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America and the Americas need historical truth about slavery — not racist revisionism

Enslaved Africans arriving in 17th-century Virginia.
BRUTAL SHIPMENT Enslaved Africans arriving in 17th-century Virginia.

COMMENTARY A new U.S. push — especially in Florida — to whitewash the trans-Atlantic slave trade ranks in the same racist league with Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.

When he was a presidential candidate in 2018, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made an astonishing remark — even for him and his far right-wing populism — about his country’s abominable history of enslaving Black Africans.

“The Portuguese,” he said, referring to Brazil’s colonizers, “never even set foot in Africa. It was the Blacks themselves who handed over the slaves.” Brazil, he concluded, "doesn't owe Blacks anything."

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Part of Bolsonaro’s loopy claim was partly true. During the almost four centuries when almost 15 million enslaved Africans were brutally shipped across the Atlantic — more than a third to Brazil, the largest recipient — Africans did often deliver other Africans to European traffickers.

But Europeans did more than their share of hunting and shackling Africans. Either way, to suggest African involvement somehow casts Europeans like the Portuguese as lesser, even pardonable accomplices in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is ludicrous. To ask, “Well, what else were our ancestors supposed to do with those Africans once they had them?” is the sort of racist revisionism that could only come flying out of revisionistly racist minds like Bolsonaro’s.

That's why it’s so frightening to hear it flying like a bat-out-of-revisionist-hell from the minds of Americans — most recently in Florida state-sponsored civics training for public school teachers (let me repeat that: in Florida state-sponsored civics training for public school teachers) as part of far right-wing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crusade to eradicate White guilt about America’s past.

READ MORE: It's time to dump Columbus Day and make it Beringia Day

There’s always been the delusional-denier fringe of White America that insists slavery was never as bad as all the, well, deeply researched history shows it was. And the Florida revisionism (which comes via Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in Michigan where you’d guess Bolsonaro would have fit right in as an exchange student) is something just as insidious.

It aims to teach kids the lie that slavery was not part of America’s 18th-century founding — when, in fact, it was so much a part of that founding that the U.S. Constitution couldn’t get signed until the founding fathers barbarically agreed on just how much of a human being an enslaved Black was worth. (Three-fifths, if you forgot.) The other lie it’s pushing is that America’s White founding fathers disapproved of slavery — when, in fact, they approved of it just enough to own enslaved Blacks themselves.

It's frightening to hear the same bat-out-of-revisionist-hell that flies from Bolsonaro's racist mind flying from the minds of government leaders in America — and Florida.

In the 21st century, Whites in the Americas — or any population that shares some ancestral connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade — were supposed to have grown up and stopped this sort of whitewashing-of-history crap. Because its effects are toxic.


For starters, in the U.S., especially in a red state like Florida, minimalizing if not erasing the realities of slavery is a slippery racist slope. It accustoms the White mind — anesthetizes it — to a host of other racial injustices, from police violence to voter suppression, that cross its radar on a regular basis.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro trying on an indigenous headdress in Brasilia this year.
Eraldo Peres
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro trying on an indigenous headdress in Brasilia this year.

It also inculcates in that White brain a perverted sense of immaculate conception about the U.S. — a belief that sails beyond American exceptionalism to American infallibility, that thinks America makes no mistakes and therefore has none to learn from. Which is a certain recipe for making a ton of them.

I’ve watched that destructive dogma play out in other institutions, especially as a Roman Catholic. The Catholic church shares some blame for the slave trade's longevity. Some popes did call for ending it in the Americas, but others condoned it — and in 1866 the Vatican even counseled that slavery was “not at all contrary to the natural and divine law.” Still, when Pope Leo XIII definitively condemned it in 1888, he asserted the church had always and unequivocally opposed it. As papal bulls go, that was bull.

But it’s the kind of myth that convinces legions of Catholics their church can never be wrong in any other matter — like the sexual abuse scandal, which many conservative faithful blame not on the monstrous neglect of bishops but on “homosexual infiltration” of the priesthood.

When world influencers like Rome and the U.S. try to bleach their histories regarding stains like slavery, it only emboldens liars like Bolsonaro to lie more. And that’s the last thing Brazil needs as it keeps wrestling with its history as the epicenter of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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