Unraveling the harmful myths that perpetuated slavery | COMMENTARY

Much has been written about how hard it was to be enslaved in America, but comparatively little has been said about the demands of enslaving others. No one writes about how physically and mentally exhausting owning people could be — all the energy devoted to self-delusion; all the psychological tap dancing and intellectual gymnastics needed to justify holding a fellow human being in lifelong bondage.

The burden was eased somewhat if a Bible was close at hand. The Old Testament story of Ham’s children being cursed with Black skin and a lifetime of servitude was a popular subject at the planter’s dinner table. But even then, a certain amount of pneumatic shoehorning must have been needed to make the story fit properly.


Other justifications for slavery included the belief that Africans were of a subhuman species, one step above livestock, and thus predestined for a life in the yoke. Some convinced themselves that bondage actually helped the enslaved by giving their lives purpose and structure. But the heavy intellectual spade work was reserved for those subjects unsuited to discussion in mixed company — like slave breeding. Two centuries later and we are still unraveling all the myths and lies fabricated about African Americans to justify breeding the enslaved for profit.

Most Americans have no idea that slave breeding was once a booming business in the U.S. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Black bodies were the equivalent of today’s starter home and were one of the surest ways to build generational wealth. Predictably, as a consequence, the African American population exploded. In 1808, the year the U.S. banned the international slave trade, the number of enslaved Africans was less than a million. By 1860, it had quadrupled — which some scientists believe pushed the limits of human reproduction. Planters created the myth that the explosive growth was a result of the hypersexual habits of the enslaved, but given the stresses of bondage, and the associated high infant mortality rate, such reproductivity could not have occurred without coercion.


Like morbid amateur eugenicists, these breeders hand selected their victims and physically forced them together. When they encountered resistance, there were things they could do: They might simply strip the pair naked and lock them in a cold barn for the night. Sometimes, they would play head games with them, encouraging them to think that being chosen to suffer sexual assault was somehow a great honor. Or, if all else failed, they might stand over them the way they would over livestock, and personally “guide” the process. If a male victim was lacking, an enterprising breeder might avail himself of the services of one of the neighborhood studs, referred to as a “specie,” who were carted from farm to farm for the purpose.

Forced breeding of enslaved Black people was practiced widely in the South. Certain states, like Virginia, were famous for the almost industrial quality of their production. The federal government, by so aggressively protecting, nurturing and encouraging the institution of slavery, also protected the related breeding industry. By categorizing the enslaved as less than human and explicitly supporting the international slave trade, the government encouraged enslavers to build up their “stocks” while the getting was good. By classifying the enslaved as property, the government subjected them to nationwide bondage. And by pledging to come to the physical aid of the enslavers if their “property” ran away, or in the event of a violent insurrection, the U.S. government placed its military muscle at the “owner’s” disposal.

Rose Williams was a child when her so-called master started to force men on her. She told her story in 1937 to an interviewer for the Federal Writers’ Project. According to Ms. Williams, the first time she was attacked she complained to her mistress, whose unsympathetic response Ms. Williams repeated years later to the interviewer with embarrassment: “Yous am de portly gal, and Rufus am de portly man. De massa wants you-uns for to bring forth portly chillen.”

When her master heard that she was complaining about her treatment, Ms. Williams recalled his reaction: “Woman, I’s pay big money for you, and I’s done dat for de cause I wants yous to raise me chillens. Now, if you doesn’t want whippin’ at de stake, yous do what I wants.”

Like many enslaved men and women in her situation, Ms. Williams would eventually relent. Having nowhere to turn, no federal protectors and no recognized rights, what choice did she have?

“I thinks ‘bout bein’ whipped at de stake,” continued Ms. Williams. “Dere it am. What am I’s to do? So I ‘cides to do as de massa wish, and so I yields.”

With the passage of time, many of the harmful myths and elaborate lies created to justify the institution of slavery are unraveling. The fact that they’ve persisted as long as they have is a testament to the immense effort devoted to their creation and to the shear discipline of those who employed them for their evil purposes. Dispelling lies so deeply woven into the fabric of the national consciousness will require a similar determination.

K. Ward Cummings ( is a former senior congressional staffer and the author of “The Capitol Hill Playbook” (2nd Edition), written under the pen name Nicholas Balthazar.