The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Museum Review:
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Part I

Apr 30, 2018

This is an enormous museum – seven floors – covering more than 500 years of history and culture. It requires more than one day to see everything. This review is divided into two parts. The second part will be in the next issue of this newspaper.

This museum was a long time coming and was long over-due. The fact that the museum has been open since September of 2016 and still requires timed tickets, attests to its popularity.

The TransAtlantic Slave Trade

The TransAtlantic trade in human beings profoundly affected every continent on the planet in ways that impact every person and every country still today. Millions of Africans were forced out of Africa to the Americas and Europe. Massive amounts of wealth were generated by this trade and by the work of enslaved Africans. That wealth was a game changer. It was an important factor in making the United States the most powerful and wealthiest country on earth while at the same time impoverishing Africa.

The exhibit begins by tracing events in Africa and Europe that gave rise to the global slave trade.

Several factors played into the development of the transAtlantic slave trade. Europeans had developed technology that allowed them to create large commercial navies.

For example, triangular sails were much better for controlling ships than square sails. And they invented a special kind of compass which allowed them to navigate with no shore in sight. And thus, they were able to arrive at and colonize the Americas. Colonies meant they needed lots of cheap labor.

But Europeans were not able to independently enter the West and Central African interior to capture Africans and force them onto ships to the Americas. They needed help from Africans.

European kings and queens relied on African kings and queens to organize the capture of people on the African mainland and move them to the coast where they could board the slave ships from Europe. Since there was already slavery and a slave trade in Africa, the means for the African rulers to do this already existed. This allowed European rulers to amass more wealth without having to invest in an infrastructure in Africa.

The museum shows how the European economy was based on the transAtlantic slave trade. In fact, the enormous wealth made in the slave trade underlay the development of capitalism in Europe. The crowns of Europe, including the royal families of the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Portugal and Spain, made much profit. Profit was made on the buying and selling of enslaved people as well as on their labor. By 1700, trade in enslaved Africans was more valuable than trade in gold and spices. Keep in mind that roughly 12 million Africans were forcibly removed from Africa and brought mostly to the Americas but also to Europe.

Concepts of White and Black Support Slavery

The museum also pointed out that Africans did not think of themselves as African but rather identified with their tribe. The same can be said of Europeans. Not only were they not Europeans, they didn’t even think of themselves as French, for example, but as “Norman” or “Angevin.” “White” and “black” are concepts that appeared with this new kind of slavery.

The museum shows how slavery transformed the U.S. into a world power. The wealth which New England merchants made in the slave trade was the fuel that poured into the development of industry. Later, cotton, produced by slave labor in the South, fed Northern textile mills, for example. Slavery generated profits in the North and in the South. Twelve of the first 18 U.S. presidents were slave owners.

This review continues in the next issue of the SPARK with black peoples’ resistance to the resulting oppression.