Forgotten Heritage despite Its Continuing Impact on Our Culture, the Middle Passage Is Often Ignored in the Mainstream of American Education

Article excerpt

Many scholars assert that no event in this millennium had a more profound effect on the course of American history than the Middle Passage - the enslavement of 30 million Africans and their forced migration to the New World that began nearly 500 years ago and lasted into the 19th century. The Middle Passage is also known as the black holocaust because as many as 18 million Africans died of starvation and disease on the slave ships. Yet most Americans know little about the Middle Passage, and many black leaders complain that schools pay relatively scant attention to it. As Black History Month draws to a close, Bernice Forrest Guillaume, an associate professor of history at St. Louis University, writes about the meaning of the Middle Passage for our times.

WE ARE living links to the Middle Passage.

We are the resultant combinations of Europeans, Africans and Native Americans in biology as well as culture.

Some of us are as proud of our heritage as the natives of the Brazilian state of Bahia, where African religions flourish. Others of us shun any connection with colored humanity.

We are Afro-Hispanic, mixed-blood creoles, mulattos and those whose ancestry of color has been deliberately concealed so we may call ourselves white.

These currents and legacies arrived with the slave ships. And the rich tapestry of cultures covering the Americas is enriched and increasingly variegated by people from Asian and Middle Eastern civilizations.

Many of us can trace our beginnings to rape and concubinage. Others stem from casual encounters, common-law and legally binding marriages. Since the era of the Middle Passage, we have exchanged language, religion, folklore, cuisine, motifs in music and sculpture, and other traits to forge mixed nations in the New World.

Yet in spite of this, there is scant discussion of the Middle Passage among academicians or the general public about its impact on our civilization.

How could such a momentous occurrence be so little known? Why does the social and cultural consciousness of modern America remain in denial of the Middle Passage?

An answer may lie in the nature of the Middle Passage itself - a colossal but well-planned accident that occurred during Europe's 16th century age of exploration and conquest.

It began with the decimation of Native American populations through murder and disease. Without natives to exploit, Europeans found plantation life nearly unbearable. And so a market was created for cheap, human labor. …