Echoes of Slavery Era in Reaction to Ferguson

By Erica Armstrong Dunbar

In the evening of Nov. 24, Leslie McSpadden stood in front of a crowd waiting for news of an indictment in the shooting to death of her son by Officer Darren Wilson. With TV cameras poised to capture her reaction, McSpadden stood atop a car in front of the Ferguson Police Department, surrounded by supporters. She braced herself to hear what many of us had anticipated.

When news broke that Wilson would not be indicted, it must have been a torturous déjà vu for the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown. Once again, she was forced to relive the violent loss of her son. The grieving mother had to be physically supported by family members and friends as the announcement drove her to tears, to anger, and to despair.

Lesley McSpadden, mother of slain 18-year-old Michael Brown, is overcome with emotion during a press conference at Jennings Mason Temple Church of God In Christ, on August 11, 2014 in Jennings, Missouri. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)


For those of us who study race, gender, and early America, McSpadden's near-physical collapse was an instant reminder of the millions of black women who lost their children to the violence of slavery. Enslaved women would stand atop crudely built platforms as their children were sold away from them to neighboring farms or, worse, hundreds of miles away into the expanding cotton economy of the South.

Black women lost child after child to a system that considered their offspring disposable property. Enslaved women screamed, moaned, and grieved as they lost their children. Sometimes they fought, sometimes they tried to run away, and often the fragile family that was still intact consoled them. As Leslie McSpadden leaned upon her family members after the decision regarding her son's slaying was announced, the nation watched a more modern version of racialized violence. McSpadden's black son was gone, and the grand jury refused to hold anyone accountable.

McSpadden said the news made her feel as if she herself had been shot, and that there was "just no respect, no sympathy, nothing." Her husband, Louis Head, embraced his wife and reacted to the family's pain by shouting to the crowd, "Burn this bitch down." But all who watched knew that the National Guard and the police would never allow a full-scale rebellion to unfold. They stood ready with protective armor, tear gas, and guns to subdue the protesters. Indeed, President Obama told the nation that "first and foremost we are a nation built on the rule of law," and he called for peace among protesters and restraint by law enforcement. McSpadden, her family, and the protesters were told they could cry about the loss of Brown, but they had better not act out.

Enslaved women were told the very same thing as they wrestled with the possibility of losing their children. In Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave, he tells of the slave auctions in the antebellum South and introduces Eliza, the frantic enslaved mother on the verge of losing her son Randall to a slaveowner who could not afford to buy the mother, son, and daughter trio.

Eliza knew she might never see her child again. She begged, she cried, and she promised to be a faithful slave if allowed to remain with her son. But her worst fears came to pass. Young Randall was sold away, but not before Eliza "ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her – all the while her tears falling in the boy's face like rain."

Like McSpadden's, Eliza's grief could not be contained. A white Louisiana slave trader reminded Eliza that she needed to get a hold of herself. Angered by her display of grief, he "damned her, calling her a blubbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place, and behave herself; and be somebody. He swore he wouldn't stand such stuff but a little longer. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful."

Northup's narrative recalls the complete lack of control that black mothers had over the lives of their children during the era of slavery. Enslaved women had to live with the reality of losing their children at a moment's notice, and then had to control their grief. Last week, McSpadden's despair and anger resembled that of the enslaved Eliza, and the outcome for the two women who lived in different centuries was similar. Both women lost their children, no one was held accountable, and both women had to subdue their desperation.

Eliza, Leslie McSpadden, and all mothers with black sons continue to live with the fear of fleeting motherhood and the stomach-wrenching knowledge that the loss of our sons is a very real possibility.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, an associate professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, directs the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia


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