The Dangers of Historical Illiteracy and Understanding Gun Violence. Or, Why Slaves Did Have Guns and it Didn’t Help.

Once a taboo topic, discussions of slavery seem to be everywhere right now, in movies, packaged into neat sound bites by politicians, and as justifications for political dogmatism. So far all of these discussions get slavery wrong. Not just a little wrong, or a point of differing interpretations by disagreeing but well meaning individuals wrong. Many of the depictions and opinions of slavery that have been bandied about are so wrong that it goes beyond the territory of misinformed into the territory of willful and malicious ignorance. While this topic- historical illiteracy particularly in regards to the slave exploiting past of the United States- deserves its own post, this post addresses a particular fallacy that has come to light recently: the supposition that if slaves had guns they could have ended slavery. These recent comments by some gun-advocates have not caused the concern in the main-stream media that such ignorant comments should arouse.

Let’s start with the subject of slave rebellions. As I have pointed out elsewhere, and to anyone who will stand still long enough for me to extol the virtues of my research, armed insurrections were a frequent occurrence in all New World slave societies, including the United States. Every year that slavery existed as an institution slave rebellions occurred somewhere in the hemisphere, and every country and colony experienced at least one. Slave rebellions were a fact of life, and responding to the constant threat of slave rebellions was one of the greatest forces shaping slave societies. Many of the myths and demonizations of African-Americans, particularly African-American men, that persist today are drawn from anti-slave rebellion rhetoric. Armed insurrections were undertaken in a number of ways, and many slaves had firearms which they used against planters and other free men, both black and white, who sought to uphold the status quo.

It was not only during armed insurrections that enslaved people had access to fire-arms. Slaves used guns as part of their daily routines. Guns were used by enslaved African-Americans for hunting and subsistence, for scaring birds away from crops, and for protecting livestock from predators. Enslaved people even used guns against other enslaved people at the behest of free Planters. A number of historical archaeologists and historians have identified evidence of the use of firearms by enslaved people, even in direct violation of laws.

It was not the gun- either access to or restrictions from- that created conditions of enslavement in the United States. It was not the gun- either access to or restrictions from- that created conditions of freedom in the United States. It is not a question of whether, in hindsight, guns would have put an end to the peculiar institution. It is a fact that guns did not put an end to the peculiar institution. What actually put an end to slavery in the United States were political machinations by a government fighting a war that was peripherally related to slavery.

Enslaved people in the United States and elsewhere used a variety of methods to fight oppression. Some of these methods were overt acts of collective violence. Some of these methods were more subtle and private means of resistance. What should never be doubted is that slavery- the ability to legally own another human being as chattel- was a violent and brutal process of complete control through dehumanization. Africans and African descended peoples were not enslaved because they were weak, lacked agency, or were apathetic to their conditions. African-Americans weren’t exploited for hundreds of years on this continent as enslaved people because they lacked firearms. They were enslaved because people with economic and political power created a complicated structural system that first stripped enslaved people of their citizenship and legal rights, then purposely thwarted any mechanism for enslaved to gain rights. These institutions were so ingrained in white America that even after emancipation free blacks were denied basic rights, marginalized from economic and political opportunities, and terrorized with violence. As guns have always been available in American society- for hunting and sport shooting- I’m sure that many of the thousands of people who met violent deaths under Jim Crow also had access to firearms. The reality of preventing tyranny goes well beyond the sophomoric day-dream of simply pulling a trigger.

A gun alone does not create freedom. Often, guns in the hands of certain groups destroy freedom. Regardless of where one stands on the gun-control debate, using erroneous historical arguments to bolster ones political position is simply dangerous. Arguments that elevate the gun beyond a tool for committing violence- regardless of the motive behind the act- illustrate a profound ignorance of political structures in our society. It is necessary to understand the role that various types of violence play in political systems. A good first step toward that understanding is to engaging with the realities of our collective past.


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