Movie Different but Equal Different but Equal

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Different but Equal" by Basil Davidson: Is racial difference an illusion?

The video series "Different but Equal" by the scholar and filmmaker Basil Davidson presents a proudly Afro-centric view of history and the colonial oppression of Africa by the West. His view is an important corrective of the tendency to present Africa as 'primitive' in contrast to European culture. This outmoded idea survives, even today, as Africa is often shown in a negative light by the modern media, either as a place of warfare and famine, or as a land in need of Western aid. However, as valuable as this correction to a negative view of Africa may be, Davidson also runs the risk at times of idealizing the African past and over-emphasizing the degree to which slavery was a crime perpetuated upon Africans by whites. He cites slavery as the reason for the prejudice inflicted upon African-Americans and Africans. Instead, perhaps a more valuable construct is to see the polarization of the fictional category of 'race' into black and white, primitive and civilized, as the basis for the perpetuation of negative stereotypes today.

In the words of one African-American scholar of the American Revolutionary period: "Freedom did not become possible for Americans of European descent until they had established slavery for Americans of African descent, had defined Afro Americans as a race and had identified their [African's] innate inferiority as a justification or at least a rationale for enslavement..I don't say that racial ideology developed as a justification for slavery because I think that is not right. The view that slavery is so obviously wrong that anybody who practiced slavery would need an elaborate self-justification is a very modern view, because slavery has been a characteristic form of social organization for most of recorded human history. It is only in relative modern times that human beings have seen a need to justify it in the first place."

But according to Basil Davidson, while the West has painted Africa as primitive, the very first European explorers "saw a city in the heart of Africa built of stone hundreds of years ago....These kingdoms were as good and well governed as the European medieval ones...Instead of accepting this truth, white visitors invented exotic explanations of Africa's history, rather than admitting Africa had a rich history of its own." Aspects of African civilization the early European explorers could not ignore, like Egyptian civilization's influence upon Greece and Rome, became de-Africanized, along a hierarchy of civilization that viewed European men as the most developed of the world's peoples and Africans the least.

However, it is not entirely true that only Africans were enslaved during the early period of institutionalized slavery -- slavery was a major institution of the ancient world, albeit not a racially coded one, a fact which Davidson downplays in his focus upon European and African encounters as 'others.' His gloss of issues tends to cast black and white relations into binary terms, rather than questions the European construction of race as a category in general. After all, it is the European point-of-view that developed race, versus ethnicity or tribal identity, as a category of central self-definition. Even in the first decades of the establishment of the government of the New World, white individuals served as indentured servants. There were early attempts to enslave whites for agricultural labor, although these were abandoned, given the need for larger amounts of labor to discipline the terrain to produce cash crops in mass amounts. Tobacco farming in the fields of Virginia and Maryland was particularly labor-intensive, more so than what could be accomplished with white indentured servants. Few white indentured servants would endure the backbreaking and unhealthy labor in the fields, so in 1619, twenty Africans were brought to Jamestown by Dutch slave-traders, and these Africans were converted into the first enslaved labor force designed to produce tobacco for profit.

Before that, "the first people that the English tried to enslave and place on plantations were the Irish with whom they had had hostile relations since the 13th century....Some Englishmen had proposed laws enslaving the poor in England and in the colonies to force them to work indefinitely," and "most of the first slaves on English plantations in Barbados and Jamaica were Irish and Indians." Interestingly, according to the historian James O. Horton, many of the first Africans "were not necessarily treated as slaves," but more as indentured servants, similar to their white counterparts. "They were not held for life, and their status did not generally pass on to their ancestors, to their descendants."

To Davidson's credit he does note that other peoples were enslaved during this period -- although he emphasizes they were not white peoples, as Native Americans were also enslaved. Davidson believes because Africans were more plentiful, they were used as a labor source more frequently. Davidson accepts the self-justification thesis: "The idea of an inferior race of humans suited slavery well. Europeans felt that they were helping a lower race become more civilized when they took African slaves. The Europeans removed tens of thousands of skilled African workers from their homes. The location of Africans did not stop Europe. Slave traders searched far inland for skilled slaves." But conversely, it could be argued that the natural law of Christianity and superiority only needed to justify slavery because, paradoxically, of the new ideology of freedom that declared all men were created equal -- why these men were less equal had to be explained. "So it was the prevalence of freedom rather than the fact of slavery that created the extraordinary situation calling for the extraordinary invention that American racial ideology represents." Before, slavery was seen as a natural, necessary, and unfortunate brute fact of life.

The constructed nature of races in polar opposition causes Davidson to largely ignore the role that African tribal leaders had in fueling the slave trade to provide a complete historical perspective. For example, according to the memoir of Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave who grew up in Benin, his relatively prosperous African family owned slaves. Equiano explains how African chiefs perpetuated the slave trade: "When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary, if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow creature's liberty with as little reluctance, as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly, he falls upon his neighbors, and a desperate battle ensues...if he prevails, and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them." Tribal leaders did this not from racial animosity but because this had been the practice for many millennium -- enslaving prisoners of war. The introduction of Europeans caused the slave trade to change into a commodity exchange, more than an act of political and military hostility.

The slaves were needed for the New World's agricultural to become profitable, and racism was used to justify this fact only after freedom became the official ideology of the New World. Thus slavery alone is not the reason for the justification of African and African's inferiority -- rather the idea was rooted in economic, social, and psychological needs that were transcribed upon the bodies of those randomly deemed 'other.' The limiting of African rights was not inexorable -- in fact, until the Constitution framed blacks as inherently unequal, and worth only a percentage of whites, African-Americans had voting rights in New York and in New Jersey and in Pennsylvania during the period of the Articles of Confederation. Ironically, the creation of the formal union and the Constitution resulted in these citizens actually losing the right to vote or having that right to vote severely restricted.

Historian Horton concurs with Davidson's analysis that the introduction of Africans was due to labor needs, although he questions some of Davidson's facts that negative images of Africa in the Western World originated in the era of the Atlantic slave trade and have 'colored' perceptions of Africa's inhabitants ever since. Horton stresses the need for self-justification through inferiority that existed in a 'free' and theoretically upwardly mobile land and the social collateral some poor whites gained simply by being ostensibly white and free. This was the reason for the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, not the mere sight of enslaved Africans or the economic need of plantation-owners.

In short, a conjunction of political, economic and social factors made "it incumbent upon them [whites] to emphasize the importance of race and so all through the late 19th century, all through the beginning of the 20th century, there is this constant message hammered at poor white people. You may be poor, you may have miserable lives right now, but the thing that is most important, the thing we want you to focus on is the fact that you are white. And that gives you opportunities for the future. It means that your children and your children's children might have opportunities." The construction of the races,…