Slavery’s anti-family politics

Make America great again for whom, exactly?

President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” has always been an assertion in need of an explanation. It assumes that the country experienced some moment of now-lost greatness, but never identifies when, exactly, that moment was. 

Most people assume he means the 1950s, an era before the modern civil rights movement dismantled Jim Crow. But vanquished Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore argued that the 1850s might be a better starting point.

Several months ago, when the sole African American present at a Moore rally asked the Republican candidate to identify that prior moment of greatness, Moore responded by saying: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another. … Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

Moore’s answer illustrates that, like Trump, he imagines a past that not only relies on the oppression of black Americans but an erasure of their oppression. He offered up a racial nostalgia for an imaginary world of “united” families that never existed in reality. Under slavery, black people were chattel property owned by whites. Enslaved people had no control over their families. Black and white families were “united” only in the sense of people in bondage being forced to serve the needs and interests of the master class against their will. White families were built on the unrequited labor of slaves and the profits that accrued from marketing their husbands, wives, daughters and sons on the auction block.

Slavery limited and destroyed black families, because that was the only way to perpetuate the system that made white planters wealthy. Billions of dollars were at stake in the nation’s economy.

And so was the racist ideology that was used to buttress that system. Slaveholders perpetuated the lie that people of African ancestry were incapable of love or any moral feelings and actions, to justify their enslavement and to deny them familial rights. Our beloved Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia” in 1787 that “love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient.”

Sentiments like Jefferson’s meant that African Americans were on the defense about their capacity to love and to marry from the country’s earliest days.

Enslaved people were denied the legal rights to marry and to control their own children. Only with their masters’ permission, could they wed informally. And even when they did, white slaveholders forced revised marriage vows upon them that served as a reminder that they could be sold and separated at any time. As one white minister officiating at a slave ceremony frankly reminded the couple, their marriage was binding only “until death or distance do you part.”

In reality, many slave unions actually had little to do with love and everything to do with lining slave owners’ pockets. Masters frequently compelled their slaves to pair off for the purposes of reproduction. Married or unmarried, slaves also could be forced to perform carnal acts for the pleasure of white onlookers.

Despite these circumstances of sexual exploitation beyond their control, slaves were derided as naturally promiscuous and sanctioned by the Christian church for not abiding by rules and regulations of purity and monogamy.

Their intimate relationships were fraught within the context of coercion, force and violence that slavery spawned.

The fear of separation was especially haunting. The status quo could never be taken for granted in the face of a master’s caprice that routinely shattered couples and families when it suited his pocket. Early 19th-century cotton plantation owners intensified family disruption to meet the intense labor demands for building farms on new land appropriated from Native Americans in what was then the southwest, including Roy Moore’s home state of Alabama.

And yet despite the reign of terror, the exploitation, the selling of spouses and the ripping apart of families, slavery altered and disfigured black marriages, but it did not annihilate them. Despite what white Christians and Jefferson’s ilk believed, black people were supremely capable of love.

Love is ultimately an action of volition that cannot be destroyed. As such, love was a powerful force in the lives of the enslaved. It was one of the driving factors that led slaves to enter into marriages that did not have the protections and sanctions of the law.

We should be cautious about the homespun fantasies of politicians promising to take us back to some fictional moment in our complicated history when America was purportedly greater or better than today.

These paeans are particularly disturbing coming from individuals who have violated the rule of law against racial and sexual discrimination, whether in public office or private life. They are steeped in a version of evangelical Christianity long used to justify slavery and Jim Crow. Indeed, Moore has refused to concede victory to Democrat Doug Jones because he is waiting for God to weigh in — on his behalf. The possibility that She has overruled his vision is inconceivable to him.

African Americans voted so overwhelmingly against Roy Moore because they knew exactly what they could lose — respect for their personhood, the rule of law and their constitutional rights. They live in Alabama, a state that has been, and continues to be, at the center of both the conservation of our nation’s racist past and fierce resistance against it in favor of civil rights. They were targeted by a malicious voter suppression crusade, and yet more African Americans pulled the lever for Jones than for President Barack Obama. Turning back the clock to idyllic plantations of yore was not an option. Not on their watch.

Originally published in the Washington Post