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Slavery Spin: Florida now leads the most insulting tradition in the Americas

A woman in a dress (on the left). A man looks to his left (on the right).
AP (left), British Library
Slavery Breakers, Not Beneficiaries: American emancipation hero Harriet Tubman (left) and Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture

COMMENTARY Florida's ham-handed and offensive assertion about the "benefits" the enslaved derived in America puts it at the head of a centuries-long effort to whitewash the New World's original sin.

You’ve gotta work really hard to sound as dumb and insulting on the issue of slavery as former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro does.

But Florida has pulled it off — and made itself the new leader of one of the dumbest and most insulting traditions not just in America but in the Americas: the white whitewashing of the New World’s original sin.

Until last week, Bolsonaro set the benchmark.

He gets a racist kick out of asserting “it was the Blacks themselves who handed over the slaves” to Brazil’s Portuguese colonizers. He’s referring to the reality that Africans did often traffic other Africans to Europeans. But he ludicrously twists that circumstance into absolving Brazil for four brutal centuries of slaveholding — what else were our ancestors supposed to do with all those Africans once they received them? — and he concludes the country today “doesn’t owe Blacks anything.”

To which Florida has now replied: hold my caipirinha.

The state is ordering public school kids to be taught that slavery in America conferred “personal benefit” on the enslaved. That slavery allowed the enslaved to load their résumés with skills they acquired on plantations.

That they in fact derived some good from their bondage while they were being savagely whipped and sold like livestock, saw their families monstrously separated and their women raped by their owners, lived in unconscionably squalid conditions and were categorically denied the skills of reading and writing.

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

It doesn’t get more dumb and insulting than that. It’s one of the most ham-handedly offensive efforts the hemisphere has seen yet to downplay if not ignore the lasting effects of slavery and the systemic racism it spawned — a b.s. bid to shield white America from its raw history.

Let’s actually follow the astonishing logic behind it. Consider Civil War and Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman.

When Tubman was an enslaved teenager in the early 1800s, she was moved from domestic housework to outdoor labor. As biographer Catherine Clinton points out: “In the wide-open spaces of the woods and fields, she came into her own.”

Tubman became so ingeniously familiar with the American landscape that, after she escaped slavery, she was able to ferry hundreds of enslaved people to freedom. She also led Union troops, with her crack intelligence work, on operations like the Combahee River Raid.

By Florida's new standard, we're supposed to conclude Harriet Tubman benefited from slavery — in fact, slavery made her the rock star she is today!

By Florida’s new standard, we’re supposed to conclude that Tubman benefited from slavery. If her master hadn’t allowed her to learn all those outdoor skills, she wouldn’t have become the Black American icon we celebrate now, the warrior we recently renamed the Dixie Highway for, the woman whose portrait will soon grace the $20 bill.

Gosh, Harriet, if not for slavery, you wouldn't be a rock star today!

Florida and its governor-presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, insist that perspective sets the historical record straight.

No. Spitting that kind of revisionist gob just degrades the historical record.

"Savages and brutes"

So would the contention that Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture picked up all the Enlightenment leadership arts on his C.V. thanks to his enslavement by the French. Without those slavery-issued skills, the warped reasoning goes, he never could have led Haiti’s enslaved to their emancipation, let alone the founding of the world’s first Black republic.

Sure, slavery in Haiti was more cruel than anywhere else in the Americas — dismemberment was a common punishment — but it was benevolent enough, that thinking maintains, to equip a guy like Louverture to end it.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (left) and Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz at the North Classical Academy charter school in Miami on May 9 2023.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (left) and Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz at the North Classical Academy charter school in Miami on May 9 2023.

Therefore, Caribbean slavery wasn’t all that bad.

Even Prince William couldn’t offer a full-throated apology for Britain’s Caribbean enslavement of Africans when he visited Jamaica last year. He instead voiced “sorrow" about it.

His milquetoast moment — and now Florida’s specious spin — hearken back to the days when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in full swing and whites rationalized it by telling themselves things like, “At least these Africans are being converted to the salvation of Christianity.”

But the enslaved themselves weren't buying it. In his autobiography, 18th-century enslaved African Olaudah Equiano instead said that slavery’s defenders in the Americas “deserve the appellation of savages and brutes rather than of Christians and men.”

That reflects another skill the enslaved learned in this hemisphere: the ability to detect white b.s.

The kind Florida is peddling now.

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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