Contending with America’s Original Sin: Jonathan Scott Holloway Traces African Americans’ Complicated History

Even many years after abolition, the horror of chattel slavery continues to leave a lasting mark on American society. 

By Duncan R. Jamieson                                                                                                                       

The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans, by Jonathan Scott Holloway. Oxford, 2021. 150p bibl index, 9780190915193 $18.95, 9780190915216

Book cover of The Cause of Freedom

Holloway (president, Rutgers Univ.) is a historian of American social and intellectual history. He previously served as a dean at Yale College and provost of Northwestern University and taught African American history for many years at the University of California, San Diego, and Yale. He is also author of the books Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940 (CH, Mar’14, 51-4040) and Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Fraser, and Ralph Bunche, 1919–1946 (CH, Nov’02, 40-1770). He thus brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the text under review.

In this slim volume, which includes an introduction, six chronologically organized chapters, and an epilogue, Holloway covers the four hundred years of Black people’s struggle for equality in the United States with verve and enthusiasm. Readers who have little to no direct personal knowledge of racial discrimination are led to reflect on what is often blithely referred to as “America’s original sin” and its continuing debilitating drag on the United States. Holloway builds his readable, engrossing meditation around four questions that seem so basic and simple as to need no explanation yet prove to be both challenging and complex: What does being American mean? What does being human mean? What does being a citizen mean? Who has a history? 

Between 1514 and 1866, some twelve million Africans were forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean on European slave ships. Though the vast majority were sent to the Caribbean and South America, in 1619, the captain of the White Lion, an English privateer sailing with a Dutch letter of marque, bartered at least twenty Africans for supplies in the English colony of Virginia. Thus began a new and devastating labor force unique to the United States, one that has been a part of American history longer than the descendants of those laborers have been free. In all, some four hundred thousand Africans came to North America: at least forty percent came through Charleston, South Carolina, which was also ironically the first state to secede from the Union, initiating the Civil War that brought about this peculiar institution’s demise. What began then as perhaps another source of indentured servants—who would become independent upon completion of their contract with the ability to enjoy the fruits of their labor—quickly morphed into chattel slavery.

In response to several often raised queries: yes, slavery existed in places other than the North American colonies that later separated from Great Britain to form the United States. Yes, before Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia Colony, they had been sold into servitude in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Yes, slavery existed in Africa before the Atlantic slave trade brought Africans to the New World. Yes, slavery was common in the culturally advanced Roman and Greek empires. Yes, slavery can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. Yes, slavery continues to plague far-reaching areas of the world today. However, this reality in no way lessens or mitigates the horror of chattel slavery and the lasting negative impact it continues to have on American society. 

As it developed and matured in all the North American colonies that later formed the United States, chattel slavery became increasingly racialized and inherited. This racialization further protected whites from ever falling victim to the system, putting greater emphasis and value on white skin.

The Virginia Colony’s 1662 decision that Black children followed the status of their mother rather than that of their father hardened the divide between white and Black people. This had two serious ramifications that clearly and forcefully distinguished between those born Black and those born white. Over time it led to the one-drop rule, which stipulated that no matter how light a person’s skin was, any Black ancestry made that individual Black, thus placing a premium on being white. This also encouraged the sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women as any offspring would increase the holdings and wealth of white enslavers. As it developed and matured in all the North American colonies that later formed the United States, chattel slavery became increasingly racialized and inherited. This racialization further protected whites from ever falling victim to the system, putting greater emphasis and value on white skin. These are all issues that the nation has glossed over or sidestepped in relation to African Americans’ fight for “the cause of freedom.”

Racism provided the foundational justification for chattel slavery. It is thus incumbent on all Americans to have honest, substantive, in-depth conversations with those whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage to build this nation regarding “the cause of freedom” and the inroads still to be made in the pursuit of racial justice. This country needs to move toward solidifying the rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, yet the history that Holloway reports clarifies how difficult this is. Between 1892 and 1968, for example, seventy-five percent of the more than five thousand people lynched in the United States were Black—totaling more than one person every week—making a mockery of both the Sixth and the Eighth Amendments. These segments of the Bill of Rights guarantee that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury” and that neither “cruel [nor] unusual punishments [shall be] inflicted.” To be dragged from a jail cell, with the compliance of an officer of the law sworn to uphold the Constitution, to be hanged or burned at the stake, fit neither the spirit nor the letter of these amendments. That in most, if not all, of these horrific events, the participants who took part in these spectacles afterward posed for photographs to memorialize the atrocities further negates any respect for the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, both of which guarantee “liberty and justice for all.”

In the past, many, including Abraham Lincoln, even encouraged the removal of Black people from the United States, despite their contributions to building the nation.

As Holloway makes clear, “the notion of the happy, docile slave is one of the most absurd myths about the nation’s past” (p. 23), but it is far from the only one. Though abolitionists worked tirelessly to focus attention on the evils of slavery, that does not mean they necessarily supported equality for all. Rather, their support for abolition might be seen as a defense mechanism to alleviate their (white) guilt. Many Americans today continue to refuse to acknowledge that Black Americans share “humanity, independence of mind and spirit, and abilities” (p. 32) equal to that of white Americans. In the past, many, including Abraham Lincoln, even encouraged the removal of Black people from the United States, despite their contributions to building the nation. Consider the following examples. Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery in 1797 and raised in New York State, addressed the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. “The contemporary account of her speech noted that it was delivered calmly and was well received by an admiring crowd of mostly white supporters” (p. 32). More than a decade after the speech, however, Frances Gage, a white abolitionist and women’s rights champion who had invited Truth to the convention, “offered a starkly different,” racist account of that day, alleging that Truth had harangued an unfriendly audience in a distinctly southern accent, repeatedly asking “A’n’t I a Woman?” (p. 32). (It is notable that Truth’s speech is now commonly recognized as her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.) With no evidence to support the claim, it has become a popular myth. A more recent myth contends that Malcolm X remained a firebrand later in his life based on his statement that the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy was “a case of the chickens coming home to roost” (p. 91). This ignores the transformation Malcolm underwent after completing his pilgrimage to Mecca. He broke with the Nation of Islam and rejected his earlier anti-Semitic beliefs, his preference for Black separation, and his prior condemnation of all whites as racist, a change cogently explored in his Autobiography. The Black Panthers are similarly misrepresented in popular understanding, generally thought of as a group of young, gun-toting males harassing white police, which disregards their social service work in community building. They “instituted after[-]school and literacy activities for [B]lack children, established hot-breakfast programs, [and] opened clinics in medically underserved communities,” often led by women activists (p. 96). Collectively, these narratives fuel the antiquated, racist stereotype that Black people are lawless and more violent than whites and thus less deserving of equal treatment when in fact this could not be further from the truth.

The Cause of Freedom demands careful consideration by all Americans to ensure everyone clearly understands how Black people have struggled to achieve racial justice, so far with only limited success. Given the current polarization of American society, this is as important an issue as it has ever been. For instance, during the first few months of 2022 alone, there were reports of a rising number of bomb threats directed at historically Black colleges and universities, troublingly coinciding with Black History Month. These hate crimes, acknowledged as such by the FBI, underscore that although some progress has been made toward racial justice, Americans as a people and a nation are still far from Thomas Jefferson’s pronouncement of equality for all. The Cause of Freedom will help all readers understand the pressing need to finally achieve this lofty goal.

Summing Up: Essential. All levels.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Duncan R. Jamieson is a professor of history at Ashland University. He has a PhD in American intellectual history from Michigan State University.