Being Black is Complicated

Often times when people talk and think about slavery, the conversation is centered around the slaves that were in the South and not as much as the African-Americans that were in the North. Although there were not many slaves in the North, there were some. Due to the way the North is “built” (less agriculture), there were not too many slaves but African-Americans did work as servants and other work of that nature. The story that is told about African-Americans not only talks about them as slaves but also as a people who needed saving from themselves. It is seldom that one reads a story about African-Americans and the story is told in a good light, in a way that does not make these people seem as if they did not know how to live and how to be human prior to being taken captive. Many scholars have written about this particular topic and just like with anything else, there are those that tell the story of the bad effects that being held captive had on the slaves and then there are some that believe slavery helped these people who were going nowhere fast.

In the reading, it talks about how long it took people to acknowledge blacks as historical victims, what that suggests is that prior to World War 2, blacks were not known as victims but they may have been known as people who needed to be taken care of and shown how to live. The reading begins by talking about two scholars by the names of Kenneth Stampp and Stanley Elkins. Stampp talked about the harshness of slavery, he brought to people’s attention that slavery was not just this system of trying to help another fellow human being but it was an institution that was destroying another race; three years after Elkins, expanded on this and also brought to people’s attention that slavery caused not only physical but psychological damage to those that experienced it. These two scholars were able to put to rest the idea that slavery was justified but in doing so, a new picture was painted. The picture that was painted was of African-Americans as powerless and victims of oppression by whites.

Many people began to write about the after effects that Slavery had on blacks and how this can be seen in how blacks behave and live their lives today. One particular author by the name of Moynihan wrote about how he believed that because slaves were so dependent on their masters, modern African-Americans are now dependent as well, they depend on others to care for them instead of caring for themselves; he went on to say that “the white America broke the will of the Negro people” and made the assumption that blacks were now ashamed of being black and black heritage had been lost. These  assumptions made by Moynihan prompted studies by others to try to figure out if what he was saying was true, were blacks too dependent?, were they broken? and had the heritage really been lost?, these questions were burning in the minds of many.

Years and years of studies have been done trying debunk this idea that blacks were helpless and victims. The studies talked about blacks as abolitionist, and focused on those in the North. Many of these  studies were focused on blacks that lived in the North and some of the contributions that they made. In one study, emphasis was placed on the ability of blacks to gather together to create a course of action and to implement it, and although the study found that blacks were divided and some saw themselves as powerless they were still indeed active and articulate; this showed that if blacks were able to receive the help they needed they would be prosperous.  Further studies  brought about similar results, showing that blacks were more than capable of being a people of substance and people who can contribute greatly to society. Kenneth Kusmer has suggested a framework that could help others better understand and study African-American life in the North post civil war and even now, he states that internal,external and structural forces all play a role in shaping urban life; he states that viewing free black communities this way will help others to understand how complex it is to be apart of these neighborhoods, how complex it is to always be talked down on and how complex it is to come out of bondage and oppression and try to prosper.


  1. What other connections can be made between how modern African-Americans behave and slavery?
  2. Why do you think that blacks in the North were divided?
  3. What other forces do you think helped to shape black urban life?