The great French historian Marc Bloch wrote many years ago in The Historian’s Craft about the ‘idol of origins’. When people make the common error of fixating on beginnings, they run the risk of ‘confusing ancestry with explanation’. The principals in the New York Times’s project seem to be doing just that in their effort to establish an unrelenting and remorseless 400-year genealogy of unmitigated white-on-black racism in the United States, beginning with the landing of ‘some 20. and odd Negroes’ at Point Comfort in 1619.
Slavery was, and indeed still is, an enormity. Figures compiled by a variety of organizations, ranging from the Free the Slaves advocacy group to the International Labour Organization (ILO), suggest that there are roughly three times as many slaves in the world today than were trafficked during the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade. To be sure, the figure for today derives in technical terms from a ‘stock’ concept (a measurement made at a given point in time, which can be the result of accumulated flows), whereas the figure for the Atlantic slave trade derives from a ‘flow’ concept (a measurement made over a given period of time). But the difference between the two is nonetheless worth noting.
To invoke ‘modern’ slavery is not to downplay the historical horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, only to call attention to the continuing horror of slavery amongst vulnerable groups and individuals, and to guard against what the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson referred to as ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ toward actors and actions in the past.
The New York Times is peddling a linear narrative of national shame, its principal theme invariant racial oppression, or, to be more specific, the incessant depredations by villainous — or at best acquiescent — whites against friendless blacks. And this throbbing narrative allegedly began in 1619. But history, pace Nikole Hannah-Jones, doesn’t often work that way. Linearity works for certain problems — Ohm’s law in electricity and electromagnetics, for example — but not for others. Linearity certainly does not work for history, which is complex and polychromatic, circuitous and irregular. History, alas, is rather more tragedy than melodrama, and is not color-coded.
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