Diving deep into notes I made while sitting in an overseas reading room two years ago, I’m still surprised by how many roles people of African descent played during the period of the slave trade. We (although this is the time period before we were We) were slave traders and grain producers, pounders of millet, sailors, soldiers, wives, householders, and shipowners. And most of us were slaves.
That we were slaves did not mean that we couldn’t still occupy one of these other roles. We were still skilled in what we were skilled in and we were apprentices in what we weren’t. We were still mothers of the children we gave birth to and some we did not and godmothers to children we sponsored at the baptismal font. We still loved our lovers and we still participated in the merchant economy generated by slave trading and plantation slavery. Like bondage, bodies-as-commerce was not a way of life we could escape.
Even those of us who were free or freed–free African men and women, free people of color, freedmen and freedwomen–found our lives constrained by the political economy of Atlantic slaving, a capricious megalith too dangerous to ignore. Raced terminology marked our freedom as “of color” and somehow different from the freedom whites enjoyed and were assumed to enjoy.
Regardless, we were more than just slaves.
And we are more than criminals.