian David Eltis, a sometime adviser to Harvard’s Du Bois Institute. Eltis believes that

the fact remains that the descendants of the forced migrants, both enslaved and free, were nutritionally better off than those who escaped the middle passage. Slavery itself was abolished in most regions within a few decades of suppression of the [slave] traffic. Yet the return flow of freemen [sic] to Africa was of minuscule proportions, especially when comparisons are made with other transcontinental population shifts.

The economic, as opposed to moral gains of putting down the slave traffic are not very obvious. Anything that limited the growth of a coercive labor system was, of course, to be welcomed…But the moral calculus becomes less clear if ….we contrast the frequent famines of west-central Africa and the Sudan with the relative plenty of most of the Americas.7

How are we to see slavery? My own family’s history is typical of thousands, but idiosyncratic as all such stories must be. Dragged across from the Upper to the Deep South, they ended up in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, a few hundred miles north of Solomon North, the protagonist of 12 Years A Slave. Claiborne is deep Dixie (The nearest city, Shreveport, was the diehard Confederate capital of Louisiana.) The family had vague memories of “Old Virgina.” My maternal great-grandfather was born in 1835 in North Carolina. His wife, Maude, was born in Georgia. They spent the majority of their young lives in slavery. My mother’s father, John Henry Lewis, was born in the shadow of bondage in 1874. Twice married, he followed the self-improvement strategic pushed by Booker T. Washington. Having bought a piece of land around 1900, he went on to prosper as a minor cultivator and local teacher. He moved on to an admiration of Marcus Garvey in the 1920’s.   Worn out and modestly prosperous, my grandfather died in 1927 at the age of 53. Such people as he had lives characterized by life-long toil —chopping cotton, black soil draining into the Red River, guinea fowl in the yard and clothes boiled in huge outdoor pots. The family had a devote belief in religion and education.(Some relatives had a hand in the founding of Gramblin College). The old folks did not talk about slavery, but I doubt that they ruminated on “degradation.” Later John Lopo, the family member who eventually inherited the homestead, could afford Mexican migrant labor at harvest time. (I remember that he viewed them as curiously exotic and poverty-stricken.)

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "I des kep' right in de big road."" New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “I des kep’ right in de big road.”” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In the national imagination, the central role of blacks in constructing the nation is made to take a back seat to stories of black degradation. There is no consistent reminding of white America that “We built this!” The fact that African Americans produced sixty percent of US exports and eighty percent of the world’s cotton in 1860 goes under appreciated. The South dominated the politics of antebellum America and that domination was built on the back of blacks. As the Cotton Kingdom expanded, so did the black population. The number of people in bondage went from 1,119,354 in 1810 to 3,963,760 in 1860. At the time of the Civil War the “value” of the men and women held in bondage was greater than all the industries and railway rolling stock of the North. Pro-reparations advocate Ta-Nehasi Coates points out that in 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.”

We can get entrapped in atrocity stories which disempower just as much as pseudo-scientific racial theories do. To believe you are the descendant of the world’s only people held in bondage is a horrible psychic burden, one productive of inchoate rage. To believe that one’s race has been forever abused can only lead to frustrated resentment. Whites are the eternal enemy and any other situation would be abnormal. Cornel West cautions that “race is not a lens to justify sentimental stories of pure heroes of color and impure white villains or melodramatic tales of innocent victims of color and demonic white victimizers.” He adds that “by shattering such Manichean …views that Americans often tell about themselves, we refuse to simply flip the script and tell new lies about ourselves.”8 A similar point is made by award winning novelist Charles Johnson in his “The End of the Black American Narrative.” Enslavement, slavery and segregation were indeed an unholy trinity. However, Johnson notes that “As a story, this [slavery] narrative fails because it is conceived as melodrama, a form of storytelling in which the characters are flat, lack complexity, are either all good or all bad, and the plot involves malicious villains and violent actions.”9

The Dixie Narrative can be strangely solipsistic. We need to remember Frederick Douglass’ plea: “I am for fair play for the Irishman, the negro, the Chinaman and all men of whatever country and clime…”10 However, some abolitionists averted their eyes from the death of a million in the Irish Potato Famine, arguing that starvation in the bogs was preferable to life on the plantations (Ireland’s population is today less than what it was in 1845). It should have been hard to ignore that twenty million Chinese peasants died in the Taiping rebellion between 1850 and 1864, while roughly four million blacks toiled in the Old South. However, in the nineteenth century the deaths of these “Chinamen” were often consigned to a different moral calculus. David Brion Davis points out, that “Some of the privileged ‘Atlantic creole’ slaves in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake and in Carolina clearly possessed more de facto freedom and range of choice than did the later Chinese ‘coolies’ who shoveled guano, or bird droppings, off the coast of Peru.”11 In terms of the Dixie Narrative, this work, however ‘shitty,’ is irrelevant. That one million people died in the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), a war that shook the foundations of Brazilian black slavery, is a fact far beyond purview of North American concerns. That the “Czar Liberator” freed over 23 million white people in 1861 is something that could not have taken place. The African American activist/singer Paul Robeson singing the songs of the Volga boatmen and comparing them to forced laborers on the Mississippi is pure sentimentality. The Narrative is a jealous narrative.

  1. W.E.B. Du Bois and David Levering Lewis, Black Reconstruction, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1999), 317.
  2. Ron Eyerman, Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1
  3. Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).
  4. Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 311.
  5. The Oxford-educated* radical black scholar had rocked the historical establishment in 1944 with the publication of his Capitalism and Slavery. In a thesis that is still hotly debated, Williams asserted that the impetus for the Industrial Revolution was already accumulated wealth produced by generations of unpaid black slaves. In the nineteenth century, West Indian interests, based on sugar and slaves, were superseded by manufacturing interests in the metropole itself. Goodness had little to do with it; white humanitarianism was never the motive force.
  6. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 7.
  7. David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 401
  8. Cornel West, Democracy Matters (New York, Penguin Press, 2004), 15.
  9. Charles Johnson, “The End of the Black American Narrative,” The American Scholar, Summer 2008. the-black-american-narrative. Also published in Best African American Essays, edited by Gerarld Early and Randall Kennedy (New York, 2010), 116.
  10. Joan Walsh, “Federick Douglass’ Iris Sojourn: A bracing look at his encounter with poverty and prejudice across the Atlantic.” Salon, December 30, 2014
  11. David Brion Davis, “Looking at Slavery from Broader Perspectives,” The American Historical Review, vol. 105, num.2 (April 2000), 457
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