Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth
May 20, 2022
Clyde Ford's examination of the conflict between—and convergence of—freedom and bondage in America helps us understand our past, examine our present, and explore roads not (yet) taken for a better future.
Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth by Clyde W. Ford, Amistad
In the summer of 1619, the first Black people arrived in America, kidnapped and carried from their homes in West Africa by Portuguese slave traders, captured on the high seas by British pirates, and sold to a tobacco farmer from Jamestown. As crude as it may sound, as incredulous as our modern minds may be to the reality, this monumental event was most likely seen as not much more than a business transaction at the time, which is how it was dispassionately recorded by the secretary of the colony of Virginia, John Rolfe (once husband to the Native American women we know today as Pocahontas) in his ledger.
Last Saturday, a terrorist walked into a grocery store in Buffalo and killed 10 Americans. Among the victims was Kat Massey, a community advocate and journalist. Aaron Salter was a retired police officer who worked as a security guard at the store. He saved lives that day by confronting the shooter, and lost his own. Ruth Whitfield was just stopping by to pick up a few things on the way home from visiting her husband in a nursing home. Pearly Young ran a food pantry. Heyward Patterson was a pastor at his church.
These events, separated by just over 400 years, are inextricably linked. If we are ever going to put an end to the depravity that led to the events of last Saturday, we need to understand that link, and books like Clyde Ford’s Of Blood and Sweat us do exactly that. Unlike most historians, Ford does not keep history at an academic arm's length, but reflects on how it shapes current events. He believes that the detached way in which history is taught has a sanitizing effect, leading to a general antipathy and ignorance about our past, and that:
And one way to reverse this disdain for the past is by making it relevant to current times and making it personal.
So, perhaps a good place to start would be the Second Amendment. As Ford notes in the book, the amendment was initially brought into the constitutional framework by Patrick Henry, a Virginia slaveholder, who was worried that if the only armed force the country had was a standing army was controlled by the federal government, that Southern states, in the event of "an insurrection of slaves,” would not be able to “suppress it without the interposition of Congress.” Today's strict constructionists say their aim is to follow the exact wording of the constitution, but it is a modern interpretation of the law—that a “well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”—that allowed an 18-year-old to purchase an automatic weapon. This is how a law written to allow slave patrols to continue unencumbered by a new Congress in the 1700s was used by a racist teenager to murder ten innocent Americans last in 2022. Ford goes into further details that show how compromises around slavery account for at least 20 percent of the original Constitution, but the story begins long before that. It begins in the colonial economy and transatlantic trade that enriched Europeans while enslaving Africans. Ford’s key point is that, while “The clash between freedom and bondage is obvious,” there is also a convergence between the two:
Without slavery, the Founders would not have been able to pontificate on the lofty ideals of freedom that made their way into documents like the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They would have been tied to their land, growing their crops, mostly tobacco, that they simply would not have had time for anything else. Cultivating tobacco, it turns out, even with slave labor, was incredibly time-consuming. Thus, freedom in early America was a privilege that derived from slavery.
Ford, an academic and accomplished writer of both fiction and nonfiction, weaves the stories of Anthony and Isabella—two of the first enslaved people in America—throughout the book. Their stories are largely unknown, leaving Ford to rely on his substantial abilities in narrative fiction to supplement the historical record. He leans on his knowledge of African religion and mythology (which he has written an entire book on), trying to ascertain what they may have believed about their circumstances, how they understood the trials and tribulations they were going through, and the new world around them. Through these sections, you also get a detailed, personal look at the labor they performed, how it enriched others, and shaped a nation.
What they did not know then, could not know then, is that in being handed over to these men, they were about to embark on a journey of unimaginably epic proportions; a heroic journey in which, during their lives, they would endure great hardships and privations; a symbolic journey that would see their work lay the foundations of the economic, politics, religion, education, industry, law enforcement, and technology of new nation; and, a hard-earned journey that would generate great power and wealth for some that, sadly, Anthony and Isabella, and those like them, would never share.
But Ford also looks through the eyes of William Tucker, the planter who purchased them, explaining what worried him and other planters at the time. He examines the personal and moral compromises they made to sustain their positions, as well as what exactly their positions were in the colonial economy. There was, to put it simply, a shortage of agricultural labor, an issue that is still a sticking point in our economics and politics today. To fill that void, indentured servants were brought over from England by the Virginia Company, and Ford shows how this “White servitude was a brutal system of labor that served as a dry run for chattel slavery.” He also wrestles with the nuances of indentured servitude versus slavery, and explains how such nuance was crushed by law—written long before our constitution—that codified chattel slavery.
We look back at the period of Reconstruction—where Ford ends his book—as one filled with potential for what could have been, a “road not taken.” Ford points us to another road not taken as colonial America’s economic and legal system was being formed. He does so, in part, by relating the case of Elizabeth Key, who was released from bondage in 1656 on the basis of her being the daughter of a White, English planter, a Christian, and the existence of a contract between a fellow planter and her father upon her father’s death death. Instead of freeing her outright, her father transferred her into the “care” of another White colonist, with the stipulation that she would only remain “as a servant in his care for a period of nine years.” The man also agreed that he would take her to England with him if he were ever to move back to that country, which he did. But he did not honor that contract, and she was instead “passed into the possession and control of Colonel John Mottrom, a Northumberland County justice of the peace” who refused to grant her freedom when the nine years had passed. The common law cited by the Virginia General Assembly, if it held and had become the norm, would have changed the course of history. Chattel slavery—if it took hold at all—would have looked much different. But it did not hold.
Instead, in less than a decade, Maryland passed a law that all those held in slavery would “serve durante vita” (the duration of a lifetime), and that “all Children born of any” person held in slavery should also serve durante vita. Another law shortly thereafter stated that the fact that those who are enslaved “are or shall become Christian” should not be grounds for freeing them. Holding a fellow Christian in bondage was seen as contrary to biblical teachings at the time, but Catholicism had been widespread in Angola, where most early enslaved people were born, for around 200 years, so that was problematic to the system of slavery taking shape. Other colonies followed suit, passing similar laws, effectively severing themselves from the parts of English common law that granted Elizabeth Key her freedom, seeing “that common law posed a threat to the establishment and perpetuation of slavery, a threat to White power and wealth.”
So, scrap the old legal system and create a new one. In reaction to the threat of freedom, a novel American system of jurisprudence was forged in the fires of slavery; a system that would perpetuate White power and wealth, even as it led to Black Americans being given short shrift in the great founding documents of the country and in major court decisions such as Dred Scott; a system that would give rise to great men like Thurgood Marshall waging war against its inequities; and a system whose threats in areas such as criminal sentencing and voting rights are very much with us today.
Around the same time, Ford finds in Bacon’s Rebellion and its aftermath the final settling of racial hierarchy, a time when White colonists began to identify as a single group regardless of class or status. A new White populism took hold as lower-class Whites were given privileges that set them apart from Black and Native Americans, like land grants when their indentured servitude expired, lower taxes, and the right to vote. Once equal in servitude, indentured Whites were pulled out of it and Black Americans were subjugated even further into a system of chattel slavery. It was at this point, Ford proposes, that:
[T]he fundamental equation of American liberty and equality was forged and enforced: liberty and equality are possible for a privileged few, because they are denied to a great many, based on the color of one’s skin. That fundamental equation is as true today as it was in the late seventeenth century.
Does that zero-sum view of liberty still hold true today, though? I don’t know. For all its flaws, American capitalism has shown that freeing money from the coffers of kings and aristocracy and investing it into other ventures can generate more prosperity for more people. For all its flaws, global capitalism has pulled millions of people around the world out of poverty. But it has been unequally applied, and Black Americans have still been largely shut out of that system. And it is clear that those who ran plantations believed in such a zero-sum view of liberty and built a system based on one. To do so, they made the indentured Whites believe that they were in common cause, gave them privileges that set them apart from Native and African Americans, and instituted a caste system based on race that continues to this day. At the same time, the colonial economy was beginning to build institutions around that system that remain bedrocks of our economic system today.
While joint-stock, limited liability corporations are the most common means of raising equity capital (cash) in the modern world, they were wholly new institutions in sixteenth-century Europe. The slave trade contributed to their enduring success.
And just as “The English pioneered a novel financial institution, the joint-stock, limited liability company, to enter the slave trade,” Spain pioneered the asiento to do the same—allowing ordinary citizens to invest in the slave trade. It was all built on the backs of people held in bondage and their labor:
Profit margins, credit markets, financial instruments, and insurance are the key factors in the creation and maintenance of stable economies and in fueling economic growth. Slavery provided a means of establishing these sectors in Britian, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and other European countries. Eventually, this huge financial services industry would travel across the Atlantic, like the slaves upon which it was built, finding an American home in places like Wall Street in New York City and the financial district of Boston. From here, these sectors would drive everything from the Westward Expansion, to the Industrial Revolution, to Silicon Valley in America, creating and redistributing trillions of dollars of wealth.
As Ford notes:
Such ripple effects, in generating power and wealth, are not trivial. Economic analysis is based on them. Modern-day national and international economies are built from them, and destroyed by them in times of economic crisis. An understanding of how Black labor built White power and wealth begins with them—like the capture of Anthony and Isabella, and the start of their harrowing journey to America.
The wealth gap so evident between Black and White Americans today has roots in colonial-era efforts to enhance White families while diminishing Black families. Black Americans’ labor, particularly during slavery, enhanced the order and accumulation of wealth by southern and northern White families, in part, because slavery, by design, devastated the Black family.
Last Saturday, a Black man went to Tops Grocery Store in Buffalo, New York, to get snacks for a family movie night. A young White man from over 200 miles away—steeped in a stew of hateful ideas and theories circulating widely on the internet that have their roots in the justifications men made 400 years ago to enslave other human beings for economic profit—showed up and murdered him. And another Black family was devastated, along with the families of nine others, a whole community, and an entire nation. It was a senseless act of violence, in that the worldview and theories that led the shooter there that day lack any historical sense or logic. But, sadly, it was not shocking. From a Charleston church to a Pittsburgh synagogue, a big box store in El Paso to a grocery store in Buffalo, white supremacist mass murder has become all too common—again.
As I mentioned earlier, the book ends on Reconstruction. It was a brief moment when we took another road, when the freedom promised in the rhetoric of our founding documents was tenuously extended to and taken by Black Americans before being snatched back in a reign of terror by the Klu Klux Klan. "Estimates range," Ford tells us, "as high as forty thousand people (mostly Black men, woman, and children) murdered be the Klan during Reconstruction." But for a time the laws of our land and the lives of people changed for the better, before being buried in Jim Crow. Unfortunately, the highest levels of American jurisprudence once again seem to be aligned with monied interests and against individual rights, but the road not taken is still open to us. To know how to take it, we have to see clearly the one we’ve been on, the one we’re still unfortunately on. Ford talks in the Epilogue about how hard it was to choose what stories to tell, how each sentence could have been a paragraph, each paragraph a section, each section a book. That is true of the stories we have yet to write, the roads we have yet to build. It is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat, but I pray we can put an end to the bloodshed.