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Alienable Rights: The Exclusion of African Americans in a White Man's Land, 1619-2000

Alienable Rights: The Exclusion of African Americans in a White Man's Land, 1619-2000

by Barry Sanders

In a devastating narrative that spans more than three centuries, the authors maintain that the drive for African-American equality has never had the support of the majority of Americans.

Despite the great racial upheavals of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and the federal government’s attempts to give blacks the right to vote, hold office, own


In a devastating narrative that spans more than three centuries, the authors maintain that the drive for African-American equality has never had the support of the majority of Americans.

Despite the great racial upheavals of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and the federal government’s attempts to give blacks the right to vote, hold office, own land, and enjoy full citizenship, Jim Crow and "separate but equal" became the law of the land. And the spectacular gains of the civil rights era of the 1960s were followed by a discouraging backlash in the 1980s.

Racial progress was made only in brief historical bursts when a committed militant minority — abolitionists, radical republicans, civil rights activists — stirred the nation, pressuring it to change. Invariably, however, these advances have been followed by concerted efforts to restore white privilege.

Editorial Reviews

Denver Post
“A rational, well thought out examination of racism in white America”
Kirkus Reviews
Can whites and blacks ever coexist peaceably in America? The answer, to judge by this depressing essay, seems to be no. Martin Luther King Jr. suspected that the issue of equality was insoluble largely because whites were "deeply racist" and were unwilling to address their racism. Historians Adams and Sanders (The Private Death of Public Discourse, 1998) give no reason to think King wrong, arguing that "our history is largely the product of an elemental desire of America’s white citizenry to keep blacks at arm’s length and deny them entry to white society." Though that "largely" is debatable, the authors catalogue the many manifestations of that desire: the long history of slavery; the relentless drive of early-19th-century leaders such as Thomas Jefferson to expand American territory precisely in order to spread slavery; the long indifference of the North to the slave trade; the determined efforts of state voting commissions to evade 15th Amendment guarantees; the nationwide imposition of Jim Crow laws; and the continuing de facto separation of the great mass of African-Americans into a permanent underclass. Though significant gains were made during the decades of civil- and voting-rights activism, the authors acknowledge, many advances were just as significantly undone with the rise of the "New Federalism" of Ronald Reagan and company, who saw to it that "the search for racial equality had nearly disappeared from the nation’s domestic policy agenda" by the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was heralded by black voters, but his eight years in office revealed a constant "inability to get things done" on their behalf, and the present administration seems unwilling to recognize that a problemexists, despite the disparities between African-Americans and nearly every other ethnic group in nearly every facet of social and economic life. In light of this legacy of ill treatment, the authors close by making a reasoned if somewhat cursory case for reparations. Given the powerful evidence they present, it seems a small price to pay for centuries of wrong—though "an admission that the majority of white citizens seem unwilling to make."

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

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Alienable Rights
The Exclusion of African Americans in a White Man's Land, 1619-2000

Chapter One

"Twenty Negars":
Slavery Is Planted in the Colonies

All Negroes or other slaves shall serve durante vita.
-- Maryland Legislature, 1663

In 1772, Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of the King's Bench, adjudicated the case of James Somersett, an African slave who had been brought by his master from Virginia to England. Somersett had run away but had been recaptured, taken aboard ship, and held there against his will. Demanding his client's freedom, Somersett's lawyer petitioned Mansfield for a writ of habeas corpus, which the chief justice reluctantly issued, affirming that Somersett could not be held, because "as soon as any slave sets foot upon English territory, he becomes free." Mansfield's decision, which resulted in the uncompensated emancipation of as many as fourteen thousand blacks residing in Britain, not only made it clear that slaves automatically gained their freedom the instant they arrived on English soil, it also asserted an even more fundamental principle: that slavery could have no legal standing in a society unless "positive law" existed that provided it with an unequivocal legislative mandate. Slavery was so odious, Mansfield maintained, that its legality could not be based on mere custom or usage. Anything short of statutory action, which had the power to preserve slavery's mandate long after the "reasons, occasion, and time ... from which it was created ... were erased from memory," was insufficient to give it legitimacy.

Somersett v. Stewart represents a judicial landmark because it effectively ended slavery in Britain, where black servants had grown increasingly fashionable throughout the eighteenth century. It also raises important questions about the development of slavery in America. The basis for the Somersett decision -- that no statutory law existed in Britain pertaining to slavery -- meant that no English precedent had been established to justify slavery in Britain's colonies. Nevertheless, over the preceding 150 years, each of the colonies had built its own independent system of bondage and evolved an elaborate legal code that had come to represent the positive law sanctioning the institution. By the 1770s, the thirteen colonies had created a unique form of American slavery, unlike any the world had ever seen.

How did slavery become so firmly entrenched in the colonies, when it appears never to have received the approval of English law? The answer lies in a century and a half of organic development that allowed the colonists to formulate their own brand of bondage, responding as they went along to the constant changes that accompanied the introduction of slavery into new and relatively unstable societies.

From the beginning, the English Crown had granted the colonists an unusual degree of freedom to govern themselves. Unlike the Castilian monarchy, which maintained tight controls throughout Latin America, the English Crown wanted to avoid the expense of colonial development. Thus it granted substantial independence to private merchant-adventurers, who were willing to raise money and risk their lives for speculative enterprises on the American continent. Virginia's 1611 charter, for example, granted to that colony's leaders "full power to ordain and make such laws and ordinances ... as to them, from time to time, shall be thought requisite and meet:" Though the king retained control over international relations and commerce, the colonies exercised the broadest powers in relation to their internal affairs.

In the New World, the English stand as relative latecomers both as colonists and as exploiters of blacks. In 1501, Spain officially sanctioned the introduction of slaves into its Caribbean and South American colonies, and by the end of the sixteenth century the Spanish had brought nearly a million Africans to Latin America. The English colonists arrived in the West Indies and Virginia only at the start of the seventeenth century and began importing blacks a few years later. The first recorded instance of blacks arriving on the American mainland came in 1619, when the planter John Rolfe noted that "a dutch man of warre" had called at Jamestown and sold the colonists "twenty Negars" In all likelihood, these first blacks were slaves who had been kidnapped from the Spanish West Indies by English or Dutch privateers, secretly financed by gentlemen from Virginia and Bermuda.

Whatever their background and status, this original group of blacks landed in a country that knew servitude quite well but in which slavery barely existed, if at all. The English Puritan theologian Paul Baynes delineated two types of servants: "either [the] more slavish;' created "forcibly, as in captivity, or the "more free and liberall," who became servants voluntarily. But the terms of both sorts of servitude were temporary, and included apprentices and indentured laborers along with bound convicts and Irish and Scottish prisoners of war. They made up the colonies' primary source of labor throughout the seventeenth century.' Before 1700, roughly two-thirds of all the immigrants south of New England arrived as bond servants. A steady stream of Britain's poor and dispossessed contracted for a period of voluntary servitude in order to escape their blighted prospects as subsistence laborers at home. These bondsmen agreed to serve their colonial masters for a period of four or five years and in return received passage, maintenance, and "freedom dues" -- which might include a sum of money and a piece of land -- when their term of service expired.' Generally, they bound themselves to farmers, who cultivated a small area carved out of the wilderness with no more than four or five indentured laborers. Conditions were harsh, and often master and servants lived in dose quarters in an environment that, at least in the early years, was exclusively male, with everyone crammed into the single habitable structure that typified the earliest colonial farm.

Alien in appearance, language, and culture, the first blacks fell into this system of servitude as if from the sky. In the English concept of indentured service, master and servant were both white; there was no provision for people as strange and forbidding as Africans. The colonists surely understood that slavery was thriving throughout Latin America -- and also in the East Indies, Greece, and the Middle East -- but anything resembling Baynes's "slavish" servitude, with the exception of convicts and prisoners of war, had ended in Britain during the Middle Ages ...

Alienable Rights
The Exclusion of African Americans in a White Man's Land, 1619-2000
. Copyright © by Barry Sanders. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Barry Sanders teaches at Pitzer College, The Claremont Colleges, in California. He lives in Southern California.

Francis D. Adams is an independent scholar. He lives in Southern California.

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