It’s been almost two weeks now since the heinous shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. All I can think about is how this was not a random act and how there is history and mindset and belief behind it. America loves to forget, deny, and hide its racist founding principles but I am here to remind you. I for one, refuse to forget South Carolina’s position at the Constitutional Convention.
But first, here’s a quick reminder about slavery.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade lasted for nearly five centuries. During that time, 100 million human beings were forcibly removed by Europeans from Africa and taken on ships to the Americas and then forced into labor until they died. This system of capture and bondage was different from any other system of slavery that humanity had ever known. It produced a steady stream of free labor for massive economic gain, building the wealthiest and most domineering country in human history.
Slavery was central to the New World’s existence and operation. It was hotly discussed and debated at the Constitutional Convention – a gathering to discuss problems of governance with the intention of designing something new altogether. In my understanding of this watershed moment, there was a glimmer of hope for millions of slaves. The hope that our founding slave masters, in the midst of discussing life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, taxation without representation, and the ability for men to govern themselves, would see the inherent hypocrisy between their words and actions.
In the back and forth between anti-slave and pro-slave states, South Carolina was arguably the most vocal and vehemently against leaving slaves out of the census. Along with the other southern slave states, South Carolina argued that the slaves on their land were their property. After all, slaves were owned by these southern whites, stripped of all rights, raped, beaten savagely, treated worse than any animals that also lived as property. Human property, SC argued, deserved a count. And since human property, i.e., slaves could not vote, the slave states would gain the benefit of increased congressional representation without the worry of a slave voting against its master. (A quick aside – today’s slavery, mass incarceration, basically does the same thing. Prisoners can’t vote but are counted towards the population of the district in which they are imprisoned.)
The anti-slave northern states saw that the lofty ideals of equality, justice, and representation completely ignored the reality of the land and therefore proposed that only free people be counted towards congressional representation, essentially incentivizing freedom.
Alas, the greed of these founding slave masters prevailed. Never forget that slavery was at its core an economic institution designed to build wealth for one group of people on the backs of, at the expense of, with the torture of, another.
The Constitutional Convention was abuzz with excitement as James Madison drafted a difficult to understand and convoluted defense of counting slaves as both property and as persons in the eyes of the law. The formation of the United States started with a profound compromise. Instead of pressuring that one vocal state of South Carolina and its southern allies into ending slavery, the absurd Three-Fifths Compromise was created.
The compromise, detailed in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the US Constitution states, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.” In plain language, this means that slaves counted for three-fifths of a person – still giving the south the increased representation they wanted and the north the collection of taxes that they wanted, and uphold for the entire nation an evil economic system. I remember this fact often, but recently more so, that we, my people, were considered part property and part person in the US constitution – the law of this land.
Not until the Civil War was the idea of slavery’s morality revisited. In remembering the Civil War, I remember that South Carolina was the first state to leave the United States and form the Confederate States of America. South Carolina, the state that still heralded the confederate flag – the symbol for upholding slavery – over its capital building (until last week). South Carolina, the state that will forever be remembered by me and millions of others as the one in which nine descendants of slaves were gunned down in the middle of prayer inside a church in 2015.
This, with everything mentioned above, is forever enshrined in US history.