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Slaves in the Classroom: The Quest for a Usable Narrative

Ibrahim Sundiata


     Recently an African friend told me that his daughter was asked to play Harriet Tubman in an elementary school skit. The daughter was the only black child in the class in an upscale Boston suburb and it might have seemed a logical choice. Yet, it was a choice that bothered me. From schools around the country come complaints from parents and others that black children are made to act out the demeaning dramaturgy of slavery. There are mock slave auctions and mock reenactments of slave ships. In the case of my friend's daughter, the choice seemed especially inappropriate; the family is from West Africa and both parents are very successful professionals in the Boston-Cambridge world. The little girl's ancestors never saw a plantation in Dixie and, if any had any interaction with the Atlantic slave trade, it was probably as venders rather than "merchandise."

     My friend's daughter's case was one of many. In early 2018 an African American on-line magazine focused in on a case in Texas, announcing "Mother is outraged as students have to draw themselves as slaves for school assignment."1 But how to tell a horrendous story without creating a degrading sensationalism? As educators we have to avoid the easy trap of making Black suffering the ultimate of human degradation. But, is it not also false to give African American students a highly romanticized past of pyramids and princes? One that might upset the whole narrative of Western Civilization? The debate has waxed and waned. It is time to revisit it.            

Slavery and Race

     However much Americans may talk about "the legacy of slavery," they are engaging in a highly myopic enterprise. Slavery, like marriage, is an almost universal institution. The U.S. had no "Peculiar Institution" when it was founded; slavery extended from Argentina to Vermont. The dominant U.S. view of slavery ignores the fact that far vaster slaveries stretched in a bloody arc from Havana to Rio. Less than five percent of those transported in the Atlantic slave trade came to North America (The last present U.S. territory to abolish slavery was Puerto Rico in 1873.) However, in the American imagination slavery was confined to Dixie and slaves grew mostly cotton. Africans, in this telling, were selected as slaves only because they were black. In this narrative, nowhere else in the history of humanity has slavery existed and nowhere else were human beings chattel. In the view of many, bondage in Dixie imposed the greatest psychosexual torture ever.

     In truth it is not slavery per se that makes the experience and memory of slavery horrendous in the United States. The national Original Sin is not slavery in and of itself, but the racist ideology and propaganda created around it. One does not need to be a "racist" to keep slaves, but a republic professing to love liberty must constantly seek justification. Today's White Nationalism has its roots in the vagaries of the popular politics surrounding slavery.       

     The dominant U.S. view of slavery ignores the fact that far vaster slaveries stretched in a bloody arc from Havana to Rio. Less than five percent of those transported in the Atlantic slave trade came to North America (The last present U.S. territory to abolish slavery was Puerto Rico in 1873.) The "Peculiar Institution" was not peculiar. What was peculiar was and is the "Peculiar Denomination" —in the United States "blackness" is assigned to anyone with African ancestry ("The One Drop Rule").

Slavery and Modern Myth Making

     For decades, starting in the aftermath of the Civil War, Americans, white and black, were fed a false and rosy image of slavery on the Old Plantation (The Old Dixie Narrative). In this imaginary, Black folk were musical, happy-go-lucky, but potentially dangerous. Early in the twentieth century Southern white historians like Ulrich B. Phillips painted a picture of Southern bondage as an easy yoke. Indeed, slavery was a benign "school" for blacks. The 1915 film Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith contained images of both "ferocious bucks" and "faithful darkies." The popular image of benign slavery perhaps reached its height in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which lit-up American movie screens nationwide eighty years ago. A companion piece to the whitewashing of slavery was the erection of hundreds of statues dedicated to men who had fought to preserve it. The Myth of the Gallant South, so central to the Old Dixie Narrative, persists in some segments of a polarized American population.

     Sociologist Ron Eyerman notes that, "If slavery was traumatic for [the first] generation of [black] intellectuals, it was so in retrospect, mediated through recollections and reflection, and, for some, tinged with some strategic practical, and political interest."3 Various nineteenth-century African American thinkers, among them Edward Blyden, Henry M. Turner, Martin Delany, Alexander Crummell and Booker T. Washington saw the passage to America as providential, even if highly painful."4 Times change.

     The turbulence of the Civil Rights era meant that the nation at large would never again wholly embrace a juleps and magnolias view of the South. In a New Dixie Narrative, florid Confederate statues no longer simply represent owners of rural real estate, but rather the operators of concentration camps doubling as brothels. In the late 'fifties, historian Stanley Elkins compared plantations to Nazi camps, both producing an infantilized and dependent type of human being.5 In 1965, Malcom X proclaimed to a rapt audience: "I know you don't realize the enormity, the horrors, of the so-called Christian white man's crime…One hundred million of us black people! Your grandparents! Mine! Murdered by this white man."6 A decade later, Malcolm's biographer, Alex Haley, published his Roots, The Saga of an American Family. The book begins in an idyllic and idealized Africa and then moves on to an American horror story on the old plantation. It hit a cord. As Jim Sleeper notes that Haley's "intent was to weave sub-Saharan Africa's diffuse cultural threads into a Western myth of 'exile' and 'pilgrimage' for a black American audience that had internalized such notions from the Old Testament and Christianity, and for other Americans who needed to understand, in both Christian and liberal-Enlightenment terms, what their own forebears had perpetrated and suborned."7

     In film the psychosexual dimension has been fore-grounded. The image of the "kindly master" has been replaced by the image of a sociopathic sexual predator. At the level of high art we have Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison's terminally bleak Beloved (1987) dedicated to the "sixty million" --a multiple of the six million claimed in the Jewish Holocaust-- gone in the Atlantic slave trade. The most outstanding example of the horror house approach to the Old Plantation is Vincent Woodward's The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within U.S. Slave Culture. In this telling, life on the old plantation was rife with white cannibalistic and homosexual hunger for young black flesh. (The book was published by the New York University Press in 2014). A caution is needed. We must avoid getting trapped in atrocity stories that disempower just as much as pseudo-scientific racial theories do. Cornel West observes notes that "race is not a lens to justify sentimental stories of pure heroes of color and impure white villains or melodramatic tales of innocent victims of color and demonic white victimizers."           

     Perversely, the horrific New Dixie Narrative increases the psychological "wages of whiteness." If slavery in Dixie is the ultimate in human suffering, then white groups are relatively "ennobled." The act of pitying others less fortunate carries with it the faint order of "noblesse oblige." Long ago, Ralph Ellison said he resented Jews whose grandfathers had only just escaped death in pogroms for taking up the White Man's Burden of guilt in Old Dixie: "I feel uncomfortable whenever I discover Jewish intellectuals writing as though they were guilty of enslaving my grandparents, or as though the Jews were responsible for the system of segregation."8 Indeed, there is a difference between condescension and solidarity. A few years ago I attended a memorial of sorts. Students, mostly Jewish, held a vigil for the hundreds of African Americans lynched. Standing in two rows along a corridor, they solemnly read the names and the locations of these American tragedies. The mood was somber and I was deeply moved. Several days later I ran into a black student leader. I asked him why he had not attended the ceremony. His reply was that most African American students were tired of such displays. What was happening now on campus and in America in general? How to fathom his attitude? After some thought it occurred to me that the well-intentioned ceremony, meant to show sympathy, did the opposite. Upon reflection, I wondered why pogroms and lynching, taking place at the same time and sometimes employing the same means, were not commemorated together. The clueless great-great granddaughter of a man killed and mutilated in Moldova standing and reciting the name of a man killed and mutilated the same year in Mississippi carries its own unknowing pathos.    

Slavery and Historical Perspectives

     In 1974, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman created a firestorm when, in Time on the Cross, the Economic of American Negro Slavery, they noted that "Although the life expectation of slaves in 1850 was 12 percent below the average of white Americans, it was well within the range experienced by free men [e.g., in France and Holland] during the nineteenth century.910 It spite of these facts (or perhaps in ignorance of them), some African Americans come to vie for a place even lower than the Old World's most "wretched refuse." The truth is not that African Americans in Dixie were the poorest of the globe's inhabitants. The point is that they built the wealth used to construct a country enjoyed by waves of desperate immigrants after them, immigrants who often backdated their white privilege, including many in Trump's America.       

     The Dixie Narratives are often tales of eternal abuse. An Israeli historian, Yaacov Shavit, notes that "Only the black people found themselves without a recognized historical past, without ancient historical written records, and without Holy Scriptures."11 Ethnic history in the United States was and continues to be in the business of boosterism. Most American ethnic groups crave and project back onto the past mythic homeland. Some Chinese-American parents in California ask for their children to be taught that the Chinese "discovered" America and some Indian-American parents demand that Hindu culture be recognized as the world's oldest, stretching back more than thirty centuries.

     Certainly, almost no group in the Western world has been taught to embrace its pariah status as much as African Americans. Yale scholars, Amy Chua and Jeff Rubenfeld believe, after contrasting African Americans with the formerly despised Chinese and Jews, that "Some [groups] may claim to a sense of specialness, but in a way that exalts their victimization (for example, most downtrodden people ever) often revealing a lack of belief in their [inherent] superiority."12 Chua and Rubenfeld rather enthusiastically point out that Mormons, Indian Americans, Iranian Americans, Lebanese Americans, Jewish Americans and Nigerian Americans are high achievers scholastically and economically in twenty-first century America. Again, part of their success rests on their sense of superiority, a sense never vouchsafed to African Americans.

     The Chinese "coolies" working in Cuba, South Africa, Jamaica, Malaya, Peru, Hawaii and California would probably have known little of Confucius' Analects, Tang porcelain or the ocean voyages of the Ming Dynasty. A flowing group narrative has been created in an overseas middle-class diaspora and projected backward. Claims to the customs and culture of the dominant elite classes have been assumed by the descendants of their former peasants (and sometimes slaves).

Africa and Black America

     But what if African Americans did also have a glorious story of life before bondage?  In 2013 TV personality Nick Cannon lambasted the genre of slave films. "I think they keep making them because they want to keep Black Folks on edge! They don't want us to get comfortable! …Why don't they make movies about our African Kings and Queens? I would love to see a film about Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Queen Nefertiti".13 This call had been heard long before. In the 1980s a concerted effort was made among some activists and educationalists to present African American students with a past before the horror of Dixie. Indeed, they ask for a new Afrocentric science, math, and, above all, history.  Many proponents of what came to be called "Afrocentrism" claimed Egypt and the Nile Valley for Black Civilization.  In spite of strong criticisms (or maybe because of it), Afrocentrism spread widely in the1980s and 1990s. Elementary schools in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Detroit and elsewhere initiated new curricula, impelled largely by the demands of parents and students. The African American Baseline Essays, created for the Portland, Oregon school system and published in 1987, have had a wide impact. Covering a number of disciplines ranging from history to mathematics, the essays attempt to topple the perceived "Eurocentrism" of the educational status quo.

     Chicago was not immune to these currents. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor, was among the movement's leading lights and a close collaborator of Asa Hilliard, a leading theorist. In late 1996, the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore (CIESS) announced that it had received a $200,000 grant from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. The Challenge was at that time headed by Obama. CIESS was a partner to a network of schools within the Chicago public system named the Shore African Village Collaborative (SSAVC). The money given to the Collaborative was for use in curriculum planning and teacher-training. Parts of the SSAVC pedagogical toolkit were "rites of passage" ceremonies supposedly inspired by similar African practices.   

     By the early 1990s, Afrocentrism surfaced in the American popular media. Newsweek put Cleopatra on a cover and challenged its readers: "Was Cleopatra Black? Facts or Fantasies—A Debate Rages Over What to Teach Our Kids About Their Roots."14 On MTV you could watch Eddy Murphy as Akhenaton, Iman as Nefertiti, and Michael Jackson as a trickster Imhotep in the music video "Remember the Time." Eventually, Afrocentrism o'er leapt its bounds and impinged on the academia's formerly white ivory towers. One example was Martin Bernal's Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, whose first volumes were published in 1987 and 1991. The scholar argued that, in nineteenth-century Western historiography, the African and Semitic roots of civilization had been diminished or blotted out. An important counterblast came from Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist at Wellesley College. In 1996, she wrote Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History.15 The work was promoted as an explicit critique of "relativist" or "subjective" history that attempts to vindicate the past of any particular group—in this case blacks. By the end of the twentieth century, the "Egyptian Question" had become an important part of the culture wars raging in both the popular and academic press. Lefkowitz became the paladin of those (including George Will) who wished to see the end of liberal "relativism" in the academy. It is possible to hazard a guess some whites see African Americans as the Id in the American national unconscious. Always present, they are capable of adding a certain rhythm and vitality to society, but never capable of having founded it. Insistence on the "black" roots of "white" civilization can be seen as an existential threat. Afrocentrists may be the ultimate "uppity Negroes."

     As a view of ancient history, in and of itself, Afrocentrism is no more or less bizarre than the Book of Mormon, but from the radical Right to the liberal middle, many white Americans could not accept the idea of blacks as foundational in ancient Egypt. Many in the white establishment (George Will, Bill Bennett, Arthur Schlesinger, Glen Bowerstock, among others) took up the cudgels. Will opined that "Afrocentrism is an attempt to 'empower' African-Americans with a 'transforming' myth. But the myth is self-inflicted intellectual segregation, the entire project is condescending to African-American: tell them inspiriting stories, just as parents tell moralizing fairy tales to children." Bowerstock, emeritus at Princeton, said that Egypt could never be considered part of Africa, except in a rather simple-minded geographical way.

     In 2008, Hoover Institution fellow Stanley Kurtz attempted an exposé of the links between Obama and radical Afrocentrists.16 Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute asked "whether [Afrocentric beliefs] have entered presidential candidate Barack Obama's worldview as well".17 Would a President Obama use his influence to upend American history? Concerned about Obama as a conduit for Asa Hilliard's subversive ideas, she warned of the spreading Afrocentric cancer: "His [Hilliard's] bogus Afrocentrism [has] metastasized in educational circles….Hilliard urged schools to teach black students that Egypt was a black country, that Africans invented birth control and carbon steel; that they discovered America long before Columbus…."18 Confronted by a barrage of opposition both within and without the academy, Afrocentrism was in retreat by the opening of the twenty-first century. Many Afrocentric tendencies did indeed branch off and make the transition from the tired profane history of this world (and the political battles it calls for) to black utopias that exist outside the American racial nightmare. The culture critic Touré remarks that "Afrocentrism was necessary, powerful and beautiful…But despite the spiritual imperative and political necessity of Afrocentrism it has diminished, perhaps because there was something not quite real about it."19

     What could replace Afrocentrism? The conservative Manhattan Institute published a pamphlet "Alternatives to Afrocentrism." Blacks had their own sub-Saharan achievements that might be celebrated while leaving the roots of Western Civilization alone. One can argue that the "primitive" cultures of Africa had their own types of wisdom, their own rhythm. African drumming, jazz, gospel, and rap have far more meaning for them than do pharaohs and pyramids. To say that "black men can jump" because the Wolof and the Tutsi are tall may be a tall tale, but it is less likely to raise hackles than the assertion that people of black descent built the Sphinx. Folkloric reconstructions and the pursuit of sub-Saharan cultural survivals do not contradict the dominant view of historical and cultural evolution. It is possible for the larger society to embrace the idea of black rhythm, musicality and physical prowess without displacing its own notions of historical primacy. Within the context of liberal multiculturalism, this has come to be the approach of choice.

     Even if we take a folkloric approach to the African American past (replacing the Egyptian Imhotep with the Yoruba Esu) we are still come back to the question of the place of black slavery in American history. Interestingly, in much of the hyperbolic recounting of the horrors of the Old Plantation, the central role of African Americans in constructing the nation is relatively downplayed. In the future, African Americans will have to remind their follow citizens that "We built this here place!" The fact that African Americans produced sixty percent of US exports and eighty percent of the world's cotton in 1860 goes under appreciated. The South dominated the politics of antebellum America and that domination was built on the back of blacks. As the Cotton Kingdom expanded, so did the black population. The number of people in bondage went from 1,119,354 in 1810 to 3,963,760 in 1860. At the time of the Civil War the "value" of the men and women held in bondage was greater than all the industries and railway rolling stock of the North. Pro-reparations advocate Ta-Nehasi Coates points out that in 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country."20

Slavery in World History

     As W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out, African Americans are part of a global confraternity of globally exploited labor. Slavery was intended to produce something. Black scholars as diverse as Paul Robeson, Du Bois, Eric Williams and Walter Rodney urged us to think globally about slavery and its analogues. Indeed, as long as we view slavery in Dixie as sui generis, we create a contorted narrative that leads only to confusion. As corrective, in his 1944 Capitalism and Slavery, Williams announced that "The 'horrors' of the Middle Passage have been exaggerated. For this the British abolitionists are in large part responsible." Furthermore, "A racial twist has…been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism, racism is a consequence of slavery."21 In the antebellum period, Southern propagandists were eager to reduce blacks to a racialized subhuman state. However, the nineteenth century was rife with collective horrors. Ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who knew conditions below the Masson-Dixon line, opined: "No people on the face of the earth have been more relentlessly persecuted and oppressed on account of race and religion, than the Irish people."22 Indeed, a million perished in the Potato Famine. Jostling for last place position still goes on; the Southern Poverty Law Center attacks references to a "white" Irish slave trade not as expressions of parallel suffering, but as a racist meme designed to diminish the singular place of black slavery. 23 

     The Irish aside, it should be hard to ignore that twenty million Chinese peasants died in the Taiping rebellion between 1850 and 1864, while roughly 4 million blacks toiled in the Old South (In the nineteenth century the deaths of these "Chinamen" were consigned to a different moral calculus). David Brion Davis, asking us to look at slavery in broader prospective, points out, that "Some of the privileged 'Atlantic creole' slaves in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake and in Carolina clearly possessed more de facto freedom and range of choice than did the later Chinese 'coolies' who shoveled guano, or bird droppings, off the coast of Peru."24 In terms of the Dixie Narrative, this work, however 'shitty,' is irrelevant. That one million people died in the Paraguayan War (1864–1870), a war that shook the foundations of Brazilian black slavery, is a fact unfortunately far beyond purview of American concerns. That the "Czar Liberator" freed over 23 million white people in 1861 is something that, in the racialized gaze from the U.S., was indeed peculiar. The African American activist/singer Paul Robeson in the 1930's singing the songs of the Volga boatmen and comparing them to forced laborers on the Mississippi would seem to be a pure sentimentality. However, to mention both in the same breath is not to respect the U.S. experience, but to see the human solidarity that should bind us all. 

     There is a further danger in seeing slavery in Dixie sui generis, something that began in 1619 and ended in 1865. All other slavery pales into insignificance or never happened. There are today more slaves in the world than there were in 1860, a fact that discomforts some with a fixation on Dixie.25  In 2009, President Obama went to Ghana and praised the country's efforts to eliminate the vestigial slave trade. Shortly after his return he spoke to the NACCP of his visit to the Motherland, his speech devoid of any mention of modern-day slavery. Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka has warned of North American blindness on the subject.  Accusing many Americans, African Americans in particular, of being locked within their own narrative, he has thundered that "it still needs to be remarked that this willed condition—the refusal to confront history in its fullest implications—has led black leaders of the Diaspora in recent past to embrace—at the expense of their kinfolk on the black continent—the heirs and perpetuators of slave-master tradition…"26  We perhaps need to take our cue from the United Nations, which has erected a monument to the millions captured in the Atlantic slave trade. At the same time, the organization is entrusted with ending slavery and human trafficking in the present. Action on the human rights front, including the recrudescence of slavery, is needed in the here and now. To do any less would make us twentieth-century accessories to the very types of oppression we condemn so vigorously for the nineteenth.       

Ibrahim Sundiata is emeritus professor of African/Afro-American Studies and History at Brandeis University. His interests are social justice in comparative perspective as reflected through the prisms of class, gender, color and sexuality. In the past several years he has traveled extensively in Spain, Latin America, Australia, Ghana, Brazil and the Middle East. Sundiata is former chair of the History Department at Howard University and a past fellow of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard. On a Fulbright he taught at the Universidade Federal da Bahia in Brazil. The historian is the author of four books. Two of them have been on formerly Spanish Africa (Equatorial Guinea, Colonialism, State Terror and the Search for Stability [Westview Press] and From Slaving to Neoslavery[University of Wisconsin]). His most recent was Brothers and Strangers: Black Slavery, Black Zion, 19141940 (Duke University Press). He can be reached at


1 Ray Velez, "Mother is Outraged as Students Have to Draw Themselves as Slaves for School Assignment."  Your Black World, February 14, 2018. Accessed on December 6, 2018 at

2 David Brion Davis, "Looking at Slavery from Broader Perspectives,"

The American Historical Review, 105.2 (April 2000), 457.

3 Ron Eyerman, Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1.

4 Henry S. Wilson, Origins of West African Nationalism, (London, 1969), 94; "Our Origin, Dangers and Duties," Edward W. Blyden, 1865.  Annual Address before Mayor and Common Council of Monrovia, National Independence Day, July 26 1865.

5 Stanley Elkin, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).

6 Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 311.

7 Jim Sleeper, Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 112.

8 Eric Sundquist, Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005) 423, citing Ralph Ellison, "The World and the Jug," in Shadow and Act (1964;rpt. New York: Vintage, 1971), 126, 144.

9 Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross, the Economics of American Negro Slavery (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1974), 126.

10 See Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 186.

11 Yaacov Shavit, History in Black, African-Americans in Search of an Ancient Past (London: Routledge, 2001), 4.

12 Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package, How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), 60.

13 Nick Cannon, "No More Slave Movies," February 12, 2018. Accessed December 6, 2018 at

14 Cover, Newsweek, volume CXVIII, No. 13, September 23, 1991.

15 Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa (New York: Basic Books, 1996). For an excellent review of Lefkowitz and her compeers, see Maghan Keita, "The Politics of Criticism: Not Out of Africa and 'Black Athena' Revisited," Journal of World History, 11.2 (2000), 337–345.

16 Ibid.

17 Heather MacDonald, "Poisonous 'Authenticity': Jeremiah Wright draws on a long line of Afrocentric charlatans." City Journal, April 29, 2008.  Accessed December 6, 2018 at

18 Ibid.

19 Touré, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now (New York: Free Press, 2011), 194.

20 Ta-Nehasi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," The Atlantic Monthly, 323.5 (2014), 68.

21 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 7.

22 Joan Walsh, "Frederick Douglass's Irish Sojourn A bracing look at his encounters with poverty and prejudice across the Atlantic," Accessed December 6, 2018 at Accessed.

23 Southern Poverty Law Center, "How the Myth of the "Irish slaves" Became a Favorite Meme of Racists Online," April 19, 2016. Accessed December 6, 2018 at

24 David Brion Davis, "Looking at Slavery from Broader Perspectives," 457.

25 See Kevin Bales, Disposable People, New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004).

26 Wole Soyinka, "Between Truths and Indulgences: Africa's Role in the Slave Trade and Its Consequences," Transition, 103 (2010), 115.

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