Where Native people largely remained separate from settler society, black people were living right at its heart. David Walker was born into slavery in North Carolina; unlike most enslaved people, he learned to read and write, and studied history. Having obtained freedom and moved to Boston, Walker was infuriated and dismayed by the injustice of slavery, which he believed could only be destroyed by violence. In 1829 he published a pamphlet called Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which even white abolitionists deemed too radial. He died a year after its publication under suspicious circumstances.
David Walker is part of a long, tragic history of black activists killed for their efforts to end racism. As the case of Walker shows, even those who escaped slavery were not free from the deadly grip of anti-blackness.
In 1860, 225,000 free black people lived in the North, a fairly small minority of the total population. Although they were not enslaved, they still experienced intense oppression, and were segregated from white society. Most black people were not eligible to vote; they were often attacked by white workers in brutal race riots; and they were characterized as lazy, unintelligent, and childlike by white people. Fake race science was employed to support the view that black people were intellectually inferior and prone to criminality.
The North is often characterized as being less racist than the South during this era, but Takaki paints a more nuanced picture. While there were arguably more vicious and openly violent forms of racism in the South, in a way it is strange to argue that the North was less racist, considering the pervasive and deeply entrenched forms of racism that existed there, too.
White people in the North were also deeply fearful of miscegenation; even in states where interracial marriage wasn’t officially banned, it was deeply stigmatized. Schools were also segregated, and working conditions were poor. Black people in the North may not have been enslaved, but with “drudgery and servitude” as their only options in life, neither were they really free.
Again, it becomes clear that white society’s fear of sexuality mingled with fears of threats to the supposed purity of the white race. Segregation and inequality were justified in order to avoid the possibility of interracial sex.
Meanwhile, in 1860 there remained 4 million black people enslaved in the South. Enslaved plantation workers were forced to rise before dawn, work throughout the day under the watch of a vicious overseer, take a lunch break of only 10-15 minutes, and attend to further chores even after the work day was over. Although some enslavers argued that being “kind” encouraged enslaved workers to perform better, the main method of discipline was brutal punishment and psychological torture. Enslaved people were brainwashed into believing that they were incapable of anything but servitude. This indoctrination was helped by the fact that enslaved people were banned from learning to read and write.
It is not possible to overstate the brutality of slavery, which was much more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it can actually be difficult to comprehend the reality of a system so intent on dehumanization and everyday torture. In this light, Takaki implies that it does not really make sense to distinguish between “kind” enslavers and cruel ones. No enslaver was actually kind or merciful—if they had been, they would not have held enslaved people captive in the first place.
Southern stereotypes about the happy-go-lucky, lazy, unintelligent enslaved person were encapsulated by the figure of the “Sambo.” Enslavers regularly complained that black people were naturally lazy, which is why they needed to be forced to work. At the same time, they sometimes spoke affectionately about those they enslaved as one might talk about a young child or pet. Some insisted that genuine love existed between enslaver and enslaved. At the same time, the tide of opinion in the rest of the world had decidedly swung against slavery, and even enslavers admitted that slavery might be “evil.” They often avoided talking about it directly.
Once again, Takaki explores the startlingly illogical thinking employed by white people when it came to justifying the exploitation of black and indigenous populations. Perhaps the most egregious of these is the fact that black people were supposedly lazy, when white people were forcing them to work for free while taking the profits themselves. This highlights the abhorrent hypocrisy of racism.
Enslavers were also secretly terrified of rebellion, suspecting that the enslaved might harbor desires to seek violent revenge on white people. Takaki argues that Sambo both “existed and did not exist.” Some enslaved people certainly acted like Sambos, appeasing enslavers by agreeing to their inferiority, saying they liked their lives, and offering assurance that they did not want to be free. However, in reality, this was almost certainly an act designed to disguise the reality of resistance, whether this took the form of small, everyday acts or grander plans of escape or rebellion. Nat Turner, who led one of the most famous rebellions of enslaved people in Virginia in 1831, was “as humble and docile as a slave was expected to be” prior to leading the revolt.
Because of the extreme nature of enslavement, it is important to have humility when trying to understand the lives of the enslaved. Very little record exists of the consciousness of enslaved people, and the accounts that do exist tend to come from those who had the relative privilege of being literate and/or who managed to escape from slavery. It is therefore impossible to know how most enslaved people truly felt. At the same time, as human beings in a situation of extreme suffering and degradation, it would be absurd to believe that they did not yearn for freedom.
Enslaved people also regularly practiced small acts of resistance, such as destroying farm tools, crippling animals, and faking illness and disability in order to refuse work. There were also enslaved people living and working in cities. This population were subject to less surveillance than those on the plantation, and this weakened the system of slavery, which relied on total control. Working alongside white workers and even encountering free African Americans, enslaved people in cities came face-to-face with the possibility that it didn’t have to be this way.
While enslaved people constantly sought ways to exercise freedom in the face of their total, brutal dehumanization, it must have been difficult for many of them to imagine an escape or end to slavery. This would be particularly true if they had been born into slavery to parents and grandparents who had also been enslaved.
During the Civil War, some enslaved people expressed loyalty to enslavers, but others took this sudden taste of hope as grounds to refuse work and, in some cases, escape the plantation. With so many white Southern men off at war, the discipline that had for so long been brutally imposed on the enslaved began to unravel. Meanwhile, many enslaved men fled the plantation in order to fight for the Union Army. Enslavers were shocked to see the people they had held captive suddenly disappear “without even a good-bye.” The myth that enslaved people were loyal and grateful to their captors disintegrated fast. For enslaved women especially, escaping the plantation meant the first moment of relief from a lifetime of sexual abuse.
The shocked reaction of enslavers to the fact that enslaved people sought freedom at the first available opportunity suggests that some white people believed their own lies about the enslaved. Some seemed to have truly convinced themselves that enslaved people loved their captors and were happy with their lives. This belief shows the staggering depths of dehumanization that slavery involved.
Frederick Douglass was one of the many children born to an enslaved mother and a white father. As a child, Douglass was raised by his grandmother, whose house was 12 miles away from the plantation and who was charged with looking after all the young, enslaved children. Looking back on this time, he felt grateful for the period when he was both physically and psychologically distanced from the horrors of slavery. Later, he lived with a family in Baltimore, where he learned to read and write, and encountered black people who were not enslaved. Douglass had witnessed freedom, and his enslaver, Thomas Auld, decided to send him to a “slave breaker,” and made him work in the field for the first time in his life.
Again, the true extent of the psychological horror of slavery is almost impossible to imagine. Being 12 miles removed from that horror allowed a young Frederick Douglass to escape a certain level of trauma that in turn enabled him to imagine and struggle toward a different kind of life.
As intended, Douglass was psychologically crushed by this work. However, he developed a new fearlessness, and escaped the plantation within a year, becoming active in the abolitionist movement in the North. In 1847, he met the radical white abolitionist John Brown, who helped convince him that violence would be required to end slavery. Nonetheless, Douglass himself spoke to nonviolent, rhetorical methods of fighting for abolition, believing that this was where his personal strengths lay. Although Douglass never knew for sure who his father was, he suspected that it was Auld, his enslaver. He often spoke about his white ancestry, and after the death of his first wife, who was black, married a white woman. Douglass dreamed of an integrated nation in which black people were “absorbed” and “assimilated.”
Like many black people in the US, Douglas had white ancestry. In fact, many enslaved people who were counted as black had mostly white ancestry—yet the “one drop rule” meant that they were not considered white at all. Douglass was aware that this system of categorization part of the white supremacist subjugation of black people. For him, acknowledging his white heritage was a way of highlighting the arbitrary nature of racial categories and insisting that black people belonged to American society just as much as white people.
Martin Delany, meanwhile, was a black nationalist descended from Mandingo royalty. His family members raised him to be proud of his blackness, and he became an ardent abolitionist campaigner. He encountered vehement racism in the North. In 1850, he and two other black men were admitted to Harvard Medical School on the condition that after graduation they would have to move to Africa. Their admission invoked fury among many of the white students at Harvard, who argued that it denigrated the reputation of the school. In the end, the university bowed to student pressure and rescinded the offers of admission. Delany was furious.
The extreme racism of the Harvard University students and faculty further belies the idea that the North was less racist than the South. A Different Mirror continually shows that, in reality, institutions like Harvard were interested in producing the white elite that ruled the country and subjugated all other classes of people. As this passage shows, any chance that black students would be integrated into this elite was abhorrent to university members.
Two years later Delany published his “manifesto for black emigration,” and in 1859 he went to Africa to find land for black Americans. Delany described the vicious cycle of inequality, wherein oppression and discrimination made black people poorer, which in turn “confirmed” racist ideas about black inferiority in the minds of both white and black people. He believed that this prevented black people themselves from knowing that they deserved better. He was also pessimistic about the possibilities of interracial solidarity based on class.
As is made clear throughout the book, there are stark divisions among anti-racist campaigners over the best way to approach social change. Delany believed that voluntary segregation was the only viable option for black people flourishing in an anti-black world—even if this required moving back to Africa. This is a drastic contrast from Douglass’ dreams of assimilation.
Although Delany passionately advocated for the idea of black people immigrating to Africa, he also retained a sense of American identity, often referring to American ideals. He summarized this contradiction by arguing: “We love our country, dearly love her […] [but] she despises us.” When he journeyed to the Niger Valley to make arrangements for gaining land, his mixed feelings persisted. He was thrilled to be in Africa, but found himself feeling a sense of attachment to the US. Ultimately, Delany did not fulfil his plans of African repatriation, and instead returned to the US and fought for the Union Army.
The dilemma Delany faces of loving a country that “despises” him is a common theme across the book. At the same time, this problem arguably affected African Americans more severely than any other group. Degraded and dehumanized to an absolute degree, most black people in the US had also lost their connection to their ancestral home as a result of slavery. They were thus left in a state of homelessness.
Following the abolition of slavery, many black people wanted to be able to live in black communities and to have economic independence from white people. They also argued that the formerly enslaved were owed land. However, the government rejected a bill that would give those freed from slavery “40 acres and a mule,” on the basis that the formerly enslaved would need to learn hard work and responsibility before they could be property owners. Although some land was granted to black people in the South, their right to the property was not respected. White people, many of them former enslavers, claimed the land as their own. Many black people were forced to become sharecroppers, indebted to planters and thus robbed over their earnings.
Here, the image of white people as parental figures surfaces again, and again it is clear that this attitude is really a way to justify cruel and unjust treatment, as well as continued control. Takaki argues that the idea that the formerly enslaved needed to learn hard work and responsibility was ludicrous; the reality was that white people were not willing to cede even a crumb of money or power to African Americans.
Many observed that this version of “freedom” was hardly distinguishable from slavery. During this time, the South transformed dramatically, with industrialization and urbanization causing an economic boom. Many black Southerners worked in industrial labor, becoming a key part of this transformation, although they were also excluded from particular industries (such as textiles). In 1895, the Atlanta Exposition included a “Negro Building” which displayed evidence of black achievement since the abolition of slavery. Booker T. Washington, a formerly enslaved man who had become President of the Tuskegee Institute, was one of the speakers at the exposition.
Although the condition of African Americans during this time was changing, there was still a sense of radical uncertainty about what place free black people would have in the US. The gains made by black people in this period were constantly undermined by the severity of racism that lingered (and in some ways increased) following the abolition of slavery.
Washington’s speech, which skyrocketed him to fame, came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” In it, he encouraged black people to be modest in their desires and not push for full equality yet. Meanwhile, he encouraged his white listeners to remember all that black people had done for them during slavery, and to feel sympathy now. The speech was met with enthusiasm from the audience, and soon Washington even received a telegraph of support from President Grover Cleveland. In reality, Washington was less “accommodationist” than he seemed. He called racism a “cancer” and said it threatened to destroy the nation. In Florida, he refused to give a speech until sheets dividing the segregated audience were removed.
Washington is one of many African-American leaders who attempted to balance a more moderate public image with the radical reality of these views. Of course, it didn’t help that those in power—white people—responded far better to his moderate demands than his more radical, true thoughts. The message that was amplified was thus one of humility and conciliation, when this was not necessarily Washington’s actual view.
Washington was also proud of being black, and believed that black people should be encouraged to pursue a tactic of racial uplift wherein their place in society would improve based on their own knowledge, skills, and hard work. Unfortunately, the vehement anti-black racism that persisted into the nineteenth century made such plans impossible. The introduction of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s further solidified black people’s status as second-class citizens. Meanwhile, the explosion of lynching and other forms of violence made this a particularly brutal period in history.
The idea of racial uplift has long been criticized and denounced, but versions of it stubbornly remain a part of American culture today. Considering the severity of the challenges black people in the US faced—challenges that included brutal violence, legalized discrimination, segregation, psychological bias, and poverty—the idea of uplift was simply impossible for the vast majority of the black population.