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A People’s History of the United States: The Color Line

October 5, 2017 (Week Three)

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week we dug into Chapter 2 of the text titled "Drawing the Color Line". In this chapter, Zinn lays the groundwork for a discussion about racism in the colonies and frames the content around the question of if racism is a natural human tendency or a manufactured institution.

We reviewed the chapter, with a particular focus on the concept of "colonialism" and the histories of Jamestown, John Punch, and Bacon's Rebellion. Though chapter 3 will continue to discuss these in more detail (specifically Bacon's Rebellion), at this point Zinn attempts to drive home the idea that the colonies could not survive without free labor, and attempts to do so were desperate and full of horror and misery. Colonists came to learn that that forcing the people living here already to work for them was too difficult, as the indigenous people were too familiar with the land and were too able to quickly organize resistance. The colonists also came to realize that the indentured servitude of Europeans was effective but not sustainable, as the Irish and German and other people brought here to work (often against their will) were too familiar with the culture and language of the colonists and could organize effective resistance. The introduction of enslaved people from Africa provided the manageable labor force the colonies required, as the displacement from their homeland and introduction into a foreign culture, alongside a system of brutal indoctrination and a policy of dissolving and scattering tribal and family units, made resistance significantly more difficult.   However, it quickly became apparent that the biggest threat to the growing prosperity of the Colonies was the risk of indentured servants, first peoples, and enslaved people joining forces.

We conducted an exercise involving the discussion of 5 incidents where the actions of the disenfranchised people in the colonies threatened the establishment, and I asked the participants to predict what kind of laws the governments would create to counter these incidents. For each incident, we compared the predictions of the participants with the actual laws that were established.

The laws created in response to the incidents were designed to specifically to divide and target people of color. As the population of enslaved people from Africa was growing at incredible rates, laws were purposefully crafted that punished people of color more harshly, that punished white colonists for aiding enslaved African people, that limited and controlled the movement and freedom of people of color (even if they were "free") significantly more than white colonists, and that punished white colonists for engaging in personal relationships with people of color.

As we worked through the incidents, the predictions from the participants shifted from hypothetical laws that would protect the wealth of the elites to hypothetical laws that would alienate and oppress people of color. This was the history that Zinn wanted to focus on in this chapter; that the systematic approach to "drawing a color line" around the people living here would establish an institution of racism that would echo throughout the history of the United States.

A lot of the content in this chapter was disturbing -- graphic descriptions of the life at Jamestown prior to using forced labor, graphic descriptions of the treatment of enslaved people being transported from Africa to the colonies, graphic descriptions of the brutal treatment of indentured servants and enslaved people. I started the program with a discussion of the MLK quote at the top of this page, a quote he created from the words of Theodore Parker, as a means of reminding the participants that studying history can be uncomfortable and cause negative feelings, but it is important to consider that perhaps despite the horrible things people do, we continue to move, albeit slowly and maybe too slowly at times, toward a more moral and just place.

I pointed out that in 2012, published a paper suggesting that John Punch, the “first official slave in the English colonies", was a twelfth-generation grandfather of the first African American to become President of the United States (Barack Obama) and is also believed to be one of the paternal ancestors of the 20th-century American diplomat Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Assigned Reading: Chapter 3, “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition” addresses the serious class divisions in the English colonies. Zinn argues that the elites used a variety of means to stay in power, including fabricating division between the middle and lower classes and enlisting the support of the middle classes by encouraging a fear of the lower classes. I also asked the particpants to consider this questions and be prepared to discuss their thoughts: Should employment status relate to a person’s rights? Are those with tax-paying jobs deserving of privileged treatment by the government?

-- Adrian