During the hot summer days of August, all eyes were on Ferguson. Hour after hour, journalists on the scene described the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was getting ready to start college in just a few days, and the unrest that exploded as “shocking,” but for so many black Americans, the scene in Ferguson was all-too-familiar. The ghost of Ferguson appeared earlier in Sanford, Florida on the night of February 26, 2012, when self-appointed vigilante George Zimmerman murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, armed with just a pack of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea, then again later that year in a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, where 17-year-old Jordan Davis was shot by an older white man because of his loud “thug music,” then again in the cold month of February 1999 when four NYPD officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year old year black Guinean man. But the hauntings did not begin in 2014, 2012, or 1999. Not even close. Ferguson is but one moment in the long assault on black lives not only in the United States, but throughout the Americas, beginning with the advent of slavery.
“If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America,” writes Saidiya Hartman in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007), “it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” From the gated communities of Sanford to the favelas of Salvador, Brazil, from the gas stations of Jacksonville to the slums of Buenaventura, Colombia, the ghost of Ferguson is the afterlife of slavery in the Americas.
Slavery in the Americas: The Naturalization of Black Death
The ‘peculiar institution’ known as slavery first reared its ugly head in the Western hemisphere not in the United States, but on the island of Hispaniola, present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti, when Christopher Columbus brought with him several Africans to work the gold mines of the island alongside enslaved natives in 1502. But with the genocidal destruction of the indigenous population and pressure by the religious establishments in Iberia to release the Indians from the burden of slavery in the early 1500s, African slavery very quickly became the primary source of labor in the booming new colonies of the Americas. Over the course of centuries, slaves became the chief work force of the European colonies of the so-called ‘New World,’ forced to work the grueling sugar plantations of Brazil and Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), the hellish gold mines of Colombia’s Pacific Coast, or the torturous tobacco, rice, and later cotton plantations of the deep U.S. South. Between 1525-1866, nearly 12.5 million Africans were packed into ships sailing from the western coast of Africa, where they began their deadly journey in what became the Middle Passage. Only 10.7 of the 12.5 million were said to have survived that unspeakable Atlantic passing.
And with the institution of slavery emerged a centuries’ old naturalization of black death and criminalization of black lives. For the vast majority of colonies (especially those with major staple economies like sugar), slaves were literally worked to death, given that it was more ‘economical’ for masters to purchase new slaves than rely on self-reproduction. But from the moment Africans were marched onto those slave ships on the Gold Coast to their death by whatever means, slavery fossilized the criminal logic that black lives were expendable. Over time, the white ruling classes of the Americas constructed laws criminalizing black bodies: in the U.S. South, it began in the early 1700s with the creation of innumerable “slave codes” making it legal for masters to kill their slaves if suspected of disobedience, and restricted freedom of movement (whether for work or private life at home) for free blacks, while similar laws were passed earlier in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, prohibiting slaves from traveling at night, carrying arms, or engaging in trade, among a plethora of other restrictions.
The final abolition of slavery in the Western hemisphere—beginning in 1804, when, against all odds, slaves and free blacks extinguished slavery in the Haitian Revolution, and culminating in 1888, when Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery—did not relieve black people from the racial terror implanted so profoundly on the fabric of each society. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was uttered, Frederick Douglass asserted in 1862, “…slavery has stamped its character too deeply and indelibly, to be blotted out in a day or year, or even a generation…the master will retain much of the pride, the arrogance…and love of power, acquired by his former relations.” He was all too right.
The Ghost of Ferguson After Emancipation
In the aftermath of emancipation, the new challenge became what historian Thomas Holt called “‘the problem of freedom’—understood as the task of socializing ex-slaves to respond to the work incentives of freemen” and, as others have shown, the right to a dignified social and political life. After the Civil War, the infamous “Black Codes” in the U.S. South restricted the hard-won freedoms of African-Americans, who were henceforth prohibited from moving freely and coerced into low-wage jobs often with ex-masters, while the new republics and colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean had earlier passed similar codes through vagrancy laws after emancipation. Everywhere, the post-emancipation period was fraught with terror for African-Americans. In Cuba, the army massacred thousands of members of the Afro-Cuban Partido Independiente de Color who formed the first national black political party in the Western hemisphere in 1912. More than twenty years later, just a short boat-ride away from Cuba, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the mass genocidal killing of thousands of black Haitians living on the Dominican border in 1937 (a historic wound that resurfaced after the Dominican government stripped 210,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship in a 2013 court order).
Back in the U.S., the post-emancipation regime of terror gave birth to the new monster of Jim Crow—which was only dismantled thanks to the resistance of African-American communities culminating in the Civil Rights movement (and only partially dismantled at that, as Michelle Alexander has brilliantly shown in The New Jim Crow ). As we’ve seen, the venomous legacy of slavery is not exceptional to the United States. In Colombia, with the highest population of people of African descent in the Spanish-speaking world, Afro-Colombians continue to be treated as second-class citizens, with 78.5% of Afro-Colombians living below the poverty level (compared to 49.2% of the general population), while only 1 out of every 50 completes higher education. Thanks to the sometimes separate, sometimes combined, work of paramilitaries, state forces, multinational corporations, or rebel guerrillas, Afro-Colombian communities disproportionately face some of the highest levels of displacement and constantly receive death threats for defending their right to live in their ancestral territories, as we’ve recently seen in the past weeks in La Toma, Colombia. In Brazil, far from the “racial democracy” it was historically hailed to be, the same systemic disregard for black lives carries on. “Black death today in Brazil has reached the numbers of a civil war,” stated Tamires Rizzo, the National Coordinator of the Quilombo Movement, “Every 25 minutes a black person dies in this country.” According to the Mapa da Violência (2014), 146.5% more blacks than whites died in Brazil in 2012, and Afro-Brazilians suffer more violence at the hands of police and drug-lord death squads than any other group. For that reason, more than 50,000 people took to the streets of Brazil in late August in the Second National March Against the Genocide of Black People, protesting against the massive police assault on black communities. Demonstrators, too, appealed to the ghost of Ferguson, as one banner displayed “Somos todos Mike Brown! Pelo fim das polícias!” (“We are all Mike Brown! For the end of the police!”). From the first voyage on that slave ship, to the racist War on Drugs, to the streets of Rio, and finally to Michael Brown’s lifeless body lying on the street for four hours, it is on all of us to at last extinguish the ghost of Ferguson.
“Something Bigger”: After Ferguson
Looking back, perhaps it really is no surprise that Ferguson, Missouri became the latest site in this long war against black lives, given the state of Missouri’s peculiar relationship to slavery in US history. In 1820, as dryly recounted in so many American history textbooks, the US Congress passed the historic Missouri Compromise, which attempted to “preserve the balance of power” between slave and free states, a “compromise” that allowed Missouri to become a slave state, Maine a free state, and prohibited slavery in the massive southern and western “Louisiana Territory” (the latter prohibition repealed in 1854). Meanwhile, in Missouri today, African-American drivers are the targets of 92% of vehicle searched by police. Once the site of the heinous rule of slavery, Missouri is yet again at the center of this older battle. As the ever-resilient Afro-Colombian land rights activist Francia Elena Marquez de Mina once said, “The racism that was used as a tool by capitalism to enslave our people still exists today.”
Indeed, if we listen to Francia and truly connect the transhistoric dots, we will be ever so closer to ending the nightmare. But this can only happen with grassroots organizing and mobilizing for racial justice from below, what groups like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Organization for Black Struggle, the Dream Defenders (born in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder), and countless others have been doing for several years. It is also imperative that we connect the lines not just across movements—see, for example, Deirdre Smith’s critical piece on connecting the climate movement with racial justice, or Maria Rodríguez’s statement on black and brown solidarity between the immigrant rights’ movement and Ferguson—but across the superficial boundaries of the nation-state, reaching out to comrades in Brazil, Colombia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and across the African Diaspora. And moving forward, it’s fundamental that we recognize, as Rinku Sen writes, that “we’re not all in the same boat,” meaning that we must recognize that there are real differences of experience between living as a black, brown, or somewhere in-between person, that “there is no contradiction between the desire to build a multiracial movement” and the desire for black folks to self-organize. The task is clear.
“Something bigger than Stand Your Ground, the drug war, mass incarceration or any other policy is haunting us,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his moving piece “Reparations for Ferguson.” “And as long as we cower from it,” he continues, “the events of this week are as certain as math. The question is not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’” That haunting feeling, Ta-Nehisi, is the ghost of Ferguson; that ‘certain math’ is the afterlife of slavery in the Americas; and the time is always, always now.
Yesenia Barragan is a PhD Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University, where she is writing her dissertation on freedom and the abolition of slavery in Colombia. At Columbia, she is organizing a one-day workshop in October called “Reworking Freedom: Graduate Student Workshop on Re-Centering the Enslaved in Histories of the Americas.”