Category: African American history

Sylville Smith, or a Brief History of Death by a Thousand Law Enforcement Cuts

Picture of Sylville Smith

The things that I know about Sylville Smith are limited to a few, scattered reports upon his death at the hands of police on August 13th, 2016. I was following closely because of my own experiences in the city where he was killed, Milwaukee (where I had lived for nearly a decade), and the information I was receiving from my connections there as protests erupted almost immediately upon his death that afternoon. From that limited information, I got the sense that this circumstance was unique, for a number of reasons: 1) the protests that emerged were immediate and almost on-site, 2) people who knew him noted that he was “respected” in the community, and 3) almost immediately, the Milwaukee Police Department called attention to his “lengthy police record”.

The first and second points are not to be taken lightly in this context; Milwaukee has experienced a number of police shootings and assaults, but the quickness that these details emerged spoke volumes about Smith and his killing in particular. As the police and mayor’s office began to shape the narrative, in cooperation with the media, the expected third point above made it clear to everyone that it would not matter whether charges were brought, Sylville Smith would have somehow deserved his death. Massed rebellions in the city swelled in the ensuing days, and some opportunists and provocateurs burned some businesses that had been involved in previous conflicts with the African American communities. I took an interest in Smith’s “lengthy” record, and in researching his history in the years leading up to his death I found a template for the ways in which a young man with problems and pressures can be dogged to death by law enforcement.


A Glimpse of Predation: Gender and Demography in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade, the largest forced migration in world history, involved the displacement of at least 13 million African peoples, a majority of them identified as boys or men, a majority of them captives of war sown among West and central African societies by imperial powers within and without the African continent. The grim truth, that it operated as a trade alongside many other profitable goods and exchange, meant that there is considerable record of the transactions themselves. The numbers can blunt us to the human tragedy of it…enslaved Africans had been poets and blacksmiths, brothers and sisters, weavers and house-builders. They were terrified, traumatized; many were from interior regions of the continent, and had never seen an ocean in their lives. To experience it in that fashion, to have nothing but the water, the sound, the smell, the fear, surround you, must have pushed even the bravest to their breaking point. Indeed, slave ships took to installing nets to stop suicide attempts.

But the data of the Transatlantic Slave Trade can also reveal smaller stories, some of which otherwise have been subsumed by the voluminous abolitionist and “slave narrative” accounts. The latter are rightfully important in looking at the trade, but especially abolitionist literature needs to be handled carefully by historians because they were occasionally selective, and thus reductive. That selectivity favored gory details over more widespread experiences, like collective psychological trauma — though seemingly anachronistic, it’s not unreasonable to consider that enslaved Africans would suffer from post-traumatic stress. This could be made worse by the spiritual damage of family and community separation, which for many West and central African religions compromised a person’s ability to be formally initiated into communal ancestry. In fact, a psychological text analysis of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography reveals dozens of references to 18th century terms for depression (“despair,” “melancholy”, “sad”, as well as the term itself), often focused on longing for family and community. Equiano’s account also draws particular attention to his youth, reminding us of another statistic: the average victim of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was 15 years old.

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Evidence of Atrocity: How Hundreds of Thousands of African Americans “Disappeared”

The initial inspiration for this post came from a really fascinating, if internet-antiquated, online resource. The Freedmen’s Bureau Online is a scattered digital archive of a considerable amount of Freedmen’s Bureau records; the bureau was the frustratingly short-lived federal support organization for formerly enslaved African Americans to aid in their transition from slavery to freedom after the Civil War. Included in the archive were the bureau’s list of “Murders and Outrages,” an at-times voluminous — and other times sparse — documentation of violence against African Americans primarily by whites after the end of the Civil War. The lists, and descriptions of the incidents, include harrowing accounts of disappearances and near-murders, illuminating the depth of the terror Southern whites were carrying out against African Americans.

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